"We only have one shot at this, so let’s make it count."

Posted 07/10/2017

I remember the day I hit rock bottom like it was yesterday.

It was a Friday morning, around 8.45am, in 2013, and I was on my way into drama school for our weekly circle. Circle was a chance for each of the 46 of us in our year to have two minutes of uninterrupted time to speak. We would stand in a circle, facing one another, hearts open, and just… share. Sometimes it would be that we were fine, thanks, nothing to report. Other times it would be to say that we were really hungover after karaoke the night before, or struggling to let go, to not be scared, to break down barriers in our performing. Sometimes to say that a parent or loved one had just been diagnosed with cancer, or had passed away. Sometimes it was that we were just really, really angry and we didn’t know why. The rich and varied tapestry of the 46 of us – I’ll never forget it.

That morning, on my way to school, all of a sudden the past eight years of my life sort of flashed before my eyes. I had had severe bulimia since about the age of 18 (I was 24, soon to be 25), and I didn’t want to have bulimia anymore. I stopped in my tracks, and I held my hands out in front of me. I had two choices. Get better, or die. That’s how bad it had gotten, in my mind. I was bingeing and purging every day, and I didn’t want to do it anymore.

I felt sick all the time. Thought about food all the time. Lied and kept secrets and snuck around and hid. I did some terrible things.

I didn’t want to do that anymore.

So I stood in front of 46 people and said just that. My whole body shaking, trying to push back the tears which would inevitably come, more terrified about saying these words out loud than I had been about anything else in my entire life, I said: “I’ve been bulimic for eight years and I don’t want to be bulimic anymore”. That was it. I think that was all I said; I can’t really remember saying any more than that.

What I do remember was how those wonderful people reacted to what I’d said. I’ll never forget looking over that circle at my friend, Jake, who put his hands together in prayer, smiled at me and looked up to the sky as if to say “thank you”.

And then my moment passed and someone else began to speak, and the world didn’t end, and I didn’t end, and when circle was done and we were to have a little break before classes started, Andrea (Head of MA Acting) came over to me, held me, looked me in the eyes and said, “Shall we go to my office?”

And we did. And we talked. And we booked me in for some counselling. And I felt absolutely no different. I remember sitting there, having finally spoken this secret that I’d been holding on to for so many years, feeling no different. Why didn’t I feel better? Why did I still have bulimia? Why couldn’t I just flick a switch? I had said it out loud now – what more did the universe want from me?

I’ve realised since then that of course that was just the beginning. That was over four years ago now, and I’m still on the road to recovery. I still have bad days. I still remember just how easy it was to binge and purge. But then I remember why I did it, what it was for (to manage indigestible feelings, to feel in control, to numb myself), and I think about how lucky I am to have my therapist and friends that love and care about me, and that I’m finally able to freely talk about my illness, and that I’ve turned food into a positive in my life, making it my job to cook for others – and I don’t binge and purge, not any more.

But that’s not to say that everything is rosy. It isn’t. Now that I don’t use the binge/purge cycle to manage my difficult feelings, I have to feel the difficult feelings, and they can be terribly overwhelming at times. My anxiety is a monkey on my back, never too far away, and more often than not it rears its ugly head for no reason whatsoever.

But I’m learning to accept that. I’m learning to accept that my bulimia, my anxiety, my mental health problems are a part of me, but they do not define me. I’m learning to forgive. I’m learning to let go. I’m learning to like myself, so that one day I can love myself.

The journey is a long, hard one, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I would keep every twinge of anxiety, every tear, every sleepless night – every one of them, because I am feeling something. For so many years I felt nothing. For so many years I denied myself, punished myself, hurt myself. And yes, sometimes I feel overwhelmingly sad and strange and lonely, but that’s okay, because on the flipside I laugh more, dance more, feel more joy than ever before. And those sad feelings, they don’t last forever. Yes, it might feel that way at the time, but they don’t. So I have a cup of tea, I send my friend Milly a voice note on WhatsApp, or write a poem, and I feel a bit better. And the next day I feel a bit better still. And with each day that passes and I don’t binge and purge, I thank myself for that little victory.

And I think now is the time to share my experience with the world. Now is the time to create something which I hope will help others with their own mental health problems. Now is the time to face things head on. To own up, to not be scared anymore, to look my shadow in the eye and say, “Oh there you are”.

So I’m going on a 170 mile pilgrimage around The Lake District this month, and I’m writing a play. I want to break the cycle, and I want to help others break theirs. I’ll be raising money for Beat on the walk, and will be working with The Bike Shed in Exeter to develop the piece before taking it to Edinburgh Fringe in 2018 and on a subsequent tour.

The show is called Pilgrims. And I’m writing Pilgrims so that you, dear reader, know that you are not alone. We are all pilgrims walking the earth together, trying to find our sacred place. And times are tough, and the road is long, but always remember that human beings are made from stardust, the remnants of stars that exploded billions of years before we were even conceived. Our entire composition is made up of cosmic fragments of infinite proportion. And we only have one shot at this, so let’s make it count.

(Annie McKenzie is an actor and writer who appeared on MasterChef in 2016, making it all the way to the semi-finals. Since her appearance on the show Annie launched a catering company specialising in private dining, pop up events and supper clubs. She also launched her theatre and dining experience, Scripts for Supper, in March 2017).