It is difficult to express in words how suffering from Anorexia has altered my view of the world, the person I aspire to be, the values and ideals that I hold dear. Thinking back 18 months, a relatively short length of time, the ‘me’ that I remember is a thousand times more naive, with very little idea of how deeply tragic, but also incredibly beautiful, life can be.
I can remember now the very first time a doctor told me that I had anorexia, informing me that, I was to become a hospital in-patient. In a way they had spoken aloud an awful truth which had been lurking in my mind for quite a while, resolutely refusing to show itself in the light of day. A cocktail of conflicting emotions whirled through my mind, terror, guilt, but simultaneously, a palpable sense of relief. It was as if an internal statement which I had long accepted as true was finally in doubt, perhaps I was not a broken person after all, perhaps I was not alone. After that, the revelations came thick and fast, a choking miasma of things I never imagined I would hear. Drowning in a sea of confusion and unhelpful pleas – why couldn’t I just eat? What I needed more than anything else was someone to throw me a lifeline. Sadly, as the much referred to magic wand eluded us all, and the very individuals claiming to be experts, the CAMHS specialists, were unwilling to do anything but worsen things with their repetitive lectures about fight or flight instincts and use of shock tactics, one single thing gave me the strength to avoid total collapse.
I cannot emphasise enough the precious worth of some simple words of support from my parents, their comforting presence at my side through this most turbulent of times. The most simple acts, buying me a card, trying to understand how I was actually feeling rather than telling me how I was feeling, were worth more than anything at that time. But as the days spent furiously straining over crossword puzzles and scrabble boards in an effort to ward off desperation drifted by, with no hint of any salvation save endless pleas that I just eat, we had no idea what the future held. Why couldn’t the hospital staff understand that this wasn’t about being hungry or awkward, but that the chastising voice inside my head, tirelessly pushing me towards self destruction, could conjure up a hundred reasons why I was too much of a selfish, greedy piece of scum to eat anything.
After a few weeks consisting largely of waiting for the next drip of information from the CAMHS team who controlled my fate, the unthinkable happened. ‘Right’, I was told, ‘you are well enough to go home, see you for weighing in a week.’ I doubt I need to tell you that I didn’t miraculously get over my eating disorder at home in two weeks and live happily ever after, but without going into unpleasant details, I can tell you that a few kilos lighter, and a lot more, let’s say, ‘psychologically unhinged’ I found myself in a specialist unit with the promise of many months in-patient residence before me.
If I have painted a bleak picture so far, I apologise, but for me becoming an inpatient was a real turning point. Frankly, it would be an outright lie to claim that eating three meals with snacks every day, no negotiation , was not a daunting, horrific prospect at that time, but finally I knew I was going somewhere, even if I knew not where the road led.
For the first time in so long, I knew that I was actually understood and taken seriously, something that was incredibly liberating. For the first time, people actually wanted to understand why I had developed an eating disorder, rather than just wanting me to apply myself in pretending it wasn’t there. Regardless of my doubts over the implementation of the intensive re-feeding program, and growing obsession with reaching improbable standards in my school work, the presence of other young people who I could actually identify with and build relationships of mutual support with provided me with real hope. I always hesitate to say anorexia ‘is’ or ‘does’ because it is something which affects everyone differently , but in my case it was part of me that strove to isolate me from others, to promote a deep seated self loathing, so this empathy and companionship was the most effective weapon I could fight it with. As always, my parents were incredibly supportive, sticking with me through the darkest and most delightful of times, letting me know that I was loved. In fact if I was to suggest one simple thing which can make so, so much difference to someone with an eating disorder, it would be knowing that they were truly loved. If someone has got an eating disorder, it is always going to make life a struggle for those around them, those that they care about, and that care about them. Patience and understanding might not be the swiftest tools to suggest for tackling adversity, but it must be understood that, in most cases, like mine, an eating disorder cannot be beaten quickly or without a huge amount of effort from everyone involved.
As the scales proclaimed more and more weight gain each week, I couldn’t help feeling, while on one level happy that I was taking back my life, the crushing weight of shame. To me, my eating disorder was not strictly about weight, but regardless of this, I was still determined to punish myself for my ‘greed.’ Sadly, I had struggled with self harm for a long time, since much before my eating disorder, and since I could not reprimand myself by cutting out on food, this began to manifest badly again. But like before, this was treated with understanding, not confusion, compassion, not frustration, from everyone around me. However close to breaking point you are pushed during the course of someone’s eating disorder, it is so vital that you don’t blame or seek to punish them, as this can only feed their internal, hateful voice, and makes things a whole lot worse. I would imagine that no-one could achieve this goal all the time, considering the gargantuan stresses involved, but from my experience, a confrontational attitude, with me and my anorexia versus the doctors and my parents, would never have got me anywhere.
I needed a reason to battle on, a confirmation that I wouldn’t be stuck in this purgatory forever. Lacking religious faith or allegiance to any particular group, I couldn’t help still feeling alone, contrary to the reality of my situation. One day, when wondering around the unit at about six in the morning, I happened to see a leaflet made by beat. If I’m honest, it didn’t contain anything revolutionary, or that I hadn’t been told before, but being able to see, in writing, the words of people who had been through a similar experience to myself, before moving on with their lives, meant so much to me. Just knowing that recovery was not a daydream or an endless slog allowed me to think of who I was without an eating disorder.
When the all powerful scales finally showed a weight which was acceptable for discharge, I can’t say I was elated or felt immediately different inside. However, despite many hurdles and stumbles since that time, such as my emotional detachment from my friends from before my illness, I can only say things have improved. Sure, I have had to make a fair few decisions which were difficult to take, but compared to where I have come from, no challenge is insurmountable. Becoming Rob, not Rob the anorexic, took a long, long time, and I would be misleading you if I told you that I don’t worry about food a little every day, but I can now accept that there is so much more to me than just that. In my case, looking towards the future, indeed acknowledging that I even have one, was and still is a source of strength to draw from.
Pinning down a point where I took charge of my life, rather than the anorexia, is very difficult, even though my illness was such a short time ago. Some days I feel like I should cut down on food, or hurt myself, but now I have the ability to face those feelings and say NO. Recovery was the hardest thing I have done in my life, but it has brought more bountiful rewards and treasured skills than I had acquired in the whole of my life preceding it. It has given me direction, resolution and hope which I cherish every day. Though I have been so fortunate to benefit from the loving support of many people, and been given the treatment I needed, I truly believe that anyone can recover from their eating disorder. No low point is too dark and hopeless to rise from, no time impossible to fight through. I believe in my heart that with enough support, time, and the right tools to do so, recovery is always possible.”