Given its ten year duration, I think my story is best told in two parts. So here’s the first one…
I was 23 when I became ill, but I didn’t fully realise it at the time. Subconsciously, I knew there was something dangerous in how I was beginning to think about food, but I would never have described this as an eating disorder.
I was living in Abu Dhabi and working as an EFL (English) teacher. I did this job throughout most of my twenties. At first this career satisfied my desire for adventure and change, but later on it became about trying to run away from my mistakes and failures, both real and perceived – and from the illness.
I can see now that it was at age 23 that a dangerous combination of factors came together and let ana get inside my head. I never used to think about what made me give up so many years to ana, and could never answer my mum’s constant, urgent question – ‘What made you get ill? What makes you do this?’ I think that’s a blog post in itself, but what I can say here is that I think eating disorders stem from a dangerous combination of personal traumas, which may stretch far back into childhood or be more recent ones, combined with personality factors and even brain chemistry. These are then mixed together with societal and media ideas about what a successful and attractive person is and how to become one.
For me, I can pick out constant bullying throughout my school days – some though not all focused on my looks – and significant family trauma from my late teens and into my twenties. I’d also had an impulsive, short-lived and mentally abusive marriage at age 21. I reacted to this with a series of further relationship encounters which damaged rather than re-built my self-esteem. These experiences combined with a naturally self-critical and self-disciplined personality, and possibly something chemical in my brain given a brief phase of food restriction as a very small child. Then there was the media culture of the day. These were the days of the size zero and Atkins obsessions.
It started as a crash diet. I decided that losing half a stone would make me feel better and more visible and attractive again. So I did it. I even went a little bit further as I enjoyed the feeling of success as I survived the days of hunger and the anger and anxiety that went with the hunger, defied my boyfriend’s pleas with me to eat more, and felt my clothes getting looser and looser.
When I returned to the UK and walked towards my mum and sister at the arrivals gates, they looked visibly shocked. They later told me that they thought I must have been hiding some terrible illness I’d been suffering from. I guess in reality that’s exactly what I had been doing – I did have a terrible illness, even if I didn’t fully admit that to myself at the time. I was horrified to have upset them, but also secretly thrilled that I’d ‘achieved’ so much. I determined not to re-gain the weight, though at this point I didn’t aim to lose anymore. This is the point at which I should have sought help.
My mid-twenties saw my weight continue to steadily decrease, until I definitely fell within the medical category of ‘anorexic’ with many of its accompanying effects – the most serious early sign being the complete loss of my periods, which I have now missed for a decade.
But it wasn’t just about my weight decreasing. I also felt mentally more anxious and more diminished as each year went by, and these effects have been just as damaging as the physical ones. It’s these effects that were overlooked by two of the three doctors I approached when I became worried about the lack of periods, and the constant distress running in my mind every single day. The focus was on my BMI, and though I was anorexic, it seemed that I wasn’t anorexic enough…
With my success/failure mentality, I was left in a limbo. I was a failure at anorexia as I hadn’t gone far enough for it to be taken seriously. Yet I was also a failure at life as I was mentally, and increasingly physically, ill enough for my life to be steadily shrinking along with my body.
Each time anything traumatic or even just stressful occurred in my life, I sank deeper into the illness and ana took over a greater part of my brain. I was unlucky in having two further traumatic experiences in my late twenties which sped up the takeover.
In reaching my early thirties, I recognised that I had anorexia, but believed that I would never get too ill to manage. I held on to this belief even as it started to affect my daily life. My digestive system started to collapse, my energy levels fell, and there was still no sign of my periods. I had become chronic.
Chronic anorexia is often overlooked whenever the media does decide to portray this illness. The focus is usually on the shock stories of the people who reach dangerously low weights and are hospitalised as emergencies, but very seldom on the people who hover somewhere between the onset of the illness and its potentially fatal consequences. It is here that sufferers are overlooked as ‘not anorexic enough’, and it is here that there also needs to be some focus.
Not everyone in this group will reach the hospitalisation stage, but this does not diminish the extent of their physical and mental suffering, or their need for help. I wish there had been more accessible and more welcoming help for me at this point, and I want to speak out for others who have experienced the same lonely self-acknowledgement that they are ill and that it’s serious, but that they are stuck with it and that no one will or can help them.
I am now getting better, so it is possible to escape chronic anorexia, and I also want to reach out to others with this message. Don’t let anyone, and most of all don’t let yourself, deny the harm the illness is doing to you. Acknowledge this harm so that you can start to fight back.