This week has been Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Until this point, my blog has been focused on other things. Maybe I should have written my first piece on eating disorders. After all, I had anorexia for two whole years until I decided to recover.
At the age of 14, my parents started to worry about me. I was constantly upset and crying almost every day. They took me to the doctors who, despite my age, took me very seriously and diagnosed me with severe depression. I was too young for medication but I received counselling instead. I always say that the reason I developed anorexia was because of my depression. From what I know through other people I’ve met with eating disorders, usually the ED comes first, then the depression. I’ve always been a rule-breaker, though.
I was overweight at 14 but decided to join the gym. I lost weight at a steady pace, dropping from a size 14 to a size 12 in a year. I was more confident…but it wasn’t enough. I was bullied every day at school. I picked up a knee injury which meant I couldn’t go to the gym. So, to continue losing weight, I cut down how much I ate. I saw the weight drop off and I loved the result.
It kept going like that for a while. I dropped to a size 10 and my parents said that it suited me and I shouldn’t lose any more weight. But by that point, I liked losing weight. And I was never that hungry. I still wanted to lose more. The bullies still called me fat until my best friend pointed out that I was skinnier than the girl who tormented me, at which point I went from ‘fat pig’ to ‘anorexic rat’. By that point, I knew I had a problem. That Easter, I broke down crying after eating an apple and my brother consoled me. I said to him I felt guilty for eating it and that I’m fat and worthless.
I’m not sure what happened, if I’m being honest. At one point, there was a light switch and I just couldn’t stop losing weight. It became my mission. I was counting calories, challenging myself to consume less of them every day and exercising excessively to lose even more weight. The summer after my GCSEs was spent in the throes of excessive dieting and restricting, standing up for hours when everyone else was sitting down and feeling cold. One thing I remember most about anorexia is how cold I always was, even if it was a warm day. I’d be the one in a cardigan, shivering.
I thought things would improve when I moved schools for sixth form. I went to the school across the road from where I used to go but it felt like a million miles away. People could evidently tell there was something wrong with me. I was too skinny. I remember going uniform shopping and asking the shop assistant in Topshop if they did a size 4 because the size 6 kept slipping off my hips. She looked quite mortified and whispered ‘you’ll have to go to a specialist shop for that’. Despite all of that, no one bullied me at this new school. They were cautious but polite. If I was ever at a loss as to who to hang out with, someone would always say I could join them.
I began enjoying school. There were positive signs. I looked at my female classmates and thought ‘they don’t have anorexia and they are so beautiful and happy’. So I started walking to the local Tesco with these girls and buying lunch – proper lunch – and eating it with them to feel included.
Somehow, that all faded. The anorexia was too strong at this point and I was too weak. I felt happy in the moment when I ate lunch with the girls but as soon as I got home, I’d obsessively regret what I’d done. I’d figure out how many times I had to walk up and down my stairs at home so that I could eat a kid’s portion of dinner without feeling like killing myself.
Guilt is a major factor in spurring anorexia on. It’s what made my anorexia last two years. I had the constant feeling of my self-worth depending on how much weight I was losing. I felt ugly, fat and worthless. It didn’t matter that I was excelling at school. None of that was important, but anorexia was. If I ate even one calorie over my ‘allowance’, I would want to cut myself. I would walk around my room non-stop from around 11pm until 2am, then go to sleep. My life just became a cycle of trying to eat less than 500 calories, walking up and down stairs repeatedly to burn calories and standing. If I didn’t do those things, I would feel guilty; at times, it felt as though I had committed murder if I didn’t fulfil these challenges my warped brain had set myself.
Everyone was worried about me. The problem is that anorexia is an extremely selfish illness. You become determined and driven to spurn everyone and their advice because what would they know? They don’t know better than the anorexia. They don’t know how much you hate yourself. They don’t know what it’s like to be inside your head, all those thoughts going round and round. They don’t know how much it hurts. They will never understand.
At one point, I got tired. I was just fucking done with it. The anorexia had taken everything out of me except one thing – anger. It was like a spark went off in my head and I got so angry at it. All my friends were planning summer holidays after their AS Levels and I was in such bad health that I couldn’t even get travel insurance. No one is going to insure someone who weighs 40kg. I couldn’t drink alcohol because of the damage it would do to me. I had lost all my muscle, pretty much. I was physically exhausted.
This anger brewed inside me and exploded. After my final AS Level exam, I promised my parents that I would get better by September so that I could fully enjoy my final year of school, go on holiday and be a typical, wild teenage girl.
Things started well. In the few months before finishing year 12, I had been restricting myself to 300 calories. I went grocery shopping with my parents and they prepared food in front of me so I knew that only healthy, wholesome stuff was going in. My parents only ever used olive oil if they were cooking for me, they would buy everything fresh and prepare each meal with love. I went from those aforementioned 300 calories to eating around 500 calories just for dinner. My parents were finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. My mum was smiling again. How I’d missed her beautiful smile.
But then tragedy struck.
There’s a thing called the Refeeding Syndrome. It’s what happens if you immediately give food to someone who has been starving. Their body isn’t used to receiving food. It doesn’t know what to do with it. You end up losing weight drastically.
Since the age of 14, I had been under CAMHS. They intervened. They said that my weight was too low and either I was to go to hospital ‘voluntarily’ or they would section me (so really, I had no choice). My mum was infuriated because she knew I was eating and resting, not restricting and exercising. She had seen a positive change and, as she is a housewife, she knew I wasn’t cheating.
Despite all of this, I had to go to hospital. I was in general hospital for 10 days, during which I lost 7kg. My weight plummeted to 33kg. Not healthy at all. The doctors told me I had two weeks to live because my organs would shut down. Ironically, they said – when it suited them – that I had fallen prey to the Refeeding Syndrome, which is exactly what my mum had said had happened whilst eating at home. During those traumatic 10 days, my mum visited me all the time, the nurses ignored me when I was crying out in pain and my aunt visited me to ask me whether I wanted to be buried or cremated when I died because she knew it would break mum and she was taking charge of what would happen in the worst case scenario.
The single worst moment was when my mum visited me one time. She said nothing to me. She sat down on my bed, let out a sigh and cried for half an hour. When she started to cry, I said to myself ‘I may feel I deserve to be punished, but she doesn’t’. I knew right then that I had to live. I had to get better. Even if I didn’t want to live, I had to because if I died, it would kill my mother too. I had to get better for her.
I was later moved to a special mental health unit for teenagers in Oxford. They assessed my anorexia and consigned me to a wheelchair. Yes, a wheelchair. I wasn’t allowed to walk or exert any energy. I had to be wheeled around everywhere. I wasn’t allowed to stay in my room either; I had to be in communal spaces at all times so they could check I wasn’t getting up to get a book or something (that had to be passed to me or I had to be wheeled over). As I put on weight, I was allowed to walk around by myself and live relatively normally, other than the diet plan. The diet plans weren’t particularly bad apart from some of the glucose drinks they gave which were vile. They gave you a balanced diet, which meant that when I put on weight, it went everywhere, in all the right places.
I spent a few months there. I met other girls with anorexia, yet I was the only one who was actively trying to get better. The others were still mentally at their worst point. They weren’t mentally ready to fight the anorexia. I’m happy to say that two of the girls who I met and connected with there are now fully recovered and are living their lives to the fullest. We often look and like current pictures of one another because we know how hard the journey has been.
After my spell there, I was discharged and allowed to return home provided that I promised to get to a minimum, ideal weight of 51.3kg (for me that was a BMI of around 18). I returned to sixth form in October, a month after school began officially for all my friends, and was met with love and kindness from all my peers. They knew what had happened and some had even sent cards and flowers to me in the unit. No one judged me. They were glad I was back and healthy.
I reached 51.3kg in January and was officially, fully discharged from CAMHS. The first year after recovery is always the hardest – you are most likely to relapse within a year if you relapse at all. Instead, I kept two very distinct things in my head:
- I remembered to stay angry at the anorexia. It had stolen two years of my life from me and I didn’t want it to steal any more time or stop me from living and enjoying my life.
- I remembered how much my strong, beautiful mother cried because of me. I’ve only seen her cry a couple of times. She doesn’t, generally. But she shed so many tears because of me. I had to keep on living for her.
I have been recovered for four years now. I still have depression but I take medication for it. I am a size 8. I am healthy yet thin. I have a degree. I am still here. I am still living. I am still breathing. The anorexia stole two years of my life from me but that’s all I will give it. It doesn’t define who I am. There is life beyond anorexia and eating disorders. If this has helped even one person, then I’ve done my job.