Growing out of anorexia

Ilona Burton

Empty Plate 300x225 Growing out of anorexiaThe biggest mistake I ever made was making a connection between achievement and being underweight.
2 days ago, I celebrated my 26th birthday. Not a biggie, but on such occasions I often reflect on past events, memories and chunks of time spent or misspent and I’m often faced with difficulty when I think about how much of my life so far has been tarnished by anorexia and bulimia.

But I don’t believe in regrets – you can’t change the past so I see no point in thinking ‘what if?’ or wasting more time fretting about things that you have no control over – you can only shape the future.  A lot has changed this year – my body and behaviours included.

Last year, I somehow, slowly and subtly slipped back into eating disordered behaviours. Not that I have ever been completely free from them – but the binge and purge cycle returned and escalated. The frantic dashes to the supermarket or fast food outlets once again began to seem normal, as did the constant scratchy throat, the puffed up glands in my neck and cheeks, the watering eyes, angry knuckles and the mechanical response, “I’m fine”. I managed to be honest with my boyfriend and after a year on a waiting list, I started seeing a therapist – on one condition; that I wanted to break the bulimia cycle but not gain weight. I wasn’t ‘ready’.

We soon established that I am at a place where anorexia will most likely never rule my life again. I can’t see myself ever having to go back to a specialised hospital for treatment – although I often feel awkwardly nostalgic towards the place. When you’re there, it’s hell on earth and patients make daily dashes for freedom, but when you’re out and you look back and realise it’s three years since you were last admitted, there’s a pang in the stomach that’s hard to describe – a part of you wishes you were there.

For me, being in hospital was the only firm evidence I had that I was really ill. I never believed that I was thin enough, sick enough, frail enough… until I was paralysed with fear when faced with the most miniscule portions and had to rely on 24 hour care to make sure that I didn’t hurt myself as a result of the guilt I felt after eating. Those feelings were proof enough.

But why would anyone miss that? Because for me, an enormous part of wanting to be thinner, drastically underweight, was that I associated weight loss with a real sense of achievement – on a huge scale. This achievement overshadowed any exam results, passing driving test, assessment grades, new jobs or even getting a 1st class degree – in fact, nothing else mattered unless the number on the scale was going down. I hasten to add that this connection, for me, didn’t come from ‘society’ or ‘the media’ – it was an idea I planted in my head at the tender age of 7. I remember always having been told that my family was high achieving, that I was bright and clever, but always, always that I had the potential to do better. Damn teachers. As I wasn’t really interested in circle theory or American history or the inner workings of xylem and phloem, perhaps not eating was my way of proving that I could do better at something – something that I grew to like, grew accustomed to and grew horribly, horribly addicted to.

Now though, the thought that those seeds were planted and I have since acted on and been a victim of the consequences for almost 20 years, saddens, shocks and scares me. If I spend a moment to stop and think, that more than two thirds of my life I have been ‘eating disordered’, I am reminded of the time that I was in hospital looking at the older women in there and thinking “That will never be me”. The years slip through your fingers when you’re constantly telling yourself that you’re ‘not ready’ to let go of something. Every day that I cling to this eating disorder, I’m getting closer to being one of those women.

So what now? I always say that having an eating disorder is not something anyone chooses to do – but could it be something that you choose to keep? People contact me saying that they have given up hope of ever getting better, but so do people who have fought tooth and nail to recover from these illnesses. It is possible (no matter what Liz Jones says). There may not have been a choice at the beginning, but you can choose to fight. I’m not recovered. I still cling on, but to a lesser extent than ever before.  On my good days I soldier on and on my crappy days, I plod along.

I have to constantly rationalise why it is better to be where I am now than to feed that thing that tells me I’ll feel better a couple of stone lighter. Right now, I have a job that just two months ago I thought I would never have, I’m an extremely proud auntie to two nieces and a nephew, I burst with happiness and soppiness when I think of my amazing relationships with friends, boyfriend and family and very soon I’ll graduate with a Masters in Journalism. I don’t feel comfortable with my body, but I know for a fact that it is healthier and stronger than it ever has been and I know that somewhere, though I struggle to find it, there is a greater achievement in all of that than there ever was in anorexia.

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  • fabcat

    Well, that is interesting and good to hear! It is disturbing, the degree to which assumptions are made by healthcare staff and things left unchecked or investigated. My partner faces a similar situation, certainly high IQ – and high performing, so almost everything is skewed to ignore her. Even the dyslexia tests – unless done by, for example, the Oxford research group – are geared towards children who can’t read, whereas it can have more subtle effects and interfere with understanding texts as well. The possible mild autism from which she suffers – inability to know when people are joking, fear of changes such as me shaving my beard off and so on – we have yet to have properly investigated, but on-line tests show positive.

    As I write this she is happily peeling garlic to go with the stir-fry she is cooking for us and it is only for perhaps the last few weeks that I can genuinely say she has enjoyed cooking. The home-made bread seems to have been a trigger – possibly because it helps her bowel calm down and partly because she makes it from scratch with real ingredients and it is nice, so there is a real sense of connection with her life. That bread has slashed my appetite too – I suspect it something to do with the fibre content and lack of some of the ‘improving’ agents.

    As for being nuts and weak – yes, my partner thought that too. I have to say, that when I meet people who say they are nuts and weak, I usually find they are stronger than most and far from being nuts are just aware of the many contradictions surrounding them, such as the difference between what people say and what they do, or the definitions of honesty used by most people. What is unarguably nuts is our society.

    Anyway – congratulations and good luck!


  • fabcat

    Thank you Tsveti, I shall show this to my partner to underline the points we have been trying to keep to – her life, her decisions, her wants and needs, not pointless pressures from others, and her goals achieved her way.

    And one thing, Tsveti; your body may have been better at 20 with 55 extra pounds, but as a man I know – and I am not just saying this – that I cannot bear to be around women who are all image or mannerisms; it is the person that matters most. That is why I am with my partner – an excellent person, and who gives a damn about all the rest? Perhaps, now, you are more yourself, and that is attractive too.

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