I’ve been thinking for weeks about whether I would write this post. I suppose in these past few months I’ve come to realise that the words I write can make more of an impact than I would have imagined before I started. I’ve been moved by the feedback I’ve received, and it’s helped me to understand that I’ve been given not only a gift but also a responsibility. One I don’t want to waste. In writing this post I know I’m taking a risk, opening myself up to the potential to be hurt. But as I write I am thinking about the future I want, a future free from shame and full of hope, for all those who have fought this battle. I can see that silence will not get us there.
You see,this week is ‘National Eating Disorders Awareness’ week. This is a cause that means more to me than most, because I am a survivor of Anorexia. It often feels strange that I get to talk about it so little, when recovering from it remains my greatest achievement to date. I suppose if it had been a physical illness that I had defeated against the odds, then that would be a socially acceptable topic of conversation, over a cup of coffee. But somehow overcoming a mental illness seems to mean you have to lock that door in your life, and take a vow of selective silence. Because after all you recover just so you can blend in again, right?
The irony being that at this point in the year, diets is often all anyone can talk about. It seems very few people have a healthy relationship with food. Many people are locked in a constant struggle to keep off the pounds, and we consider it normal. There have been times at work when those who are dieting have congratulated each other for ‘being good’ and saying no to that slice of cake. And I have wished that people could understand that it took me twice as much will power to eat it. Or when people sit around at the end of mealtimes moaning about how much they’ve eaten, talking of ‘food babies’, fat and calories. And I want to cry because they are verbalising the very lies I fought so hard to get out of my head. Or when someone makes a joke about anorexics, and I bite my tongue, wanting to tell you that not only have I been one of them; but I’ve sat at the bedside of a friend who I was so scared would die from the illness. That really there’s nothing to laugh about.
Living with Anorexia is like living with another person in your head. A person who analyses every calorie, judges you for every slip of control, every mouthful. Someone who whispers lies and self-hatred into every corner of your mind. Your life boils down to what you can, or mostly can’t, eat. There’s no room in your head for anything else. The world could crumble around you, but so long as you can restrict what you eat, then you can cope. In the end you feel only two emotions the buzz from not eating, or the guilt from eating. The reality being that food is not the real problem, rather a distraction, to cover over the deeper struggles.
Food is a currency in our society. We use it to socialise and to make friends, to reward ourselves for a job well done or as a punishment for breaking the rules. Our magazines are filled with the latest diets, critiquing celebrities for every pound of fat. Our televisions are filled with show after show of what happens when we get it wrong, we make entertainment out of watching people shed the pounds. Being thin is being one step closer to perfection.
I was your textbook Anorexic. An overachiever in her late teenage years, desperate to find control and order, in a world that made so little sense. I was a child of the ‘obesity crisis’, fed with an onslaught of healthy eating advice, of ‘good foods’ and ‘bad foods’, healthy and unhealthy. It was not much of a leap to think that if it was good to cut down on these foods, then surely it would be better to cut them out altogether. Fuelled by low self esteem and unhappiness, I believed the lie that I would be happier if I was thinner. Maybe then I would fit in.
From that point on Anorexia is a slippery slope of obsession and denial. Rational I knew I was thin, knew it had to stop. But at the same time there was such a high from not eating, a thrill unlike any other, deadly and addictive. And the guilt and the shame from eating was so intense, it could make you dissolve into tears over a bowl of cereal. At times I thought my illness would be the end of me, there were days when I wished it would. I found myself trapped in a prison, so consumed by the lies in my head, that I hadn’t seen the bars descend around me. I thought that this was it, that the course of my life would forever be dictated by food. I thought there was no hope.
But I’m writing this today because I was wrong. There is life after Anorexia. Recovery is a hard road, and I would be lying if I said it didn’t take every ounce of my strength to climb out of the hole I had fallen down. And yes there are still times now when it’s difficult, times when I’m stressed and unhappy, when I can hear that tempting whisper again. In fact this summer the whisper was louder than it has been in the three years since recovery. It took a lot of effort to get my diet back to what it was pre-Norway, to coax my appetite and my motivation back. I am not complacent enough to label myself as ‘recovered’ and forget all I’ve learnt. Recovery is a road I may always be travelling down. I know I may always have to be on my guard, to make sure nothing falls out of my diet. I will never again fast, no matter how many church sermons are preached on it. Nor will I ever cut out a food item for lent. It will never be okay for me to deliberately diet, regardless of how many of my friends are on one.
However, I have come so much further than I ever thought possible. There are days, weeks and months where worries about food don’t even enter my mind. Hundreds of mealtimes free from guilt and fear. I’ve been a healthy weight for nearly four years, moved away from home, graduated with a 2.1 degree in Mathematics. I live a completely normal life. I’ve come to appreciate that every pound of my weight has been hard fought for, and it must be respected. And whilst I would not wish this illness on anyone, I am proud of what I have overcome. I have journeyed through the valley of the shadow of death, but me and God made it back into greener pastures. It has made me far stronger than most people my age ever have to be. Therefore, I refuse to be ashamed of an illness I did not choose and was not my fault. I rejoice that I have learnt what it really means to have a God who:
“redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion” Psalm 103:4
I write this firstly for all those who are still fighting this battle, those known to me and those not. For all those brave and precious people who still find themselves in that valley. Know that recovery is not only possible, but it’s achievable. Your story does not have to end this way, I believe in you. You are strong enough to beat this. It really is worth all the hard work. Remember that your worth cannot be measured in the number on the scales. Please don’t give up and don’t loose hope.
And for those who have never had to fight in the war: I ask simply that you be aware. Be aware that, for those of us in this unheard minority, food can be complicated. That those throw away comments often find their mark in us. That we need your prayers, your love and understanding.
I share a part of my story today because it is a story of hope, of new life and restoration. And I believe that is worth breaking the silence for.