Shades of Anorexia: it is a mental illness, not a statement

An eating disorder made Lucy Britton "want to disappear". Here, she responds to Rachel Cusk's article on the "anorexic statement".

This is going to be a hard post to write but I’m so upset by Rachel Cusk's article on anorexia in the New Statesman, and the way in which it conveys eating disorders.  In her article, Cusk represents those who suffer from anorexia as attention seekers: people who wish to become highly visible. She also paints anorexia as a purely female phenomenon. At one point she goes so far as to describe an anorexic person as a “68lb tyrant” who seemingly demands someone must feed her as a means of controlling her support team.

I’ve suffered from remitting and relapsing eating disorders since I was 14 years old. A close family member also suffered from a severe eating disorder and almost died as a result. I do not recognise the descriptions provided by Cusk at all.

There are many reasons why people become ill with eating disorders. Sexual assault is one such cause. Many people wish to desexualise themselves and disappear. The last time I was ill two years ago followed a rape and subsequent period of severe ill-health, possibly aggravated by complications with Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. I felt out of control and vulnerable. Not eating was a secret. I did not wish for it to make me more visible. I wanted to disappear. I was not even scared of the thought of dying, highlighting the extent of my desire to just stop existing. It is true that not eating made me feel a sense of achievement.  I had controlled my body, rather than had that control taken away from me as I had experienced. It was fuelled by self-hatred rather than self-promotion as Cusk seems to imply. Palpitations, constantly feeling cold and light-headed, and the inability to sleep were simply the physical manifestations of the pain I felt emotionally.

I was hospitalised in a psychiatric unit. My attitude towards food was not one of calorie counting. I was scared of eating. Food petrified me. It was quite literally a phobia. They wanted me to drink something called Fortisip/ Fortijuice which are incredibly sweet calorie- and nutrition-laden supplement drinks. Because my mind was aware it was the alternative to food I couldn’t face letting it pass my lips. Even passing the dining hall filled me with panic, the smell disgusted me and made me feel nauseous. They wanted me to drink the food replacement drinks in front of them in my room. The idea of them watching me made the whole situation worse.

Eventually, after weeks of wrangling with my care team, my husband convinced them to allow me to drink them in my room alone. I was supposed to drink four bottles a day minimum. At most I managed to drink half a bottle three times a day, I believe this was the equivalent of 300 calories, and I cried after each one. Once they took me to the eating hall to try an apple. I wouldn’t enter until everyone else had left. It was just me and one nurse. The smell from the previous mealtime overwhelmed me. Before the plate with the apple was put in front of me my legs were shaking in uncontrollable terror. I managed with shaking hand to cut a slither of apple. This was the most contact I had had with food in weeks. The feel of it in my mouth was grainy, like sand or powder. After just a few seconds I broke down. I couldn’t go on. Not eating made me feel like a failure. This was not a tantrum, it was panic. It was not petulant or controlling behaviour. I did not demand attention, I deplored attention. It was the manifestation of a traumatised mind.

Of course my story is only one of many. There are numerous reasons why people suffer from eating disorders, and it is by no means gender-specific. The causes and the experiences are many and should not, as Cusk has attempted, be reduced and universalised. The real life experiences of people with eating disorders far exceed Cusk’s monolithic and seemingly psychoanalytical, and overtly poetic, descriptions. Many eating disorder sufferers cannot neatly be compartmentalised as only possessing a simple diagnosis. Categorisation can be anorexia nervosa, bullimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or EDNOS (which means eating disorder not otherwise specified, this could be because the person with the ED suffers from both anorexia and bullimia symptoms or does not fulfill the weight criteria of the anorexia nervosa category). These shades of grey seem to become very lost in Cusk’s representation.

The Minnesota Experiment under controlled conditions studied the effects of malnutrion upon a group of 36 physically and psychologically healthy young men. It was found that many of the symptoms and behaviours which are associated with anorexia and/ or bullimia, such as a preoccupation with food, collecting recipes and a fixation with the eating habits of others; hoarding (which has been seen in anorexia patients); ritualistic behaviour around food (Cusk’s “feed me” springs to mind); bingeing; self-induced vomitting; feelings of guilt and shame; anger; and self-disgust inter alia were the result of malnutrition. Cusk’s poetic descriptions of anorexia may look pretty on the page, but clearly many of the behaviours she sees as resultant from a seemingly petulant, controlling and diva-like mind are infact the psychological symptoms of starvation.

Please do not believe Cusk’s thickly worded and damning descriptions of people with eating disorders. “We” are not one-size fits all. We are not all women. We are not all attention seekers and we do not wish to lash out and harm everyone around us. There are so many nuances it is impossible for Cusk or I to come up with a universal “Anorexia Statement”. Many people with anorexia aren’t trying to say anything at all. I had no message for the world. Anorexia is a mental illness not a “statement”.

For Lucy, even trying to eat an apple had her legs shaking in uncontrollable terror. Photo: By vauvau on Flickr, via Creative Commons
Graham Brady illustration
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Tory backbench leader Graham Brady: “When we vote to leave the EU, the PM should stay”

As chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady is a king among Tory backbenchers. So what does the ardent Eurosceptic make of David Cameron’s prospects in the EU referendum – and afterwards?

Enter Graham Brady’s office and you are treated to a magnificent panoramic view of the Palace of Westminster and Parliament Square. It is an appropriately grand vantage point for one of the most influential MPs. As the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Brady is an essential barometer of Tory opinion. In recognition of this, he was one of the first guests to No 10 Downing Street in the hours following David Cameron’s general election victory. A prime minister with a majority of 12 – the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974 – must take permanent heed of his backbenchers.

I met Brady, 48, shortly before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions on 10 February. Among Conservative MPs below us in Portcullis House, there remained only one topic of discussion: Europe. Cameron’s draft agreement with the EU has failed to persuade many Eurosceptics that they should vote in favour of membership of the Union when the referendum is likely held on 23 June. Brady, who entered parliament in 1997 as the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, is one of those who intends to campaign for withdrawal.

“There is a very long-term problem that there is a massive difference between what Britain thought it was joining – the European Economic Community – and what it actually was joining,” he said. “There was no appetite or decision to join a political Europe . . . That is something that has always needed to be resolved in some way and I think the more the eurozone, in particular, integrates with the continuing crisis, the more we will have to see massive political and fiscal integration and probably, still, the departure of some of the weaker eurozone countries. As that process goes on, the United Kingdom has got to redefine its relationship in a meaningful way.”

In advance of the European Council summit in Brussels on 18-19 February, he warned that Cameron’s renegotiations had fallen far short. “The reforms that are being sought by the Prime Minister, while all welcome changes, don’t come anywhere near to that fundamental reform of the nature of our relationship with the EU.”

I asked Brady, who was elected to lead the 1922 Committee in 2010, how many of his Conservative colleagues he expected to join him. “It’s very hard to say. I’ve always thought that a clear majority of Conservative members of parliament are deeply unhappy about the shape of the current European Union. And probably a clear majority would have a preference of leaving the EU as it is today. I suspect that roughly 100 will declare that they’re campaigning for Britain to leave. But many more will be very sympathetic to that objective.”

His estimate of 100 is notably higher than the 50 to 70 predicted by Steve Baker, the co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain.

In recent weeks, Eurosceptics have complained as pro-EU cabinet ministers have campaigned for membership while front-bench opponents have remained “gagged”. Brady told me it was “not unreasonable” for Cameron to force them to abide by collective responsibility until the renegotiation had concluded. But, he added: “What is important is that once the deal is done things should be brought to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. I hope there will be a cabinet meeting, if not on the Friday after the Prime Minister returns, then on the Saturday morning, [so] that the cabinet can agree its collective position and also agree that those who don’t share that view are free to say so and free to campaign.”

Some MPs expect as few as five cabinet members to support EU withdrawal (Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale) although others remain hopeful of persuading Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to join them. “I hope that everybody who is really committed to Britain’s future as a free, independent democracy will realise this is a key decision point,” Brady said.

“There’s no doubt that if Boris Johnson were to campaign for Britain to leave it would bring an energy and buzz to the campaign. Of course that would be welcome, and I hope that Michael Gove will resolve his dilemma in the same direction.”

I asked Brady if he was worried by what some Eurosceptics call “the Farage problem”: that the most prominent opponent of EU membership is also the most polarising. “Nigel Farage is very good at what he does,” he said of the Ukip leader. “He’s a very effective communicator with some audiences, so clearly he has a role in the campaign. Given the salience of the issue for him and his party, it would be unreasonable to expect him not to be prominent in the campaign. But he is a Marmite character and I think this is why it’s so important that there should be a wide range of different voices.”

Brady, who had just returned from a breakfast meeting in the City of London, told me that a number of business people have revealed to him that although their “institutional position is firmly that we should remain in the EU . . . privately their view is completely the opposite”.

Two days before we met, Cameron had been accused of “scaremongering” for warning that “the Jungle”, the refugee camp in Calais, could move to Dover in the event of EU withdrawal. Brady told me that the Prime Minister’s remarks were indeed “inaccurate” and that it was “enormously helpful of the French government to point out that it wasn’t going to happen”.

Were Britain to vote to leave the EU, as polls suggest is possible, many Tory MPs on both sides believe that Cameron would have to resign as Prime Minister. But Brady rejected this suggestion. “No. When we vote to leave the European Union I think it is very important that we have a period of stability. I think it would be hugely valuable to have an experienced team in place to deal with the renegotiation, I think it’s actually very important that the Prime Minister should stay.”

I noted that he referred to “when” Britain leaves the EU, suggesting he was confident of victory. “I’m always confident of victory,” he replied with a smile.

Given Cameron’s decision to pre-resign before the election by vowing to serve only two terms, there will be a Conservative leadership contest before 2020. I asked Brady whether, as some have suggested, the members’ ballot should be widened to include more than two candidates.

“The rules are constructed for each contest by the 1922 executive and agreed with the party board. The only stipulation in the constitution of the party is that we should provide ‘a choice’ to the party members. That has always been construed as a choice of two. I can’t see any reason why parliamentary colleagues would wish to reduce their own influence in the process by putting forward a larger field.”

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has argued that it is essential there be a female candidate (ideally herself). Brady offered her some advice: “I have very fond recollections of a woman leading the Conservative Party. I hope that if Nicky wants to launch her campaign seriously, she’ll talk to me about how we might promote more grammar schools and selective education as one of the ways that we can stimulate real social mobility in the country again – and she’ll have my support.” It was after the then shadow education secretary, David Willetts, argued in 2007 that grammar schools inhibited social mobility that Brady resigned as shadow minister for Europe.

If there is one stipulation that most Conservative members and MPs will make, it is that there be an anti-EU candidate in the field. I asked Brady whether he would consider standing himself.

“I say to people that I’m very happy with being the returning officer for any leadership contest,” he replied. But the man with a better feel for Conservative backbench opinion than any other ended our conversation with this prediction. “I do think it’s very likely that if we put two candidates forward to the party in the country, at least one of them will have been someone who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle