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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".

An apple
For Lucy, even trying to eat an apple had her legs shaking in uncontrollable terror. Photo: By vauvau on Flickr, via Creative Commons

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”.