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
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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.