A Middle East correspondent looks back on 15 years of fighting her eating disorder.
It is summer 2003. I am 12 years old, and on a family holiday in a fisherman’s cottage in Craster, Northumberland. My father is screaming at me, ordering me to eat some falafel and pitta bread. I can tick off the anorexia symptoms in an irregular heartbeat. I am weak and obsessed with food, but seldom let it pass my lips. Although it is one of the hottest summers on record, a layer of downy hair has grown all over my body in an attempt to stay warm. I am tired, and I don’t really care anymore whether I live or whether I die.
I am irritable and I shout back at my father. I don’t want him controlling me; the holier-than-thou, pernicious and deceitful anorexic beast has me in its grip.
Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which began yesterday, is among the awareness-raising events that have improved public knowledge of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa. The illness is the biggest killer among psychiatric illnesses in young people. The high mortality rate is partly explained by suicide, responsible for 20-40 per cent of deaths in sufferers.
But for all the information in the fact-boxes and leaflets, an anorexic’s mind is tricksy. It does not want outsiders to understand, or even try to. The point is this: the condition intends to shatter families, friendships and relationships, all the better for sequestering sufferers away from those who love and loved them. It gouges physical and mental scars. It forces anorexics to spend years catching up with the lives it steals, long after he or she seems physically better.
By the next February, I have turned 13. I have been admitted to a four-month inpatient treatment programme for my anorexia. I don’t feel much, except anger at the nutritionist, who seems to think cheese is a healthy food. The Maroon Five song, “This Love”, plays on repeat as the inpatients eat full-fat yoghurts and mashed potato at pine dining tables. I shovel the food down because I am scared I will end up like those who refuse to – in bed with a tube up my nose. The doctors can order force-feeding if they want to.
My friends come to visit me, but I don’t think they understand what is happening. Nor do I. I curl up like a woodlouse on my bedroom floor in front of them. I toy with the idea of getting better. I have not yet realised that unless I decide to improve for my own sake, eating all the mashed potato in the world is pointless.
I am 17 years old, and smugly proud of myself. After my first hospital admission, I had improved to become almost “normal”. Now I’ve fallen down the slippery slope to anorexia again, but yes… I’m proud. I’ve started sixth form college, and as everyone else succumbs to fast food from the service station, I am working out in the gym with nothing more than a cereal bar inside me for lunch. I have no energy reserves, and yet I still manage to come top of the class, and get full marks on my exams. Of course, I’m missing out on life – I rarely go out, see friends, and, heaven forbid, there are no boys in my life. But anorexia comforts me, and it likes the way we are. We are very smug.
I am 23 years old, and I am back in hospital. This time, it is not a cosy unit for under-18s in rural Cambridgeshire. It’s a central London centre for drug addicts, alcoholics and eating disorders sufferers. Most of us are anorexics, but there is the odd bulimic in there too. The nurses search my bags upon arrival, as if I am a criminal. They take away my razors, in case I use them to slash my wrists. Every time I want to shave my legs, I have to ask permission. Sometimes, I hear the screaming and sobs of the other young women in their rooms. One does not make it past her anorexia: I later hear from fellow inpatients that she is dead.
One more hospital admission down, I continue living as a functioning anorexic. I have a job at a national newspaper in London. With the help of anti-depressants at maximum dose, my mood remains high. I have friends, although the eating disorder has distanced me from them. My life is lived in a series of neat little boxes: work, sleep, food, which comes in small, controlled amounts, with lots of preparation needed for occasions like Going Out or Having Fun. I manage to convince myself that this is normal. “Look how far you have come!” I tell myself. “Surely, you are better now?”
It is February 2018, I am 27, and confused about my anorexia. Am I still ill? I am better in so many ways: my weight hovers at the bottom end of the “healthy” range, according to Body Mass Index scales. I don’t have to weigh every morsel of food that passes my lips and I arrange my days around work and friends, rather than calories. The life boxes are less rigid.
But I constantly search for a rhythm to which I can black out from existence, something to replace the cool numbness that anorexia once offered. I seek other “solutions” and work to pull myself away from them too. I have spent days in bed after drinking too much, willing life away. I have had inappropriate relationships with inappropriate men. I managed to break my closest relationships – my starvation addiction, and the love for my anorexic beast – but there is an incredible loneliness in the void they leave. I am grappling for ways to fill it.
Anorexia sells itself to sufferers as beautifying, purifying, and wholesome – the ultimate “clean eating” regime. It is anything but. I am ashamed and panicked about the physical damage I have done to my body. A week ago, I had another bone scan, to see if I still suffer from the osteoporosis that I gave myself at the ripe old age of 19. The clinic is full of women three times my age – the condition normally affects post-menopausal females. I discover that I still have thin bones, Crunchie-like bars that may snap all too soon. My teeth are ruined and rotten from years of poor eating habits. My stomach and intestines don’t work properly, and I live off Gaviscon and antacid pills.
I am angry at all the wasted time and energy my anorexia has stolen from me. I have spent hours staring at hospital monitoring machines, blood test needles sticking from my arms, heart monitors taped to my back. But now I’m catching up from all that looted time, and there is no point being bitter about it. I might not be “cured”. But I am still alive. I am grateful for that.
You can find information, help and advice about anorexia at Beat.