“I’m angry at the time anorexia, my closest love, has looted from me”
Photo: Lizzie Porter
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.