Okay, so, I have absolutely no idea where to begin.
Hi, my name is Emma, and for the past 6 years I have been recovering from chronic anorexia nervosa. I say recovering, what I mean is I’ve recovered and then relapsed, and then recovered and then relapsed, and yep then I relapsed again (hopefully for the final time) and that leads me to where I am today; I am in Strong Recovery.
I make a whole song and dance about classing myself as being in ‘Strong Recovery’ but it’s actually really important to me. For a long time, I was terrified of being recovered from anorexia. It was the main part of me for my teenage years, actually, instead of me being a normal teenager growing and learning, I felt trapped in time. I was very poorly, malnourished and weak for much of these years and I always felt like the embodiment of anorexia, one that went by the name Emma. But for so long I never wanted to let go of anorexia. I never knew how to survive without it, as much as being ‘in’ it was torture, it felt better than being in a world that I could barely stand, a world that I felt utterly powerless in. Now, I am the most ‘recovered’ I’ve ever been. But I will probably never call myself ‘fully recovered’. Not because I still have anorexia within me like some kind of foreign organ or a parasite. But because anorexia has greatly changed me, and to call myself recovered would be to say I am the same person I was before I got sick. I am not. Through all the pain this illness has dragged me through, I am now colourful, articulate, passionate, deeply caring and empathetic, and wise. Anorexia has changed me, but now that I’ve freed myself from its grip, I can firmly say it’s for the better.
But there are a whole 6 years before that. Before I get into the events that began this descent into anorexia, I would like you to note that I will not be sharing numbers (weight, BMI etc.) and I will not be sharing any details of hospital admissions during the past six years. Why? Well, I know these numbers are completely insignificant to the severity and recovery of an individual with an eating disorder. By disclosing these facts, I would be fuelling the fire of eating disorders that compete and become bullies to the sufferer. The same goes for hospital admissions. I don’t want to support the competitive culture we live in where people will only listen and hear the suffering of the most ‘severe’ cases of an eating disorder. Who are we to say that one case of an eating disorder is more severe than another? And why do these numbers that we obsess over dictate the perception of how ‘severe’ or valid an eating disorder is? Someone who suffers with an ED and has never been medically underweight or in hospital for it is just as valid as someone who has.
One thing that stands out to me about my journey and recovery from anorexia, is the way I never, as much as you may assume or professionals may try to make me say, thought I was fat or overweight. Like some, I never began losing weight or restricting my eating because I thought I needed to. In fact, I think it may have been because I knew I didn’t need to that made it so appealing to me. Self destruction was something I would become obsessed with to make myself feel good and manage my emotions. And even though I wasn’t purely starving myself for 6 years, it dominated my life, self destruction would also come in many other forms, such as self harming, poisoning, isolation and later on, alcohol abuse and reckless sex. But I won’t blanket over my developing of anorexia as just being a way of self destruction. I was obsessed with losing weight and becoming deathly thin, it was a way to allow me to fixate on something, and losing weight became some kind of sick way to see how far I could push my body. As I said earlier, I did feel very powerless and scared in the world, especially in my childhood and up to the age of 13. As saddening as this is for me to admit to, I wanted to be in control of the pain that I felt as a young person, and this meant losing weight to numb and manage my intense emotions. All of these reasons made me very vulnerable to the force of anorexia.
I will never 100% agree with the idea that anorexia is caused by pressure from social media and popular culture to be thin and to conform to the body standards our society seems to bow down to. I think it can add to the pressure of many young minds to fit in and feel adequate. But do not be mistaken, all eating disorders are very complex and I personally feel it would be doing an injustice to ignore the deep emotional turmoil and difficult life circumstances that can lead to an eating disorder. I believe both genetics and environmental circumstances can lead to anorexia developing, and in my case, I know that from a very young age I was painfully shy and worrisome, and sometimes unhappy.
From around the age of 12 I had a shift in my mindset, I knew that I wanted to start losing weight, but I cannot pinpoint the exact trigger that caused this. Although, I remember around my first month into these behaviours, reading Cathy Cassidy’s book Summer’s Dream in which the main character develops an ED, and this first introduced me to eating disorders. I realised, these thoughts that had plagued my mind actually had a name. From then on till spring/summer of 2014 (when I was 13) I had these thoughts in my head and it was only then when I started to feel very depressed, have panic attacks and started self harming that I went to the school nurse. I was referred to CAMHS at the end of June, but by this point I was barely eating, stuck in a relentless routine of hiding food which I was expected to eat on my own and I had become physically very unwell. At this time, one night stands out to me, when my dad found a bag of uneaten food I had been keeping under my bed from each time I pretended to eat my dinner, the same night I would see my dad cry for the first time. I think he could see he was losing me. I don’t remember much about my referral and CAMHS experience when I was 13/14, all I know is I was diagnosed with anorexia amongst other things and I gained some weight very slowly. A lot of the focus at this time was on the way my family problems affected me. An unstable home life with a lot of tension and unhappiness, strengthened my reliance on the illness, and I felt I needed it for stability.
In November 2014, after some therapy and support, I seemed to want rid of all professional help and be allowed to have some time away from services. At the time I did feel more positive, but looking back it was a bit *too* happy and an early example of these riptides of moods that would be sprinkled like seasons in my life. So, I decided I didn’t want any support (yep, pretty sure that was self-destructive Emma talking) and continued with school. My GCSE studies followed and my eating disorder was still very much thinking for me, and I just could not shift the thoughts about food and weight. Around May-July of year 11 things started to go wrong. I was self harming almost every day, home life was tumultuous and I was sad, and then all of a sudden very very happy again (later identified as mania/hypomania). As well as these worrying swings, I was starting to become reckless and I had my first relationship with someone. I loved and hated life at this time, I felt brilliant but my brain wouldn’t always cooperate. In my relationship I became very insecure with crippling fear of abandonment and I gave this person everything I had because of how much I loved them (but really I needed them to be okay with life). The relationship was so intense and unstable in the end that it lasted just over 1 month. This cluster of symptoms regarding my bumpy relationships with other people and myself would later be known as Borderline Personality Disorder.
But on the outside I looked okay, I was clearly an emotional teenager but I managed to do very well in my GCSEs getting 7 A*s and 3 As. All of these symptoms emerging, rocky relationships at home and an extremely traumatic event that happened when I was 16 led to a huge relapse at the start of Year 12. I lost a lot of weight very rapidly, and again I became very poorly, perhaps even more so, since I still had never been at a medically healthy weight all my life. I was sucked into the vile world of pro-ana content online which fed on my vulnerability and became delusional with ideas of needing to be pure and serene, something I was told could only be achieved by starvation. And so, I began to fade away once again. On Halloween night of 2016 I told my mum I was relapsing (yep, sadly the prefect horror night for her) and I was again referred to CAMHS. This time there was much more weight to gain. I slowly did it thanks to a good therapist and an antipsychotic to help me cope and antidepressants to lift my mood. But I did it. Sometime in 2017, my weight finally became stable (*pause for applause*).
But my memory of being really unwell is important to note as well. I don’t want anyone to ever think of an eating disorder as anything other than pure hell. (I’m not even going to address the ignorant lot who believe it’s a glamorous illness that pretty girls have). It is pure hell. I was sleeping at 8pm till around 5am when my body would wake me up (something that happens to your body in starvation mode in order to try and get you to find food) and then I would begin exercising until ‘breakfast’. I would sit like a broken lamp in all of my lessons, thinking, dreaming about food and making plans for my weight loss. I would have a sore back and hips from where my bones would sit on chairs with no muscle or flesh to protect them. I looked like a malnourished child and I felt like one. I could barely talk to my friends and my family (except arguments with my mum about meals). I remember walking to lessons and not being able to keep up with my friends because I was so weak and exhausted, and I found it so hard to laugh. I didn’t want to live like this, and as much as anorexia taunted me, who could blame me? There is no end goal for this disease, it wants you dead. So I chose recovery.
I got better slowly, and my eating disorder became smaller and smaller and Emma became more lively and whole. From there until now, today, I have dealt with all of my other mental health problems, including PTSD and now BPD. I am still in recovery from those and being supported, but my anorexia is now powerless. It takes one heck of a strong person to beat an eating disorder and, ladies and gentlemen, I am one of them. Anorexia stopped being the sole topic on my mind and I began healing with everyday that I was eating and living. Another note, you must eat to recover, there is no other way and if not now, when? I began to become Emma again and found my love of poetry, cats (all hail queen Suki, my cat), my wonderful friends, reading, photographing the sky and flowers. I gained ambition and purpose beyond anorexia. I sat my a-levels (which were eventful to say the least) and applied to university to study English Literature. I was no longer that embodiment of anorexia that filled my unstable identity and sense of self. I was so much more than that.
I wasted far too much time on the wrong train going the wrong direction with anorexia. I’ve spent a long time walking back from it. I fell miles and miles down into anorexia within weeks, and it’s a place I never want to go back to, and recovery was the long journey climbing all the way back up. There is a person behind every anorexia diagnosis and there is a life beyond its grips. One day I will have my mental illnesses under control. I’ve beaten the deadliest psychiatric illness out there, who’s going to stop me from flourishing? I am the best version of me I’ve ever been and I have spring back in my step.
The future is bright.
-Emma Catherine (thelilaclysander.wordpress.com)