I would like you all to do something for me.
Imagine waking up in the morning feeling so weak it takes you a full 15 minutes to sit up on the edge of your bed, and another 15 minutes to stand up without falling to the floor. Your whole body trembles with weakness as you pull on your leggings which, despite being from the children’s section in Zara, still hang around your knees. You pull your hair into a ponytail, feeling most of it fall out into your dry, flaking hands, and you drown yourself in your winter coat and scarf, despite the fact that it is the middle of August. You use all of your remaining strength to walk slowly out into the street, unsure whether your legs are steady enough to hold you up, only to be pointed out and whispered about from every direction. Whichever way you turn, passersby are shaking their heads at you and making comments that increase your already existent guilt and self-hatred. Strangers telling you how awful you look. How vain you are. How selfish you are. How there are children starving elsewhere in the world.
Since recently reading an article in which a woman described an anorexia sufferer as “selfish,” “dishonest” and “attention seeking,” I’ve been unable to shake it from my mind. After three years of fearing this about myself throughout my own struggles with anorexia, I have finally learned to look at my eating disorder in a different way — I now understand and have been helped to understand it is an illness that I did not choose. Nobody chooses to be sick. Would you approach somebody with crutches in the street and shake your head at them, telling them they only have a bandage on their leg for attention? I could sit here and give you all some spiel about how anorexia isn’t a sly, selfish illness, but I would be lying. I have lost count of how many times I have lied to my family, friends and healthcare professionals over the past three years. How many times I told them I had already eaten dinner elsewhere. How many times I hid my food in my pockets and threw it away. How many times I told them everything was fine and I didn’t need help. I am all too aware that anorexia is a devious illness.
But I would like to tell you all the truth about the people behind this illness. Last year, I was told by a specialist that those who suffer from anorexia are usually the people who care more about the happiness of others than themselves. They are much more sensitive from a young age, are always very in tune with the feelings of others and have a strong drive to want everyone around them to be happy. So much so, they try to get rid of any negativity, which often leads to perfectionism. When I was given this information I just nodded in false agreement, unable to accept what I had just been told because I could not shake off the guilt of what I was putting my loved ones through, and the crushing belief that I was a terrible, selfish person.
Now, two inpatient admissions and two day patient admissions later I can look back at the people I have met over the past two years, both in London and in Newcastle, and believe every word of what I was told. Never in my life have I met such caring, compassionate and gracious individuals who have looked out for each other every single day, despite being up against so much themselves. I will forever be unable to describe the feeling when someone reaches across the table for your hand as you cry into your cereal, because they can almost hear the screaming inside your head. When the girl in the room next door sits in your bedroom with you until 2 a.m., despite being exhausted herself, because you feel like your whole world is falling apart. When the girl across the corridor pushes a card or a letter under your door, or leaves a bunch of sunflowers on your bed because she knows you’ve had a bad day. When a patient stays at the table with you into the night because you just can’t manage your supper, even though everyone else has finished and gone to bed. When somebody silently stands with you at the window of the ward as you watch your family set off on the 300-mile journey home after spending the weekend with you. I can’t explain the feeling inside. The feeling that you are not alone, and that you are all helping each other to fight the same battle every single day. The feeling of love, of belonging and of acceptance. A mutual understanding, where just one look or one hug can speak more than a thousand words.
It goes without saying it’s impossible to forget two groups of people who have had such a lasting impression on me. Who have been so strong, brave and encouraging to be around, and who have the most amazing ability to make light and find fun in the darkest of days. Who reminded me of how it feels to laugh so much that you cry. Who have been like a family to me over the past two years. Who have been so affectionate, so loving and so accepting. Who have taught me that it’s OK to have feelings and it’s OK to show them. That it’s OK to have fears and its OK to be less than perfect. That it’s OK to struggle sometimes, but its never OK to give up. Spending almost a year in a hospital over 300 miles away from home at the most vulnerable point in your life, and not knowing when you will next see your family, is the most shattering experience. There were times when it felt so unbearable I thought I couldn’t cope. There were times when I spent my entire day crying over cards and photographs. But on both wards I have been on, I have been surrounded by the most wonderful people who have reminded me that life is a beautiful thing, and that it is absolutely worth fighting for.
So, next time you hear of somebody who’s suffering from an eating disorder, remember my words:
We are not selfish, sly and manipulative people who want to look like the models in magazines. We have not chosen to live like this. We try so hard to be faultless and not cause anybody distress or upset, that we end up keeping our problems to ourselves and using dangerous coping mechanisms to deal with them. I can’t tell you the ins and outs of everybody’s eating disorder, and I certainly can’t explain why anorexia is so fussy when choosing the most undeserving people to lure into its trap, but I can tell you that, if the rest of the world looked beyond the tired body and sad eyes of these people, they would see true beauty.
And lastly, if any of you amazing people from Avalon or 31A are reading this, I could never thank you enough for all you have done. I know how it feels to have anorexia strip you of everything in your life, and make you feel that you are only good at starving your body and hurting those around you, but I hope by writing this I have shown you how truly wonderful you all are and how many real qualities you have. Your courage and positivity continues to astound and inspire me. You have brightened up my darkest days and have reminded me of the life I am recovering for, and for that I am eternally grateful.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.