It’s Monday morning. 7am, to be exact. I wake up, wash up and stumble into the kitchen with the hope of grabbing something quick, easy but healthy for breakfast. I pack my lunch for the day as I go, throwing in a humus and salad sandwich, vegetable crisps, banana and a few squares of dark chocolate for good measure. Because why not? I love dark chocolate. I understand that this probably doesn’t strike itself as being the most remarkable event that could occur in a small flat in Bournemouth. But, I guess, for me thats why it is. Remarkable, I mean.
If someone had told me four or five years ago that this would one day be my approach to food, I would have laughed. And probably feared what kind of life I would be leading to have “let myself go.” Back then I would have woken up at 6am on the dot every morning to make myself the same watery bowl of oats that weighed exactly 30g. Anything over that and my day was ruined, which I would cradle and savour as if it was my last meal. More than likely I would drift back to sleep shortly afterwards, as if the effort of getting up and boiling the kettle was too much. It’s safe to say that my energy levels were low. Either that or I would make myself up for the day ahead in a bid to disguise my sallow eyes and skin, before going through the empty motions of everyday life.
In truth, I was desperately unhappy and spending every waking hour thinking about food; food that I wouldn’t – or more appropriately couldn’t – eat. One moment I would be worrying about my next meal, the next daydreaming up ways to maintain my low calorie limit. The life I was leading was not satiating, be it physically and mentally. And yet, the alternative option of gaining weight and leading a ‘normal’ life seemed far scarier. I genuinely believed that, without my illness, I was nothing. It was a vicious cycle that I didn’t know how to end. I was – according to the doctors, nurses and therapists that became familiar faces in my weekly routine – living with anorexia nervosa.
Even though I had struggled on and off with my eating disorder since I was eleven (and relapsing three times), it wasn’t until I hit eighteen that things really took a downhill spiral. I was at college, spending most of my time worrying about grades, assignments and the impending prospect of university. My anxiety manifested itself in the only real way it knew how to: by shifting focus on controlling something else. This, in my case, was my anorexia. The fact that I went to college at Brockenhurst, a forty minute train journey from my home town of Branksome, made it all the easier to get away with skipping meals and throwing away pre-packed lunches. It also made it all the more isolating as I spent many a lunch break alone in the upstairs café in the hope that no one would coerce me out.
And it wasn’t just here either. I’d forgo a night out with my friends to work out, or to avoid the temptation of eating or drinking more than my daily limit. I became a girl that not even I wanted to hang out with, so I thank those closest to me who put up with my ghost for a long while. My eating disorder wanted me to focus on nothing but losing weight, meaning that even when I did spend time with others, all that was going through my mind was my next meal or how fat I felt sat down. I just wanted to be alone. Despite this, I’m lucky to be able to say I had (and still do have) the best support system from my family and friends. This made it particularly difficult knowing that they felt as helpless as I did whilst thinking that they couldn’t help. But they did. Even if they couldn’t physically heal the mental wounds I had, being there to listen and talk through my problems (albeit the same ones over and over again; I still to this day call myself ‘a bit of a stuck record’) was enough.
It wasn’t until the consequences of my actions began to manifest physically that I began to realise the extent of the damage I was doing. Becoming underweight aside, I would lose hair on a frequent basis. As clumps would come out and cling to my hairbrush, I would tell myself that the shampoo I was using wasn’t right. This was followed by a DEXA scan revealing osteopenia caused by a lack of calcium intake. To me, they were wrong. All that the aches and pains in my bones meant was that I had worked out well the night before. This I did on a near obsessive basis, even if that meant jumping on the spot for a good hour and a half. Or more. Even the fact that I didn’t have a period for over a year and a half didn’t bother me, despite knowing full well that this could have awful effects on my fertility in later years if it carried on. I was obliviously wrapped up in an illness that thought nothing of these symptoms, yet everything of consuming a few extra calories.
A final wake up call came in the form of severe chest pains after a day out with my family. I was taken to hospital, where I was offered morphine, given a blood test and a follow up ECG and heart scan. I later discovered that my extremely low blood pressure caused by malnutrition was affecting my circulation (which made sense of the constant coldness I felt and my now blue nails and lips). I can still remember the horror stories that my nurse told me about what would happen to my body if I didn’t try to overcome my eating disorder. With reluctance, I admitted that something had to change. It was then that I was referred to hospital for – what I told myself to be – the final time.
I won’t say that it was easy, because it wasn’t, but admitting this to myself properly for the first time was a huge step in allowing me to move forward. Each week I would face weigh-ins and a harsh course of reality from my therapist, who adopted a tough love policy of questioning each and every disordered thought that I possessed. I can remember her telling me that, whilst recovery is something to be proud of, no one else would truly comprehend the effort I had put in. That was reserved only for me. In response to her asking me how I felt about that, I said it was fine, because at least I would know what I was capable of. I still tell myself this in moments of self-doubt.
In all honesty, I can’t pinpoint the exact moment that I decided to truly commit to my recovery. However, my weekly visits to Kimmeridge Court hospital, as well as finding the confidence to start a part-time job at Hobbycraft and my English course at Bournemouth University all helped, of that I’m certain. Especially seeing as said job included meeting my now boyfriend of three years, Kieran, who has been my rock in helping me overcome each challenge that has come my way. In June 2013, I was officially discharged and haven’t looked back since. It’s the longest I’ve been recovered and I certainly don’t plan on that changing.
Over the next three years, I would go on to graduate with a 2:1, start a full time job as a Marketing and Communications Intern and move into my first flat with Kieran. My eighteen year old self would have struggled to apprehend a future like this. As a girl who was once afraid to leave the house for fear of anything getting in the way of my structured (and disordered) routine, I can say I’m proud. I’m also hopeful and positive that recovery is achievable for anyone who is now in a similar situation.
There is no shame, this I now know, and if I could say anything it’s this: don’t suffer in silence. Speak out. You are more than your eating disorder and, even if you don’t believe it, there will always be someone who does. Without my friends, family and support system, I wonder how I would have approached getting better. Living my life free of disordered eating is one of the few ways I hope to repay them – and myself – for the time it has taken to reach this point. It’s only been worth it.