what it's like growing up with an eating disorder
This story is my secret and one I kept so well for years. Eating disorders are something we hide away through shame and guilt. The dark hell of anorexia nervosa became my life and ravaged my adolescence.
I have lived with an eating disorder for most my life and I'm far from alone. In truth, more than 1.6 million people in the UK suffer with dysfunctional eating behaviors: that's one in four of us. With more deaths from eating disorders than from any other mental illness, research has found that 20% of anorexia sufferers will die prematurely from their illness, a result of organ failure or suicide.
There are many deeply disturbing memories that haunt me from my anorexic past. When I close my eyes, I can still feel that first time when I believed I would die. Slowly peeling off my many layers of clothes in-front of the bedroom mirror, for the first time in many months, I felt brave enough to look at my naked 13-year-old body. Four pairs of tights, three vests, tracksuit bottoms, two jumpers and a shirt crumpled at my feet. Back then my lips and fingers were constantly tinged blue, nothing could shield off the biting cold which possessed me. I was barely strong enough to undress; my stick-like arms hung heavy and weak. As my weary, half-closed eyes registered the blurring image that was reflected before me, a wave of the most intense terror I have ever experienced descended on me. A wasteland of bones had stolen my pre-adolescent body. In place, a soft downy fur covered my jagged, goose pimpled frame; my skeleton barely protected by a brittle, grey skin, the thickness of just a light tissue. Where nourishment should have clothed my bones, my body had digested the fat, muscle and even my skeleton for energy, to stay just alive. I still felt fat.
For months before this day, I had lived in the shadows, ashamed of my decaying body. Limping in between lessons at school, I would sign registers before stealthily slipping out of the classroom. My days were spent hidden, lying next to a radiator or hand dryer, locked alone in a toilet falling in and out of consciousness. My friends whispered and watched on as I hid food in my socks, secreting lunch and snacks into my pockets. I deposited bags of rotting foods around the school trash cans, desperate to avoid the flesh their nutrition would inflict upon me. The hunger I felt back then never tempted me to eat. The deep, all-consuming fear that whispered in my ear kept me far from temptation. I forgot what satisfaction was. My friends faded, my family grew angry, and the threat of my grave loomed closer.
My days were spent hidden, lying next to a radiator or hand dryer, locked alone in a toilet falling in and out of consciousness.
As I sit here writing this, I can feel my hands shaking. This story is my secret and one I kept so well for years. Eating disorders are something we hide away through shame and guilt. The dark hell of anorexia nervosa became my life and ravaged my adolescence. The trauma the illness sparked ripped through my body like a wildfire. Back then the desire to feel accepted, to understand my own beauty, and escape self loathing was stronger than the need to breathe. The spiraling disappointment in my own appearance, my grades, my popularity, and the rejection of my mother choked me.
As I grew sadder, I silenced the hopelessness with starving; anorexia provided answers to questions I could ask no one. Throughout the illness many tried to save me from myself. When the festering bags of rotting foods were discovered I would be punished, pitied, understood, and sometimes condemned. I knew the insanity of those 12-mile runs in the middle of the night, the danger I invited downing packets of laxatives which would sting my guts like bleach. The cuts I would carve upon my skin after I ate, remain, humiliating me still, inviting stares and judgment. My illness was able to evolve because I never believed I was good enough.
Before anorexia introduced herself, my peers thought I was chubby, my mother was ashamed of my awkwardness, and the boys mocked me. I would watch Britney Spears sexily gyrate, writhing her hips and concave tummy and then pull angrily at my own sodden, ugly skin. I would force myself down to my knees, heaving bucket loads of vomit from my struggling body, tears springing down my cheeks, blood vessels popping in my eyeballs, seething pain swelling in my abdomen. Peering up from my saucepan of self-hate, as I stood up, dizzy and disorientated, the children in the garden downstairs came into focus. Laughing and playing, free and joyful, I watched, detached. Disgusted at myself and desperate to break away from this self-contained bubble of incredible emotional pain, the only pleasure I now had was the sleep I hoped would bring my end. I never reached that place. I tried hard for two decades, escaping my pain with other damaging distractions. My romantic relationships would always end swiftly. The idea of my body being anything other than a failed attempt at womanhood screamed out during intimacy, scaring me away from lust.
The idea of my body being anything other than a failed attempt at womanhood screamed out during intimacy, scaring me away from lust.
One of my happiest times with a boyfriend is also tinged with sadness. He suffered with Hodgekins lymphoma and at the time l was an inpatient on a pediatric ward placed on a feeding program to forcibly gain weight. He was receiving chemotherapy at Birmingham children's hospital and from the edge of life we would peer off each other's fragile ledge, wondering who was more likely to die or survive. His nurses warmly tended to his drips and drug lines while mine watched me with hostility, pushing me aggressively in my wheelchair in between clinical investigations and feeds. I felt their resentment at my inability to eat.
The doctors told my father I had anorexia nervosa and he wept. I had never seen him cry before and suddenly for the first time in months, I felt a flash of sunshine on my skin. Love. The relief was incredible. From that moment forward I would struggle and cope, eat and starve, but I survived. Stumbling again aged 17, I lost faith in my strength to participate in life. Now l was admitted to an adult psychiatric addictions unit. Cohabiting with drug addicts, alcoholics and older anorexics, we would convene six times a day for meals in the small dinner room. The table of addicts next to us would watch on in complete confusion wolfing down the high calorie feasts, before attempting to break out of the locked ward to rob the local corner shop for that one last bottle of vodka. We all wanted to find that non-existent escape button to mute the violent voice inside begging us to self destruct.
Anorexia nervosa is horrific illness. Precipitated by trauma in my younger life and an absent mother, my life long journey to make sense of what happened, how I lost my mind and inflicted such damage willingly, upon my young body still scares me. Age 14 I was diagnosed with osteopenia, hypoglycemia, depression, and severe malnourishment, all a result of my anorexia nervosa. All over the world people are struggling to stay alive right now, plagued by the same putrid voice that possessed me once.
The old fashioned attitude, which was demonstrated by Joan Bakewell recently, supporting the very dated and limited opinion that eating disorders are a modern symptom of being spoiled is not only regressive, but incredibly dangerous.
Anorexia nervosa is an incredibly sad affliction that is deserving of empathy and kindness. In my darkest hours, when l was alone, left with no one but my loyal daddy, I was quite literally dying for understanding. The world terrified me and I just desired safety and acceptance. This was a sentiment reflected by those other women who sat by my side in therapy, weeping and rocking, unable to find familiarity and friendship from the family and friends who deserted them.
The old fashioned attitude, which was demonstrated by Joan Bakewell recently, supporting the very dated and limited opinion that eating disorders are a modern symptom of being spoiled is not only regressive, but incredibly dangerous. History reports the deaths of many brilliant people who gave up their lives, to capitulate to the destructive punishments anorexia dictates. Forcing a starving person to eat may delay the immediate health issues threatening their mortality but the more holistic approach to just offering kindness, time, and compassion could be revolutionary to a sufferer. Those ill and scared few walking amongst us require access to help when they are able to accept a life line. Their dark, commanding anorexic voice quietens only very occasionally to allow the real person starving underneath to emerge. My father was my rock and savior. Without his patience and stability, I would not have had a chance of surviving anorexia.
We are all on journey, we will all experience the dark clouds and feel the sunshine. Mental health problems are a natural and very normal occurrence in every one's lives. Just as winter brings flu, sadness can bring dysfunction, and insecurity can breed an eating disorder. Let's make each other feel safe by understanding that our outer shell, the body, is vehicle for life and not death.
This week, Mental Health Awareness Week takes place in the UK, in an effort to increase the conversation around the much neglected subject. To coincide, all week i-D.co will share voices from the fashion industry and beyond, discussing their thoughts, feelings and experiences of suffering from mental health issues.
To anyone looking for support, Samaritans, Mind, and Rethink Mental Illness all offer helplines and advice to those in need. Mind and beat offer support and advice for those worried about eating problems.
Text Milly Mcmahon
Image via Kathryn Swayze / Stocksy
- mental health foundation