I never expected to have to face my eating disorder again. I thought it was something I’d left buried in my childhood, something I looked back on and wondered why I ever did such a destructive thing to myself. It was after a bout of severe anxiety, depression and dissociation that my relapse began at age 17. I had spent months battling suicidal thoughts which eventually lead to a suicide attempt (which I thankfully didn’t suffer any major repercussions from) and a feeling of being completely detached from my body and surroundings. I felt as though someone was experiencing my emotions for me so that I could take a back seat. It was easier to cope from a distance. I believe that my eating disorder relapse was, in part, a manifestation of this disconnection. I also believe that it was a way to cope with my learning difficulties and ADHD which hadn’t been diagnosed at the time. Eating disorders are complex and multifaceted. They have many causes and factors that perpetuate them.
My mental health had become so dire around the time that I relapsed that I knew I wouldn’t be able to take my A-Levels, and that was unacceptable to me. Anything below perfection was unacceptable. I had asked for mental health support for two years but was passed from waiting list to waiting list. I felt lost, helpless and incompetent as I had no where to turn without being able to take my A-Levels. I had lost control. It was in this moment that I first heard the eating disorder voice again from all those years ago. It felt like the answer, but I knew what was happening to me and I was scared. I didn’t want to die but I knew I couldn’t live, not with the amount of pain I was in.
So I decided to lose a few pounds. I knew what was happening to me but I needed that sense of relief and control. I went from wanting to lose a few pounds to weighing myself six times per day and eating a dangerously low amount of calories. And the truth is, it worked. Weight loss became my sole focus and everything else went away. I successfully supressed all my pain, but I was an empty vessel. I was consumed by fear and shame, too scared to even exist. I would lose weight, it wouldn’t be enough and I’d continue to push my feelings further down by restricting more and engaging in more behaviours. My life felt like a balancing act. I told myself I would stop when I reached a certain weight. Maybe I even believed it. But there is no ‘thin enough’ when you have an eating disorder. You never feel valid. My hair fell out, my periods stopped, my nails turned blue and I started having heart palpitations. I equated weight loss with success and weight gain with failure. I wanted to disappear into thin air like a magic trick.
Six months into my relapse, I’d lost a lot of weight. My appearance wasn’t at all shocking, but my physical health was at risk and I was mediating between life and death. One of the most prominent memories was when my Dad came back from parents evening at college and said if I didn’t get 100% attendance for the next two weeks I’d be kicked out. I thought my attendance was around 70% and was completely shocked to find out that it was only 20%. I felt like I’d lost everything; my education, health, friends and relationship with my parents. In that moment I clearly saw two paths in front of me, the path where I’d fight against my eating disorder and the path where I’d give up and become truly enslaved. My eating disorder was never a choice, but I knew that I had to choose whether I’d fight to recover. So I made the scariest decision of my life. It was not as simple as just eating. Recovery required reforming my entire perspective and belief system and facing every fear I had about life at once. It was removing my safety blanket and diving headfirst into chaos. It was then that I realised that the safety blanket wasn’t protecting me, it was suffocating me. The hardest part was knowing that I wouldn’t be able to continue to lose weight so that I would eventually be able to receive a diagnosis of anorexia. I wanted that to feel valid. I wanted it to feel ‘thin enough’. I wanted to get back to the dangerous weight I was at 13, without accounting for the fact that I was older and taller. Coming out of denial and realising how behind I was at college was hard. I taught myself two years worth of A-Level content in two months and refed myself, challenging my mind and that screaming voice every day. There were times where I felt I wasn’t in control anymore no matter how much I wanted to get better.
This is a diary entry I wrote four months into the relapse:
“I’ve reached a new low that I didn’t even think was possible. I have no idea why I’ve relapsed into my eating disorder, I didn’t expect it for a second. I’ve come up with many theories but the truth is I don’t know. The ‘honeymoon period’ has passed. I no longer feel strong or disciplined. I no longer feel as though I have a purpose and am achieving something by losing weight. My existence is heavy. I have lost my identity to this illness, I have no idea who I am. I feel blank and detached. My future now seems hazy, I don’t want what I wanted before. I don’t know if I want anything at all. This illness devalues me to the extent that I want to take up as little space as possible, to the point where I could disappear. I am unseen. And I’ve realised now that that isn’t a good thing.”
My A-Level grades were quite good considering the circumstances. I cried and cried when I opened the letter as they were so much better than I expected and I actually have a chance of getting into a good university. I have taken some time out to recover properly and I hope to go to university next year. I eventually want to become a psychologist.
I’ve forgiven my eating disorder for what it has put me though. I understand it’s place in helping me cope, but it’s time for me to move on now. I still struggle every day, even in a healthy body, but I am getting there and I have so much more understanding. I wish I had understood that I would never feel ready to recover. You just have to be brave enough to face it. I also wish I had understood that it is okay to feel. Sensitivity and vulnerability are powerful. You don’t have to be the strong person all the time. Starving doesn’t make you immune to pain, it just suppresses it. It means you miss out on parts of life everyone else gets to enjoy. This illness will either stay with you for the rest of your life or it will kill you. The only choice, at some point, is recovery. It is so difficult at first but it gets easier with time. The more you fight your eating disorder, the weaker it gets.
Fears of how others may perceive my weight gain stunted my recovery. The likelihood is that no one will judge you for gaining weight. The people who care about you just want you to be well. Comments about how healthy you look will be triggering, but you have to keep going. Realise that those people aren’t trying to harm you, they just don’t understand. They don’t understand how difficult it is to fight an illness that is built on a foundation of shame, fear and feelings of inadequacy and how interlinked it is with other illnesses like anxiety and depression. But it is also important to be honest with the people closest to you when you are struggling.
The process takes time. I relapsed more than once, feeling that I shouldn’t recover until I’d been ‘thin enough’, but I am constantly challenging that voice and I am getting there. Recovery may be the hardest thing you ever do, but it is worth it. I have learnt to see my eating disorder as my enemy rather than my friend. It’s like being in an abusive relationship.
You think the other person is trying to help you, that they love you, but the truth is they’re only controlling you and making your life miserable. Leaving is hard but it is necessary. I learnt to get angry at my eating disorder. Getting angry at the thing that has set out to destroy you is another way of saying you’re worthy. Don’t delay your recovery until you’ve ‘hit a low enough weight’ or ‘feel ready to recover’ because neither of those things will happen. Your eating disorder thoughts are not rational. And the consequences of engaging with it could be catastrophic. You get a glimpse of how much trouble you’re in when you consider recovery and feel the fear and resistance rise inside you. Delaying recovery only further engrains thoughts, habits and behaviours that will make it much more difficult to recover in the long term.
I believe that I will make a full recovery from my eating disorder, but I will probably have to constantly evaluate my reaction to social media and diet culture for life. I am working towards believing that every person’s worth is independent of their weight. And one of the ways I am removing my shame is by sharing my experiences. I have gained so much strength and wisdom that will arm me for everything I will have to face in the future. I have learnt to appreciate my life despite my difficulties. And I have certainly realised my courage and strength. Maybe to experience the highest of highs, we must experience the lowest of lows. Maybe overcoming our suffering is what gives life meaning.
By Charlotte McGregor