When people think of anorexia they think of concentration-camp figures with skin stretched tight over protruding bones, people with heads too heavy for their reedy frames. Anorexia’s striking physicality steals the show and few realize it’s a disease that also consumes the mind.
Growing up I had what’s known as an athletic build. A child of the outdoors, I lived for dog walking and horse-riding but by age seventeen I disliked my strength and solidity, yearning for willowy grace instead. It seemed to me fragility evoked gentleness and protection in people and boy could I have used some of that!
Somewhere along the way, what started as a desire to lose weight became an intoxicating feeling of control I was unwilling to surrender. A lot had happened to make me feel helpless – parental abuse, divorce, homelessness, depression, self-harm, a salacious step-father, work-place sexual harassment; they all took their toll. Combined with my high-achieving personality, they formed a recipe for obsessive and controlling behaviour, not towards others or in any obvious way, but with my environment and myself. I vacuumed my tiny bedroom almost daily and limited my intake of food.
I grew adept at evading eating, addicted to the sense of achievement and secret pride it gave me. I passed food to the dog when no-one was looking, declined whenever possible, surreptitiously spat mouthfuls into tissues or just rearranged the contents of my plate to make it look as though I’d eaten. When serving myself I placed food so that it covered maximum surface area and looked more than it was.
As the weight dropped off my sense of identity became fused with my clandestine purpose. Christmas came and went and I congratulated myself on having lost weight over the festive season. But the rigid grip of compulsion was tightening. I started to exercise in my room at night before sleeping. I couldn’t stand the thought of any leftover calories melting into my body to become fat.
Every evening and morning, before sleeping and upon waking, my fingertips would find my protruding hip bones and stroke the concave curve of my empty belly lovingly. I welcomed the comforting pangs of hunger – confirmation I was succeeding. As time passed I felt them less and less but thought about food more and more.
I bought a thick doorstep of a book that listed the calories in every food known to man so I could never be knowingly overfed, and I always rounded up my calculations so I had a margin for error. The daily limit I allowed myself was one thousand calories. I’d read somewhere that was close to the figure calculated by the Nazis as the minimum requirement to keep concentration-camp prisoners alive.
After dinner I cycled for miles to burn my meagre meal off. If something prevented me, I was consumed by an inescapable panic, imagining the food sitting like a lead lump in my stomach. Slowly, the voiceless torturer that is Anorexia Nervosa engulfed my mind.
The sole inhabitant of my private world, I marvelled at my self-control and iron will and despised those ruled by their gluttonous appetites. Food was the Enemy. Anorexics are notorious for their arrogance; I felt superior, supercilious, but I kept my secret close to my heart. I hadn’t yet realized that I wasn’t the one in control – my behaviour controlled me. I was constantly at war with myself; the last remaining rational part of me said eating was normal and necessary, but the authoritative voice of my illness argued I was one of the few who could see humanity’s greed for what it was – that we actually needed a lot less to survive. Everyone was part of the mass conspiracy of the food industry. No one could be trusted.
By now my jeans and jumpers hung on me like laundry on a clotheshorse. When winter rolled around again I wore in excess of seven layers and took hot baths to stay warm. Like most anorexics, I was obsessive about tracking my progress, weighing myself daily (often more than once), recording the data in graph form and always, ALWAYS searching for the compass-points of those hip bones in the dark, to be sure I was still moving in the right direction. They were the landmarks of success on my solo expedition.
Two years after I’d naively taken this path, my quest for control meant the stakes were constantly raised. As my body adapted to a lower food intake, I had to work harder to keep losing weight. Any increase on the scales led to tears and anguish: a self-loathing and revulsion so powerful that I couldn’t leave the house. I felt as if my disgusting gluttony, my shameful greed was visible for the entire world to see. You cannot imagine the depths of my self-hate. I couldn’t face college. I couldn’t bear my friends seeing me.
In truth, I had lost almost a third of my body-weight, going from 144lbs to just 100. My goal was 90lbs. Standing at just under five foot eight, I was already skeletal.
My periods became intermittent and my starvation diet of a piece of fruit for breakfast and a tuna or ham salad for dinner was no longer enough to effect weight loss. But, just as a master craftsman isn’t content with knowing only the basics of his trade, I had acquired other tricks.
The panic after allowing myself a donut led me to use laxatives to rid my system of the calorie-laden blip in self-control. I rejoiced in the latest weapon in my arsenal; I could now occasionally give in to my desires. I experimented with different brands and studied the active ingredients to find the ones that were most effective for me, but over time, my body became immune to the drugs and I had to ingest larger and larger amounts to get the desired effect. Eventually I was forcing down twelve to fifteen of the little red pills at a time (the recommended dose was 1-2). The abdominal cramps they brought the following day I saw as punishment for my greed.
Looking back, I have no idea how I withstood the things I did to myself. Like a mad scientist I conducted experiments, constantly pushing my boundaries. I remember not eating for three whole days, surviving entirely on black coffee and cigarettes. And throughout all this I continued my studies. I do remember once, leaving the college smoking room to re-enter the cafeteria and feeling dizzy. A ringing sound filled my ears then receded and the chatter of diners sounded tinny and distant, as though heard over a badly tuned radio. I think I came close to fainting.
Some people believe anorexics are “starving for attention”, but that wasn’t true in my case. I was striving for invisibility. I wanted to occupy as little space as possible in this world.
One thing that’s indisputable is anorexics are stubborn and I was no different, but one evening, through a sudden break in the clouds of my body-dysmorphia, my boyfriend succeeded in showing me how terrible I looked. As he stood behind me, holding my arms out so I could see my naked skeletal frame in the bathroom mirror, for a minute I could see what he saw – just a moment. And that’s when I finally agreed to end my fade-out to vanishing point and take my first faltering steps on a barely discernible path to recovery. I weighed 91lbs but the burden of anorexia was incalculable.