On Anorexia

Anorexia. Been there, done that, bought the size 6 t-shirt. Yawn. Anorexia is totes passé. It’s all about taking pills that give you anal seepage now. Or compulsive zumba. Who are the women who zumba compulsively? How do they hide it from their loved ones? Oh you think your work mate is listening to Lisa Hannigan on that i-Pod, but she’s not – it’s bad generic Rhumba-Salsa-Samba and the minute you leave the office she’ll be swivelling and gyrating as if her pelvis were possessed by the spirit of Ricky Martin. You can spot a compulsive zumba-er by her eating habits too. Are her kitchen presses full of Old El Paco tortilla combi-packs? Does she smell of cheap guacamole? Have you seen her order anything other than Nachos at the pub after work for the last three months? Complusive Zumba! Now there’s an eating disorder a writer can really get her teeth into.

We’ve become a bit used to anorexia: there’ve been documentaries and exposés and confessional articles galore (you’re about to get hit with another one, you lucky dog). The prevalence of anorexia and other forms of disordered eating has been accepted as a sad fact about our society. While it’s an unpopular point to hammer home, body image problems are strongly linked to media, advertising and commodification of the human body. The all party parliamentary report on body image, published last week, states as much. If you’d like something a little more academic-tastic, as some are unhappy about the report’s rigour (I think it’s pretty ace actually, but that’s another article), Grabe et al.’s meta-analysis of 77 existing studies in the field delivers some convincing evidence. 

You get the old anorexia-media link deniers – those who point out that anorexia has been a feature of human societies for a long time, or those who claim that it’s insulting to anorexics to suggest that cause of their illness is so simple. To the former, I say yes – self-starvation has existed throughout the ages, often linked with religious fervour, and the history of anorexia is fascinating. However, the frequency of eating disorders in our society outstrips anything that came before. One in ten. One in freakin ten people! As for the ‘it’s insulting to anorexics to make a link between their illness and the media,’ crowd – bollox. I used to be anorexic, and, while I acknowledge that a multitude of factors lead to my eating disorder, I’m insulted that no-one holds the media to account for what it did to my teenage body and mind, nor for the years of horrible psychological shit that I had to wade through before I got better.

I still find it a little bit difficult to admit that I was anorexic in my teens. Mostly, I think, because it gives people all sorts of strange ideas about me. A significant number of people have linked my eating disorder to my mother’s parenting, which pisses me right off. When in doubt – mother blame! It’s not like I had a male parent or anything. Whassat? Might the fact that I had been bombarded by media images of idealised and idolized thinness all my life have had anything to do with my anorexia? Nah – definitely Mammy’s fault.

Another reason I find anorexia somewhat difficult to talk about, I suppose, is because I feel like a bit of a fake – as though my eating disorder wasn’t serious enough to count. I never ended up in hospital or anything and I was only ever scarily underweight for about a year. Sure, I dieted myself down to six and a half stone, my periods stopped, my hair fell out and my bones cracked, but by the time I was 18 I was back up to a reasonable (if still waifish for me) 8 stone and everyone stopped worrying. 

But weirdly, and I wonder if other ex-anorexics or recovering anorexics have experienced the same thing, the worst part for me was not the bit where I got really skinny. That part was, well, it was good actually. I was pleased with myself for sticking to 1000 calories a day or under (1200 on Sundays – you have to have your treats!). Also, for about the first 6 months or more of compulsive dieting, I got a lot of positive attention and praise for my dramatic weight loss. People made remarks about me losing my puppy fat (although I’d never been fat) and generally reacted admiringly to my shrinking physique. Our thinness obsessed culture made the people around me blind to the fact that a girl of 16 should have been growing into bigger jeans, not squeezing into smaller ones. 

So the weight loss wasn’t the struggle. The worst part of anorexia happened after I regained a healthy weight. It was a cycle of binging and dieting that went on well into my twenties. It was secret psychological distress, only visible when the diet went too far. Food was guilt. My body was something to be disguised by the right clothes. The diet always started on Monday. By Sunday I would have binged spectacularly, the resultant self-disgust necessitating a stricter diet the next day. It was hell. But I never talked about it – I took pains to create the illusion of a healthy, carefree relationship with food. 

Slowly, slowly, with a lot of hard work and frequent relapses, I got better. One weapon anorexics have in their arsenal is willpower. I banned dieting. I actually wrote myself a contract and signed it (what? - that’s normal). It was hard, and I stumbled shitloads of times along the way (but it’s okay – there was a clause in the contract for that). And I got better. Or maybe, because ‘I got better’ is a bit passive, ‘I made myself better,’ would be more precise. 

Before I could make myself better, I needed to want to get better, and this meant two realisations: 1. Even though I was a healthy weight most of the time, my relationship with food and my body constituted an eating disorder; 2. I was never going to achieve the perfect weight and then be able to stop dieting – that was a fiction. If I didn’t stop dieting and accept my body as it was, then I could be stuck in the cycle of binging and crash dieting forever. I could be 30 and still doing this. I could be 40 and still doing this.So I stopped dieting, but I couldn’t stop binging. Binging is a behaviour epitomised by the loss of control. And with binging comes the almost irresistible desire to diet again. But dieting was banned, so if I binged I just had to put on weight and deal with it. This is what I did, in spite of anorexia screaming blue murder in my ear. And I felt disgusting and I didn’t want to leave the house, and I knew that going on a diet would make all these feelings go away, but, somehow, I stuck with the programme.

One day, about a year after the signing of my odd contract, I was brushing my teeth in the little flat I shared with my best bud Dee and I froze – stock still – and realised that I hadn’t binged in about 4 months. After more than a decade of dieting (I went on my first diet when I was 12), I dared to hope that I had broken the cycle. 5 years later, I don’t have to hope anymore. I haven’t dieted in five years, and my body and mind, perhaps aware at some subconscious level that a period of starvation is not on the horizon, no longer compels me to binge eat. The special free gift that I’ve received along with ending anorexic thinking and behaviour is respect and love for my body. See the body I have right now? This is what I look like when I’m happy.

I do have to stay vigilant. Still now, at the grand old age of 28, if I’m going through a difficult or stressful time anorexic thinking will come knocking. But I have strategies to deal with it. Firstly, I have to recognise when it’s happening. I have to never EVER listen to the logical little voice that labels the current diet a ‘detox’ or tells me that this diet will be different. It’s not logic – it’s anorexia. Secondly, if I’m starting to feel guilt about choosing a food, I make myself eat that food. Ergo, if I catch myself thinking ‘ooh I’d like another biscuit, but maybe I shouldn’t,’ then I have to eat another biscuit. You’d think this would mean I end up eating unhealthily – but it doesn’t. It just means that I don’t deny myself anything. Little denials lead to further restrictions, and further restrictions lead to dieting. Maybe it’s a trick that wouldn’t work for everyone, but it works for me.

It’s not always easy. When I was finishing up my doctorate (a period of my life so stressful that I forgot how to breathe without counting), Anorexia often tried to pay me an unwelcome visit.

ANOREXIA: Knock Knock

ME: Who’s There?

ANOREXIA: Anorexia

ME: Fuck Off

ANOREXIA: You’d look better a half stone lighterME: I’m fine the way I am

ANOREXIA: It’s not a diet if you just cut out junk for a while

ME: I’m not cutting out anything

ANOREXIA: It’s not a diet, it’s healthy

ME: It’s not healthy to obsess about food

ANOREXIA: Look, let’s just count up how many calories you consumed today with junk food, then think about how many you would have consumed if you hadn’t had that fruit scone for elevenses

ME: A fruit scone isn’t junk food!

ANOREXIA: Come on Emer, it’s flour, sugar and fat, topped with more fat and sugar. Why don’t you just have a banana at 11 instead?

ME: Hmm, maybe a banana would be more healthy…

ANOREXIA: Yes. Good girl. Now let’s make a plan for what you’re going to eat tomorrow.

ME: Wait! No! I see what’s going on here! You’re a sneaky shit anorexia. You’re only hanging around because I’m a bag of stress. You’re a vicious, opportunistic, ‘kick ‘em when they’re down,’ horrible psychological manifestation. Feck off!

ANOREXIA: Breakfast – bowl of cereal and small glass of orange juice, 350 calories. Snack – banana, 100 calories. Lunch – Sandwich and two pieces of fruit, 550 calories. Dinner – Wholemeal pasta and Salad, 750 calories. Only 1750 calories – that’s quite good isn’t it? You’d lose that extra half a stone quite quickly that way, wouldn’t you? Without the sugary fatty fruit scone? Hmmm? Hmmm? Count with me!

ME: Anorexia, I’m warning you.

ANOREXIA: Why? What are you going to do? Let’s plan what you’re going to eat the day after tomorrow! That’ll be fun. Maybe you could cut out the banana!

ME: I have this packet of trail mix and I know how to use it.

ANOREXIA: No! No! Not trail mix – do you have any idea? Any idea how many…

ME: Om nyom nyom nyom. Now I have eaten ALL the trail mix

ANOREXIA: But the calories! Feel guilty! You must feel guilty. I need you to feel guilty. 

ME: No. I don’t feel guilty. I feel proud of eating what I like and not worrying about my weight.

ANOREXIA: I’m melting! I’m melting. Oh what a world, what a world…

ME: Ace. Anorexia vanquished. 

Sometimes, when I tell people I used to be anorexic, they find it hard to believe that I’m really better. ‘Once an anorexic, always an anorexic,’ an acquaintance once snidely remarked. But that’s bull - it is possible to kick anorexia’s ass. And, in fact, because I understand the dangers of dieting and because I’ve worked so hard to free myself from anorexic thinking, I believe I have a healthier relationship with food and my body than many (perhaps even most) other people I know. Bonus. So to all the lovelies out there still working through this shit, I hope that serves as some sort of encouragement.