I recall a school friend of mine once put the doughnuts I was eating in a bin then covered it with washing up liquid to ensure I didn’t eat any more. We both agreed that this was abnormal behaviour but subsequently I know I have done similar on several occasions.
I have never been officially diagnosed as having a disorder but at some point, in my early teens food was an overwhelming focus in my life, affecting my relationships, social life and mental health. This has left me both without external recognition of the ‘recovery’ I have made from my disordered thoughts around food and the worry of whether my behaviour is more commonplace than I suspect.
Sharing this story is motivated by finally acknowledging at twenty-two my own complicated relationship with food in the most open way I feel I can. However, it’s also in the hope that my own experiences may resonate with others so they can see that eating and living like this is something that needs to be recognised, acknowledged and addressed.
My continuous diet.
From what I can remember, I had a healthy relationship with food as a young child. I was encouraged by my family to enjoy three meals a day with lots of fruit and vegetables. As a result, I pretty much ate whatever I wanted throughout my childhood and don’t remember caring about food or my weight on any consuming level.
I was not popular at school between the ages of 12 and 13, but not about my weight. However, I do wonder if it is relevant to the diet I began at 13. I assumed that the school friends or lack of had no serious psychological impact on me although it was one of the most stressful periods of my childhood when I felt utterly helpless. Despite believing I was not someone who needed control in my life, this diet was the first sign of the huge amount of self-discipline I could exert over my food intake.
The diet was easy and just involved cutting down on calories, not snacking and watching the weight melt away. It wasn’t as if I woke up one day with a sudden obsession with food. What happened was more like a slow, steady process of change where the seeming simplicity of that first diet was lost and I fell into a worsening relationship with food like Alice falling into Wonderland.
In all other areas of my life, I was a relaxed person who had a reputation for being a swot and so I believed I simply didn’t fit the stereotype of someone who might have developed a disorder.
I didn’t do anything particularly disordered at first. I didn’t exercise to excess, I didn’t punish myself if I ate anything calorific, I didn’t restrict my intake of food if I thought I’d gone over my calorie limit, I didn’t let my hands search out ribs in the shower. As the summer of my final year in high school came, I even loosened my diet to be less restrictive and enjoyed a relaxed summer with family and food.
At some point during college, my habits became more intense. Whenever I wanted to lose weight faster I would simply skip meals. I began reading message boards for people with eating disorders, partly so I could gain tips for restricting my own calorie intake and partly for a paradoxical reassurance that I didn’t have a disorder myself.
There was lots of discussion on these boards about a phenomenon called ‘fake anorexia’ (there was some catchy name for this idea, but I can’t remember it now) and how these ‘fakers’ did not understand the real struggle of ‘true’ anorexics. I felt perhaps they were right in labelling my disordered eating patterns as something ‘fake’: I could switch very quickly from a few days of skipping meals back to eating regularly, in comparison to the life of permanent starvation I imagined for someone with a ‘real’ eating disorder.
The buzz of controlling my weight was hugely enthralling and filled me with euphoria like nothing else did. In the TV show Skins, the character Cassie, a recovering anorexic, tells her teacher that not eating was the “happiest time of her life” and this line still lights up my brain with utter recognition.
At college, I had dropped to a low weight and my periods where effected, as they had from about the age 15 onwards. I was also working far too hard and sleeping for around four hours a night before returning to the library to continue the cycle of working, going to the gym and not eating. I would look at myself in the mirror with a mixture of glee and horror. I was fascinated by how much I had managed to distort and adapt my own body.
Being thin was so tied up with my idea of who I was as a young adult.
By the time, I returned home my parents were impressed by my eagerness to get up early and go job-hunting but I only remember that summer as a blur of buzzing about, feeling physically incapable of sitting down and avoiding eating or drinking at all social events. I’d begun to see alcohol as another enemy and took to pouring my drinks down club sinks to avoid the calories.
Back living with my parents, it was more difficult to maintain my restrictive diet. I gained back weight I had lost and then some. Looking back at pictures of this time are particularly painful and I feel almost no connection with this person who, in my mind, looks like a blown-up version of myself.
I somehow now seem to have reached a strange middle ground. I am a healthy weight for my height. I can look at photos of myself without grimacing at the roundness of my cheeks or feeling secretly smug at how my collar bones pop out of my shirt. I am now, seemingly, incapable of skipping meals like I did and binging has finally lost any appeal (how? I don’t know).
I am not happy with my body but I am not desperately miserable. Do I long for the days I could get a thrill from realising I’d not eaten for nearly 24 hours? Where I could resist chocolate with ease? Where I could reassure myself with a quick assessment of slightly protruding ribs or hipbones? Yes, to a degree.
I do not know how I have reached this stage. As I entered adulthood, it seemed silly to turn down wine because of the calories and it seemed ludicrous to skip eating meals most of the week because I would be eating out at the weekend. I feel that perhaps my body refuses now to join in the games my mind used to play with it; at last, they are working together and are not enemies.
I know I am lucky to some degree. I am lucky that I managed to ‘recover’ without medical help. But I also feel unlucky that thinking about food and my weight took up such a huge part of my teenage years and I often wonder how many other people have had or are having their own secret battles.