It’s about 6 weeks since my lovely boyfriend wrote about his experiences of having a partner with an eating disorder – go have a read (https://pharmacocellist.wordpress.com/2015/02/03/one-more-piece/).It was a brilliant piece that brought me to tears. It made us talk. I gave him some heavy words and we shared the weight.
I’ve never uttered the words “I have an eating disorder” before. I’ve never made it personal. I’ve never even talked to my family about it.
Looking back, it all started at age 8. My family fell apart pretty drastically. I’ll spare the details but there was plenty going on above my head, and I was the middle ground: local education authority, social workers, police, counsellors, child therapists. I don’t really remember many of them; the counsellor would watch me draw and play and asked questions I didn’t want to answer: I had no way of getting out of the situation. I felt trapped in the room and, ultimately, in my head.
From then, I had a constant growling anxiety; a gnawing stomach pain and a golf ball stuck in my throat. I stopped eating because a rumbling empty stomach was more familiar and comfortable than a full one. To an extent, the same happens now. I don’t rocket from extremes, they just collide in the same space and, instead of dealing with the cause, I grapple with which symptom to hit first.
Chicken strips, chips and peas – it was getting cold on my lap.
“If you don’t eat, we’ll take you to the hospital and they’ll shove a tube down your throat to feed you”.
It didn’t make me eat; it made me gag and cry. I feared meal times – if I didn’t eat they will get fed up and take me to hospital. My stomach flipped again.
A few weeks later, my mum went away on business. I begged her not to go. Chasing her car down the street, tears blurred my view of her driving off. I kept running, following her route and eventually tired; I sat on the warm pavement hoping she had forgotten something. I sat for three hours, waiting. Evening drew in and I walked back home to the last thing mum had brought home that day – a KitKat – and nibbled that over the four days until she came home.
Puberty came and went and I ate my mum out of house and home. There were a few years of relatively normal eating: it was wonderful. Then, at 16, it all slipped back again. With a BMI of 15.58, I presented to my GP in tears, ashamed and scared of my skeletal frame, drowning in hoodies and children’s jeans. Another 3lbs lost and he would look at sectioning me, he said. Shortly after my 18th birthday I took myself off to an adult psychiatric unit, though that didn’t last for more than a few days. My parents thought I was away working, my Aunt covered for me.
Over the years, layers build up; they weigh down and cement on top of one another. You can look at the facets, measure the dimensions; calculate a plan. Take one dimension, like edging up the food intake, and take it day by day. Simple, right? Simple, except eating disorders never follow a linear pattern. I’d panic and come crashing down in to starvation and repeat ad infinitum. It was all about controlling feelings.
Towards the end of my degree, it came flooding back once again; except this time the anxiety behind it had ramped up dramatically and brought with it new fears. This time I wasn’t just scared of the feeling of food in my stomach, I was afraid of contamination of food, in case it made that feeling worse. For four years now I’ve struggled with eating food (or cutlery) that has been touched – even by my own hands. I scrub and bleach and alcohol gel incessantly. It is still about control.
I’m all too aware of how it affects my relationship. Sometimes it’s frank and tearful discussions, sometimes it’s the elephant in the room. It’s a secretive illness; you’d do anything to deny that it’s back; anything not to upset the person you love the most. I see how upset he gets: he withdraws as his frustration mounts and a helpless look crosses his face. He thinks there’s nothing he can do. His presence is enough, in fact it’s exactly what’s needed. But sometimes there’s silence, as neither of us know what to say to help.
It’s easy to know when you’ve lost something. Keys, phone, wallet; you pat down your pockets and they’re not where you put them. Knowing you’ve lost yourself isn’t as clear. You don’t pat down your pockets to check you’re still there.
You just wake up and realise you’re not you; in fact, you don’t remember when you last were you. It must have crept up, a gradual erosion.
I reached my nadir almost 5 years ago and ‘recovery’ is long. Though it feels cliché to say it, it’s an every day fight of your rational brain. I’m not sure what recovery is or whether I’ll reach it, but I’ll never let it get back to where it was.
I must add that everything changed when I first met my partner (on Twitter, in case you didn’t know); it wasn’t some miraculous turnaround, but I found someone who didn’t ask ‘why’, just ‘how can I help’. I started to feel more like me again; I laughed a lot, and I talked about it openly. He does gentle nudges, hugs and no pressure. We get through it. We always do.
I have an eating disorder, I live with it and I’m somewhere in the middle ground. Sometimes you just take stock, figure out what you have learnt and carry on.