Some posts take a few hours to write and then I hit publish with ease. Others take weeks and every time I go to push the button I just freeze. This is one of those posts.
I’m a recovering anorexic.
[: Open discussion of eating disorders and disordered thinking and behaviour.]
I don’t know if it’s true to say that. I don’t consider myself a “current” anorexic, but that’s part of the disease. It’s very good at twisting your mind into convincing you there’s nothing wrong, that how you’re thinking and behaving is normal, that you’re in control and well. Especially when you’re very much not.
I don’t know if it’s ok to use the word “recovery” in this context; I’ve seen it used to describe getting through addictions or other mental illnesses. Nothing else seems to quite fit the limbic place of knowing you’re unwell and trying to change – but not yet winning.
I’ve been afraid to write about this for so many reasons. I’ve been what I considered to be ‘mostly honest’ with my therapist about my illness; and I knew she was seeing through me. In February this year things started to get worse. I skipped more meals than I ate, and by May, I stopped eating dinner altogether. By then, I couldn’t really hide the behaviour from my flatmate anymore, and it was more out of worry about the impact on the people around me, than belief I had a problem, that made me be honest in therapy. That was when my therapist told me my thinking and behaviour was disordered and unsustainable. That I needed to face it and change. She didn’t tell me what would happen if I didn’t. I already knew.
I came home, walked into my room, slid down the wall to the floor and started to cry. Silent, painful sobbing into my hands. I’d had years of perfecting the lies I told myself and other people, to convince myself way I think and behave around food was normal and healthy.
It wasn’t. It isn’t. And facing those lies is part of my recovery.
I’ve had a recurring nightmare about being honest. In it, every single person says “Sarah, you can’t have anorexia. You’re too fat.”
Then I had a dream about telling my therapist. I told her that people said I was too fat to have anorexia, and she just stared at me. And I went; oh. Because thinking you’re too fat is a symptom of anorexia, regardless of your weight. And thinking being fat is a bad thing is, too.
While I was researching the links between productivity and self-worth for this series, I started unraveling how my brain thinks about eating and self-worth. And once I pulled that thread, the ball just kept unwinding.
I’ve had issues with my appearance and weight for literally as long as I can remember. I have a vivid memory of being told I was too fat to be friends with – at age seven. I used to read Garfield comics as a kid and feel upset because I identified with him when John told him he was too fat. I internalised early on, as many girls do, the belief that being fat was something to be ashamed of.
By my early twenties I had learned many different ways of lying to myself and other people, and the most profound falsehood I both fell for and peddled was this: food is a reward. You go the gym – to “earn” that piece of cake. You walk home from work to “earn” dinner. You eat salads for a week to “earn” a meal out on the weekend. It’s the Weightwatchers way of life, literally. Everything has points, and if you’re on the wrong end of the scale, you’re out.
I was 25 when I got a stomach infection in Indonesia. When I came home, I went to bed for a week, and then I bounced back. Sort of.
Over the coming months I realised there were foods I couldn’t eat anymore because I either got violent cramps or vomited. I tired easily and I lost interest in food, because I could never trust it. My relationship with eating became even more tangled.
After six months of systematically whittling what I could eat to almost nothing, and the last few weeks of that mostly in bed, I was hospitalised in March 2013.
I didn’t realise how much weight I’d lost until I wheeled my drip into the bathroom and caught sight of myself in the full-length mirror (why? Why does anyone need this in a hospital bathroom??). I saw this emaciated person with sallow skin and dark circles round her eyes and thought; ‘Who the fuck is that?’
I looked so frail, and I was. It exhausted me to get back to the bed. I sat on the edge and looked down at my thighs, and I burst into tears. All I could see was bones. I didn’t have a thigh gap. I had a canyon.
Once I left hospital, I received a raft of contradictory advice about what I could and should eat, from hospital dietitians to well-meaning friends to expensive pseudoscientists, creating a very long list of things I should avoid. Things I’d always considered healthy were suddenly off-limits. Add it all together and not much was left.
Over the next few years I got my diagnosis of Ankylosing Spondylitis, my weight fluctuated due to medications and mental health, and the lie gained strength in my head. That I was fine, and the way I thought about food and eating was fine and under my control.
As I mentioned earlier, things got to the point where I couldn’t maintain that lie anymore, to myself, or to the people around me. I realised that part of recovery, for me, is being open about this illness and all the contributing factors. Sharing is vulnerable and powerful, and, like everything I experience and write about, this is political. Fighting the illness and being open about it is a feminist act.
<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>I'm terrified of talking about this. I feel like someone is going to see me eat & be like "I thought you had an eating disorder? Guess that was all for attention huh." There is a lot of internalised misogyny in my head around this.</p>— Sarah Lin Wilson (@_writehanded_) <a href=”https://twitter.com/_writehanded_/status/1037158553310523392?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>September 5, 2018</a></blockquote>
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There’s a lot in that twitter thread. It wasn’t exactly well thought-out, because I hadn’t planned on saying anything. But the moment happened and I just started thinking out loud.
Anorexia disproportionately affects women, because while everyone is subject to anti-fat propaganda, women have their worth and identities linked to the size of their waists since the moment they can hold a Barbie doll.
Anorexia is unique in that you have to face it multiple times a day. Western society is structured around breakfast, lunch and dinner, so even if you weren’t having the thoughts in your head or being bombarded with food or weight-related media, you still have to face the demon over and over. It hasn’t got easier, for me. And it’s much, much harder when there’s other people involved. “What do you want for dinner?” is a nightmare question for me.
That’s the other gotcha – food is social. Nearly every social interaction we engage in or event we attend has a food element – coffee dates, meals out, wine and cheese at the office, birthdays, weddings. Food, everywhere. And even if none is around, it’s still a normal topic of conversation.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, obviously. I’m just saying that it can create a lot of internal trouble even when others are not aware of it.
I am lucky that I already have a support system in place, so I know, even when I’m really struggling, that I’m going to get through this. And a couple of things I learned during while researching productivity and self-worth have really helped.
The first of is the idea of body neutrality. This is exactly what it sounds like. Teaching yourself to feel neutral about your body. It’s a body, it does things. It’s my body, I don’t hate it, I don’t love it, it’s just there. This is extremely useful for me because body positivity is not attainable right now.
Secondly, as I touched on above – food is not a reward I have to earn. Food has no inherent value other than nutritional. It’s just fuel that my body needs to survive. I’m not suggesting everyone has to think like this, but for me, right now, it’s very useful.
Ok. I think that’s kind of all I can say right now. I feel a bit sick at hitting the publish button, but it’s time. It’s taken weeks, and it’s time.
This illness will not win anymore.