I will never forget the first time I read the NHS webpage on anorexia nervosa. I did so at a time when I was only beginning to come to terms with my illness and it was one of a few definitive moments on my road to recovery: I felt a change in my mentality then and there.
I can remember a bullet-pointed list that subconsciously became a checklist. Sufferers ‘Give excuses about why they are not eating’: check; ‘find it difficult to think about anything other than food’: check; ‘spend lots of time reading cookery books and recipes’: I vividly recall turning round in my swivel chair to glance at a pile of six recipe books – that week’s bedtime reading – sitting next to my alarm clock.
I wrote last week about the importance of recognising habits as symptoms. It was that moment when I realised something was really, actually wrong with me. Before then I’d used my obsession with food to reason with myself. Surely, I thought, I can’t have an eating disorder. People with eating disorders hate food. Don’t they?
Well, no. People with eating disorders are fixated on food. Sufferers still get hungry, may count down the minutes to the next meal, and often adore baking. I went through a phase of perfecting a different cake every week. I laboured over its aesthetic qualities, took it into sixth form, and was then told by others that it tasted great. I became known as the girl who always had cake, which was a brilliant disguise, though I didn’t realise it at the time.
Defence Mechanism? Image Credit: Tim Regan
Needless to say, I rarely took a bite from this constant stream of puddings. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy eating, or didn’t love the flavours – it’s what came after. The horrible guilt, the purely psychological bloated feeling, the fury with myself: these feelings very occasionally occur now, and when they do I cannot describe strongly enough how much they terrify me.
There are also still times when I find myself looking forward to the next meal, bargaining with myself, denying myself a pudding because the previous day I had double helpings at brunch. But for the most part, my fixation with food is now positive: it’s developed into a healthy love of mealtimes, and I couldn’t be more relieved.
Finally I’d just like to emphasise that this column is entirely inspired by and concerned with personal experience. I’m sure I have made and will make horrible generalisations and ridiculously sweeping statements, and for that I’m sorry. But for ten people I offend, if there’s one reader who is ecstatic to find their own personal experience reflected in these words on a screen – as I was when reading the NHS webpage – then I’ll view my column as a success.