I promise not all my columns are going to share the name of a Disney song from now on, although Mulan’s lament of, “When will my reflection show who I am inside?” does seem rather apt for this week’s subject.
In many of Shakespeare’s plays, there’s an almost tangible tension between the external appearance of characters, and their internal sensations. It’s something I really identify with. When I was depressed, nobody noticed. My family saw that I was more withdrawn, but they just thought I was working harder; my friends realised I was occasionally quieter than usual, but they assumed it was tiredness.
And I don’t blame them at all. Just as Liz Fraser discussed in her guest column, I was exceptionally good at pretending to be completely fine. I spent lessons bantering with teachers and lunchtimes loudly cracking jokes, but underneath it all I was cripplingly lacking in confidence.
A place of refuge. Credit: KTH Biblioteket
So sometimes I would just disappear, burying myself in the library, taking refuge in my next piece of homework. My academic ability was one of few sources of self-assurance, so my relationship with work became unhealthy. I would emerge when the bell went for afternoon classes, grinning and complaining about the fact that our latest essay had kept me from socialising, when really I was painfully anxious about facing the world again.
The only thing worse than facing the world was facing myself. It’s not uncommon for those suffering from eating disorders to spend ages staring at themselves in the mirror, prodding and poking, sucking in, applying make-up. Anything to combat the discrepancy between the image in the glass and the image in their heads. It’s the opposite of vanity.
But the image in the glass is manipulated by mental illness: I saw flab where there was none; spent hours critiquing the size of my thigh gap. I became obsessed with the extent to which my collarbones protruded, and the dimple on my cheek that shows I’m getting skinny.
Those suffering from eating disorders may obsess over the visibility of their bones. Credit: David Goehring
Occasionally I got comments. Friends I hadn’t seen for a while would frown smilingly or smile frowningly and tell me, half seriously, half flippantly, that I’d lost weight. Those moments made me glow.
Fortunately, I never became skeletal. This is partly because I’m just not built like that, and partly because my anorexia manifested itself mainly in excessive exercise, meaning I still ate three – small – meals a day. And, most importantly, I caught it in time.
I caught it because I faced myself, reluctantly and fearfully, but definitely. I was forced to admit that something was wrong with me, and that I wasn’t as in control as I’d thought. Of course, it isn’t as easy as that, and I was lucky with support in the right places and relatively mild symptoms, but it was transformative for me.
I’ll never be the most secure person in the world – I still hate looking in the mirror – but I try never to bottle it up. I’m incredibly fortunate to have friends who put up with me whinging about the size of my thighs and my self-perceived unattractiveness with admirable, and utterly fantastic patience. Their often exasperated, usually affectionate, and invariably sensible responses help me to do the thing that has helped me more than anything else in my recovery: reflect on myself.
That is why, to dredge up an old cliché, honesty is always the best policy when it comes to mental illness. Independence is important, but with the help of other people, it’s much easier to help yourself.