I’ve never used the term “eating disorder”. For me, that conjures up images of skeletal girls and boys, being hospitalized or placed under care, people who don’t eat a crumb. If I’m being courageous, I’ll call it “disordered eating”. When I don’t want to call attention to it, when I try and kid myself that there was, and is, nothing serious going on, I call it “a phase”.
But whatever you call it, it is still the same thing. It is a mental disorder which has affected me, in greater or lesser extents depending on the month or year, since I was 15. Although the main problems occurred in those first two years, I can’t say I’ve ever fully recovered from the issues, from the voices, from the feelings that it invokes in me.
That’s the thing with mental illness, you can’t hide from it. You need to face it head on, accept it, change it. But, never hide. It will find you, even if you think you’ve escaped it. It will rear its ugly head in disguises you think are helping you, in places you would never have imagined.
My story, like all of those clichéd teen dramas, starts with a boy. When I was 15, a winter holiday romance which never went anywhere left me was hurt and very confused. Why had he not wanted to talk to me again? (Like any 15-year-old, I was bitterly naïve)
I found what I thought was my reason when my sister tagged me in photos from Christmas Eve. During the previous year, I had started to grow and change, and I still wasn’t used to not being the long-legged little girl I used to be. What I saw back then was that I was fat, that I was bulgy, that I was wild-eyed and red-faced.
No matter that I had just eaten a 5-course dinner. No matter that I was wearing one of the least flattering dresses known to man. No matter that it was one of the first times I had drunk a lot and we were in a sweaty underground club, having danced all night. I didn’t consider those factors.
Instead, I saw myself as someone who needed to change, something that was underlined to me when I stepped on the scale in the New Year. I decided that New Year meant a New Me, and that I was going to go on my first diet, teaching myself about calories in vs. calories out, about the role of exercise in burning calories, and anything else I could pick up on the internet.
Diets are not inherently wrong. Neither is wanting to lose weight. But I quickly spiralled into something obsessive, something dark which controlled my life and my plans.
I had always had a healthy relationship with food – trying everything, eating whatever I wanted and enjoying my mum’s home-cooked meals for dinner every day. I remember worrying about my friends when they decided they were fat and needed to lose weight. I would worry when they would turn their nose up at school lunches, only relieved when a week later they would be back to their normal selves.
Paradoxically, I think it might have been this perception of being “the balanced one” which led me to do things in secret, to hide everything I was doing. I knew my mum would be against me losing weight, because she seems to have a perfect relationship with food and thought I did too. I knew she would never help me to lose weight, because I would have been perfect in her eyes, so I started doing everything myself, the most extreme way possible.
So, when I started tracking my diet, I kept it in a little book I hid from view. I would wake up an hour early to do body-weight exercises, stopping as soon as I heard my mum’s alarm. When I weighed myself, which I did every single morning, I would wait until my mum had gone downstairs and creep slowly into her bathroom. I know every single creaky floorboard in that ten-metre stretch of hallway.
I couldn’t stop my mum from cooking for me at home, but I would ask for smaller portions. I would skip dessert, or ask for only a piece of fruit. I would offer to carry the plates from the kitchen to our conservatory, so I could put various pieces of food onto my brother’s plate. I would hide food. I would take forever to eat a meal.
And at the gym, I would sit on the bike for an hour and pedal away my lunch break without stopping to eat. I turned down my friends’ invitations to lunch because I was too obsessed with going to the gym. It is not surprising that those invitations stopped coming. I drank water and chewed gum at all hours, giving my stomach the impression of being full but not the substance it craved. I peed my pants once when I was walking to school, because I couldn’t reach a bathroom in time to empty my bladder of the litre of water I had drank in the last hour.
I can’t walk anywhere now without music or a podcast. I need them in my ears to drown out the obsessive 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, of my feet on the pavement, coming from the time I used to count every single step I took so I could work out how many calories I had burnt. Calories in vs. calories out.
I used to skip class to go on walks around the school, a simple errand to another classroom or a bathroom trip taking me an extra 10 minutes because I wanted to walk the outside way. I would walk to school via the boys’ school, not because I was trying to grab their attention but because it added an extra 1000 steps to my daily total.
And that’s when I started running, at the weekends at home. There wasn’t a gym at home, and there was no way to skip all of my meals at home either. I had to do something to burn off all of the calories I felt my body storing on me in those two-day windows when I had no control. Running gave me that, I sweated away the food my mum would give me with a concerned look on her face.
My mum likes to say that I’m a wonderful daughter, because I cook dinner for her whilst she works and has it ready for the moment she finishes. She thinks I’m selfless, giving up my time to prepare her food, but it started for selfish reasons. How else could I control my food, apart from by making it myself? I’d never cooked before but I downloaded and printed recipe after recipe, working out the calorie total and making sure it was never above 400. I’d read somewhere that 400 calories for dinner was sufficient.
I would look up recipes for the most calorific foods, following food blogs avidly, living through the food on my computer screen instead of the diet coke and salad I was restricting myself to. I would bake and bake, making cakes for my friends and family, but only allow myself a tiny nibble, if that. I wanted to feed people, make people happy through the thing that made me so anxious and sick.
I’ve never used the word “eating disorder”. Maybe because I never got to such an unhealthy point where I had to be hospitalized, so I don’t think I “deserve” the term. I somehow didn’t lose enough weight. I lost plenty though, ending up looking nothing like the girl from Christmas in her unflattering dress.
I ended up with my hip bones sticking out, my arms and legs like twigs. I ended up missing 18 months of periods, as my body struggled with the lack of sustenance. I remember getting my first period, afterwards, and being angry and upset that I’d let myself get back to that. For me, a world without a period was a thin world. It almost sent me all the way back to my old habits.
Someone once asked me why I constantly stand with arms crossed over my stomach. I never used to do it, but then even when I was tired and cold and hungry, I still felt fat. I wanted to hide that part of me from the world, but it also felt like I had to hold it to keep the hunger from tearing me apart. It was a paradox I hid from the world with a barrier, one I didn’t even realise I had constructed.
I’m not really sure how I got better, if I really did get better. I definitely got better at eating, but I have continued with my obsessive gym-going, and my counting calories. I gained some weight, but I have hated myself for it. I remember ruining a holiday with my then-boyfriend when I was 17 because I couldn’t stand what I thought was a wobble in my stomach. I cried, and he cried in incomprehension at my hatred of myself. I still poke my body in the mirror, sometimes even wishing myself back to that cold and lonely state of hunger just so I could have that body back.
It’s continued like that, ever since. It goes through stages – I will be fine for a few months, telling myself that I can eat balanced and exercise balanced, and that I know it is what is best for me. But if I gain any weight, the cycle of losing that weight pushes me into the realms of obsessive behaviour over and over and over again.
I’m writing this all down for the first time, because I can feel it happening again and I’m just tired of it. I woke up this morning feeling fat, and knew that if I just restricted my eating, I’d feel better again. I told myself that running 14 miles was not enough, that I was going to gain weight if I didn’t run more. I felt flabby and heavy and just wanted to eat crackers, or eat nothing at all.
I can’t hide from it any more, I’m tired of pretending I’m happy with my relationship with food. I can’t ever take a bite of something without thinking of the calories, the fat, whether I’ve exercised enough, should I exercise more? I want to make sure I fuel my body properly for marathon training, but part of my brain is always on, chastising me for eating a cookie or for that extra spoonful of nut butter. Some foods are turning into fears again, food I avoid because even thinking about eating them makes my stomach twist and my mind shrink with what I see as being “bad”.
My problems with eating have morphed into something more like orthorexia – an obsession with being healthy and cramming my schedule with things to make sure I’m as “healthy” as can be. I follow my marathon training plan to the letter because I’m training, but also because I like the way the numbers of miles keep rising and my calories burnt keep rising with it. I weight train because I like how strong it makes me and my running, but also because muscle is more metabolically active than fat. I have problems with social engagements which would make me miss part of my training, because I worry how the missed workout will affect not my performance, but my weight. I use my marathon training as an excuse not to drink, but I actually can’t stand the thought of consuming so many calories, the mantra “Don’t Drink Your Calories” still stuck in my head.
It isn’t as bad as it has been in the past. I’m not anorexic, or anywhere close. I’m also not as obsessive with counting calories or macros as I was either this past summer or the summer before. But I know that if I missed two or more days of workouts, I’d be back in the well of feeling fat, feeling worthless, feeling like I can’t control myself or my body. I don’t know what to do, because I know I’m okay, but its the sort of okay where I am balanced on a cliff top, feeling the breeze pushing me backwards towards the void and having to fight it whenever I act – it’s a constant presence.
Today is World Mental Health Day. I actually wrote this post last week when I couldn’t deal with the thoughts encroaching into my head every minute of every day, but I didn’t have the courage to post it. I have a fear that people will think I’m a fraud, that because I project the image of being balanced, because I’m nowhere near skin-and-bones, people won’t take me seriously. I know how to handle myself, but I didn’t want to pretend like I didn’t have anything to handle in the first place. It’s not healthy to hide things.
Thank you for reading. If you have any comments, please write below the line or send me a direct message on Instagram for anything more private.