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“Who am I?” I think as I try to introduce myself to you. I’d have answered that question differently over the years. Friend, daughter, musician, healthcare professional.
There are so many criteria we use to define ourselves yet, over the last six years, my criteria have narrowed until I find that all I am, all I have, is an eating disorder.
That’s not the truth. I am many things. But, eating disorders cloud the truth. They grow until what you once were, what you may become is hidden behind a lie of who you are.
That lie says that you are in control, you are strong, and you are indestructible when, in fact, the eating disorder is in control of you. It’s most evil trick is to fool you with lies until you no longer know who you are.
Anorexia crept up and devastated my life six years ago. I never thought I was fat (I wasn’t). I didn’t want to look like models in magazines. I didn’t even think I was on a diet. What I was was unhappy. I grew up expecting so much from life and found myself, in my thirties, realising that life doesn’t always deliver.
I tried hard to create the life I wanted but failed, again and again. I felt powerless and unable to get a grip on my own world. So, subconsciously, I took control where I could. I began eating “healthily” but it spiralled to the point of barely eating.
At the age of 32 I was an educated, professional woman weighing as much as an average nine-year-old, with all my major organs packing up. Since then I’ve had 2 hospital admissions, over 16 months in total, periods of bulimia and of binge eating.
Now, at 38, I find myself at a healthy weight but struggling to manage a life ruled by anorexic and binge eating behaviours. Now I can’t even define myself as anorexic or bulimic. I feel like an anorexic trapped in a body I don’t know, at the mercy of desires to either binge or starve.
I’ve struggled to decide whether or not to use my name in this article. “Anonymous” is how I feel and protects me from the shame of being seen. It is a safe, but lonely place.
Eating disorders can initially be a way of dealing with feelings of shame. I felt ashamed of failure in my life and ashamed of having needs and desires which remain unmet. Then, ironically, the eating disorder wreaked its havoc and I feel ashamed of using it as a coping or defence mechanism. What began as a solution soon became bigger than the problem I was trying to solve.
My eating disorder began as a search for existence, an attempt to find a way to be. It became a metaphor for a fundamental question, “Do I want to be?” Everything I’ve done since being ill has been based on a choice of life or death.
Do I get up or stay in bed? Do I eat something because I feel like it or choose something I don’t want that fits my anorexic rules? Do I step out into the street, make eye contact and speak to people, choosing to exist. Basically, do I hide away fooling myself and others that I’m not here or do I put myself out there shouting my presence.
Every pro-life action moves me towards recovery, but ambivalence can sabotage those choices. It takes energy to keep choosing life and, for recovery to be possible, that choice must be repeated every minute of every day.
I feel ashamed of the part of me that wants to reject life by not existing either physically or in my impact on the world, yet I would never judge another person for struggling in this way.
I shouldn’t feel ashamed of having an illness like this. Contrary to what some people may say, I didn’t choose this path. I didn’t wake up one day and decide to be anorexic. Anorexia caught me out when I wasn’t looking.
My compassionate self is furious at the effect eating disorders are having on so many lives and furious that there remains a stigma attached to mental health problems. It is that stigma that makes me feel ashamed, yet I wonder if, for me, I am the person who imposes it.
I may not have chosen to develop an eating disorder, but I can try to choose to manage my emotions and relationships differently. Every choice I make to exist is a tiny rung on the ladder towards recovery.
By choosing to use my name, I am trying to choose to exist and not to be ashamed of that. I was a person before I started to be identified by my disorder, and I am trying to rediscover that person and look forward to who she can become.
Don't forget to check out the second part of Aimee's story.