What does food mean to you?
Food to me means a lot of things. It’s fuel, it’s comfort, it’s sharing great food with family and friends.
There was a time when food used to be my enemy.
But how does deciding your next meal become a source of immense stress?
At the age of 14, I never thought a photograph could change my life. It was simply a picture of me in a wetsuit, stood happily on a Cornish beach, bodyboard in hand. There was no reason for it to became a symbol of my previously internalised negative self-image.
Yet the sight of my ‘chubby’ body repulsed me, and this small incident flung me into obsessive eating and exercise behaviours, and before I knew it I had what you call an ‘eating disorder.’
I was a perfectly healthy weight, and had merely an ordinary young teenagers’ body.
It’s not always immediately obvious that someone has an eating disorder, not even to the individual suffering from one.
To me, there was no harm in choosing the healthier option, restricting how much I ate, exercising daily and watching the scales.
My illness wore a mask of a friendly ally, here to make me love the way I looked. It only took a matter of months before the mask fell off and revealed the all-consuming parasite underneath, who was there as a vessel for self-punishment.
What does food mean to you? To me it became control. Anorexia used to own me.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the illness had changed who I was. It had complete power over my thoughts, my behavour and it ruined my body.
Thinking back to my incessant researching into healthy eating, exercise and ways to improve my body makes me pity my younger self.
A doctor’s diagnosis labelled me under ‘Anorexia Nervosa’, and the truth was this label defined a scarily large part of who I was.
I used starvation to punish myself, and at my lowest points I would enjoy the feeling of hunger, ecstatic in the knowledge that I had so much power over myself.
The illness made me selfish. I would panic during meals out with family. How could I eat this food when I don’t know what the ingredients are, when the carbs aren’t wholegrain- and why couldn’t my parents understand this? I became closed off, and my relationships suffered.
When you’re fighting such an internal battle, it’s almost impossible to get others involved, especially when you are in denial about the damage your shrinking, tiny frame is causing to your health.
Starvation is a general term, and being anorexic doesn’t always mean you never eat. This blurred line is the most dangerous; I may have been eating half the amount of calories I should have been, and exercising everyday after school, but I was still eating regular meals, and snacking on so-called bad food-(but only on weekends, when I allowed myself to do so.)
With this, albeit minute,diet, How on earth could I be anorexic?
I only wanted to like the way I looked.
The illness comes in different forms and there is only one underlying common principle; a distorted, unhealthy attitude to food and exercise and what you see in front of you; an obsession.There is a deep-rooted psychosis associated with the disorder which means different things to everyone. It isn’t a passing fad.
I was a regimented solider who became prisoner to my own mind, trapped in a routine and a mindset that the less I ate, the stronger I was.
I have never hated food. I love eating. I hated how full it made me feel, how guilty it made me feel. I blamed my body-dismorphia on my lifestyle.
I was terrified of calories.
I was comfortable with the feeling of being skinny- of yet another day achieving my caloric goals.
You cannot always convince someone who is suffering that there is something wrong. You can tell them, and should try to, but this is something they may need to figure out alone. They need a wake-up call.
My wakeup call came when my periods stopped. I realised that my dangerously low weight could completely fuck up my chances of having kids. Children’s clothes were the only thing that fit me, and I weighed 5 and a half stone, at just over 5ft.
I had to go for a scan to test whether my fertility will be affected. To this day I can’t have the contraceptive injection because I never had my bone density checked whilst i was ill.
This came almost a year after my disorder began and was the reason I started to see myself as I truly was. Then came my mother, who I could only imagine was overcome with relief when she realised her daughter was returning to her, finally.
Next came doctors, psychiatrists and nutritionists.
A psychiatrist failed me, desperately grabbing at straws to explain my condition.
I reacted best to the nutritionist, probably because her regimented eating plan matched my own strict eating behaviour. It was my health shock which made me feel excited about her instructions for me to eat more.
I didn’t like the way I looked when I was at my lowest weight, not one bit. I was concious of my child-like frame. I was just so overwhelmed by the disease that my pattern of behaviour felt natural, normal and unchangeable.
There are hardly any pictures of me from that time, because it was far too painful to see my skeletal frame- the hollow sunken cheeks, bones jutting out beneath paper thin skin. The picture above is one of the only ones. I am eating at an all-you-can-eat buffet, and unsuspecting people wouldn’t have suspected a thing as they saw me stuff down mounds of food. Little did they know I had planned and prepared for this all week.
You cannot imagine that feeling of pure freedom when you realise you have recovered.
I’ll never rid myself of the certain thought processes associated with eating problems. But I’m proud to say I cannot identify with the girl that could starve herself; she’s alien to me.
I’m a healthy weight, I eat a normal diet, I sometimes binge and above all, I try to eat well.
The anxiety that unhealthy food gave me is a shadow of its former self.
Before my disorder began and during my recovery it felt like a switch was flicked in my brain; once on and then off again. This switch let me destroy the all-consuming parasite that robbed me of my life, my body, my mind and my autonomy.
I will never again enjoy going to bed hungry.
Everyone’s switch can be flicked, everyone can rid themselves of their parasite.
Learn to care for your body again, and for your health. You don’t have to like the way you look, you just have to realise that jepordising your health won’t change that. Simply be there for people you think may be struggling.
The rest will soon come.
What does food mean to you?
It means life.
*Illustration by Christie Begnell*