The following feature appears in the April 2016 issue of NYLON.
It’s a mild April afternoon in Tunbridge Wells, England, just southeast of London, and, as with every day at 3pm on the dot, I’m seated at my family’s kitchen table, a tall glass of thick, pale brown Complan set before me, my mom seated opposite. I don’t look up, but I can feel her eyes bore into me as I refuse to drink the meal-replacement beverage, which claims to be “chocolate flavored,” but actually tastes like chalk. It’s a game of how long I can hold out versus how long she can maintain her patience. After three years of fighting with me to eat something, anything, the only thing that is clear at this point is that we are both losing. I don’t know how much time has passed before voices are raised and the Complan ends up splattered against the kitchen wall. I sit curled in a ball on the wet stone floor, crying and shivering amid the smashed glass.
There’s probably very little you haven’t heard about the ins and outs of anorexia. Yet, to date, I’ve failed to come across a story that does anything but scratch the surface of how harrowing an illness it really is. In layman’s terms, the disorder causes its sufferers to starve themselves to the point where the body’s only option is to feed off itself. Needless to say, the death rate is very high, but there’s so much more to it than that.
I’m 25 years old now, and I’ve maintained a healthy weight for the past six years, but my mid- to late teens are another story. Until age 14, I was a teacher’s pet and straight-A student, accepted to a prestigious boarding school on academic scholarship. By age 15, my laser-sharp focus was redirected to coming up with ever more inventive ways of lying about eating and basically becoming a walking calorie calculator. Prior to going out for a meal, I’d spend a good number of hours online trying to work out the caloric content of everything on the menu. Often, even the lightest of meals seemed like too much in my warped state of mind. I’d wind up eating one piece of spaghetti or one vegetable at a time and then chew and chew and chew… and then chew some more. It’s painful to even write about, so I can only imagine how excruciating it was to watch.
One day I decided I no longer wanted to eat. It was that simple. I had no plan of how long I would keep this going, or a goal weight I desired. All I was certain about was that life would be better if I was thinner.
Everything about being at boarding school made my illness easier to keep under wraps. I wouldn’t eat for five days, and then I’d come home for weekends and eat normally. It wasn’t difficult to pretend I was eating at school. The teachers all sat at one table in the dining room and, with 150-plus girls to look after, they couldn’t have been less interested. I’d put a reasonable amount of food on my plate, cut it up a little bit, talk a lot, and then clear away my plate at the end. Friends said nothing, and teachers were none the wiser.
Eventually I got bored of pretending to eat. At breakfast, I’d pick up an apple, a banana, a napkin, and a knife and take them back to my room, where I’d sit at my desk and cut my apple into quarters, then eighths, and finally sixteenths before chapel each morning. The banana would sit on my desk and haunt my thoughts until I’d allow myself to eat it at suppertime.
At first, my parents thought my baby fat was dropping off due to my ridiculous schedule of extracurricular activities. I’d go from trampolining in the afternoon to netball club after school to choir after supper. It wasn’t until my housemistress pulled my parents aside at a weekend pickup that they came to understand I hadn’t eaten anything but two pieces of fruit a day for almost three months. My school insisted I become a “day girl,” even though home was a two-hour round trip. I traveled there and back daily, running on practically nothing, physically and psychologically exhausted for an entire term. It became clear that I was still losing weight, and that my mental health was deteriorating as well, so my school set up a meeting with my parents to “suggest” that it might be best if I didn’t return until I was better. I was halfway through my GCSEs years (the exams that determine where you spend your final two years of school before heading to university). I never did end up going back.
At 16, I was five-foot-two and wearing age 10 clothes. I had a few relationships during the years I was ill, mainly with teenage boys who were looking to play hero. I was uninterested and detached and after a few months, they’d realize they couldn’t “save me” and get bored. I recently saw an ex and, intrigued, asked him what I was like to date. He told me I was constantly worried about my appearance: “I remember thinking that what you saw in the mirror must have been very different to what I saw when I looked at you,” he said.
Friendships were fraught. No one understood why I wouldn’t eat. I was uninvited from almost every event to save everyone from the awkward situation that always ensued when I politely refused offers of food. My best friend, however, stuck with me through the whole ordeal. “You didn’t have enough energy to get excited about anything like you would have before,” she told me recently. “Because we were quite young, I don’t think I had previously considered how serious a matter it was and took for granted that you would definitely just get over it and be fine.”
One of my other close friends wasn’t allowed to speak to me when I stopped eating—her mother said I was a “bad influence.”
My anorexia affected my relationship with my family as well. Long story short, my parents nearly split up and my older brother barely came home for five years—to this day, he flinches every time I mention anything relating to food or weight. Meal times were a battlefield, screaming matches were the norm, and plates were thrown regularly.
Ten months after having skipped my first meal, I was admitted into an adolescent mental health unit at a hospital. It was the bleakest six weeks of my life. There were only eight of us in the unit, but eight teenage girls with a variety of mental health problems was plenty. Working out what was wrong with some of the girls was easy—there were visible scars from cutting or malnourished bodies that left little to the imagination. Others were harder, as there’s no such thing as someone who looks like she’s suffering from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. The only thing I learned from the girls I spent those six weeks with was that a lot of patients came in with one problem and left with another.
My first day in the re-feeding clinic is still as clear as a bell. I was placed next to a nine-year-old girl who, like me, was suffering from anorexia. I remember looking at her and feeling sorry for her, then realizing that must be how people looked at me, too. I was to start on one-quarter-size portions to make sure that I didn’t get sick from the sudden feeding. I argued with my nurse as soon as the food hit the table. I was certain that another girl had been given my one-quarter-size portion rather than her full-size one. At that moment, I couldn’t have been more convinced about anything ever. Looking back now, I’m not quite so sure.
A few weeks of eating thousands of calories a day went by, and I had put on no weight. Was I secretly exercising in my room? Most definitely. But it was nowhere near the amount that would have kept those calories from causing weight gain. No one understood why the numbers on the scales weren’t increasing. In private, I was extremely proud of my body for defying something I didn’t want it to be forced to do.
In my fourth week, I gained about 11 pounds. I had never felt more mentally unstable. As the weight gain continued, I became borderline suicidal. The unit did a fabulous job of feeding and putting weight on me, but it completely failed to support me mentally. I saw only one therapist for an hour during the six weeks I was there.
My parents discharged me from the hospital prematurely on one condition: I had to promise to continue putting on weight. I agreed to being weighed every Friday afternoon by our doctor, who would then fax the number to my private psychiatrist. To my parents, it seemed like a bulletproof plan. But it was a mistake to believe that I’d keep such a promise.
I did go to the doctor most weeks, but often I faked it, having stolen a few sheets of letterhead paper from the doctor’s office, which I’d fax to my psychiatrist with a false weight. One week I even sent a naturally very skinny friend in my place to a different doctor. She owed me a favor. I’d miraculously gained almost 15 pounds in a week and no one noticed.
I wasn’t putting on weight, but each week I thought up a new trick to make it seem as though I had. Who remembers that scene in Skins where Cassie goes for her weigh-in and there’s a girl furiously drinking liters of water? Water-loading (as it’s called by the professionals) caught up with me much quicker than I’d imagined. What started as a liter of water to add a pound became two liters the week after to ensure I was another pound heavier and so on. Did you know that if you drink a lot of water really fast, it makes you feel dizzy to the point of passing out? I didn’t either, until the day I consumed six liters in under five minutes. My tiny frame couldn’t handle such huge quantities of liquid. I was getting sick, blacking out, and if I had to wait even just 10 minutes over my scheduled appointment time, I’d need to go to the toilet, which would mean all of my hard work had been ruined. My next strategy was to hide ankle weights in the pockets of my baggy children’s jeans—until the day one fell out as I was being weighed. From then on I was made to get undressed.
At this time, I was still waking up at five every morning to do several hundred sit-ups and leg raises while everyone else was asleep. I had a drawer full of perfectly arranged chocolate bars next to my bed that I would look at and rearrange. On the extremely rare occasion that I’d eat one, it took about two hours of minuscule bites to do so. I’d drink 20 or so cups of black tea a day because I was always bloody freezing. I was a 17-year-old who required babysitting from family friends when my parents weren’t around. I’ll never forget the day I picked butter out of a ham sandwich and smeared it down the side of my sitter’s sofa when no one was looking (or so I thought).
Eating is something so simple and instinctive that we do it naturally from birth, but for a long time I couldn’t let myself ingest anything without someone else in front of me, telling me that I had to. And after years of struggling to keep me alive, everyone eventually gave up fighting. My parents admitted defeat. My therapy stopped, as did the threats to send me back to the hospital. They’ve since told me it was the hardest thing they’ve ever had to do, but it was only then, when I had to make the choice between living or dying, that I realized I wanted to live, and that to live I would have to eat.
I wanted to be able to drink more than a double vodka soda without passing out. I wanted to go on vacation with my friends and dance on tables and kiss random guys. I wanted to be able to leave home and go to college. It took months for me to recognize hunger and grasp portion sizes. When you have purposely ignored such things for five years, it’s no wonder you forget how they work.
The experts say you have light-bulb moments during recovery; for me, one of these came when I was finally well enough to be entrusted with the care of a family friend’s toddler. I realized that I’d dished out more on her plate than I had on my own. I sat and watched a two-year-old tuck in to her pasta with no hesitation or crippling fear. She made it look so easy.
Certain foods took longer to come to grips with than others, butter and cheese specifically, as both filled a high quota of my re-feeding diet while hospitalized. If you took longer than half an hour to eat your meal, you were served up a cheese sandwich—an ounce and a half of cheap, plastic cheddar wedged between tasteless slices of white bread, coated with a thick layer of margarine. I haven’t eaten a cheese sandwich since, and I seriously doubt I ever will.
After being declared a “healthy weight” and discharged from mental health services, it took about four years to form a rational relationship with both my body and what I put in it. “Recovery” can’t be forced, but it is indeed possible for anyone.
Interestingly enough, I now have more of a healthy relationship with food and my body than many other people I know. These days I write a fashion and lifestyle blog that encourages balance (itsaldnthing.com). I’m a strong believer in the idea that women don’t have to be a certain size or height to advocate fashion, or have the body of a pro athlete to enjoy exercise. I’m no model, yet there I am “modeling” for Nike’s Instagram account one day, working with Versace the next. And here I am eating what I want, when I want, and it’s making no difference whatsoever in the number of jobs I’m getting in this industry. If you’d have told me that six years ago, I never would’ve believed it.
Some days I eat a lot, other days I don’t eat much. It turns out that your body is pretty great at working out what it needs by itself, if you let it. Chocolate is a part of my everyday diet, going to the gym four days a week my new routine—both of these things come without much thought and both keep me sane. I still have off days, weeks, and maybe even months where I can’t stand things about myself, but seriously, show me one person who doesn’t.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, help is out there. Volunteers are available Mondays-Thursdays from 9am to 9pm EST and Fridays from 9am to 5pm EST at the National Eating Disorders Association’s free, confidential helpline, 1-800-931-2237, or via chat at www.myneda.org.