Apologies in advance, this post is rather long.
The doctor looks at me, and I look away unable to meet his gaze, knowing that if I looked into his kind eyes I would break down. I lower my head, my face clouding over with shame and guilt. He is trying his best; he is patient and calm with me. I should be better. And yet I’m not, instead things are rapidly going downhill.
My head has turned into static and I am finding it hard to understand the words that flow freely from his lips. “Why does everything feel so far away?” whispers my head.
“Calm. Down. Calm. Down.” Chant the voices that have taken root in my brain from somewhere in the distance. I know what is about to happen and that I must hold it together. The room spins and I start to feel as though I am falling, but I mustn’t, I must remain sitting up in my chair no matter how much I want to just collapse and crawl away into a corner where I might find some rest.
The Doctor is saying something nice I am sure, trying to offer some reassurance that things will get better eventually. I have given up in believing him or anyone else. Still I nod my head in agreement (after all it is the only polite thing to do, and it appears that that is the reaction called for). He is not lying. I think he believes what he is telling me and yet I want to scream at him to stop. To stop because every time he tries to tell me there is hope I feel as though a million pieces of broken glass are stabbing into every inch of my flesh. It’s too hard to listen to anymore.
Time is up. I take the green prescription slips, promising to return and make my way into the street. The fresh air hits me and I am disorientated, unaware of where I am or how to get home. Slowly it comes back to me that all I need to do is cross the road, find the house on the end and let myself in. Simple…well, at least you’d think it would be. Every step feels like I’m on black ice, my heart races as I notice the panic settling in, and there is a storm gathering behind my eyes that is threatening the beginnings of a headache or something worse. I get home as the invisible noose around my neck starts to feel like a death lock. I fumble with the keys and getting them into the lock.
“Why won’t my hands stop shaking” rages the voice.
Finally the door opens and I am in. Slam the door behind me, lock it and let my body fall. Time slips away as I lay there waiting for the world to right itself. My heart returns to a rhythm that feels steadier, my eyes flutter open and I consider how slowly I am going to have to stand up without the feeling of the world being thrown up from underneath me.
Using the wall, I heave my body up and watch the little black spots dancing around in my field of vision. Slowly I lift my legs and stumble to the bathroom (“When did my legs get so heavy?”), I strip down to my underwear, pull the glass digital scale out from underneath the sink. In quick succession I think three things. Firstly ‘What if today is the day I stand on them and they crack and shatter?” which is closely followed by “I seriously want to take a hammer and beat the crap out of you.’ Until I finally reach the last thought of “what is the number?’
Take a deep breath in, exhale and step on the scale…and I wait as the digital numbers go up and up (“Will they never end?”) When it stops, and it is done, the scale does a double beep. I look down to see how much of a failure I am.
That was my life or is my life. A slow march to a grave that I had convinced myself I wanted but turns out I don’t. 7 Months ago after persuasion and threats and excessive thinking, I made the choice to enter treatment. Half crazed, absent, starving and medicated up to the eyeballs I walked into a situation that would change my life as I knew it. The difficulty was that I wasn’t ready for my life to be changed like that, I was blindsided, and my pre-conceived ideas about the situation I was getting myself into were way off. The moment you walk through the doors, allow yourself to be admitted, you hand over your life, everything that you believe in, you let them dismantle you so that they may help you. It is hard to remember what happened to me in the beginning; it is hard to remember the place I came from. You begin to forget the hell that you were living in and you miss it. You miss the numbers going down and the feeling of a delusional power and sense of control. You miss being on your own and having the shutters firmly pulled down so no one can see you. For all the reasons I had to recover, I had just as many reasons to stay in a place of self-starvation and denial. All I had to figure out was what I wanted more, and I promise that that is not as easy as it sounds. Most people wouldn’t think of debating whether or not to stay ill, but then I didn’t really believe I was ill. Not like other people, not like the people who I met when I entered treatment. They had lost control. I had not. At least I tried to tell myself I hadn’t. Eating disorders are deceptive; they convince you that they are saving you whilst they simultaneously destroy you. There is no winner. You will never be thin enough for the eating disorder, and it won’t let you go till you are thin enough.
I try to trace back, find the beginning or the catalyst. That one comment that was just a little too harsh, the laughter behind the hands as I walked into a room, the boy who didn’t like me, but there was none of that. Well, yes there were those things but they weren’t what drove me to the point of an all consuming need to starve myself in to nothing. In all honesty, I don’t think I know. Not fully. The reasons are hidden under layers, bound together so tight that it’s hard to distinguish one from the next. Maybe to move on I don’t really need to know. I don’t have to analyse every little detail hoping that the answer lay within that mess. Yet sometimes it still doesn’t stop me from wanting to know. I think human beings have this core belief, that if we know what is wrong, if we can point to something and say that this solid thing hurt me, somehow it makes it easier to handle, easier to recover from…or at least that’s what I think we tell ourselves. The reality is often different, knowing why we got hurt doesn’t make it hurt any less, all it does is make it a little less frightening when you remove the concept of the unknown.
Anyway; that is getting away from my initial point which is the story of a sort of madness that nearly cost me my life. It didn’t start as Anorexia; it didn’t even start as a diagnosable eating disorder, yet the elements were all there. The first grasp had caught me when I was nothing more than a child, by the time I reached my 20’s it had devoured me. My desire to keep myself wrapped up in silence only fuelled the destructive noises in my head. The voices dominated me and I was willing to believe anything they had to say. I wanted to be saved but I also wanted to disappear, and I wanted to be good enough but I thought I was too much. The contradictions are endless.
I am not here though to give you my life story, to tell you that my childhood was broken and in doing so attempt to evoke some sort of twisted sympathy out of you. I’m writing this to tell you what happened. It isn’t a fairy-tale; it doesn’t have the happy ending that people want to believe in. It’s a story about how even when you consider yourself dead, when you consider yourself hopeless and beyond help, you are not. That as long as you still have breath in your body then you have a chance.
It is summer, but you feel cold despite how brightly the sun burns in the sky. You are walking in the woods, heading to a house that has started to feel like a prison. Every inch of your body burns and aches because you have spent the last several hours in the gym, running nowhere, stretching, twisting, lifting and repeating. You offer up a quick prayer to a God you are not sure you believe in “please don’t let me faint out here”. For now the adrenaline is the thing that keeps you putting one leg in front of the other, you don’t dare stop and rest for fear that you won’t be able to start again. You make it home with only a few wobbles, you berate yourself for your weakness, for being afraid when you know you are invincible, for letting the words of the doctors and nurses get to you. Lunch is chamomile tea and a slice of an apple. You drink the tea fast, trying to push fluids to stop the shake of your hands. Your body needs sugar but to you this is irrelevant. What the body needs and what you think it needs are at entirely different ends. You are at the end where you give it what it thinks it needs. The phone rings to tell you that your parents are on the way, they have convinced you to let them go to your weekly appointment with the psychiatric nurse. The only reason you have agreed is because you think the nurse is on your side and you are tired of listening to your parent’s complaints and worries. You sit in the waiting room, running through the list in your head of the things you will allow yourself to eat for the rest of the day and what exercises still need to be done. You are called in, but no one smiles. You see on their faces that allegiances have changed. Their words hit you like bullets “Treatment” “Inpatient” “Detaining”. This was not part of your plan, this is something you didn’t see coming. You are given time to think, to make a choice, but the truth is, that this time is for you to begin to see things their way and agree to go voluntarily. You go home and yet you feel nothing, everything has escaped you. You exercise and you think all night long. The next day you collapse. Your body is giving up; your mind has already left. The kindly doctor can no longer keep you medically safe and neither can you. You call the nurse, go for a visit, and every inch of you is screaming at you not to, but you are out of options, you go home and pack a bag.
The first day of treatment see’s you thrown in to their routine, no time to establish one yourself, no time to exert your own power over the situation. You arrive before lunch and you don’t expect yourself to be called so early to eat. Yet midday comes and there is a knock on your door. A nurse introduces herself and tells you to come to the dining room. You freeze. There is the idea playing in your head that if you don’t move a muscle, you will become invisible. But it doesn’t work and she is still waiting. Yes; you have entered treatment, but somewhere along the line you had failed to realise that this would mean consuming food. At the table in the Stage One dining room you play with your food, cutting it up, moving it around, and separating all the different types. This is the only time they will watch you do this, afterwards when you sit down to a meal you will be told not to “play with your food” or to “pick up your pace”. They don’t sound militant, they know it’s not easy but they are firm and persistent, at times feeling unrelenting. After lunch there are doctors and tests. Blood is drawn; wires are attached to a monitor to see how much damage you have done to your heart. For the next few weeks, you will have your blood sugars taken every few hours, your BP will be watched, they will inject you every day till you start to resemble a pin cushion and they will pile you with medications so that you don’t develop re-feeding syndrome.
Two weeks pass and the scale keeps decreasing. Despite their support you are difficult. You still won’t eat enough. You are slipping in and out of medical crises. It’s becoming too dangerous for you to even stand and the threats of bed rest hang over every weighing day. In the morning the doctor comes to your room with a warning. One more dip in the scale and you will be moved for a while, taken over to the medical ward to have a tube put in through your nose and down to your stomach. The terror wedges itself deep in your chest cavity. This has happened before and you remember it well. You remember the tug of the tube every time you breathed in, the rush of cold shooting down you every time they would flush it. You remember the way your heart burned and your body was unpredictable as the calories were pumped in to you. If you were able to cry anymore this would push the tears from you. Instead you sit, too tired to react but you give quiet promises that you will try harder. The week passes and still the threat hangs, every time you put your fork down to a plateful of food claiming that you are done, you will be reminded that you are losing your choices if you don’t carry on. Soon, the scales turn the other way and you are both heartbroken and relieved. There is an instinct to run, to get away, to stop it, to say you have changed your mind. But you can’t change your mind. Not yet. You are too much of a risk for them to let you walk away. You are unable to see that things are serious. You shake off their warnings; believe that they are plotting against you. But it’s not really you. The eating disorder is still running the show, the illness you believed to be your friend is clinging on to you, trying to put you in a box in the ground. You stay, no longer out of choice, and you eat and you gain weight. And every day the hate grows a little bit more, you become even more poisonous than you were before, words lashing out against those who dare to care about you. You spend your days spinning round in circles, your life structured by your meals. That never changes. You will have breakfast, lunch, tea and supper. You will have snacks if your weight is not moving as quickly as it should be. Groups and individual time are part of the treatment plan you agreed. You sit in the lounge, in chairs that sink under your weight, soft to stop your bones from hurting. There are blankets that you wrap around yourself because even though the heating is blasted on full at all times, it does not get rid of the trace of cold that lingers in your body. You talk about feelings, about the things that you have come to acknowledge that no one outside of the room would possibly understand. You finally start to hear yourself for the first time, how ridiculous you sound from an outside perspective. In that room you learn about nutrition, about the damage you have inflicted upon yourselves and you will talk about your goals, your motivations. You will be invited to spill all of your hearts desires, all of your darkest secrets, but none of you will. Not fully. You will hold back, cling on to that last bit of illusion of control. You will turn your head out of respect when another breaks down if you aren’t close, pretend that her tears are not there or you will go to them, gather them up in your arms and tell them what they want to hear. You don’t believe the lies coming out of your mouth anymore than she does, but it’s enough to stop her. In your room you will wonder how you ended up here whilst you pace the up and down. The nurse, on her rounds of observations will ask you if you are ok before reminding you that you need to be sat down. In the courtyard you smoke whilst complaining about all the little rules that you have to comply with. To you, their rules seem more senseless than your own. In the evening a visitor might appear, they will pause at your door, checking to see how much you have changed before they enter, but your little brother will not come because he has become afraid of you. You pretend that this doesn’t crush you. After supper you begin to feel as though you can breathe again, instead of being tired you become wide awake, knowing that there are no more meals for the day. Someone will put a DVD on, whilst another rests her head in your lap. These moments are the ones that you want to take snapshots of; it is here you begin to share your story. It comes in bits and pieces, your mind half attentive to the TV and the other half fixated somewhere in the back of your memory. You have fallen in love with the girls sat around you, with their flaws and fears, but also with their strength, and you allow them in to your life, you trust them with things that you have never trusted anybody else with before. At night you will not sleep, your body still starved of nutrients. The nights become torture, exhaustion filters into your veins but rest will elude you. At 5am you will give up and depending on the day you will either go to the toilet before going to be weighed or you will make coffee. You will not talk or look at anyone for another hour.
In a few months’ time, your head begins to clear. It becomes apparent that all that time you thought you were thinking clearly, you weren’t. Pride stops you from admitting how destroyed your cognition once was. Most of the pain has passed. The physical pain at least. That’s what no one tells you, how much it will hurt to start eating again. How you will curl up on your bed, wrapped in a foetal position in an effort to find some comfort. It is like swords running you through from every direction, the only relief being time. Yet it takes more time because of how slow your digestive system has become. You throw back Peppermint oil, Buscopan and Gaviscon hoping for some respite. The eating is easier, you finish your meals now, your pace is better, and you don’t have to be drowning in Benzo’s to deal with the anxiety. Yet you can’t look in a mirror, every time you glance down at your ever changing figure you want to tear at your skin so that you may step out of it. Emotionally, the truth is, is that you are a wreck, incapable of comprehending the situation. You have reached the magical number of being medically safe, at this point you think about leaving, taking sometime away from the intensity of treatment. Conversations are held. You have an option; you have your 72 hours. Three days to leave treatment to see if you want to discharge yourself. You sign what needs to be signed, pack some of your possessions and have your parents pick you up. You go home, to a house you live in alone. The idea is to stay on plan, but within hours it’s obvious that you won’t. You lock the doors and you don’t eat. At the end you emerge, go back to the hospital, knowing that you have fucked up, that you are incapable of coping. In the morning you are weighed and the scales drop down. Medically you are back below the number they consider safe. You start again.
There isn’t a time when it clicks, or a time when you suddenly want to throw your arms around the idea of recovery and never let go. There isn’t a time when it gets better, or acceptable. It becomes tolerable. You weighing more becomes tolerable. Eating becomes less overwhelming. Existing and living become something that you want to do a little bit more. The fight grows bloodier as you try to allow yourself to take care of yourself. But there is no other choice, because if you go back, if you stop, if you give up than you will lose yourself again, or you will lose your life…and you never know which is worse. So you carry on, and you learn to talk again. You stop locking up everything inside of you and slowly you start trust others. You begin to look inwards and say what’s wrong by using sentences rather than numbers on a scale. Suddenly one day, a day like no other you begin to cry. You sob till your stomach hurts; the kind where you don’t think it will ever stop and you want the world to end. You cry for everything you have lost, for everything you have chased away, for all the people you have hurt, and you cry for yourself, that this is your life and it hurts more than you ever imagined possible. But mostly you cry because you finally understand that treatment isn’t going to make everything better, that it doesn’t make you free, that you won’t wake up the following morning and no longer be Anorexic, and that reality, that little bit of information rattles despair through every inch of you. Obviously you eventually stop; you wash your face, take in a few breaths and move on. You go to lunch, you attend a group, you talk and go for a walk. You live life in this bubble, with hope that it changes. That you become everything you want to be, which is nothing more than to just be normal.
The day of discharge comes. You are not whole and you are not healed. But you know enough to be safe, to maintain your weight, to at least attempt to fight the voices in your head that tell you to starve. You smile at everyone, the excitement bubbling through you. This is it; this is your freedom you are reclaiming. You sit at breakfast, resisting the urge to eat your cereal one flake at a time; because you know that this is not acceptable, even if you are leaving. The other girls look at you as if you have made it; they imagine themselves in the weeks and months to come, on the days they get to leave. They envy you, believing that your discharge means recovery, only you don’t know that that is a lie until you are in that position. There are hugs and chocolates for the nurses who started to bring you back to life. You pack clothes, and books, DVDs, cards and drawings. There is shock as you realise just how much stuff you have accumulated over the past 5 months, how you have turned a room in a hospital into a type of home, which you swore when you first came that you would never do. You sign more papers, you receive your medication, there is another round of hugs and then you leave. Your parents are waiting to help you carry bags down to the car. This is the end of this chapter. You are half alive, you can walk without collapsing, your heart beats the same as everyone else without the signs that it will shudder and suddenly fail. You are not healthy, not by the numbers on the scale, but you are alive. You have time now, which you didn’t before. Time to get strong, to create new dreams, to reconnect with the people you pushed away. You are thankful but filled with sorrow. Grief walks through the automatic doors at your heals, you are in mourning for something dreadful and humiliating. Something that made you too weak to shower yourself or make the bed, but something that had a purpose, something that you loved in that messed up way that you do that makes letting go so difficult. There isn’t a goodbye, just a mutual agreement that you will try to live with each other without killing one another. It’s all you can do for now and it has to be enough because if it isn’t, you won’t make it till next year.
“Are you going to finish that?” The sentence cuts through to me. I look up and see that everyone is staring, watching to see what I will do. It is impossible to tell how much time has passed, how long I’ve been sat gripping on to the knife and fork in my hand. Gently I place the cutlery on my plate; everything feels like it rests on whether or not the action will make a sound. There is a slight clang. I’m stalling, trying to gauge where everyone else is in the stage of eating. Judging by the amount on their plates, they are somewhere in the middle. I smile and take a sip of my drink.
The voices are deafening. They scream at me to stop, to stop eating because this is wrong. My body is trembling but I know that I have to keep pushing through. I start again. My sister sits across from me, eating her pizza, throwing words in the air to fill the silence. I am grateful. She tells a joke and I let out a little laugh. I can do this. The fact that this is my first time in a restaurant is momentous, but for once, this isn’t about me. We are here for reason. It is my sister’s birthday. I focus on her voice, on the interjections from her boyfriend. I watch how she taunts him and he teases her right back. I’m happy for her, that she has this…that life is good for her.
My mother sits next to me; I can see her trying to steal glances at me from the corner of her eye. I cut my food up, again and again, as though I am part of some sacred ritual, but something is different to how I was when she last saw me at a meal, because this time I actually eat. I see her let out a little sigh of relief. It strikes me how much I don’t want to have this power, this power that leaves everyone on a knife edge holding the ability to make or break a situation in my hands.
I finish my dinner and allow myself a little sense of pride to rush me. We don’t stay for coffee because I am the only one who drinks it. We pay and leave. There are no tears or fights, there is no tense silence. My muscles relax, the tension my neck begins to release. I walk to the car steadily. It still pleasantly surprises me that I can do this. That I don’t need to stop and rest, that the world doesn’t spin, that I own a body that works as it should. My sister locks her arm into mine, no longer to help keep me standing but because she knows that this is the closest I will allow her to be, that this is the most near a hug I can do. I have done my part, and as we drive home with the unseasonably warm sun on our faces I know that for me, my challenge has just started, that when I get through my front door the war will rage loudly once more. I turn the radio up; I still have another mile to the house that’s no longer a prison. There is time.