As a 13 year old I went through the same heartache and dilemmas that all teenage girls experience surrounding friendships at school. Everyone has to find their own coping strategy, and for me this was controlling my food intake. What began as an overwhelming desire to become so small that I’d be invisible to those around me rapidly escalated into a severe eating disorder, to the point where I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. Ironically, having begun as a means of seeking control, I found myself completely out of control in every aspect of my life as ‘Ana’ gradually gained more and more power over me.
I was eventually admitted to an adolescent psychiatric unit at age 15, where I spent 9 months as an inpatient. I taught myself the majority of my GCSE syllabuses, and sat my exams in the hospital – taking breaks half way through each paper to eat my compulsory snacks in painful silence. When I was finally discharged I was still under my target weight, and had to continue my fight for heath well into 6th form.
So, when I started uni – my first real opportunity to fend for myself – I could have gone one of two ways: I could have made the decision to look after myself without having anyone there to check on me, or I could have used the relative isolation to avoid mealtimes without it being noticed. When a term went by, and then another and another, where I’d managed (for the most part) to make myself eat without coercion, I thought I’d finally achieved the ultimate title of ‘recovered anorexic’.
For years I had been convinced (because it was all I’d ever been told) that ‘recovery’ meant reaching a stage where the bad days were less frequent and, when they occurred, you could deal with the impulses better and avoid relapsing. I thought that the anorexic voice would always be in my head – that was inevitable and unchangeable – but that I would eventually get to the point where I learned to stand up to it and win more of our arguments.
In December 2012 I had an internship with a fantastic psychotherapist at the Harley Street Eating Disorder Clinic. Due to it being a private clinic I was in the privileged position of being able to sit in on therapy sessions with the patients’ consent, which was an incredible opportunity to view the treatment process as an outsider. It was there that I heard, for the first time, someone say that total recovery was possible.
If it is actually possible to get rid of that voice completely, I thought, if there is more to recovery than that limbo of acceptance and daily battles to be won, then why should I be content to stay where I was? Why had I stopped the fight for recovery and settled into a pattern of talking myself down from the skyscraper of temptation to slip back into old habits, believing that there was no other way of getting on with life? I decided to restart my campaign for recovery in my own head – this time with a whole new ‘can do’ attitude – and the results were phenomenal!
This time last year I was using Eating Disorder Awareness Week to gather support for the 180km row from Oxford to London to raise money for Beat – the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, which I also volunteer as a Young Ambassador for – which I did in the summer alongside other members of my college boat club. At each stop along the route we were met by a mountain of food to ‘refuel’, which I ravished without a second thought – recognising my body’s need for sustenance and actively enjoying it!
Our aim was to ‘embrace our rowing thighs’ in order to show eating disorder sufferers that they, too, could learn to love their bodies – a concept which I whole-heartedly adopted. The focus on being ‘super-strong’ that I have today is a far cry from my old internal and inescapable drive to be ‘super-skinny’. It’s taken a long time, and hasn’t been an easy ride at all, but at last I’ve stopped hearing Ana’s voice altogether!
And so today I want to tell you that, yes, recovery is a journey – but not an aimless wander through a maze with twists and turns and no end point except back where you started. It has a finite goal. A destination. The place where I am right now. The place that you or your friend can get to too.