Two years ago I wrote a blog post for the Mind Your Head campaign about battling anorexia and bulimia while at Oxford, and beginning the path to recovery after the shock of first year pushed me into relapse. Time has flown. ‘Recovery’ has two meanings. The first is returning to full strength, the second is regaining possession of something that was lost or stolen. Recovery from an eating disorder must happen in both senses of the word.
At the time of my last post I was preoccupied with the physical battle. I needed to eat so that I had the energy to function, to do my essays, and to allow my brain to work as it should. This was practical recovery from the duel demons of anorexia and bulimia, and it is the first step along a very hard, arduous road. In time I recovered my full physical strength. I had not yet recovered what the eating disorders had stolen from me, what I had lost. They had taken my sense of self, my sense of humour, my interest in the world and my conscience. It was only as these things crept back that I understood: regaining these things is to truly recover your identity.
Until I had fully recovered these pieces of me I couldn’t consider myself better. It took a long time to retrain my head and be able to ignore the demands the disorder placed on me. It took longer still to let go. There’s a temptation to continue to define yourself by your illness, even if it is no longer affecting your behaviour. But you cannot be recovered and keep anorexia as a Plan B in case anything goes wrong in the future. That way the illness still has some sway over your life.
For me recovery wasn’t a watershed. I didn’t wake up one morning and realise that I was ‘better.’ It was the occasional realisation that I was doing something that two years, or even two months ago would have been physically impossible or emotionally draining. I ate dessert in a restaurant without questioning it. I counted down the days to my next beach holiday. I got stronger in the gym. I realised I’d spent a significant amount of time without so much as one disordered niggle creeping up on me. I discovered that I’m optimistic, a trait that had been hidden for seven years.
My purpose in writing this is two-fold. Firstly, it is eating disorder awareness week and despite the huge amount of work done by individuals and charities across the nation, misguided and hurtful stereotypes still exist. More needs to be done to highlight the devastation eating disorders can cause. Stereotypes include the idea that only females suffer, that it’s necessary to be underweight to be ‘ill,’ that they are a form of attention seeking, and that they are a choice. None of these myths are true, but these preconceptions can prevent people who desperately need help from seeking it.
Secondly, I hope that anybody suffering who reads this, or anybody clinging on to the last tendrils of an eating disorder can believe that full recovery is both possible and within reach. It is by no means easy, at times it is soul-destroying and physically painful, but even the worst day in recovery is better than life with an ED. It is the most worthwhile battle you will ever undertake. It is the battle for yourself.