If I wanted to bury the story of my mental illness, I could get away with it. Anyone who took a good look at me around January 2014 knows about it, but people have short memories. I think I’ve destroyed most of the photographs (there weren’t many in any case) and thrown out the few pairs of trousers that fit me back then. When my hairstylist notices that my hair is significantly thicker near the top than the bottom, I say “I was ill for a while” with a subtext of “don’t press me on this one”.
Getting the story across is rather a lot of work. Most people carry around a pre-written script about anorexia, which the storyteller gets to fill in with experiences of his or her choice. I have to cross out large parts of that script before I even begin. I didn’t struggle with anorexia when I was away at boarding school, surrounded by the vulnerable and the viciously competitive. I didn’t have a breakdown when I moved to a new country and recognized myself to be a little bit socially awkward, even among the big brains of Oxford. Anorexia found me when I was a finalist—and a damn good one too, solidly in the running for a top first in PPE.
My behavior didn’t compute, so friends and family demanded that I explain myself. “You’re the most rational person I know,” started one friend’s intervention, “so how can this be happening?” “You’ve had every advantage,” my mother reminded me after waking me up at 3AM on Christmas Eve, “and I’ve never had to worry about you. Why are you doing this?”
My explanations never seemed quite adequate, even to me, but I’ll give it another try from here. I’m safe with my laptop, in no danger of embarrassing myself by crying in front of you, so perhaps I’ll manage to be more forthcoming and less wooden. It started out with a bad summer. Someone I loved had been dragged under by depression, surfacing only to convince acquaintances that everything was under control. When he wandered around the city planning his suicide, I was the one he called; when he listed the influences that had provoked or extended his illness, I took prominent place. Not upsetting him became my primary goal (once cheering him up was out of reach), but I always fell short.
Having gained a few pounds from the stress, I decided to cultivate healthier habits. Before your alarm bells start ringing, let me assure you that I knew precisely what “healthier habits” meant—plenty of water, fruits and vegetables, lean protein and so forth. But when I returned to Oxford, and I found myself applying for graduate schemes and graduate schools, and my relationship fell apart, and finals loomed, I started to care about the number on the scale. I didn’t care what it was as long as it was falling, and it was falling fast.
No, I didn’t see a fat person when I looked in the mirror. I saw what other people saw: a painfully thin figure swaddled in various scarves and coats, hair that had begun to fall out, desperate and unfocused eyes. Indeed, it was worse than that; as I told a sympathetic-sounding nurse a bit later on, I saw the embodiment of everything wrong with modern society. I identified (privately) as anorexic, and I thought of recovery as something desirable. Something desirable that I would pursue tomorrow, or next week, but never today.
In the end, I think I have a friend to thank for my recovery. He’d reported me to the Dean during Michaelmas, and the Dean had sent me along to the college nurse. Although my visit to her proved shockingly unhelpful (she noted that my current weight was “not natural” and that I would “have to keep restricting calories to maintain it”), it got me on the college’s list of problem students. That led to a mandatory doctor visit in Hilary. The doctor had very little idea what to do with me—after wasting a few minutes of the visit trying to convert kilograms to pounds, she forced out an “inspirational” speech in which she informed me that my options were “get worse”, “stay the same”, and “get better”. But she did threaten me with imminent expulsion from Oxford, and that did the trick. One visit later, I had gained several pounds; two visits later, I was back in the normal weight range.
I never went back to the clinic. I don’t pretend that my eating habits or attitudes to food instantly returned to normal, or that my body snapped right back to its prior state. Still, my weight never left the normal range, my fits of crying stopped, and I managed to eat out with friends and to appear in public without an overcoat. I earned one of the top PPE firsts in the university, won an economics award, and went off to graduate school as planned.
I’m not telling this story to boast, but I couldn’t tell it without boasting a little. You see, if I’d told you solely about my anorexia, you might have filled in the details yourself. You might have imagined me as vain, as a devotee of fashion magazines given to comparing herself to runway models. You might have thought that I’d become ill because I just couldn’t cope with my Oxford degree and my personal struggles, and I needed a way out. You might have pitied me for my weakness coupled with my unrealistic expectations for myself. I think that’s how my doctor felt, at least at first. If she hadn’t formed some judgment about my character, why would she have called me “an unusual woman” on my last visit simply because I’d “done what needed to be done”?
I don’t pretend to be a spokesperson for anorexia sufferers. I was fortunate: my battle was short, and help came early. Still, I suspect that my experience of mental illness was not wholly unusual. The problem is that people like me don’t have to share their stories. They don’t have to relive the pain and the humiliation. They can just scrape themselves off the floor and soldier on, and, for the most part, they do.
I’m of half a mind to do the same, to bury my worst days. I don’t want to think about the way my vision went dark every time I stood up. I don’t want to think about the exhaustion that made it near-impossible to get out to St Hugh’s for logic tutorials. I don’t want to think about getting lost in proofs that I should have understood because my brain wouldn’t link two thoughts together. But if all this happened to me—to someone with good prospects and a sense of humor and even a bit of an ego—it could have happened to anybody. So I’m telling my story, and to hell with the shame and the embarrassment and the unpleasantness!