Some really lovely people on here and Twitter have praised me for how well I understand what L is going through. I feel a bit of a fraud, so it’s time to come clean. Many years ago, as a teenager, I had an eating disorder.
Not anorexia. I was never good enough at my eating disorder to have it. See what I did there? Used classic anorexiaspeak. But it is true. My period stopped, but my weight wasn’t that low. I restricted eating, but could never really keep it up. To this day I still eat the whole apple including the core, and eat orange peel, a hangover from the days when a meal consisted of a piece of fruit. I had a cheesecake recipe book that I read over and over and never made a single one. (Actually, for me that was the first warning bell with L, the recipe reading.) But I got bored. Not eating was really dull. There are so many great foods out there. And after a few months, I decided I had been really silly. But the disorder stayed with me, a little.
Not anorexia though. That is a clinical diagnosis which I didn’t meet. But disordered eating – hell, yes. I remember ordering a slice of buttered malt loaf at school for lunch and slowly scraping the butter off and mentally counting how many calories had been removed. How odd that those with eating disorders worry about their self esteem, how others see them and yet behave bizarrely in full view of others. And no one challenges.
As for not being good enough to have anorexia, it isn’t just that I have a disordered eating brain. It is that I know how driven and focused L is. Once she decides to do something, nothing stops her. She works incredibly hard at school and revises diligently for exams. She tells me how worried she is about her exam and I tell her exams don’t really matter, you can always resit. I am dismissive of petty school rules whereas L is a delight to all her teachers, only falling foul of those who act unjustly. Anorexia has such a tight grip on her (albeit a loosening one) because once she set off on her journey, she wasn’t going to give up. She has discipline and determination in spades and nothing less than excellent will do. She has been an outstanding anorexic. Letting go of such an achievement is hard. I can already see how the part of her brain that is working on recovery is considering how to be really good at it. The staff at the unit love her. She is proud of her progress.
What I am trying to say, along with my confession, is that in the same way as it isn’t my failure as a mother that led L to anorexia, nor is it her failure as a person. I hate the eating disorder that consumes her, but I love the determination and want her to realise that she didn’t have anorexia because she is weak. Ed chose her, because she is strong and can carry out the immense task of starvation while pretending everything is fine. Except it isn’t an achievement. It is a cruel and clever trick, played by an ingenious illness that seeks out victims to destroy, using their strength as their undoing.
So I say to L often, that the same strength that led her to starve herself, go running, walk for miles and make herself sick can be used to recover. And to every anorexic who thinks they are too weak, without your strength you could never have been as ill as you were. One more eating disorder paradox. Bit in the same way that the strong and the driven can be rendered weak by anorexia, it is never too late, with the help of loved ones, to turn that strength into an irresistible force for healing, to take what the eating disorder knew was there and use it against it.