The girl who tried to disappear

Last week, an anorexic teenager went missing from hospital. Rachel Baird (right) knows just what made her run
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Indy Lifestyle Online
My first specific memory of guilt about food is of Christmas 1982, when I wolfed down After Eight chocolates one after the other, compulsively, and then ran up a hill in the hope of ridding myself of some of the calories. I was 11 years old.

I grew up in a large, cold house in a leafy part of Birmingham, with two social worker parents and one younger sister. Both my sister and I went to our local state junior school. I think she was tolerably happy, but I felt an outsider. I was constantly comparing myself to the most popular girls, with their thin legs and blonde hair. Vanity? Certainly. But it didn't get me very far. At 4ft 11in I'm hardly catwalk model material. It's because I starved when I should have been growing.

Soon after the Christmas incident, something snapped within me. I ate less and less, exercised for hours every day and retreated into a world in which the only things that mattered were food and exercise. I developed many bizarre eating habits. One was diluting skimmed milk to the point where it was almost water before pouring it on my All Bran. I also became skilled at cutting slices of bread so thin they looked like lace.

I thought I had finally attained the sort of self-control and physical discipline so highly praised by the diet and fitness books (I recall I had one called Thin Thighs), but by then it was the anorexia in control, not me. My hands and feet went purple as my circulation shut down, and cuts healed slowly. I could not get warm, even curled up tightly in bed. Bodies go slow on non-vital functions when they're starving.

I am sure I horrified those around me. Of course I saw the jutting pelvis and skin stretched thin over my ribcage, and it did not please me. It was merely a fact of life, an incidental side-effect of following the deadly diet and exercise regime I felt compelled to follow.

Reaching four stone was just the same incidental thing, not a triumph or a disaster. It was a problem in so far as it worried my parents, who wept and cajoled by turns. Once when I was washing up my shoulder blades were so painfully obvious they made my mum cry, and my dad demanded that I put on a jumper. He kept telling me I was killing myself and though I denied it, I knew something was desperately wrong.

The first time they took me to see a GP, he dismissed my weight loss as a "phase." But after the second visit in June 1983 I was immediately admitted to Birmingham Children's hospital - distraught, but too feeble to resist.

There was a catchy Bananarama song in the charts around the time called "Cruel Summer", which it certainly was for me. My 10 weeks on Ward Seven were the worst of my life. Some of the nurses were so unsympathetic they terrified me. I was put in a room alone, on "bed rest", which meant never getting up and the humiliation of using bedpans. Initially I refused to eat, so they threatened nasal feeding. I saw the girls on the ward with tubes protruding from their noses and gave in. But starving had shrunk my stomach and eating four meals a day was agonisingly painful.

After that, the food increased slowly. Meals were brought by nurses who sat next to my bed and watched me for as long as I took to eat them. My diary records a typical lunch: "Chips, fishsticks or fishfingers covered in grease. Mashed potato and vegetables or salad. Custard and jam tart." For someone who was obsessed by calories, meals like this were torture.

I did what pathetically little I could to evade calories. Toast, for example, came soaked in butter, so I tore it into little pieces and tried to squeeze out the butter before eating it. The many other foods that came dripping in fat got the same obsessive treatment.

There was only one other anorexic on the ward, with whom I got on well. The other children included a girl who hardly spoke at all and a boy with a brain disorder, who had regular screaming fits.

My parents wrote to me every day but they were allowed to visit for just two or three hours a week. I don't remember much about their visits, but I would tell them how awful it was and they would reply that they weren't supposed to talk about food. I am sure that the stress contributed to my mum's death from cancer four years later.

Eventually I was allowed to get up, with muscles so wasted that I had difficulty walking, and later there were visits home. I was finally released just in time to start secondary school in September 1983.

I never went back to hospital and have gradually recovered. My family, friends and lovers have helped far more than psychiatrists, who I eventually refused to see. They have helped me feel I am worth caring about and even passably attractive. But kicking an addiction to an abusive relationship with food is terrifically difficult because, unlike alcohol or cigarettes, you can't give it up. You just have to learn less dangerous eating habits and to find better ways than starving to cope with the world.

Unlike Jackie Hooker, I never tried to escape from Ward Seven. Presumably I thought it impossible, because I certainly wanted to escape. Hospital was hell. But it saved my life, for which I'm (usually) grateful. Could it have been done better? Anorexics are infamously devious patients, who go to astounding lengths to avoid eating and gaining weight. So you have to control them closely until they admit they are ill and are determined to recover.

That said, I would have found it easier to eat food that was less "junky", and choices - within limits - about what to eat would have helped me relearn normal eating patterns. Being told more about my treatment - for example, how much weight I needed to gain and how quickly, or what progress the psychiatrists felt I was making - might have made me less suspicious and frightened. As it was, I don't remember being a "partner" in the treatment, just an object.

Things would also have been less frightening if I had been allowed to see my parents more often - the environment would have seemed less threatening. And while I needed to be away from home and in the care of professionals, a more home-like place would have been more comforting than a hardy, shiny hospital ward. This is the idea behind some of the private eating disorder clinics that have opened since I was in hospital.

If treating anorexia is difficult, preventing every case is impossible, because it has so many imperfectly understood causes. The best we can do is help young people develop their self-esteem and healthy ways of coping with problems. And if people - GPs especially - understood eating disorders better, those with problems would be spotted earlier and people would be encouraged to get help before their obsessions became entrenched.

This conventiently assumes "help" is available within GPs' stretched budgets or from the Eating Disorders Association's overburdened helpline. Reducing the damage done by anorexia will cost money. It was reportedly the expiry of a medical insurance policy that forced Jackie Hooker out of a private eating disorders clinic and into an NHS hospital, from which she ran away.

If she sees this article I hope she'll believe me, as one who's been there, that treatment will make the world more bearable. Anorexia is what she must escape from. Life after anorexia is worth fighting for.