Beating eating disorders – three years on...

Stuck is a torturous place. The most frustrating thing about it is that only you have the power to change it.

Ilona Burton
Friday 29 March 2013 19:07 GMT
(Getty Images)

With music blasting, I took down the posters that sometimes motivated and other times frustrated, I picked up the cards and letters from the people who'd supported me or felt obliged to and I packed up the clothes that, disturbingly, had recently begun to fit rather than hang.

After nine months in the room on the right at the end of the corridor on the bottom floor of Russell House, a room I had become quite attached to, despite the dripping ceiling, plastic mattress, ridiculous over-heating and regular wake-up calls/stabbings (to check blood sugar levels), I was ready to leave. Correction: set to leave. Not quite ready...

My discharge date was decided when, together with my therapist, key nurses and consultant, we agreed that I was by no means fixed or cured, but that I also wasn't coming on leaps and bounds towards that impossibly magical sounding 'fully recovered'. My weight was low but safe and stable and my bulimia was finally under control. It was time to leave.

I slotted neatly into the gap between illness and wellness; between an anorexic BMI and an underweight BMI; between wanting to cling to my eating disorder and wanting to take that leap to leave it all behind. I desperately wanted to be healthy and live and eat without constant torment, I didn't want to deal with hunger pangs but equally, I hated the pangs of guilt I felt every time I tried to fight those intense urges to starve or exercise or puke. I wanted to live in both worlds; to stand on the very edge of my eating disorder, where I felt safe and comfortable but from where I could tell and show all the others, “Look, I'm OK!”

I was in a horrible place called 'stuck'. I wasn't moving forwards or backwards in recovery. I wasn't gaining weight, but I wasn't losing it either. I wasn't challenging myself at mealtimes, but I wasn't racing to the toilet afterwards. I wasn't complacent, but I was tired of trying and motivation had run its course.

Being stuck is a horrible place to be. A good friend of mine is in that place now and looking back, I wonder if it is more difficult to be hung in the balance than it is to be consumed by anorexia and really ill as a result. Anorexia is exhausting, but fighting against it every waking moment for weeks, months or even years and feeling as though you're achieving nothing – that is hard.

Being stuck feels safe, to a certain, vaguely twisted degree. You can tell your loved ones that you're trying really hard to fight this bitch of an illness and they will try all they can to see and believe that. You can tell your GP or therapist or consultant that you're trying, but allow yourself to be honest and admit those struggles and that's OK, but they can only push you so far and say all the things they've said before. You tell yourself all sorts; you never stop. You assure yourself you're ok, you're fine, you're following your meal plan and that's all you need to do to be well. But you worry and anorexia will tell you that if you're following your meal plan, you're not really ill in the first place, you're a fraud, a fake and a liar... so you might skip breakfast. Just one meal, it's fine...

Being stuck is not safe. Being stuck means that you are constantly fighting for both sides; for a terrifyingly powerful eating disorder which wants you to cling to it and never let go, and for the part of you that wants to live. Striking a balance between the two might seem like having the best of both worlds: congratulations, you're a functioning eating disordered person, well done! That's not living. It's existing, with the daily struggle of batting off unwanted thoughts and feelings every time you allow yourself to do something you deserve to do; eat, and possibly even enjoy the bloody food too.

Three years ago, I walked out of that eating disorders unit never to return (I say, confidently, but still with something minuscule still niggling: “You're sure about that, really?” Yes, really). Three years ago, I was determined never to be hospitalised for an eating disorder ever again. Three years ago, I was free in one sense of the word, but imprisoned still; petrified of gaining weight.

You'll be getting bored of the word 'stuck' by now, for which I apologise, but the more hindsight I have, the more I realise that this is actually an enormous problem, and possibly an obvious explanation for why so many people with eating disorders go untreated. It is that place where a person can appear 'normal', both physically and mentally, and yet be struggling immensely with disturbing and destructive thoughts and feelings. These people go unnoticed and increasingly, it seems to me that it's almost accepted that people feel actual shame and even hatred at their own eating habits, body shapes and weights. You don't have to be skeletal to have a serious issue with food or weight – too many people now seem to think that everyone has these issues, it's just how it is... I find that both terrifying and deeply sad.

Stuck is a torturous place. The most frustrating thing about it is that only you have the power to change it. You can give in and let the eating disorder win, lose weight and still be miserable (because it's never enough) or you can grit your teeth and keep fighting, pushing for something that you hope exists, often blindly.

After two years or so of being in this awkward, relentless place, I realised I hadn't moved on much at all from where I was back on the day I was discharged. Fighting hard but getting nowhere and never, ever feeling proud of my achievements. I had slipped backwards if anything, with binges and purges working their ugly way back into my weekly routines. What a waste of time. Time goes by fast and months and years slip away while anorexia or bulimia remains; in the background perhaps, but still there, still nagging and affecting. Soon, I’d be 30 years old and still teetering – never completely happy or satisfied with my body or mind.

But there wasn’t a light bulb moment. No flick of the switch and no comment that struck me as being more true or inspirational than anything I’d heard or thought before. There really is no neat and tidy way to end this. It’s nice to have a beginning, middle and end, but it isn’t realistic.

Three years on, I’m eating whatever I want, when I want and very rarely feeling guilty for it. The problem is that if anyone sees that as inspirational and asks me how I got from where I was to where I am now, I simply don’t have the answer. Part of it is stepping back and realising how much life had been lost, but not regretting or dwelling on that and just thinking about the future. You can’t change the past, so why focus on that and use it to fuel negative thoughts about ever being able to move on from that? Nobody chooses to become anorexic or bulimic, but somewhere, everyone has a fight in them – and I can say that it is worth every second of fighting.

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