EDAW’13: Now that I don’t have an eating disorder…

Cake: Something I enjoy.

Cake: Much tastier without a side of guilt and self-loathing.

So today’s the last day of this year’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week. I’ve read the blog-posts, the newspaper articles and watched the campaign videos – there’s been some fantastic stuff this year. And I’ve spent quite a bit of the week thinking about what my offering would be. Last year I wrote this post about how difficult it is to spot someone suffering from an eating disorder.

The days ticked on. And I realised that maybe the reason I’m struggling to engage with this topic is that, really, I don’t have an eating disorder.

I used to. I had an eating disorder for 6 years and recovery, like the onset, has snuck insidiously into my life. At first it was all big steps, exceptions and firsts. Challenges and a lot of tears. But slowly, it started becoming more and more everyday until I reached a point where I don’t really remember the last time I engaged in some typically ‘eating disordered’ behaviour. Every time I eat a typical meal or don’t beat myself up about gaining a couple of pounds, it’s not ‘a step in recovery‘, it’s just ‘living‘.

It’s taken a long time and a lot of work to get here, and I don’t want to lose track of that. I’ve done a whole lot of treatment (thank you NHS!) and I’ve had some brilliant support from my long-suffering friends, family and partners. It didn’t ‘just happen’, but then, suddenly, here I am. I have off-days and times when I get down about my body, but they’re not extreme and they don’t restrict my life. So I thought this year I’d reflect on some of the quiet achievements of recovery and living in (relative) balance with food and my body. I’d like to encourage others still stuck in ED-hell that recovery, though not easy, really is possible. And life on the other side is rather good.

Now that I don’t have an eating disorder…

  • I go out to dinner, to parties and events. I don’t have to live in fear of a buffet being suddenly sprung on me! And these events don’t revolve around the food, I can focus on being together with others.
  • I have no ‘forbidden’ foods. I eat all sorts of food. Sometimes I go for a very indulgent meal or eat a whole packet of biscuits and I don’t really care because everyone does that and one day of indulgence will not make me balloon-out. 
  • I don’t cry when I go clothes shopping. I go get another size. Or just shop online.
  • Sometimes I gain weight. And sometimes I lose weight. It doesn’t have a huge impact on my day/week/month. I actually rarely weigh myself.
  • There are things about my appearance I’m not so keen on. I still have hang-ups and insecurities. But I don’t think anyone has a 100% positive body-image. However, looking in the mirror and not liking how I look doesn’t stop me going out and doing the things I want to do.
  • When someone tells me I look ‘well’ or ‘healthy’ I don’t automatically assume that they mean I’ve put on weight. I can actually take a compliment now!
  • I don’t get into ‘diet talks’. They really bore me. Diets have had enough of my life already.
  • I can think about things other than food, weight, body sizes and the massive long lists of numbers (calories, time in the gym, km run, inches round the waist) that an eating disorder can involve. There’s so much space inside my head now to think so many different things.

So well done to everyone involved in the week raising awareness, there’s still so much more to do but every year I feel like people are becoming more sensitive and understanding of eating disorders.

Ordinary Obsessions

When I left eating disorder treatment I wanted to love myself and my body. Love, not just like. Not just tolerate, put up with, make-do. I wanted to look in the mirror and smile at the person standing there, feel that that was someone worth being. Turn around, do a twirl, and love the me-ness reflecting out.

I was 18 and I’d been in out-patient treatment for a year. I’d been to countless assessments and therapy sessions, cried in front of various stern professionals, and grudgingly, bite by painful bite, I’d put the weight back on. I was crawling back to wellness. But it had been worth it. When my body had enough energy to power it, the world didn’t feel like quite such a fearful place. I began to venture out, to open my mouth, smile and rekindle the friendships my illness had tossed aside.  Something warm began to grow in me.

When the clasps of this monster started to loosen, I felt like I could finally see the full extent of the horror I’d led myself into. The scars on my limbs, the downy hair that now grows permanently from my cheeks, my back and chest.  The dull ache in my fragile, calcium-deficient bones. The feeling of grief for the younger-me began to turn into an anger. Why had being thin, being ‘beautiful’ been so important that I had risked my life and hurt so many others for it? I felt desperately sad for everyone else still stuck in the pain I had felt. I wanted to lash out at the world that had planted such ideas in my head. I was a born-again body-confidence evangelist. Working Saturdays in a local book-shop I felt a surge of rage at the shelves in the ‘health’ section.  Filled with tones of empty promises for the perfect figure and the perfect life; through a few simple dietary instructions. Why should we sell so many of these ugly things, when we didn’t have a single copy of ‘Lolita’, or ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’? But there was a demand that kept the books in stock.

At the eating disorder clinic, there were no fashion or gossip magazines in the waiting room. Only rather dull publications on gardening, interior design and current affairs. At the time I found this rather patronising, that they feared that a photo of a supermodel would be so wretchedly triggering that I wouldn’t be able to bare it. But looking back on it, I think about how they’d tried to keep the clinic a safe space, away from the blare of the appearance-obsessed media. A rare haven away from the storm. It was a token-effort, but I can appreciate it.

In treatment you learn that ‘normal’ people do not keep their bodies at an unhealthy weight, or go to such extremes to lose and maintain weight. The dietician gave me a plan of ‘normal’ eating, with three balanced meals a day, plus snacks in between. ‘Normal’ people feel hunger, and then they eat. And they’re able to stop eating when they’re full. And then they carry on with their day. ‘Normal’ people do not wake up in the middle of the night sweating because they dreamt they went downstairs and ate everything in the fridge. ‘Normal’ people do not burst into tears when trying on jeans in Topshop.

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Re-capture – Eating Disorder Recovery in Photographs

I had a bit of good news today. Which I rather needed as this morning I went out to find someone had broken into my car, which left me more than a little bit miffed. Anyway, back to my news.

I found out that a photograph I took is going to be included in an exhibition of photos by young people (I still count as young!) about recovery from eating disorders. The exhibition is going to be displayed at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh during eating disorders awareness week (20th – 26th February) and then will be touring around Scotland. The people from the project say: ‘It is hoped that the exhibition will create a better understanding of eating disorders and the journey of recovery, while helping to tackle stereotypes and stigma attached to the illness.’  I sadly can’t go to the launch event, but I’m quite excited that so many people will see my photo (I’ve never had a photo in anything like this! I’m going to see if I can get a photo of my photo on the wall). I hope that people will see something in it, that it’ll mean something.

The photo I took probably isn’t one of my ‘technically’ best shots, but it’s one that I felt summed up a lot of my recovery (very much an on-going process). It’s quite simple, but it’s something about ‘making friends’ with my body, after putting it through so much. It’s a picture of my stomach, which if I’m honest, is the part of my body I’ve disliked the most. It does feel a bit strange to put it out there, to the world! I’ve spent many years obsessing over it, trying to hide it, sucking it in, measuring it, doing ever-more sit-ups and crunches. But it’s a part of my body, a part of me. And I don’t have to love it every single day, but I’m learning to live with it, to accept it. And maybe there’s something beautiful about the human body, just as it is. As a photographer I find the human body fascinating. I enjoy photographing people of all different sizes, physiques and looks, but I find it hard to apply this to myself. I’ve come a long way, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel 100% recovered. Maybe I will, I don’t know. It doesn’t dominate my life as it once did, and that’s amazing. There are days when I feel quite ambivalent about it all, but getting the email about this today kind of made me feel that even though it can be really tough, it’s worth it, it’s worth trying.

I haven’t seen the other photographs yet (part of my is hoping there aren’t too many images of smashed scales and tape-measures, but I guess a bit of that kind of imagery is inevitable), but I there’s going to be an online gallery. I’ll post a link when it comes up. I feel quite honoured to be involved in a project like this and be able to use something I love like photography to do something for the cause. Rather than a more public audience, I’m kind of wondering about what reaction I’ll get from other people with eating disorders, what they’ll think. If anyone’s in Scotland and gets a chance to see the exhibition in-real-life, I’d love to hear what you thought!