*This article discusses eating disorders and weight loss in detail, and could be potentially triggering. If you or someone you know are struggling with an eating disorder, visit BEAT or speak to a trained professional.*
I’m seventeen years old and my best friend has just told me that she’s celebrating her birthday at a local seafood restaurant. She’s excited, talking about how you get given little hammers to smash the crab, and how delicious their fries are. I feel a familiar panic beginning to rise within me. My brain is already calculating all the future calories and searching for escape routes.
But I have to go. I’ve already avoided dinner plans and brunch meetups for weeks, becoming that flakey friend who never turns up, and this is a birthday party. So I’ll go and I’ll try to eat as little as possible, and I’ll excuse myself to go the bathroom to handle the little I’ve eaten. I’ll return to the table and nervously wonder if people could hear me, if they can smell the sick I tried hard to wash away. I’ll lose that evening to my eating disorder, like every evening before it, like every evening that follows it.
Every social situation was similar to this. I’d either avoid going or panic about it in the run-up to the event. I stopped being excited by the iced cake you could expect at a birthday, and instead tried to plan how I could leave the room as soon as it was being served. I didn’t trust myself to be around all that food and not give in to weakness. Because I thought I was being strong by avoiding it all. I thought that my strength was why my clothes were hanging off me and everyone kept complimenting my figure. I didn’t realise that it was an illness embedded deep within me, one I would spend a decade trying to escape.
When I look back to the worst of my eating disorder, I’m overwhelmed by the loneliness that accompanies these memories. I stopped seeing social situations as a moment for connection or even joy and instead viewed them as hurdles. It was like being in my own video game and trying to avoid all food icons to proceed to the next level of weight loss.
You don’t realise how many social situations revolve around food until it becomes your enemy. Brunches involve flaky croissants and syrup-drenched pancakes. Lunch plans have creamy avocados spread over toast or sandwiches dripping with butter. Dinner plans come with the risk of free bread, portions of oily french fries or anything involving cheese. Then people will sneakily smile and suggest dessert, a curse word in your hungry language. Birthdays don’t mean celebrating, they mean bowls of crisps and paper plates of cake.
Food is a way of connecting with people as much as it’s a way of feeding your body. It’s an excuse to meet up, it’s recipes swapped, it’s Instagram pics of your friend grinning with their doughnut. Food is as much a part of social situations as alcohol (a terrifying thought), so being anorexic can feel like the equivalent of being sober in these moments. You feel out of place, you feel like you’re making up for it. The only difference is that sobriety is a healthy choice, while anorexia is a form of slow death, more equatable to the addiction of alcoholism.
I avoided situations with food like my friends had invited me to go run over puppies rather than grab a burger at the mall. I hated eating anywhere that I couldn’t see exactly what had gone into my meal, where I couldn’t measure the portion size and avoid secret monsters like olive oil or salt. I always wanted to be close to a personal bathroom so I could remedy any situation.
I slowly created these walls between myself and others, and those walls were built of all the meals I had missed. I lost moments of connection through isolating myself from food, and with that, isolating myself from other people.
This lack of connection ran deeper than dinners missed, it was a complete blockage. I was so undernourished that I lacked energy for the most basic things. Going through the steps of daily life was enough to exhaust me. I put so much focus towards the act of not eating and finding ways around it that I had little left to think of others. I became selfish to those around me, obsessed with how I looked and neglecting the people who cared about me.
I was a wild card on a night out, as it took only a few drinks on my empty stomach to make me absurdly drunk. I drank to forget I was hungry. I drank to have the energy to make it through the night. I drank to feel like I was still fun to be around. This could end in funny stories for everyone around, or with someone being forced to take me home covered in my own sick, unintentionally for once.
My life revolved around food, calories and measurements, and I couldn’t understand why no one else was thinking about these things. I wanted to connect with people but we no longer spoke the same language. I was carrying the burden of this secret and that blocked my ability to find comfort in others. The close friends who began to see that something was really wrong with me lacked the language to confront me and had to find solace in distance. I don’t blame them for protecting themselves from me. I was a difficult person to be around and they were too young to know what to do.
My eating disorder took so much from me. I’ll never have a healthy relationship with food, I’ll never repair the damage done to my body, I’ll never be able to forget the number of calories in each food type. But of everything, I’m most impacted by the moments I missed. I barely remember that birthday party. I look at the photo of me and the birthday girl holding our crab hammers, and see only emptiness in my eyes. There’s a grin plastered on my face but it could easily be a painted-on mask. I spent the dinner panicking about the food on my plate and planning an escape to the bathroom.
I lost those formative years to an animal within my mind that could never be sated. No amount of weight loss was enough to silence it. This creature needed me alone, and that’s exactly what it got. I lost friends to my eating disorder, and I never felt strong enough to repair the bridge that had appeared between us. I want to reach out and apologise to them. I want to explain that despite controlling every single thing I ate and drank, I had no control over my life back then. I want them to know that they couldn’t have helped me either. I had to help me in the end, I had to want to help me.
I look back on my younger years with so much sadness rather than a wistful melancholy. My eating disorder left me starving for connection, and it’s a hunger I’m never able to fill now.
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Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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