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My friend Ana | MHAW 2023

Updated: May 16, 2023

I don’t believe that there is one single moment in someone’s life that leads to an eating disorder. Though it is often assumed that a particular image of a model in Vogue, or a misplaced comment from a peer might be enough to plant the seed of self-doubt that leads to disordered eating, the truth is far more complex and far less easy to predict.

Mental health awareness week 2023

My first memory of choosing not to eat something, I was eight years old. I’d just been swimming with my dad and younger brother but was now too old to change with them in the men’s and was sent by myself to women’s changing rooms. I don’t know why this felt so traumatic to me, but it did. I skipped the showers and waited in the cafe with my skin still smelling of chlorine. My dad bought me a jacket potato for lunch, and still to this day I find potato one of the hardest foods to swallow.

By ten I was throwing my sandwiches away on the way to school and gifting chocolate bars to my friends in the playground. By twelve I’d realised that if I skipped breakfast, I could go until dinner without feeling hungry at all. I was always the first to offer help with dishing up – who would ever notice an extra meatball on their spaghetti, or an added roastie on a Sunday? At no point in any of this had my weight been a factor. Neither was how I looked. I was a tomboy; all my friends were boys and I could climb trees faster than any of my brothers. The only magazine I cared about was the serial on Doctor Who. But there’s no doubt that I had an eating disorder.

Growing up with an eating disorder

For me growing up, Anorexia (or Ana as we called her in therapy) was my friend. She was a source of comfort, a voice of reason and rules. When everything felt uncertain, she knew how to make it better. With Ana I was always in control.

The first time anyone raised a concern with my weight was in GCSE’s. I was a good student, I had straight As. Though I wouldn’t say I was naturally smart by any stretch. I got As because I worked hard. I took every extra class, I stayed after school, I stuck revision cards on the back of the bathroom door and studied after bedtime. I was ‘boring’. At least, that’s my parents liked to joke when they found me glued to PGL revision guides on a Saturday evening. I was boring and regimented – and starving. As exams crept closer, my rules around eating got even stricter, and three of my teachers called an intervention. One afternoon, I was taken out of maths and forced to sit with three of my teachers and the school nurse, as they tried to figure out why I looked so ill. But I didn’t feel ill. And I didn’t want their attention. So, I palmed them off. I stopped going to extra classes and taught myself from the mark schemes. I avoided registration periods and continued to gift my lunch to the few friends I’d made who didn’t ask questions. I got away with it, and Ana had her first win.

eating disorder awarness

Summer holidays were always the worst. I hated holidays with all that time to fill. All the expectation to have a good time, to be constantly active yet unproductive, constantly happy by your own making – because I couldn’t be. I couldn’t enjoy myself at water parks or have an ice cream on a whim. I didn’t know how to socialise or laugh or relax with Ana in my head, constantly questioning, constantly calculating where the next meal might come from, how it could possibly be offset. I was a very lucky child. I had a wonderful family who took me on holidays abroad, at least ten days of sun and swimming pools and time just to be. Two brothers to play with, inbuilt playmates so I never had to be alone. But I felt alone, and my parents will attest, I made holidays very difficult for everyone.

Somehow, I made it through A levels. I had found the perfect level of eating that seemed undetectable. I started going out and found that alcohol could silence Ana, at least long enough to have a good night – to make me seem normal. I got a glimpse of who I might be without her, and I liked it. I fell for a boy in my town, and he kept me sane without even knowing it. I hope he never noticed when I forced myself to throw up his famous carbonara. Ana was still there but she was quieter, and I felt more confident in ignoring her when the offer of a beach trip, or last-minute concert came along. It was the calm before the storm.

re-feeding tube, anorexia nervosa

At university, away from everyone I’d ever known, anyone who might have been watching, I had free reign of everything. I could choose when I exercised, when I ate, what I ate – if I ate. Needless to say, it all fell apart very quickly. I started at university in October. By mid-November I’d collapsed in a dance class and I was hooked up to a re-feeding tube. I did most of my degree from home and cried the morning of my graduation, not wanting to sit among all the people who could have been my friends and face all that I’d missed out on. I'd let my parents down, but worst of all, I'd let myself down. It was my brother who convinced me to go. He stayed beside me the whole day.

Me and my brother at my graduation

At 28 I can now say that I’m a ‘healthy weight’, but I still have an eating disorder. I think I will have her forever. The only difference now is that I accept she’s not a friend. I also recognise that food is not really what I’m trying to control. I read a stat recently that really stuck with me:

3/4 of people with anorexia nervosa find it impossible to describe their own emotions in words, and often replace feeling with physical sensation.

For me, this perfectly summarises what Ana did for me. Because while emotions are unpredictable and often overwhelming, hunger is at least a pain I can control. It has the power to overshadow everything else. My safe place for so many years. And yet, all she’s left me with is grief for the many things I’ve lost – the friends I didn’t keep in touch with, the relationships I ran from, all the family events where I wasn’t wholly present. Anorexia was my coping mechanism for life, and in coping, I forgot how to live.

So this is me saying, goodbye Ana. You were both a brilliant and a terrible friend. I think it’s time I moved on.

If you think that you or someone you love might be struggling with an eating disorder, get in touch with BEAT for guidance on how to get the best support.

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