Have you ever wondered how people refer to you when you are not in the room and they don’t know or have forgotten your name? People refer to others using general but somehow specific terms all the time (my mum and I do this with contestants on Masterchef for example, this series we had “beardy man” and “Jam sandwich lady”), and it makes me think about how people refer to me. Rightly or wrongly I have always assumed that people call me “the anorexic one”, “the one who never went to school dinners”, “the one who disappeared into hospital for 10 months and then came back to sixth form 2 stone heavier” or words to similar effect, and it is one of the reasons that I find the concept of recovery so frightening and difficult to achieve. I feel that the label of being “anorexic” serves as a sort of identity both to me personally and for other people. In my head “anorexia” is my thoughts, it is all I think, it is what I do and who I am, so in my eyes if it disappeared, I would disappear too. I also feel this way about OCD sometimes, as that is also what I do and how I live/what I am, but the identity tie is mainly to the label of “anorexic”. After all, OCD is rarely used as an adjective to describe a person, you never hear the words “they are an OCDic.”
When anorexia first appears in someone’s life, it is sort of viewed as a separate thing, an added extra, an invader that is not part of the real person, or, in metaphorical terms, purple hair. People say that someone “has” anorexia much like they would say someone “has” purple hair due to some dye they have just bought, it is a temporary alteration to their being that will gradually wash out over time, it is not an integral part of who they are. If someone has it for a month, they will perhaps be known for that month as “the one with the purple hair” and then the label will change again as they themselves change style and perhaps career (e.g the brunette professional penguin tamer).
The problem is that the longer someone has purple hair, the more the purple hair becomes tied up with who they are as a person, they stop being a person with purple hair, the purple hair almost becomes them. When I was first diagnosed with anorexia it was an addition to who I was, a bit of purple colouring in my ponytail, but now after all these years I feel it has leaked all over me. The dye as it were hasn’t stayed in my hair, it has dribbled down into my skin so that my entire body is as violet as that girl who turns into that blueberry in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when she eats the piece of gum Willy Wonka told her wasn’t finished. I no longer have anorexia as one has purple hair, I am anorexic, I am entirely purple from head to toe. If you scrub at my hair or my skin, the colour doesn’t just wash out anymore, it has been too long, it is embedded and to get rid of it you would have to peel away all of my skin completely which would in turn get rid of me too. That is how anorexia feels in terms of my identity, it is a thing that has become me and that now I am so entirely that it is impossible to remove. Without that label who would I be? My therapist is always correcting me when I say things like “I am scared of eating X” by saying “the anorexia is scared of eating X, Katie isn’t” but I don’t feel like that is true. I don’t have a voice telling me to avoid going over a certain number of calories, it is just my thoughts, it is just me.
A few years ago I went to hang out at a friend’s house with various people I had not met before (some may have called it a “party” but there were no balloons and in my eyes a party is not a party without rubber sacks of the host’s breath floating about, so I would call it a “jovial social gathering”). At some point in the evening some cake was brought out and handed around. The plate and thus the cake was offered to every guest individually, except me. Don’t get me wrong, I really appreciated it and was relieved. I hate the awkward moments when people offer me things that I then have to make up excuses to avoid, and knowing this my friend the host (lets call her Bertha for the purpose of this conversation), did not put me in that position. She knew I wasn’t going to have any cake so she didn’t insist on the whole “Cake?”, “Oh, no thank you” palaver that is often so embarrassing. However, this act of what was consideration for me and kindness of a friend aware of my difficulties, really got me thinking. When Bertha went round the circle she saw everyone as a person with the potential to eat cake, but when she got to me she saw someone or something different, she saw one of the “anorexic species”, a creature notorious for avoiding sweet treats. It felt like Bertha saw me as “the anorexic one”, I was different, and I had to wonder what on earth would it have been like if in the five minutes before the offering of the cake, I had been struck by the most wonderful bolt of lightening in the history of weather, and instantly cured of all mental health problems ever. What if I hadn’t had the illness that made me “the anorexic one”, what would be left, if anything, or would there just be a an empty space where the former anorexic had been?
I guess the point I am trying to make here and the point of this post/what I want more people to understand, is that there is a reason that anorexia is so hard to recover from. It is such a complex illness that both destroys and provides in ways that people may not think.
When sufferers are trying to fight but are struggling, it isn’t simply a case of being “scared of food” or ”scared of gaining weight”, often it is also a fear of what they will lose, of throwing away everything that they think they are, the removal of their core identity, leaving a hole they have no idea how else to fill.
(Apologies for the crease at the top of this image…I actually drew this picture for an appointment with one of my psychologists and the paper got creased on the way to the hospital. It was a good day for therapy but a bad day for my attempts at art.)