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Talking To Anorexia

I got into bed last Sunday night knowing that the Louis Theroux documentary was being broadcast. To be honest though I wasn’t really interested in watching it. Having lived with anorexia for half my life, I tend to not want to spend too much time indulging in programmes, films or articles that focus on eating disorders. Thankfully now I live a life where my eating disorder is no longer at the forefront of my life.

But I did catch the first few minutes of it whilst brushing my teeth, and curiosity got the better of me. I am not sure why – perhaps I was tired, but I burst into tears and had to turn it off. It wasn’t seeing the patients (clients as I prefer to call them) that got to me, but it was listening to the impact anorexia was having on the parents of one of the case studies. We generally talk about eating disorders in relation to the sufferer, and how hard it must be for them. Sure, it is a total nightmare living with an eating disorder, it wears you down and takes every ounce out of you, but I also know that it drains every ounce from its loved ones too.

Having no idea about the content or format of the documentary, I was surprised to learn that the two clinics it focused on were already familiar to me. St Ann’s in North London was my only real experience of NHS treatment when I was referred there by my GP. I was incredibly ill and remember driving myself there terrified at what the outcome would be. I walked into the reception greeted by a receptionist and several ill girls walking along the corridor. I sat there and convinced myself that I was not as ill as them and almost left. Something kept me there, probably the same voice that has always been there – the one that desperately wanted to be well. My experience was short-lived, as an hour later I was sitting in my car in tears, feeling a complete failure. I was offered 30 mins every six weeks, so I drove home determined to lose more weight and prove I could be a better anorexic.

The second clinic was Vincent Square in Central London. Coincidentally I was scheduled to speak there on Tuesday – two days after the documentary broadcast. I had been invited to share my story with the clients. So, on Monday morning, I got up and watched the documentary ahead of my talk. I decided that I would look at it through my journalistic eyes and not my emotionally involved self. It was incredibly honest, raw and saddening to watch. I was one of those clients not too long ago, and it was like looking in the mirror. I hadn’t really put too much thought into how I might feel when I was first invited to speak, but having watched the programme, I did wonder if I would be triggered.

I arrived at Vincent Square, and was trying to think what I could tell the clients that would be of any use. I remembered when I was in their shoes, there was very little anyone could say that would make me change. There was one particular client featured in the programme, who I related to so much. She had spent the last six birthdays in an inpatient clinic and she was 28 years old. The same age that I had finally decided I needed to ‘give up’ the fight. It was the age I went to the US. I couldn’t imagine living my 30s the way I had lived my 20s, and this was my message to her. I can’t recall everything I said, but I managed to speak for a good 30 mins without coming up for air – and that’s because I feel so passionately that the people sat in front of me, deserved to life a free from the prison that traps them. There was not a single person sat in the room who deserved the punishing regime their eating disorder was inflicting on them.

Some of the clients were more engaged with me than others, but that’s the nature of an eating disorder. Sometimes you are present, sometimes you are not, and sometimes you are completely on your own planet. Most of them seem to be interested in how people in the outside world reacted to me when I told them I had eating disorder. I remember feeling incredibly ashamed of my anorexia. I didn’t want it to isolate me, which is a strange paradox when you think about it; I was actively disconnecting from everything and everyone through my eating disorder. Fortunately, for the most part I’ve been blessed with amazingly supportive friends and family who have stood by me. There is no denying though that my eating disorder was a bore to be around, it was attention-seeking and selfish, and this was what I told the group. It might sound brutal, but I think it’s important to remind clients that their eating disorder is a collective experience for everyone.

The two key messages I relayed was, that getting well can’t be done in isolation. It needs to be done as part of a team. If you are suffering, let go and trust those around them to let them help you help yourself. Connections and relationships is what will keep you well. I was taught to choose the relationship over the food. So go for that dinner, lunch or brunch. Go not because of the food, but because the connection you make with others is what will move you forwards. Relationships will become more important than your eating disorder if you step outside of your comfort zone. And my second message; recovery is not easy. You will need to do things that make you rage inside. When I was watching the documentary, one of the clients didn’t want to sit down when Louis asked her to. For her, it meant a missed opportunity to remain in control, obey her eating disorder and burn a few calories more. I could feel the anger, that showed in her face when she agreed to sit for ten seconds. Crazy behaviour, but that is what an eating disorder is – totally illogical. The thing is, sitting down was exactly what she needed to do. Even 20 seconds because that would have been pushing out her eating disorder and regaining control. Ironically someone with an eating disorder thinks they are in control, when the complete opposite is true. Not sitting down is easy, sitting down is hard. Not eating the cookie is easy, eating the cookie is hard, so do the harder thing if you want recovery.

Documentaries about eating disorders are complicated. This one was a true representative of the brutal reality of an eating disorder. I know this because I saw myself in many of the women featured. I have been in a clinic where you need to relinquish all control, be watched while you go to the toilet, be constantly supervised, obey strict rules, and where privileges need to be earned. I have experienced both inpatient here in the UK and in the US, but it was the difference in approach to treatment that was vital in my recovery. My experience in the UK was one that focused too much on restoring my weight and not my soul. And this is the only real criticism of the documentary. A lot of the time it focused on the number on the scales, and that is not a true representation of how ill someone is. It also again, focused heavily on white, underweight women. I appreciate the title of the programme was ‘Talking to Anorexia’ but eating disorders are not just about starvation. We need to talk about women and men with bulimia, overweight people who struggle with binge-eating and those who obsess about fitness and suffer with orthorexia. I know that you can’t fit every aspect into a one hour programme, but it’s important to remember eating disorders do not discriminate.

Louis was brilliant in his delivery and managed to speak to the clients directly while remaining cautious. The documentary didn’t glamorise anorexia, or sprinkle it with Hollywood dust. It showed them for what they are, an incredibly complex and brutal mental illness, that can deplete the physical and mental health to death. It shows that recovery is a concoction of fear, relapse, and pain. It’s an education to all; that recovery from an eating disorder requires a huge amount of team work. Clients need a loving, caring but challenging environment, where they feel safe enough to step into the unfamiliar and unknown. Although the programme may have left viewers with a sense that recovery was rare, I know that it is totally possible. I am not alone, and know countless others who have found their way to the light. I left Vincent Square, not feeling triggered, but a huge sense of gratitude for being able to walk through the doors, and get on with living my life. I had no desire to go back to that dark place, where I was consumed with anger and sadness. My hope for the clients featured, and for everyone who is struggling, is that you do not give up before you experience what your life could be like without your eating disorder.