Anorexia. Such a harsh, sharp word. Rather fitting, considering what it pertains to. A word charged with guilt, blame, secrecy and despair.
For more than 15 years of my life I battled with this double-edged sword. On the one hand, I felt disgusted to be labelled an Anorexic (what a pathetic waste of space). Yet there was a part of me that harboured a perverse pleasure at being skinny enough to garner the label. That may sound complex and counter intuitive, but it's child's play compared to what life with Anorexia is like. It not only confuses you, but truly warps your mind.
Anorexia creeps up on you when you least expect it and preys on your vulnerabilities. I was only 12 when the beast dug its claws in, and before I knew it I was a mere shadow of my former self.
Anorexia robbed me of 15 years of my life. It brought me to within inches of its ultimate victory (my death). I was denied the chance to be a carefree teenager, unable to enjoy my early twenties. Who was I to think I was worthy of such frivolous pleasures? Only thin girls got those privileges and I was most definitely not one of "them".
Anorexia promised me the world and delivered f**k all. In fact, it sucked me dry. There was promise after hollow promise:
"If you get down to **kg you will be popular."
"If you have a thigh gap you will be happy for the rest of your life and never have to worry about a thing."
At the time, I was an impressionable tween, desperate to fit in at her new school. So it seemed only logical to go along with a "plan" that promised to make me fit in perfectly and live the life of my dreams. Before I knew it I was so far gone that it didn't matter that I wasn't naive and impressionable anymore -- I was well and truly under Anorexia's spell. It had me eating out of its hand.
Living with Anorexia is a ghastly experience. In fact, I can't really call it 'living'. It is, at the very most, an 'existence', and an utterly miserable one. For 15 long years my every waking minute was spent obsessing about how to avoid food and how to burn off the most calories I possibly could. I willed my skeletal frame to keep running, to push through the pain and burn off as many dreaded calories as I possibly could, before the searing pain of my stress fractures became too much to bear. Nothing else mattered. According to Anorexia, unless my body was "perfect" I could never be happy.
Anorexia led me to believe that life wasn't worth living unless I got my perfect body. I so wanted to live life like everyone else was. I longed more than anything to be carefree and unconcerned about my body and what other people thought of me. So, of course, I obeyed Anorexia's every command in the hope I would get a chance at this whole 'life' business.
But here's the thing. Anorexia is a liar and a damn good one. It knows just what buttons to push to have you wrapped around its claws and at its beck and call. It's adept at constantly shifting goal posts and twisting words until you are in a death spiral.
It wasn't until I was literally on the brink of death that I realised this was all a farce. I had been duped, the wool had been well and truly pulled over my eyes. At that point I was a 27-year-old skeleton with the bones of an 80-year-old, four stress fractures, a weak heart and no menstrual cycle. I felt broken beyond repair. A lost cause.
I was done with struggling through the torment of each day; running for hours on an empty stomach, counting out my daily allowance of apple slices and constantly looking for any opportunity to burn just a few more calories. The thought of waking up tomorrow to face my reality was all too overwhelming.
After over a decade of trying with all my might to overcome this, I felt defeated. The only way I could see that I would ever be at peace, was up in the clouds looking down on the world from afar. The only way I could fathom ever having my life back was to give it all away. During those dark days I honestly felt that it was my only option. I was beyond miserable and deeply ashamed of the burden I had become to my family, my friends, society and, ultimately, myself.
Then it hit me. If I let myself wither away and die, it would mean Anorexia had won. So I set out to seek the ultimate revenge. I resolved to use every ounce of my tenacity, courage and strength to beat the sh** out of Anorexia and regain my life.
It wasn't easy. In fact, it is probably the most excruciating thing I'll ever have to experience in my life. Words cannot accurately portray the torment and overwhelming terror. Every second of every day I had to actively commit to recovery and all that it encompassed. There were many days when I bawled my eyes out for hours on end. I kicked, I screamed -- I had tantrums worthy of toddlers. But no matter how many times I fell down, I always rose back up again and went back into battle -- after all I was fighting the war of my life.
It's not pretty in the trenches -- it takes a toll on you and your loved ones. But I can assure you it's worth it. What's waiting for you on the other side is more amazing, wonderful and life affirming than you can even begin to imagine.
So although battling Anorexia has stripped me of more than half my life to date; I refuse to be bitter. My journey has given me a unique perspective on the world. I have the ability to empathise and connect with others who have a mental illness on a level that most can't.
I refuse to spend time regretting those 15 years that were lost. Instead, I want to do everything I possibly can to educate people about eating disorders. I hope to help create an environment in which women and men feel comfortable in their own skin. A world in which they feel confident enough to be who they are, regardless of what anyone else thinks. Or what society projects as being acceptable or ideal.
Playing the blame game in terms of what causes Anorexia is utterly pointless. Everyone has a different experience and a different set of contributing factors. What matters is that we all stop judging others and start focusing on finding our own happy place.
I hope that in penning my thoughts, I've provided someone, somewhere, with the impetus to seek help and start the journey back to health. Believe me if I can do it after 15 years, anyone can.
I also hope my thoughts provide a small insight for the uninitiated into Anorexia. I hope they aid in dispelling the myth that it is a disease of vanity, reserved for superficial individuals that have nothing better to do than obsess about their appearance.
As a society I firmly believe we need to start talking about eating disorders more, rather than sweeping them under the carpet and allowing people to suffer in silence. I am determined to use my journey to hell and back as productively as I possibly can.
This post first appeared on August 24, 2016.