On Gratitude

I’ve been trialling a new treatment for Anonymous this week.
It was prescribed by my nurse after she had briefed me on it’s previous success in other anorexia cases. A cheap and sometimes time consuming therapy, to be taken every evening just before bed.
Naturally, I was sceptical. Anonymous is suspicious of anything that might bring about the inevitable: she is wary of change. Why change, when my current prescription is working so badly? Why take the risk of finding something that actually does work, something that will pull me out of anorexia?

After one week, I am willing to believe this could be life-changing. I feel amazing, almost high.
The wonder drug? A “Positivity Journal”.

After I’ve brushed my teeth, put Anxiety in it’s pyjamas and filled out my food diary; I pull out a cloth-bound diary and a biro.
I write the date, three positive things that happened today, and three things to look forward to tomorrow. The first attacks fear, and the second attacks dread: the two strains of hopelessness. Three is a magic number, but doesn’t curse my entries as a rule. One day last week was simply crawling with good things, so I pinned all of them down under my nib.
Something positive is my final written word of the day, and I can go to bed and welcome sleep.

The best part is that I sort of understand the science of it. Whilst other treatments remain mysteries, this one is relatively simple, and completely under my control. Unlike weight gain – which has side effects more grotesque than the illness, so seems utterly pointless (in my anonymous opinion) – “positivity” is a relief. It is an instant painkiller for a bad feeling, and antidote to anxiety. “Antidon’t”, if you will.
Just like weight gain, I notice the medicine as it starts to work. Knowing I have to write three good things about the day later forces me to find the good things as time slips by. Each day has been turned into a treasure hunt for nuggets of positivity: the rain waited to start until I had reached the car; I made two old ladies on the train smile; I woke up to a crying cuckoo.
Better still is what can sometimes happen to the bad things. You see, when one single monstrous occurrence threatens to ruin an entire day of delicately placed positivity, Ellie gets defensive. She leaps upon this selfish fiend and pulls at it’s form, with the intention of turning it into something good. Failing that, she’ll tear off a handful an anxious period and call it a lesson, to be carried around and referred to as WORD. Only good things can come from being informed. It may keep a similar bad thing from happening in the near future.
This may not be a cure nor a sustainable source of help, but it is a diversion away from things that could aggravate anorexia. Fewer flare ups give Ellie more energy to focus on pulling thin pins from the side of recovery.

It gets better. No, it really does.
Writing down the good things in life is a natural remedy. Because it has no hidden agenda, no additives or calories – emotional or otherwise – anorexia just swallows it. It is an easy painkiller to administer.

Essentially, I am drugging Ellie with positivity. She is drip-fed the good stuff all through the day and a final shot in the evening sees the day pass into the night.
Positive features of the day mingle together and become a cocktail. Hope becomes a vision in these fumes. Every night for the last week, I have caught Ellie looking forward; already planning where she’ll look for good. This is a stark contrast to Anonymous, who still casts her eye around, anticipating the bad.

Journalling is a psychedelic experience.
Pulling a thought or a memory out of my head and forcing it onto paper has long been a comfort throughout my recovery. It always looks different down there, smaller almost. Not quite the monster it was when it was locked ink my head.
This “positive” journalling adds another dimension to the whole experience. An extra sense to guide me through the harsh terrain in recovery, which is mined with anorexic traps and triggers. The principal of evaluation remains the same.
Words stare at me from the paper, reflecting my thoughts back to me. There it is, all in writing. I marvel at them awhile. It is in these moments of reflection, that I am learning how to be grateful.

Having good things happen to you makes you grateful, not greedy. This is a pretty detail I’m gradually becoming aware of, even if I’m not convinced I’ll ever believe it. So much life can fall in the gap “knowing” and “believing”.
Yet it is this depraved and frightened belief that feeds anorexia. Anonymous justifies bad things happening by expecting them, almost greeting their occurrence with relief, as if I’ve repaid some of the debt to the universe I owe for simply taking up space.
How interesting it is to write that on paper.

Gratitude is a pleasant side effect to positivity, and is accentuated by reflecting on it.
It is a high like no other. I can’t believe what I’ve been missing, and what I still deny myself when I let Ellie retreat into black space.
By denying myself the pleasure of positivity, I have also been mistreating the good things.
Ellie, how do you treat the good things in life? As though you’re embarrassed by them, perhaps? As if they’re shameful, or somehow incriminating? Why must you push them away, as if you’ve no right to them?
Taking positivity has bought my fear out and demanded an explanation from it. Explain: explain why you cannot accept the good things for what they are.

I am one week into the course of “positivity”, and already I can feel the weight dissipating on my shoulders. Gratitude lifts the day out of my hands and casts it out of my control. It only invites me to chase the sun into the next day.

This week, I am grateful to have heard the cuckoo call. I am grateful to have felt a burst of rain lash against my face before the sun burst out like a boil. I am grateful to have heard the rain’s arrival: the sharp tap on a leaf or a window pane. I am grateful to never hear it descend, only arrive.
This week, I am grateful for space. I am grateful to have somewhere to roam, ponder, and grow.

This week, I am grateful for exposure: for good things to befall me disguised as baddies.
In the cinema, I sat next to large people eating large portions. The salty smell permeated the air, broken only by smacking lips. Ellie endured, and I thank her for proving science right: no, Anonymous, you can’t catch fat from other people.
In the car, I was strapped in with intrusive thoughts. I rode the day with a premonition: a threat glaring at me in my rear view mirror. Ellie endured, and I thank her for getting me home safely; for scrapping Anxiety’s script and rewriting how the day would be.
At home, we have been plagued by noise. Road-works and car horns, the crack of clicking bass from next door’s summer party. The house quivered anxiously. My nerves stretched past the point of anorexia’s tolerance with every day spent under house arrest from other people’s selfish intrusions. Ellie endured, and I thank her for not tearing all her hair out.
This week, I am grateful for exposure, because it shines a new light on my resilience. Still pale and flakey, but a hide strong enough to withstand small portions of life.

This week, I am grateful to have been rootling in the moment for something good, not scraping around in the future for something bad.

Of course, like all treatments, this one has it’s limitations and side effects.
Being on standby for something good is almost anxiety inducing. When time runs dry of nice things and I am left clutching at straws by the end of the day, I become aware of how desperate I feel. My life dwarfs next too everything I hoped to achieve today and everyday. Eventually I’ll retreat into myself to wallow in my misery, and let myself shrink.
Some days are easier to swallow with a positive pill than others. Time sometimes chokes on a trigger and too many thoughts churn reality into a sticky mess. It is easy to lose sight of the good when it is drowned in all the bad. It’s absence haunts me.
And of course, there’s that all too familiar sensation of failure when I am unable to see any good, or even any point. Blinded by anorexia, anxiety, or just the dull, a surrender is inevitable. I am hoping that with time and “positive” treatment, I can turn away from “failure”, and instead learn to manage it as “disappointment”. A hard task for anyone I think you’ll agree, especially if one hasn’t the ability to think straight anyway.

I know one shouldn’t get too excited by the initial results of a new medicine, but I can’t help feeling that this is some sort of magic pill. Time goes down smoothly, like thick drops of syrup.
Can you overdose on positivity? Imagination run away with the idea of the future, and forget that I’m not invincible, only inevitable.

Here are my three biggest positives this week: I made a new friend, I managed to do a headstand in yoga (perseverance and practice pays off!), and I put on weight.
Let me write that again, just so we can reflect on it. I put on weight.

A whole 0.4kg of positive energy, for which I will be grateful. Perhaps not quite yet, but soon, I will believe that this too is a good thing.
This too, is inevitable.
We must be grateful for the inevitable; else we will simply grieve.

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And of course, I’ll always be grateful for caffeine.

Anorexic Rhapsody

Music is so calorific.

A feast for the ears and heart, a score of temptations.
Ellie used to gorge herself on music, spending years binging behind her harp. She stuffed chords into the air and felt the notes grow fat, wobbling as they resonated off her harpstrings. She’d indulge herself in a joy nobody else could touch, not down there in the audience. Power ripened on her harp through grades and concerts. The horizon dilated, and I tripped towards it high on adrenaline. The strings shook, and notes blurred.
Music was a temptation away from dieting and exercise. It was a safe haven to install Ellie, a place she could lose herself in and know she’d always be able to find herself again. She could hide from herself, and drown her thoughts out in a melody.

To recover from Anorexia, I have been prescribed food.
Food to provide calcium, protein and potassium. Food to fix osteoporosis, amenhorea and a broken body image. Food for thought and food for esteem: food to give me strength to see myself clearly again, and food to pass judgement thereafter. Food to build up muscle, and food to build up self-worth. Love. Love?

Self-love is by far my biggest fear food.
Being presented with it makes my mouth water, and I become afraid. Trapped in this denial is all part of the punishment. It’s all part of the cleansing I must go through to rid myself of Ellie, and become Anonymous.
I haven’t indulged in self love for a very long time. It has always looked too tough, too chewy and complex to swallow, to understand.

My doctors and family sing a different tune. Their’s is a forgiving one. The tone is sharper, but melts into the background of reality like butter.
The lyrics clash horrifically in my ringing ears. The syncopated jangling of my nerves unsettles their “It’s ok” preludes. “Stop punishing yourself” a rhapsodic rasp and completely out of tune with the anthem I’ve sung all my life, and still do.
Anorexia treatment is trying to retune my thoughts so they are brighter, so that I may climb more major scales.
My Anonymous melody works. It speaks for me, sums me up with all my sins and contains me on a downward spiral.
To recover, I must tune in to reality. I listen out for it above the grainy images in my head, and try to sift through each one, sorting fears between ‘real’ and ‘imagined’.

Practising self love is a highly strung affair. Anonymous simply won’t swallow it: most of it won’t even make it to my plate.
A surge of inspiration was washed up after my Dad tuned my harp, and Ellie’s thumbs pricked. I plucked up some courage and a few strings, and with encouragement, I did it. I played my harp, and chewed on a sweet morsel of love and relief, peppered with nostalgia that sprung tears from my eyes in the final bars.

These strings have been plucked a thousand times, but not for the last two years.
Anonymous is a fool to suppose that playing the harp is any less a workout than standing, or taking the only light exercise I’m allowed. Twelve bars in, cramp killed the moment and my arms stiffened where they lay. My muscles froze over, petrified by the work that lay ahead. These fingers groaned in protest and these feet – in those shoes – shuffled clumsily along the pedals. And my back. Oh, my barren back. The ghost of posture’s past rattled in the empty pores of my spine. Holding up an armful of rosewood, 46 strings and a dead harp career, it was my back that cried out first when I plucked that first string.
Anorexia is finely tuned in to any form of sitting, and so harp practice causes a clash of peripatetic emotions: mostly alarm and panic. One or two attacks thereafter.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve managed to ease Ellie into a chair and force Anonymous to sit there and listen for 5 or 10 minutes, here and there.
For now, that’s all I can manage. And for now, that’s enough.

I chewed on this treat, listening to symphonic joy tremble my very being. Somewhere inside, I felt Ellie danceng again. She knotted and unknotted my tummy, lifted my arms like the willow trees in Marraconelo Way – my childhood home – and delved back into the music.

Thought process got caught up in this hedonistic party, and then I gave myself away. In a stuffy staffroom, I let slip to the headmaster that I played the harp.
Ah.
Nice one Ells. You’ve done it now: you’ve sealed your fate and cast it into the music.

I wasn’t sure how to approach it at first. A harp performance in front of the whole school blocked up my future with exposure, humiliation, and ultimately, loosing my job.
My performance lurked in the corner of coming days, a real and gasping fear. There was so much that could go wrong, so many strings to hold and so many thoughts to order, reorder, disorder. How heavy would the silence be when it eventually fell?
I saw how it would be: held down and nerves wracked, fate screwing tighter.

No. Scratch that. We won’t make it to the end of the paragraph, I’ll lose you in the gloom.
I need to change the narrative.
Is it possible, Ellie, that your character had been feeling a little bit excited?

I waited in the wings.
Today, Ellie, you are not anxious. Feel that pleasant flutter, that fluid knotting, that movement? This is not the work of anxiety, who’s hand constricts around every sense and squeezes it tight, tight, tighter.
No, today you are nervous.
Oh, nervousness – my familiar friend! Oh, oh, oh – all is forgiven. Welcome back, you dithering twit. You are quite pleasant in comparison to your high-flying elder sibling. Anxiety is such a bore, you’re much more exciting.
Nerves, thanks for being here. Thank you for helping me.
How lovely it is to write that: that I felt something so normal and benign as stage-fright.

Ellie pulled me on stage, gripping me by my hair as it stood on end.
My fingers hovered over the strings, circling and skirting. They nestled between in the intervals. The silence was thick, and squeezed out from in-between the strings like honey. My fingertips traced the strings. C,D,E.
My harp hid me well. The scene was strung up and sliced into thin, bitesized chucks. Every face in the audience was blocked by a strip of nylon or brass, I couldn’t see my colleagues lining the hall, I couldn’t see the way out.
I had to hold this harp, this head, and the children’s wandering and wondering attentions.
I couldn’t hear the buzz of anticipation, only my silence, quaking in it’s final moments.
The wood weighed heavy on my shoulder, but held me close. I let the silence fall, and embraced music.
A far cry tuned in to where I was, and why.

The first note – that very first B – tore. It grazed the quiet and the melody frayed my nerves. Chords sparkled and strings sang. I nestled closer into my instrument.
I had forgotten how much I enjoyed performing. Enjoyment: another nourishing and indulgent treat.
That first B plucked the poison from my head and I was let go, lost in rolling chords. I played on, on and on, into the softness of the room. Then the peace ended, and I had to stop.
My portion of enjoyment was dwarfed by that of the school. I have never known 200+ children sit so completely and utterly still. One could have heard silence splintering. I made grown men cry and succumbed under the layers of myself.
Then the peace ended, and I had to stop. When the last child had left and the final note hummed, I fell over the stiffened corpse of who I used to be, and burst into tears. Awe-struck by what I had just found, terrified of what to do with it now.

There are so many calories in enjoyment. I was hit by a sugary rush of adrenaline and tripped through a day at work high on endorphins. I had so much energy, I simply couldn’t contain it beneath this skin. Surely, to sustain this feeling, I must make more room for it. I clung to the confused ecstasy like my leggings do my thighs, and let it carry me through the meals, trials and tantrums over the coming days. Eating food, for a moment, was easy. Logical. I had just seen what nourishment meant, how much power it gave me.
Only now, a day later, is that feeing beginning to ebb away.

Anorexic guilt bit gently into how long I sat for, how deceitful it is to pretend I’m anywhere near as good at the harp as Ellie was.
She’s biting down on her own lip. Not out of nerves, but anxiety.
I hope Anorexia feels threatened by my performance. I hope she saw and heard every tiny detail: putting myself out there, facing a fear; identifying and understanding how I felt and what I felt. Distinguishing between the reality of Nervousness, and the monstrous Anxiety that embellished my mind’s eye.

This has to be another step, another push into the next movement of Recovery.
If only a rest could come, and for my thoughts to quieten down.

Why Weight?

I weighed Ellie.
I weighed an undergraduate at the University of Manchester.
I weighed a global harp career, playing in embassies, cathedrals and weddings for audiences including the Clintons, Barbara Streisand and David Walliams.
I weighed bow seat in MUBC Woman’s VIII.
I weighed a 10k PB.
I weighed a family.
I weighed friends.

Now, I weigh 22 years, and Anorexia.
Osteoporosis,
Kg, bpm, kcal.
My Eating Disorder ate me up and left a statistic.

#whywait to weigh enough to be too much.
#whywait to diagnose and treat Eating Disorders: the mental illnesses with the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illnesses.

It is the end of Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2018: let it be the beginning of a conversation, and the beginning of change to how we all manage the weight of Eating Disorders.

More awareness will throw time, money and attention behind healthcare services and education.
Awareness will throw weight at the wait: the 6 month gap between diagnosis and treatment must be filled out.
Families who witness these illnesses assaults must be given the support to manage the side effects inflicted on their own mental well-being,
Sufferers must know they are never alone, and that it is #oktosay .

I am lucky.
I was diagnosed and treated immediately. My clinic is a 45 mins car journey.
I am now 2 years into recovery, and have the constant (often undeserved!) support of everyone around me.
This should not be luck. This should be the norm.

Our postcodes are not sorting numbers. Everyone deserves swift and effective treatment, wherever they live – or survive.

I will not be including any pictures of me and Anorexia.
If you really want to, you may flip through any photos of me in the last 10 years: she was always there. Between BMIs 12.8-20, she was always there.
We just didn’t know what to look for.

#whywait until then?
#whyweight ?

Anor-Log: the Flu

Anorexia pushed my body over a line, and it fell into the hands of the flu.

You’d think anorexia and the flu would be best mates. But no, this is a competition to see who could cause each other the most amount of pain. Anorexia calls the Flu lazy, and the Flu calls Anorexia weak.
I sit to rest, to break my fall before I collapse in a fever – and Anonymous catches me slacking.
I stand to calm Anonymous, to throw her a scrap of activity – and the Flu crushes the air around me in jealousy.
Insults are hurled in body and mind; whatever I choose to do I end up offended one or the other, and that illness flares up.

A breath of nausea, and the taste of salt. A cold wave lapping against a scorching fever. Sweat lubricating limbs as they twitch in shivers of denial. This cannot be happening, I don’t believe it.
Sludge stirs from the depths of my throat. Thick and sticky, every breath I take gets caught in phlegm and torn out of of my mouth in a hacking fit.
I watch the scarf around my neck pulsating at 50 bpm.
The fever broke. A million tiny pieces of the infection splintered, and a cold sunk in.
I can now sit up in bed. I can now raise my head and stand, move about a little. Soon the phlegm gets too heavy, and now it is time to rest again.

It is for this reason that anorexia is terrified of illness: though it be short lived, it be mighty. It will force my body to lay out on a bed or be still in a chair. It will drown all my thoughts – anorexic or otherwise – in the depths of despair and panic, and it relishes the crunch of breaking fight as I will back down, and surrender myself to sweet, healing sleep.
Ah, sleep.

The flu confined me to my bed, and l became convinced that serious food would be thrown straight back up into anorexia’s face.
Eating anything at all was gruelling. Limbs quivering and posture weakened, I approached a glass of milk or scrap of toast. Anonymous dragged her feet with reluctance, unable to understand the necessity of it when all I was doing – could be doing – was moping about the house in a feverish reverie.
Ellie scavenged for encouragement to eat after nearly collapsing after I stood. After calling the clinic and asking Mum and Dad to yet again tell me that its ok to eat because I might have to, I did.
I have been documenting every meal I’ve eaten, and counting it so it barely scrapes the minimum of what I could manage.
Perhaps that’s why I still feel so grim. I think this might just be hunger.

I lost three days in a woozy haze. The time restrictions Anonymous so tightly enforced were swept up in the gruelling fight to drive out the flu.
Anonymous had no plans to eat breakfast, so reluctantly compromised not to set an alarm in the mornings. For the first time in a long time, my body could stir when it felt ready. Still, the pain drew me from a disturbed slumber at 7:30, as always.
Now I had the rest of the day to waste. Ellie hurled as many hours at rest as anorexia allowed her, in hope that it would coax the flu away.

This morning, I awoke and stood up, shaking the phlegm down my veins and blowing it out. I climbed under a hot gushing shower and let the stream draw liquid out of my face. Emerging with pink skin and panting, I was quick to wrap up in a fluffy towel and scrub every last drop of sweat, blood and tears of the flu out.
I’ve been here before.
The hairdryer roared and the sun grinned through the curtains. The window swung open on it’s hinges and welcomed clean air into my bedroom. The stench of skin is beginning to diffuse.
I downed some pills (paracetamol doesn’t have any calories, Anonymous,) and crawled down to the kitchen. I looked for something to settle my tummy. Violent cries for sustenance, please feed me.

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Feeeeeeeed me

Plump dollops of yogurt stiffened granola into tight balls. I folded a banana and a handful of blueberries in, then settled down to eat the first real meal I’ve eaten in four days. Guilt was an aftertaste.
Now what are you going to do? You’ve eaten, better get on and do something.
We’re about to go out to a nature reserve: normally a very enjoyable and relatively gentle family day out. I can see the line again. Please Ellie, please don’t let me cross it again so soon. Please don’t over-do it before the cold has gone, and get ill all over again.

I’ve been typing this out all morning, in fragmented bursts. Worry that the calories will grow bored with the cold and, in their temper, curdle in my blood vessels, keeps breaking my train of thoughts.
But here I can see written what I need to remember: you have to eat, you need the calories because your body is fighting an illness.
How ironic, this is exactly what my nurse tells me everyday – with or without the flu. Ellie, today you need the calories for the flu. But everyday, you need the calories for anorexia.

Vandalism

The future stretches ahead of me, a blank canvas.
I can’t tell yet if Recovery will be a vandal, or an artist.

It is a rough sketch of the rest of my life. Recovery appears as a scar on the face of the Future, a blot on this perfect canvas. More and more over the last few weeks, I have foreseen recovery screw over time as it passes.
Thin lines cut through a ‘fine’ mesh – “totally fine”. They grow bold. They creep into my routine and I follow, kicking up anxiety as I tread. I would like to take a moment to stand back and admire the work it has done in the last week alone. Work I have done.
My routine coloured a little outside the lines of my control. My snack time jabbed out into the unknown, 20 mins early. Time allocated for standing was squeezed tight, and stuffed into a chair.
My new job at school clumsily fell over lunchtime. Food had to fall back an hour.
Adjustments had to be made to accommodate my ever ebbing energy levels at the end of the week, resulting in Sunday being shortened by an hour or two so I could indulge in sleep.
Let me draw your attention my big recovery wins.
Look at those bold strokes made at anorexia when I sat in the same seat for over an hour in my classroom. My student and Anonymous were crying to leap up and toss their reading books aside. They both just wanted to escape to another activity, more activity. Ellie battled them both throughout that hour. Anonymous, we must not fail this pupil. Anorexia’s own strength can sometimes be used against her.
The classroom sitting success that Thursday gave way to a Friday pushing borders into old territory. I found myself gingerly perching in the craft corner, holding a paintbrush for the first time in years. I bought the Future some watercolours today. I wonder if it’s allowed them.

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Primary school takes up fridge space.

These wins embellish the present, and offer inspiration for the Future.

Recovery scribbled all over a dull Thursday evening. It has taken control of them, free-hand. I had always fancied a design of the future that could use Spanish, especially as Ellie had been so invested in her studies of it at university all that time ago. A rush of blood to the head as it turned towards my future saw me book some evening classes at my local university. After an anxious reshuffle of supper and lunch, I found myself sat between two businessmen, reciting the subjunctive. “Me llamo Ellie,” and I remember my voice.
The class itself shaded my food. I had to eat supper away from my kitchen chair, risk preparing it in advance and banking that I’ll have the energy to last that long through the day to see my plans through. Simply being strong enough to cram my prescribed calories into such a short space of time is, in my present view, a victory in itself.
Spanish lessons are another tool I am using to reconstruct the Future’s face. The confidence boost added a glow to my lessons in the coming weeks. Homework is pulling me through the week. Golden hours spent having something to do ooze by, like thick drops of honey. A worksheet, a translation and some grammar. Achievable means to get to the end of another week.

These Spanish lessons cast me back into a university environment. A violent throwback, that I want to rebuke forward into the future.
I am still reeling from the stress of the UCAS calamity. Only now, standing back to admire that rushed application, can I appreciate Ellie’s signature thoughts presiding over anorexic ones. This University: 20 mins from home; 15 from my hospital. A good uni, with a good course and good support. A stable structure on which I can build myself on, on which I could construct a future. Not just a fantasy, as Exeter had been. Leaving so soon in treatment was just Ellie trying to elope with anorexia. Applying to this one here would brand the Future with a degree even whilst I’m in treatment. It would give me a hopeful high ground, in the fight for my Future.

This is Ellie’s current design for the Future, subject to approval from my doctors, Anonymous, and myself.
Presently, it looks motivated. Certainly there is patchy motivation. But it seems grainy, a bit scratchy for Anxiety.
All this uncertainly leaves me dithering at how to carry myself towards the Future, how to behave around it and understand it. It is a new friend of mine, and I still need to learn to manage it’s moody swings from one moment to the next, leaping on the past like a wild animal.

Reality’s sketchy face watches me. A harsh glare bores in the back of my head, it’s ugly presence looming each time I enter the classroom, or walk into a hard yoga class, or begin another day. You’re just not enough.
Working in a classroom is not for the faint hearted, and I am all too aware that Anonymous is unable to do my job as well as Ellie could. There is not enough room in her head to take it all in, and give back. Children think too fast and carry too much energy to keep up with. 10 hours shouldering the clamour and colour, worry and wonder leaves me drained halfway through the week. I have to get better, or it will all catch up with me. I am already being left behind by the next generation.
That is not what Ellie wants her future to look like. That was never my design.
There is always a snack-stand off at the end of the day. At 6pm I collapse into the car, and face the food in the glovebox. 200kcal cut into neat wedges and wrapped up in shiny foil. Anorexic friendly slogans splash across the front: “vegan”; “GF”; “wholesome”. I stare at it. Cold, tired, and covered in paint – this is never the time to poke Anonymous in the eye. Anxiety is already awake, the air poisoned by what will happen if I do eat it, and what will happen if I don’t. Reality holds my snack up to the future, a dangling carrot to guide me.
Or a threat. If I don’t have the energy for school, the children will sniff it out, and devour my confidence whole.
For my future, I must eat.

As a teacher, I doodle around the edges of children’s futures. Small embellishments here and there, stickers, smiley faces and time outs.
As a friend, I scroll through an exhibition on my facebook feed. I like these works of art. My input in their future is cheapened as I hand out token likes like sweets.
As a real friend, I behold work on other people’s future with wonder, and applaud.
As a person, I turn back to my own future. It is hard not to panic at the sight of a blank canvas. It stretches endlessly through the years, staring back at itself, and reliving an end that has yet to begin. A portfolio of late submissions or absences: relationships, job, any branded token of happiness that could be waved in someone else’s face, with pixel-glittered joy. Where would I start on that?
At least I could explain an anorexic picture of the future. These sharp and rigid lines, this confined and primal, perfect design. A black and white still capturing fear as it frosts over. A negative filter applied on this small, safe miniature of life.
At least that’s something to show. At least this life – my life – would have something in it. Signed, Anonymous.
Without it, the future would just be an empty space. A waste.

I behold the mess anorexia is making of my life, revulsion wells up behind my eyeballs.
My past was vandalised by the hands of life, then patched up badly by anorexia. She swung me low into the present, shedding the extra layers I couldn’t bear anymore. Anxiety and opportunity ebb away as my tongue becomes blunt and numb to Life’s bitter taste. This is the anorexic design.
Ellie clings to this illness because it used to work. It used to be helpful, it used to be something. If I lay anorexia down, I may not find another tool to fight Life with. Ellie needs Anonymous to sign her name, because I myself have no pen to write with.

January: the month Reality makes it’s return. Yet this January, recovery lead me to discovery. I found a future: blank and unassuming, stretching across the vastness of my life that has yet to be fulfilled.

I catch my mind’s eye wandering over the Future. This torn and tortured mind, lingering over blank space. Terrified of trying to make something of it, to vandalise the rest of my life with recovery.

My pen is poised, lingering over this blank space. Just do it. It must be a matter of just doing it. Get the future over with.
I just want the pain of weight gain to be over. For these would to heal over and for the scars to fade into nothing more than words on a blog post. If only I could just do it. Just put the weight on and see how you feel.
Recovery is surely just a series of blots across perfect possibility. And then the wait to see how it turns out, when the emotion dries out.
All my tools to start working on the future are lined up. My harp is tuned; watercolours set; meal plan written out and goals sketched out. New things may help smooth the present into the future.
To start, I just need to do it.
It could be so beautiful. Just how you want it, Ellie.

I can’t wait to touch the future.
I can’t wait to see what could happen if I was allowed to sit and play my harp, learn arabic, paint. There will be no stopping me, and no stopping time.
I can’t wait to see how it feels. Please don’t let it feel how it looks from back here. Don’t let it be that full and fat.
Oh Ellie, it won’t. You won’t feel fat.
Fat is not an emotion.

Sour Cherries

It always starts this way. Here, the world curls it’s toes over the edge of reason. The stable ground underfoot cracks, and breaks away. This is how it will surely end: with the beginning of a panic attack.

There is an intrusion. A thought starting to circle sluggishly at first, swooping around my mind with a great whoosh. Faster, faster. I can never keep up.
Then the ground breaks. Anxiety begins to build. Towers of hours top up the day. Waffled thoughts pile on thick slabs of anxiety, paving the way between mealtimes. Reading Ellie-numbers or working through the tough layers of anorexia at the clinic. A sugared rush to keep to my schedule – you’re late – a sudden drop in pressure to bake the day dry. Flashbacks glue together like treacle. The aroma of burning bridges when Anonymous makes me cancel, again. Then it will finally arrive. A single cherry crowns the day. It always starts like that: when the cherry plummets, tearing through folds of creamed reason. Ellie topples over. Only a molten, sticky mess it left to wade through. Wade through it I must, because Ellie is in there. Somewhere.

I can carry the cherry around awhile, sometimes. Together, Anonymous and Ellie totter along, bickering over what to do. Ellie would choose to ignore it, cast it aside. Anonymous though, is hungry. She’d rather devour every last feeling-filled morsel, spraying crumbs all over an unfortunate family member who happened upon us.
I become exhausted from carrying it around all day. Limping through each hour, pushing that small splinter of panic deeper into my side. How I wish I had pulled it out earlier, examined it, and flushed it away. How I wish the affected area could be cleaned of any worry. Too late now: it has turned the day rotten. Inevitably, it will hit a nerve. My legs buckle under the weight of the world, and so I simply let it crumble around me. Poison brings out the world in black and white: it’s all, or nothing.

Breakfast is particularly susceptible. I am careless in guarding myself against anxiety in the mornings. Perhaps it is in the twilit minutes waiting to be fed; perhaps feeling fresh and over-excited. Perhaps it is wishing the day had never arrived.
In any case, it is not a comfortable way to carry my self through the day.

Behold, a trigger. See, just over there: a waft of cooking from the kitchen. This piece of edible substance giving off an odour.
Go.
A gas is inhaled. Garlic; cumin; the buttery scent of pasta. Something fishy in the air. The air licks my face. Can you feel it sinking? Into my hair, into the follicles. Burrowing into my cells and diffusing into my bloodstream. My skin saps food from the air, and the kcal begin to topple into kg.
Panic clots up the narrow openings of my anorexic mind. I am pushed into a place where reason fears to tread, and I cannot see. I can’t see how I can begin to save Ellie from the oncoming tide of pain. This Anonymous feeling pulls me under. There the world must end: here, when I am made the prey of an anxiety attack.

It doesn’t always work this way. If only there were a simple step-by-step criteria for the perfect anxiety attack. If only I could predict what and where and who – if only there was some warning: a why.
Anxiety’s system is broken. Sometimes, it takes all day to warm up. Only peaking when everything gets too much. Others, it lashes out and grips me from behind. A solo flight riding on shock: gotcha.
The system of panic attacks is broken, because it just doesn’t work. The moment is jarred by self harm or screaming: but it only backs away a little. Waiting around the corner the to get me the day after, or the day after that. I am being preyed on by my own self-defence.

Every week I tear cherries from my chest. My doctor will not help me clean up the gory splatters left behind. They are a mark in history, she said. They can tell us what happened, they can help us learn.
Sometimes to understand what happened, one must start at the end and work backwards. The end is all I have: the here and now.
Try and stop the here and now sink into my imagination. Swallowed up and churned about with what is real, and what is not.
I can get there before Anorexia. I’ve managed before, and I’ll try again next time. Even if I fail, again.

I waited for my family to return from their trip to the curryhouse. A ceasefire had been negotiated whereby my family would strip down when they arrived home, thereby confining the carriers of smell into the utility room. Anonymous licked her lips nervously, already catching the scent of vindaloo in the air. She was building up for a big one.
It doesn’t always have to end this way, Ellie.
I barricaded myself upstairs, and listened as jollity and jackets were stripped off and stuffed into tomorrow’s pile of dirty washing. The air neutralised, and I tried to communicate with what was real. I listened to my family help me. I smelt the pong of madras pollute the house until my brother opened all the windows. Gradually, reality ate away my anxiety, and I emerge. Limping away from that cherry.

Picking Ellie up after a crisis can take time. I explore her limits: temples, palms, squelching eye sockets. Fingers stretch to her end and toes wriggle. Earthed on the floor. Here is where you end: this is real. Here is the beginning. Start again.

I swallow the future in anticipation. Anonymous tinkers at the present with her wise imagination, applying this and accepting that. Going over and over every possibility until she is certain of every fiction, checking and double checking, round and round and
round, what if no stop yes but no please no
Stop.
That thought never leaves. It festers, gradually provoking my worst fear into coming true.
It’s like asking someone to stop, please leave – but they just carry on.

And on I am carried. Backwards: in a flash, the present presses play on the past. Hard.
My flashbacks don’t just leap upon me. Some of them creep. Tripping along, wading through another dull day. Then I realise I’m being watched again.
Re-minding is violent. Attention is torn from sense, the here from the now. It is hurled back to another place, another time. Old stomping ground now overgrown with barbed judgements, and great memory blocks. I remember, I remember. I remember when it was dismembered.
The smell arrives last. Weed. Waste. Skin and sweat; soured sex. It lingers, perving. Long enough to stuff another cherry in my mouth, but not long enough to give me any answers.
Stuck under my skin, reliving it again and again. And still, I don’t understand what I’m seeing. I still don’t understand what happened to me, what I let happen.
You let this happen.

Something made me ready to topple into Anorexia at university. I was fertile for it, having been exposed to a few bad apples here and there, treacherous conditions and being left out in the cold. University was a very rotten cherry, topping a building mental health crisis. The more I explore it, the more I realise that university aggravated my illness, but didn’t necessary cause it. I have always had anorexia, but she didn’t always have me.

My psychologist assessments will start soon. The first approaches like a nurse with a needle. This might hurt. Turn back, look back.
Sharp scratch.

Cross your mind, pass Anorexia. Look back, what Anonymous told me was derelict is writhing. Breathing, and furious. Memories grown rancid with neglect, regret. I don’t recognise a single event: this is just a jumble of words, smells, sounds. And feelings, so many feeling. Disorderly and drunk from the sedation of starvation. These memories are still woozy, but they are waking up. I can feel it, they are coming back to get me.
It’s real. It just seems so real.

My feeling have gotten fatter in recovery. The extra kg I have gained recently have ripped the banks of memory open wider. Banks of reason falling into the mad rush of anger, sorrow, joy, confusion. I feel dilated. I feel fat. Too big for the here and now.
So I stopped.
But Ellie, you’re not fat yet. I’m halfway to weight restored, and now I am terrified to taking the next step. The ground might break.
And how will that end?

Yet Ellie has forced me into the new year, eyes on the horizon. There is much to keep her busy: going back to school, going back to yoga, going back out of winter. Going back.
She is trying to edge forwards a little. A job interview and spanish evening classes embellish the return of recovery. Return it must.
I can’t stay this weight forever, that’s just too much to bear. I cannot make a story out of numbers.
There is more for me out there. If only there was somewhere easier to start, than this end.

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Being published in the Sunday Times was rather a positive start to the year!

The Chronicles of Christmas

Christmas was there, peering over the cusp of just a few days. The atmosphere had mounted advent. It was building, it was beginning to charge. Excitement clashed with stress on the streets, fear melted down by nostalgia’s wrath at home.
Anxiety was lit up like a Christmas tree. Great flashing figures were frozen in a festive stance, dangling off anorexic branches. They’d slip – surely.
The tree was bloated with presents, my family feverish with festivity. I watched them in the grip of Christmas, and grieved for the joy I still cannot hold onto whilst clinging to Anorexia.
This year though, I touched it. I felt for the joy Anonymous has trained me to turn against, and I touched it. I unwrapped Christmas, and found a collection of moments.
They are mine forever, to treasure and keep.

Christmas day itself was so bright, I was blinded.

The pandemic of stress sweeping across the world’s kitchens on the 25th December was baying in the oven. My parents’ time plan was lathered in goose fat, and it began to slip about under the pressure. I had prepared anxiety for the onslaught of smell and stress and sobs and sighs that would ensue in preparation of my family’s Christmas lunch. Even walking the long way around the house, I felt my father sweat. That turkey was cooked by his concentration if nothing else. Perhaps it was the looming scrutiny of the nine family members, perhaps it was the heat. Perhaps it’s just because it is Christmas. It happens every year in every household, so I had to be prepared for it.
So it was to be that I would avoid the kitchen at all costs, and plate up a cold meal at the last minute. It was with some reluctance that I agreed to try something different for lunch on Christmas day. Something special, to celebrate a year of recovery wins. I opened my ‘safe’ cookbook, pulled my calculator towards me, and began to break down each recipe. Pencil marks branded each serving size a calorie content. It was by this process of elimination that I made my choice. A herbed nut loaf. This Anonymous-approved meal, prepared the day before, was not without it’s own festive surprises. I measured out a serving size – a sixth: 3cm – and began to saw away at the dry crust. Specs of nut fell away from the knife’s blade. The wrinkled skin cracked from side to side, and chunks of squash sank out of sight. The walls of my nut loaf trembled: and suddenly I couldn’t tell what was slice and what wasn’t. 3cm of crumble collapsed, again and again. I butchered the remainder of the loaf, eventually salvaging 2 cm of crust and a spoonful of crumble. Whilst my cousins filed past, plates piled with parsnip and potatoes, I glared at my plate. Daring it to be bigger than I had convinced myself it really was.
This dry pile of crumbs had some calories left over from my usual lunchtime quota, so Ellie cut up a fig and weighed out an apple. Anything to wet my appetite that was rapidly decreasing as the day wore on, pushing me towards my place at the dining table.
There was a saga with the sprouts. These green gems, these misunderstood buds of festive joy: the only part of the traditional Christmas meal I have ever negotiated with Anonymous. As the kitchen was hotting up, the lunchtime hour nearly upon us, I became aware that our deal was under threat. It was carnage in the kitchen. Too many hands and too many cooks manhandling too many of my clean, innocent sprouts. Anonymous had no idea how the sprouts were going to be boiled. She had always held her vegetables hostage, but now they were being lost in the family feast. Unable to hold it down, I threw these words over my parents as they edged down their to-do list. One solution would have been to take a handful, and boil them separately in the annexe. That way I could monitor them. But that wasn’t the point: this simply is not the point of a gathering at Christmas time. The whole day, Ellie had been fighting to feel included. I wanted to share the responsibility of sprout-consumption; I wanted to walk on common ground in the conversation after the meal: “delicious sprouts”. Thus I had to persuade Anonymous to hand over control of them. She didn’t want to let them go, she didn’t know how they would be treated. Would they be subjected to seasoning? Salt, sugar? Unnecessary sprinkles over their delicate skin? What of the saucepan: had it been washed throughly – was it clean enough? Was this not the pan you used to boil your ham in yesterday? I conjured calories from the dregs, and watched them sink beneath the boiling water that the sprouts were dancing in. Mum, Dad, how will I know?
You just have to trust us.
Yes, but how will I know?
Ellie considered this. She peered past their flushed, frantic faces, into the steamy kitchen. The stress sprouts were causing me was decidedly less than that of chaotic Christmas cooking, which my parents were just about on top of. They could do without this, Ellie. We could all use do without this. You just have to trust them.
Celebrate the trust I have, despite the doubts I am desperate to unload.
The sprouts survived the cooking. They made it to the serving bowl, to the sideboard. I nearly did too, only stumbling when I picked up a clean spoon to take some. There was meat on that sideboard; bacon. Bread sauce, gravy spittle. Nothing looked clean to Anonymous if I had been dirtied by a blind eye.

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How controversial.

At the table, Ellie perched on her pain threshold. I picked up my knife and fork, which Anonymous swiftly took and began to stab me with: goodness, what enormous cutlery. The prongs were silver and strong, great gulfs torn between them. The knife would have flattened my nut loaf in one sitting. My first mouthful of that Christmas meal was air. I peeled away from the table unannounced, and reappeared clutching my small knife and fork. Ellie settled into her chair, and turned to her right. The conversations around the table were woven with each other. Voices layered over each other, pauses to pour wine or drink wine or dine with wine. Alcohol was an anxiety that ran away from me during the meal: I had expected it, for it was Christmas.
To my right, my grandfather and I shared sparkling water. I paced my mouthfuls, trying to match his so I might close the gap between finishing my meal, and waiting for others to finish theirs. With no food to watch, Anonymous’ eyes begin to wander, and they often settle on me, sitting there, wasting away under the onslaught of calories I just consumed just by waiting for someone else to finish their meal. The minutes restrained by etiquette dig into my side. My grandfather tore a shred of turkey off with his fork. He sliced a sprout, he speared it, he swirled it in thick, velvety gravy. The crust of roast potato crunched and crumpled against a smooth ball of stuffing. A small morsel assembled carefully, mindfully. He lifted it to his lips. Then paused. He finished his sentence: string of wise words spread before me. I couldn’t read them properly, anxiety was starting to blind me with spots of electric panic. The clock was ticking, and my nerves were racking up calories. When the full stop dropped, he placed this delicate forkful in his mouth, and began to chew. Once, twice, again. And again. Time sank back into my seat as he picked up the conversation again. That wonderful, soul-reviving morsel anorexia starves me of. Oh Ellie, I’m so hungry for this. I’m craving contact with people left on the other side of your illness. How sad for my grandfather’s wisdom was wasted on a narrow, anorexic rhetoric.
Where I hung off his every word, I felt Anonymous claw at them, shove them aside, hurry them along. And it hurt to watch: it was painful to endure. The Christmas dinner fight will be defined by my insistence on listening to my grandfather speak, at least until other people got up for seconds.
I lasted through that course. By the time heads were turning to their empty plates, inclining towards the kitchen where trifle and figgy pudding and cream and chocolates lay in wait, I was exhausted. So I retreated. I put my knife and fork together, and left them all to it.

I had identified possible black spots on Christmas day. The sticky bits I would be expected to sit still, and the stale ones where I knew Anonymous would force me into exile. The times Ellie would gasp for air, away from the fug of fun she still can’t quite manage in more than hourly bursts. On my time plan, I scheduled in scraps of activity I could chuck at Anonymous, just to keep her quiet. In the bleak midwinter of the afternoon, those sickly hours between 2 and 4, I shouldered Anorexia and heaved it outside into the cold. Onto a public footpath. Until I reached the summit of anxiety, and it all calmed down with the setting sun.

I needed breakfast before church: nobody sings well on an empty stomach. Nor can they walk up the rectory footpath, stand and sit and stand and sit at the organ’s cue. Without breakfast, Ellie, where will you summon the energy from to shiver in the pews, or cling to the words of God? How will you focus on your faith. This tattered faith. The one so unrecognisable in this anorexic war. Yet here it still is, it survived. What can this faith give you, but the courage to be still for an hour during this Christmas service.
Walking up the lane, I asked my Mum yet again if it was ok to sit. The third time, she took my hand and sighed. “Ellie, of course it is ok.” then she leaned in, making sure the gravestones were out of earshot. “That’s why God gave you a bottom!”

In the lead up to Christmas, I worked my way through a to-do list, staying busy, staying Anonymous. I was being chased towards the big day, when it became clear that I was missing something.
At the end of term, the reception class put on a Nativity play. Alas, this was not the simple tale of the birth of Christ. Lo, let it not be presumed that Mary and Joseph hunkered down in a stable before the divine child. This is not what happened, according to the children. What really happened, actually, was a cow picked a fight with Joseph. One of the Kings had a toilet break during their dance and the sheep were in fact better at herding a flock of four-year olds than the shepherds. The angels never did grasp just how far to not pull their dresses up on stage. The Inn Keeper had less to say about the whole thing than the Inn’s Door. As for the Inn Keeper’s wife, well. Disgruntled puts it plainly. Away in a manger, life went on. I was lucky enough to witness this retelling, and humbled by the hope they conveyed in their Christmas message, however unwittingly. Here, take this old news: this good, hopeful news. Fresh from a four-year old: here is a story of hope.

Here I present to you the Chronicles of Christmas, these acts of faith. I earned back confidence in myself. The best thing is: I coped with it too.

I made it to the summit of the festive season, overcoming the scarp of social events and high altitudes of emotions I can barely contain on a day-to-day basis.
I allowed myself an extra 50kcal at breakfast: because it is Christmas.
Even being able to eat breakfast at the kitchen table – for 7 consecutive days – without moving the clutter of Christmas decorations off it, is quite a feat. Not least because Anonymous has had me exiled into the utility room during my meals up until now. How wonderful it is to eat somewhere warm, to be allowed to enjoy a meal in entirety without sacrificing something.
Faith follows me like a shadow. I can never quite see it in entirety. Nor do I realise it is there, stalking every step I take. This Christmas made me grieve for what I lost, and protect what I have. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to bring it into the new year.

This Christmas gave me time with my family, the most precious thing Anorexia took from me.
A collection of moments: making crackers, decorating the tree, riding the air closer to the big day. We haven’t watched Love Actually yet, that’s tomorrow night.
’Tis the time of year to celebrate what we have, despite all we must carry.
There is no present, like the time.

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“Merry Christmas all! And Happy New Year.” x