Mind: the Gap

Every morning, I unfold Body Image and examine it in the mirror. The glass fogs up with smoke.
From under piles of leggings and wooly socks, I pick out the same pair of words I wore yesterday, and the day before, and the one before that. They don’t suit each other very well, but they’ve been crammed next to each other in a sentence anyway.
The mirror cracks into a smile, and the girl bulges from side to side through the glass. Anonymous leans in and looks for my new number: she looks to see where that 0.5kg went this week. Damage to Anonymous’ shell dimples my cheeks and plumps out the cushions around my legs. Whispers of health pass by in a curl of strengthened hair. A single blush graffitis a perfect shade of pale.
Anorexia keeps my body caged in an image, and accessorises it with her thoughts, and her judgements. They are narrow and unflattering, fiercely protective of the sharp edges the marks her boney borders.
Ellie looked at the image before her and shook her head, wondering why weight must be in the foreground. It takes up the whole picture: the only hard evidence that recovery is passing through. It just seems so out of proportion. Far too big and taking up far too much space.

I put Body to one side, making sure it was folded up so the creases were as thin as possible. The mirror gaped at what was left of my Image. Ellie, Anonymous, and myself. A gathering of unsavoury characters, and a story full of holes.

I had negotiated a 4 week gap between my hospital assessments, in order to prove that I do not need to be admitted as a day patient into the Eating Disorder Unit. It never occurred to me that I had just dug myself another hole, and found another empty gap to fill.
My plate was piled high with promises: the dietary increases would start tomorrow. The scales would fall away to weight welcomed with pride. Time would crack, and prise Anonymous away from my meal plan. Ellie would testify that she could react to Anxiety in some other way than cutting off her crusts, or watering down a smoothie. For four weeks, Anonymous has had nothing to eat but her own words. Here is the bitten word: weight gain.
Anorexia fed me denial for the first week. Surely, I didn’t need to increase my diet. All this food is far too big, and takes up far too much space. It wouldn’t be real, just a trick of gravity.
-0.1kg.
The second week, I dithered in my comfortable gap between an increase, and an intention. +- 0kg. An anomaly, surely. Ellie had been gnawing around the hull of her strawberries, and licked the spoon twice. Those teaspoons of hummus had been heaped for heaven’s sake. Still, the image flickered on the scales.
The third week, I was pushed into it. Anonymous’ logic was sweet as I ate it, and spat it out. A tablespoon of nut butter melted into my porridge, and it conjured up a miracle. +0.5kg.
Don’t let that slip between your fingers, Ellie.

It is so easy to talk myself out of increases, so I literally have to eat my words.

I unfolded up those numbers, and held them up into the light. Then realised what I was looking at. A gap had opened up between my meal plan and my metabolism. That’s the crack my efforts were falling into.
Ellie closed her eyes, and braced herself. It was so deep, and so dark.

Anxiety has been trying to talk me into staying in this hole, I think. It’s hard to tell, because I don’t ever fully understand what it’s trying to tell me.
When it tries to speak, rational words become strangled, crushed by the pressure of so much emotion climbing upon it from such a height. Change looms up there, and it alarms Anxiety. So it starts making all this noise.
Listen, Ellie. What is Anxiety actually trying to tell you?

My brain hasn’t got the kcal to waste on thinking efficiently. Ellie is so out of practice in dealing with her thoughts, that she ends up over-thinking. This often results in a obsessive surge, and then Reason blacks out. Anxiety has to take over: someone has to reestablish order.
It spat thoughts in my face with every mouthful.
An extra centimetre of cucumber burnt my tongue like acid.
A Times article on the possible – improbable – irreversible damage a whiff of bacon can wreck on metabolism crippled me for days afterwards. I hobbled around work in the coming days, desperately trying to shield my nose from the aromas rising off my customer’s plates.
Suddenly, my legs were being prised open all over again. Food blared between the pages of my magazine. I was catching fat from that person on the train and this person in the queue. An angry, vengeful rash of pregnancies and STIs came back to bite me from the past.
Thoughts gathered together and descended upon me like a mob. Time was chewed up and pressed harder against this four week window. Failure stared straight through me.
Of course Anxiety felt threatened. She was crying out for help. Anorexia is in trouble, she is being exposed.
Your friend needs help. She helped you, remember?
Each hour was littered with signs to turn back and retreat into my hole.

There were cracks just waiting to swallow me up as I advanced forward, trembling with fright from the spectre of hospital food.

Looking into the future, Anonymous can already see cracks that will trip me up further down the road to Recovery. That one just there, the one hiding just behind my mirror. And over there, the gap between “weight restored” and “recovered”. That’s a hard fall there: one which nobody cares about, and nobody takes seriously.

Some holes are placed just where Anonymous can trip other people up too.
The space between your mouth and my ears is dangerous. Meaning leaves your tongue with good intentions. Healthy compliments fall ill as they travel over the gap of understanding. When I receive them, they are twisted and tortured into Anorexic weaponry.
It is so easy to offend Anorexia: just remind her she is failing. Just point out she is weak enough to let me get this healthy, to “look so well”. When someone falls into this trap, Ellie gets dragged down too. If we look so “well” at this weight, Ellie, why should you want to gain any more?

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Anonymous worries if Ellie looks too happy in a picture.

Anorexia tries to press her image up against your screen, so the gap in your knowledge widens. My social media pages are subject to censorship: she has an image to uphold. She needs to maintain her anomity: it is what keeps her safe.
Let us unfold a few that have been cast out. I wear them well.
Here, a plate of food. Pictures of food: proof of Anorexic failure. Ellie: are you eating solid food yet? This is one hole Ellie wants to explore. I have now set up a ‘sister’ instagram account where I can put pictures up of some of the (very exciting) food I eat. It can be found @eatenbyellie and is designed to add detail to the picture of Ellie, who is recovering. And she is proud of it.

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I just want to show off how pretty food is 😉

Ah, what about this one: Ellie wearing something nice. I had dithered in front of the mirror for hours. Shall you wear pretty, or thin? Whichever is more comfortable, or whichever you feel the most confident in.
Any image of me is fed to you in self-defence. Anorexia isn’t cool: it is freezing. And so very lonely. I struggle to see friends who will only have a memory of Anonymous. I am still competing against my own ghost; even if Ellie is so much better than she was.
Please, don’t offend Anonymous. She is my friend, and I trust her.
Scrolling through loneliness and desperation and inadequacy: other people can be blind to what is pictured on a screen. Look for that gap. Can you hear the screaming?

In the mirror, I can see holes in Recovery’s smile. The gap between my assessments made it crack from side to side, and reveal a set of perfectly disordered gaps in my understanding of this illness. Somehow, I fell through a crack.
Nestled in Now: somewhere between the past and the future, I am trying to find a face to pull over this gaping hole. Perhaps covering it up is as inefficient as Anxiety’s communication. It’s just that finding something to fill all these holes summons Fear from the pit of it’s hovel.

Recovery will work with Nothing to make Something, and it will possibly mean Everything. I have learnt that it will possibly be drafted and redrafted, edited, scraped, compared and contrasted with the other side of the gap, the other side of the argument. Always trying to be bigger and better and thinner than the last mouthful of words.
Ellie just needs to keep chewing through the knots of her confusion.
Eventually, Recovery will unfold another image of life beyond maintaining the image of a thin body. Surely, it will be more filling than this morsel of life.
Because this just isn’t Ellie. Anorexia simply isn’t me.

Dead Lines

My nurse gave me my weight chart, and told me I was to have an assessment the following week. I held the results from a year long experiment, testing my theory that Ellie can recover from Anorexia at home, as an out-patient.

The graph plots three stories. That line, floating around up there in our imagination, is a healthy BMI. An alternative ending to this recovery story: featuring periods, hormones, fun, fat and freedom, and feelings. Food for thought, as well as plenty of material to form a balanced and well rounded narrative. A promising start with plenty to write about. This one just beneath it is a dull tale. It has little content, settling on the boundary line between “underweight” and “diagnostically critical”. And now this line. All the way down here, where I am now. This story shows up a lie. An alleged tale of recovery that has no substance, only noise scattered between +0.5kg; -0.5kg. A dead line with no direction.

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Let the story continue.

This weight chart is a three line whip I used to beat myself up with in the week leading up to my assessment.
I had stuffed words into my doctor’s mouth before I had even arrived for my assessment. I knew what they would be thinking, because Ellie was thinking it too. Anonymous scripted an argument to defend herself, and could only hope that tears wouldn’t send her off piste. Anorexia was backed into a corner by three doctors and my mother. Ellie couldn’t protect her. Anonymous restricted my intake, and I lied about it to protect us. Like a child changing their wet bedding in the dead of night.

Here are my dirty bed sheets. For six months I have been looking Anorexia straight in the eye, and running away. I have not been pulling my weight away from my Eating Disorder. Everything decision I make is ill. My thoughts are plagued by suspicion about who put them here in this head. Anorexia responds to Anxiety by restricting: that stagnant weight is a scar left by worry. Anxiety has had plenty to chew on in recovery: the time pressure from university looming ever closer; the weight of expectations that will surely grow with my waistline. So I starved it. Under the scrutiny of weekly clinics, I only really hid my restrictions in plain sight. But hide them I will, because I don’t want anyone to be angry with me. Ellie doesn’t want you to be disappointed.

The subject was rising. Talk of the present escalated into the future, and I couldn’t keep up. I couldn’t stop those doctors from snatching hope out of my hands before I had time to destroy it for myself. That dead line of weight stagnation drew a line under my performance of “Fine”. Something has to change, Ellie.
“We need to talk about your treatment plan.”

Effective treatment for Eating Disorders is famous for its’ clinical qualities. Clinicians ‘recommend’ patients enter a day-patient programme, which involves intensive therapy and monitoring of a patient’s every move. The therapy begins at 8am with a supervised breakfast and ends at 4pm, all within the four walls of the Eating Disorder Unit. Breakfast, snack 1, lunch, and snack 2 are all overseen and chewed over in group therapy sessions, DBT, pottery and sewing classes. Sitting is the main order of the day, served up with a plate of beige food. Typically, clinicians want patients to gain about 0.5kg per week. Whispers of the food served hang in a lingering stench on the corridor. Meaty lumps and quivering bulges of mass-produced buttered carbs, all made for me and plate up for me. I walk past that windowless dining room every week. Paper napkins dotted with gaudy daisies crown tubs of ketchup satchets. Six people go in, eat, then leave. The same six people go in again the next day, eat, then leave. In My Head, I can see it all play out it’s grand performance of recovery. A true test of a patient’s patience.

The description of life as a day patient tore the scales from my eyes. No, please no.

I have been bailed out by my age. I have bought myself four weeks with my 21 years. Ellie is on rationed time, and now she has to use it to prove that she can gain this weight at home. About 0.5kg a week, just like they do in the hospitals. If not, I will be fed to the dining room on the unit.

The face of my crisis is so horrifying, it has chased Ellie out of my head, and into the comfort of Fact. In Fact, Ellie, you are critically underweight. In Fact, you need to eat. And while we’re here In Fact, my patience with this illness is really starting to wear thin. And you, Ellie. What are you playing at?

My routine needed to be reordered, so I could cram those extra kcals of effort in without stretching the seams of Anonymous’ tolerance.
Ellie radically reformed her behaviour in response to the threat of hospital. Her meal plan was taken out of exile, and reinstated to it’s full capacity.
Sanctions on dairy were lifted and emergency aid given to protein portions. Where Anonymous toed the line at 100g of yogurt, Ellie overhauled it back up to 150g.
She identified risky areas and imposed safety measures, reducing the chance of falling prey to an Anonymous sniper. Emergency numbers to call on in a crisis are now detailed on post-it notes: 300ml; 150g; 3 tsp.
There can be no amnesty for Anorexic thoughts, I don’t have that time to spare.
After the initial emergency response, Ellie had to treat the casualties of kg lost in the last few weeks. An extra 5g of granola and handful of berries bulked out my crisis care plan. In this hostile climate of my own head, it was all I could afford. It seems to working a treat. That extra crunchy bite at breakfast keeps up my morale through the rest of the day.
Long term management plans include a reeducation drive, in which Ellie is being reminded on how to make falafel. And why she needs to.

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Wah sorry I swore!

Details of this coup was leaked outside the kitchen. Before Anonymous had time to contain her, Ellie marched me into work and slashed my hours. Anorexia has lost a whole day of rampaging up and down stairs, to and from table 56 and 10 then 31 – water, side plates, card machine. Losing a day of activity may have been asking a little too much of me. The wound still bleeds regret into hours of extra time to fill. That extra day is being eaten alive by anxiety.

I was reintroduced to Anonymous in that meeting. Ellie had lost track of her when she veered away from the road to recovery, covering her tracks with sugar-coated tales of a feigned recovery. Anything to move Anorexia to a higher ground, away from the prying eyes of my doctors, parents, readers. Yet there she had been all along, hidden in plain sight. All I thought we had learnt about Ellie and Anonymous is now teetering on the brink of a crisis.
My psychiatrist stared straight through me when I told him about going to University in September, and I could read the words dancing on his lips. Is going to university not just moving Anonymous to a higher ground, Ellie? How can you be sure you are not being fooled into moving Anorexia out of harms way. Away from my doctors, my parents, my readers. Who are you eating for, Ellie?

I want University takes up a large portion of my future. It would be a bit of a mouthful whatever my weight: sitting in lectures; sitting in pubs – sitting, sitting and sitting. Waiting for something good to happen to pull me away from my Eating Disorder.
The future is a moveable feast. Ellie wants to savour it, not swallow it. As I am now, I do not meet the criteria for Higher Education Fitness to Study. “Underweight” doesn’t sit well with the limit on a student’s weight: which is a BMI 17.5. Ah.
Yes university can be saved for later, it’s just that Ellie might starve without it.
Effort can be persuasive. I have a meal plan: one chunk at a time, I will work through the coming weeks, and see where we are in Recovery in September. Right now, I am just gnawing at the next four weeks.

Find me an Anorexic who is not competitive. Thank you, Doctors, for challenging me to recover as an outpatient.
In 7 days of reformed eating, weight gain is now happening.

A crisis is nothing but hoarded energy. I needed to find it, I needed something to fuel the next stage of this battle. Shock will always produce momentum of some kind. Now, Ellie hold it. Hold it tight and don’t let it go. This crisis won’t be wasted.

Anorexia and Cancer both live in my family home. They don’t talk much: Anonymous occasionally jumps if she sees pills placed too close to the fruit bowl, and sometimes chooses to unleash an anxiety attack as Cancer comes home from a thorough beating at hospital, limping.
Mum and I talk about our illnesses behind their backs. We laugh at how one illness can’t see the other: how I look at Mum and only see her smile, whilst she can see straight through Anorexia and only see Ellie. We admire how Dad can administer hugs and drugs upon demand, and still build us a life out of depleted energy levels. The scandal we can’t stop chewing over is the impertinence of these illnesses. How dare they try and steal hope, right from under our noses?
Cancer and Anorexia would never be friends, they are far too alike. Both smear their treatments with resistance and rumoured futility. Anything to stop them being treated like something as weak an cowardly as an illness.
I watch Mum and Dad confront cancer together. For her to try and get better, Mum needs to take her pills. So she does.
For me to try and get better, I need to eat. Ellie, we need to trust that this medicine will work – however painful it is going down. You just have to do it. Like your Mum, see?
See what else she is doing? Thats right: walking all over Cancer – 5km In Fact! After three years and 46 chemotherapy sessions, she is adding a new number to Cancer’s story. If you, my lovely readers, wish to donate and support her, please follow the link here.

A Heaped Tablespoon

My family were retreating down the motorway, heading towards a week of bright horizons and rest: a holiday. I had to stay behind. If Ellie had gone, she would have taken Anonymous with her. I needed to keep her where I could see her. Ellie needed to know the grounds on which she was being hunted.

Anorexia has been dreading the summer. Just when Anonymous had adjusted her routine to the cold, the seasons had to change. Arrid hours made the days fat with extra time to fill. A heatwave burnt clothes off everyone around me and encouraged Ellie to shed the baggy coats she hides beneath. Anonymous blushes in the heat, embarrassed that this body seems well enough to know anything but cold.

I saw the challenges pile up in the hallway. Bags bulged with weaponry: a towel, suncream, a bottle of Pimms. Before my eyes, the patchwork of a holiday was being collected: the mismatch of relatives bedtimes and bathroom habits; lie-ins stretching the seams of a clock, chiming to no agenda. Gatherings and ruches around the table for a late breakfast. Sit-ins protesting the right to rest. Splashes of tea in copious cups of conversation, and waves of inactivity lulling one to sleep on the soft, sandy beach. A random pattern winding down into the sea.
Ellie couldn’t stomach the thought of wrapping Anonymous up in this unpredictable bundle. We don’t know how she would have reacted in such a hostile environment. Anonymous would never have flexed herself around the rules of a family holiday. It looked to be a hostile environment.
There was no Anorexia-friendly place to eat in isolation, and not enough stairs to climb. The spectre of mealtimes rattling uncertainly between 8 or 9 or 10 – depending on who does what, when they want. I was forbidden from exposing my brittle bones to grimacing waves, so could only have watched others dive into the sea. I would have been on the outside of my own pack.
I needed to stay behind so I could the tracks Ellie has yet to make in recovery.
I wanted to give my family the break from Anorexia Ellie couldn’t have. How naive we were to think it would be that simple: I spoke on the phone to my parents every night. Anonymous and I were still there in Cornwall, in spirit.
Declaring I wasn’t well enough to go on holiday rattled me. My parents had tried to shift expectation off my shoulders, explaining how we could make a plan to fit Anorexia’s habits around the holiday. Nothing could heave the burden of my own expectations: I had really thought there was a chance I would make it. So much so, I even booked a week off work in advance.

Last week was glued together by a heaped tablespoon of almond butter. Bronze and bulging, it hit the surface of a smoothie with a dull thud, echoing around the empty kitchen. Anonymous ate it for breakfast. It set her up for the day, energised with guilt. This tablespoon of almond butter stuck to me through that first lonely day. I don’t know why I challenged myself so early on: the real challenge was simply making it to the end of the week: no work, no family, no plan.

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Behold

Ellie could sense Anorexic activity. There was something insidious at work in the silence. An urge to pull away from my set meals, to sink beneath the responsibility of measuring the correct portion size. An Anonymous interference charged the empty air with anxiety. Decisions over food were made in cursed Whiching hours. Anonymous and Ellie fed each other ghost stories of what she might be capable of now she was left unattended. I became so crowded by my own company, and so frightened. Loneliness exposed me to myself, and I was under scrutiny. Watch closely. You’re about to be tricked.
My Anorexic rituals were practised to ward away the black magic of anxiety. I found Anonymous picking out grains of couscous until the portion size was exact. Ellie set a timer on her phone to monitor how long it took to finish a meal. Time was sticky, it slid by slowly. And everything was coated in a thick tablespoon of almond butter.

A week off work teetered on the cusp of a crisis. My meal plan has been doctored to balance my energy input and output, with extra energy to waste on my job as a waitress. By the pricking of my thumbs, I knew a week away from work would unbalance the equation. Less activity in the week would surely mean more energy to spare, and more energy to hoard under my arms. Any fluctuation in activity normally causes my food intake to drop: this is the Anorexic setting. I choose slim pickings if the sun dries out customers and I have a quiet shift at work, or if a traffic jam clogs up my morning with sitting. Being put on a small section at work means taking less steps through the day, and that can cause Anorexia to have a power surge on shift. Yet this week, Ellie had to test her balancing act. How would I manage that long, unwanted week ‘off’ balance?

Extra shifts lurked under the rota, right under my row of empty hours. Fat, juicy hours of movement and purpose. They were just so tempting: and they gave me something to do, something to take my mind off that heaped tablespoon of almond butter. My week ‘off’ was reduced, and so was my anxiety.

I took the tablespoon of almond butter into my hospital appointment: one of the first I have attended without Mum. I held it in my hand when I got on the scales, but dropped it in shock when I saw that I had lost weight – again. Anonymous couldn’t explain herself: she couldn’t explain why her logic hadn’t followed through. I had only worked 2 days, only sixteen hours skulking around an empty restaurant. Ellie heaped granola onto brand new smoothie bowls; gnawed around the hull of a strawberry after it had been weighed; seen oil bulge around the rim of a teaspoon measurement. I felt calories backing up thick and fast when I sat with my friend after we finished eating, and felt energy trapped by a heatwave that wouldn’t let it escape in shivers. And what about that heaped tablespoon of almond butter?
My nurse crushed my confusion: “You can’t think your way out an eating disorder, Ellie. You have to weight it out. You just have to do it.”

The words came up like vomit. I tried to stem them, trying to concentrate and order them. I tried to give it a name. But they just kept coming. I couldn’t control it: it just kept coming and coming. I emptied myself, and afterwards, everything was hollow.
I have been working with a psychologist, trying to work out why I am holding onto Anorexia. Last week we stumbled onto something:
My Eating Disorder helped me recover from an assault. It never occurred to me she might ask for anything in return.
Perhaps that’s why I can’t let her go.
End of session. We’ll continue this next week.
I walked out into the empty hospital corridor, and went home.

A memory rattled the window panes, shrieking into my injured silence.

It’s all part of the treatment, apparently. Sometimes it is hard to believe it is healing rather than harmful. Just like the almond butter, I suppose.

Anxiety subsided when it wasn’t under all that empty time pressure, and Ellie helped starve it out by keeping busy. We dead-headed the rosebush before petals could weep to the floor. We walked with boredom down public footpaths. We took time and placed it around the house: dust that shelf; take those bins out; arrange some flowers. Check and recheck and double check the clock, just to be sure time was wasting away. We froze bananas for my morning smoothie, we read Rumi Kaur. We digested each task slowly, never allowing temptation to lure us to our desk, or between the pages of a book. I settled down with Anxiety, and listened to it’s rasping snores. Writing this now, I can taste some sweetness from that week. Clamorous thoughts subsided into a gentle white din during the afternoons tending the vegetable patch. Joy coloured a day away from a grey job, and being treated as a waitress uniform apparently invites. I even plucked up the courage to ask a friend over for supper.

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(IT WAS SO MUCH FUN.)

Anor-versary

The end gave me somewhere to start. A year ago today, I was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa. Finally, she had a name. It was such a relief. A diagnosis to point at, something to accuse.

The last year lies in pieces. Collected, chewed over and hoarded. They have swept me up and dumped me here: where I am now. One year into “recovery”, and shuffling along to the noise of a weight chart.

Weak synapses still suck information away from memory. So I am relying on evidence to trace the steps Ellie took to resuscitate the Will to recover, and show it how to breathe.
Anonymous keeps my food diaries; wrappers; calculations; inactive social media accounts; the litter collected after a blog brain storm. Evidence of a crime committed in the name of recovery. A point of reference should that graph spike. My bedroom has become a cemetery of dead memory. I have a whole box brimming with pocket notebooks. I can read her silence between the lines of this blog: there are somethings she won’t admit to – even here.

I turned the pages of my food diary, engrossed. In a year, a refeeding programme has grown into a meal plan. Out of a milky hue, the silhouettes of calorie increases swam into semi-skimmed focus. They trained my body to catch electrolytes in a shift, and slow weight loss. Stop weight loss. Ah, look. Here it began to reverse.
Increases have splattered colour onto my plate. An autumnal olive oil slick dripped in through fried spices; dressings; on vegetables. A carbohydrate assault looted fear of rye and wild rice, glimpsing the prizes still up for grabs. I started putting tastes to names: sourdough; buckwheat; couscous. Sugar rushed after it was introduced to me in a medjool date. Homemade falafel blocked the monotony of hummus at lunchtime. Remember the spring smoothie crisis?
I turned another page, blinded by colour. Highlights flared and died, dimming as they became habit. The winter “snack” massacre. That is a controversial one. Ellie has to use the politically correct term “afternoon pick-me-up”, to avoid an Anorexic riot. I can read emotion bleeding through the unspoken planning that goes into every bite.
Anonymous preserves my food logs in her archives, keeping tabs on any ill-judged decisions to lick a spoon, or eat a grape. Unsolicited.
I’ve kept every “afternoon-pick-me-up” wrapper, just in case.

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“Afternoon-pick-me-up” Archive

Mental progress can’t be monitored in the same way. There is nothing to hold, nothing to form a trend with. Yet perhaps there are tracks heading in the right direction, if we look hard enough.
Perhaps this: not always rushing to the end of a meal to meet Anorexia’s deadline, or drawing it out to waste the day away.
See here, these are my arms. It’s sweaty at work today (body heat is a thing now), so I have rolled up my sleeves. I am waiting for someone to say something. Look. My arms embrace silence.
And here, I’m putting on make-up. No, not trivialising these aged eyes, simply enhancing them a little.
My skin looks clear, you say? Well I would hope so. I’m using a very expensive scrub. It has almond extract in it. I know, I know there are no calories in it.
And no, I’m not wearing tracksuit pants today. They have a curfew: they aren’t allowed out until after a shower.
I could have told you all this had you called my mobile phone: I might have answered.
Oh yes, perhaps this. I’m weighing up whether or not to drop in on my friend’s birthday reception on Saturday. Only for half an hour or so, would that be ok?
Won’t we be seen? Perhaps.
Or worse: What if they don’t see me?

When Ellie awakes, she coughs up memories. Embryonic emotions are thrust upon me prematurely, screaming for me to cope with them. Refeeding myself rips the scabs off wounds, and now I struggle to stem the steady flow of unwanted, unplanned feeling.
I have a bruise on my forehead.
Marbled moss, mustard, burgundy. The crater left by black and blue emotion. I had to react. Purple flowers grow out of burst blood vessels. The bruise smarts when people’s eyes graze over it. They unstick themselves from my face, unsure where to look. Nobody could meet my eye anymore. These emotions were never mine. Ellie doesn’t let Anorexia starve feelings out, so they are neglected. Nobody will handle or accept responsibility for them. When they grow rancid, they will release themselves.
It was such a relief.
And now, I have a bruise on my forehead.

It’s true what they don’t say about recovering from a mental illness. It is a journey, a psychedelic trip across precarious successes before coming down, hard. Regret is always there to pick you up, and reprimand you for loosing so much control.

I can feel restoration coming, slowly. Change snaked at a gradual gradient over an axis of the last year. It held still occasionally so Anonymous would let her guard down.
Anonymous knows physical restoration could jump on her at any point. She feels the trembling ground scatter noise across my weight chart. +0.2kg turns the volume up to an angry buzz. Anonymous covers her eyes, and my mouth. -0.2kg. There. Much better.
The line of best fit was kept snug, so my leggings stayed baggy. Fluctuations rose and fell in a stagnant dream. To wake Ellie from this nightmare, I had to turn up the noise. Even if only a little.

My mental illness has made a spectacle of itself. Recovery makes me blush because it humiliates Anonymous. It is embarrassing.
I dread the day when the numbers make “Anorexia” redundant. Anonymous needs her identity to be validated. If my body is ripped from her grip, she will have nothing to defend me with.
Earlier, I mentioned my leggings. Here’s the thing about those leggings. My XS leggings no longer pull a curtain over sharp boney corners. No, they cling to my thighs for dear life. They are only baggy at the crotch, and only ripple in a breeze. Can you hear her cry of shame?
Restoring weight is a blinding display of strength. She won’t let me face it. Anorexia can’t bear to witness my weakness degenerate. It would destroy her.
That is why change has to move slowly. Any sudden movements would make it prey.

Progress tastes better than it looks, and it is worth chewing over. Deciding to include a photo in this blog post traps me in a restrictive frame of mind. A single snapshot cannot capture progress, it is a moving and breathing target. It has feelings. And yet, Ellie wishes to use this picture as proof.

comparison
13.06.16 v. 13.06.17

I admit it. Ellie, you have come this far. You are ordering those numbers: +7kg; BMI 15.3; bpm 52. I dare you to turn back now.
My doctors have mapped out a route through unchartered territory: I still have a long way to go. I have barely restored half of my weight lost to Anorexia. I am still chasing that healthy horror. Perhaps when I catch up with it, it will scare away the ECG machines, and the blood tests, the needles.
Change hasn’t coloured over the lines of Anorexia’s rules, and the pale tinges complement my routine. But they are getting stronger, bolder. Life is starting to glow with progress.

 

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What a colourful start (to my day) !

“Recovery” is an unfinished story, without a beginning, a middle or an end, but with plenty of twists. This is my story, thank you for helping me get through my first year in recovery. Back then, I didn’t think I’d make it to the end of the week.

To my diagnosis: Happy Birthday. Anonymous, may you surrender many happy returns.

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Choosing recovery:

Burnt Toast

The Eating Disorder Unit smells like burnt toast.
Secure doors throw open and embrace me into the waiting room. Sharp lights, purring phones, the shuffling of paper and slippered feet. And the stench of burnt toast.
A smell so pungent, it wakes the spectre of family breakfasts, flames in our Bombay kitchen and team briefings at the boathouse. I watch ghosts float down the hospital corridors, devouring slice after slice.
I sign my name in at 08:58. The dates have flipped and fallen away above my signature for a whole year. Welcome back, another week. Congratulations, you’ve made it to the end of another week. My Eating Disorder Unit smells like rotting time: it smells like an Anorexic feast.
I leave with lingering panic, and the smell of burnt toast.

Anonymous has stretched out my time in recovery. It has worn thin, and torn away from countless opportunities:
That media company who commissioned me to lead their mental health campaign frayed. I left a deadline dangling, because Anonymous wouldn’t let me sit long enough to produce any work. Torn fragments spent at my desk saw sentences dissolve into nonsense: I couldn’t get my synapses to sync. I was so hungry. Your time is up. Time to move.
That Russell Group University who gave me an unconditional offer, which I now have to turn down. Anonymous wouldn’t let me sit on a train to visit: it was such a long journey.
That job I was offered in a school, which Anonymous turned down in favour of my waitressing job. There is more exercise involved.
That phone call I didn’t pick up because it wasn’t part of my afternoon routine.
That firework display I couldn’t watch, because the cold air began to eat me.
I looked at the date next to my name, and breathed in burning bread.
How much more time are you going to feed to your illness, Ellie?

Anorexia can remember the future, and it is huge. From the archives of a starving brain, she plays out the disaster of weight gain, and relives the horrors of health.
As I eat, my stirring brain starts working thoughts to the surface of it’s wound. These heavy ones are called memories, and they have caused recovery to go stale.

I have been presented with a mouth watering opportunity: attend a coastal university to read English in September. Plump with juicy promise, it would mean I could leave my job, I could move out. I could begin again.
Opportunity ripens, but it is too far to pluck. Time puts heavy pressure on the doubts that are already shaking Ellie from her daze.
I looked at the date next to my name. It’s May. Surely, there must be more to look forward to than my next meal?

This week, Reality has reeled Ellie in after she spent so long delving into Anorexic archives. Here is my reality: I am Anorexic, and I struggle to function on a day to day basis.
I am surviving on rations. My greedy heart steals calories off my tongue so it can rattle blood past hollow bones. White and red specs bubble in plasmatic rhapsody, rushing to the aid of delirious organs. They move with exhaustion. Sometimes they slack, and the pressure drops. My spine screams in osteoporatic rage. I can’t afford to indulge energy on body heat, so my skin cracks and stains purple. My brain is a corrupt and nervous system being ravaged by two warring minds: I don’t see energy again after it disappears into that shrunken space. Anonymous splashes out on lavish panic attacks to celebrate Anxiety, whereas Ellie wastes concentration until it fuses, blowing thoughts out of proportion. Power surges are followed by instant blackouts. Only weight gain is going to solve this, Ellie.

Every whiff of burnt toast is a reminder from Anonymous that I will not restore weight in time to be allowed to leave the clinic. Every rusty note marks another week that I have dragged Anorexia through, and Ellie still hasn’t agreed to put on any more weight.
There is still plenty of time for you to get better, Ellie. Her whispering logic echoes in my stomach: one smoothie, and you’ll pile on the weight. I have been listening since January, and haven’t put on any weight since. I still haven’t seen any evidence to support my Anorexic logic.
You haven’t earned the right to learn.

Hope is precious, and neither Ellie nor Anonymous want to lose it. Instead they make me gamble away time on an empty promise of the future.
It is true that if I eat, there is a chance I will restore enough weight to be deemed medically fit to start university. It is also true that if I eat I will gain weight, and be left a half-formed but fed body. I will have used up my rationed time and be denied my right to learn.
The face of the future is scarred with this uncertainty, and it’s ugly grimace rattles my recovery to it’s core.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew, Ellie, you’re starving time. I break the day into chunks that are easy to swallow, making it harder to chew over the next one – and choke. This is taking my recovery tactics right back to it’s basics: not trying to reveal what is feeding Anonymous, but rather how to contain her until Ellie is strong enough to take her on.
I don’t have the energy to bear the emotional surge of looking forward, nor have I learnt how to look back without being blinded. Wait Ellie, one day at a time.
In one week alone, I have seen the benefits of moving the horizon closer. Anonymous denied me my smoothie increases since they were prescribed daily. This week, I turned my brain’s energy away from the doomed deadline of weight restoration, and instead focused on finding a small bite-sized win everyday. It has been a delicious week of attritious smoothie glugging.

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The smoothie is back the smoothie is back!! (I call this one “GreenGoddess” – that’s me!)

I can’t call what tomorrow’s weigh-in will provoke in Ellie and Anonymous, but that is for tomorrow. I’m just savouring this chunk of today, I must not think about tomorrow yet.

This blog is a collection of small chunks in my recovery. This is not the long story of my battle with Anorexia: that cannot be condensed into a single chapter. Rather, let it be that this is the tale of Ellie, and her win of the week. A manageable moral, not a myth.

I left my clinic last week with the warm smell of burnt toast lingering in my nostrils. The smell of possibility: something so delicious could come in time. Prepare for the best in everyday Ellie, not the worst in the future.
Not university in sight yet, but a smoothie.

Of Mind and Matter

I tore my eyes away from their lips. They were twisting and twitching, with wrinkles rippling over their plump surface. Words tumbled off their tongue and all over the table. The art of conversation was graffiti over this: Anonymous’ final meal of the day. I looked down at it, and felt my jaw grow stiff. Panic paralysed me mid-chew, and the pulp in my mouth began to sour. Stop. I’m losing it. Somewhere in this conversation, I’ve lost track of my food.
I chased confusion from plate to face to plate to fork – trying to catch up with it. I heard humming topics choke and drown under the buzz of sharpened senses. They sliced the scene into fragments: the fume of food, the flare of candlelight, the fug that had tricked me into distraction. The warmth of company began to burn.
Concentrate.
I counted the chunks of sweet potato; one, two, four. Now the salmon, size up the – oh. Oh the ratio is all wrong. You ruined the ratios Ellie. You’ll never achieve an even bite; there isn’t enough kale to cover four flakes of fish. It’s too late, and it’ll be over too quick.
You might as well not have eaten. It had been blissful: I was so busy savouring sweet, lingering words. I had barely noticed the carbs and calories that had flushed down my throat unseen.
Anonymous snarled from the dregs on my plate: What a waste. 

Anorexia and I live in a place called Control. It located in the suburbs of Living. The sun doesn’t set and plunge me into blind uncertainty, nor does it rise to coax change into bloom. In Control, Anonymous keeps me safe from the tropical temptations that lie waiting in the wilderness. Food is a fool to think it can wander aimlessly into Anorexia’s lair.
It is caught and recorded: g; %RDA; kcal. Nothing will reach my lips without passing the scales first. In Control, I never lick the spoon after serving my yogurt. Precision is moreish. I am especially careful when there are grapes in the house. Grapes can cause a leak.
Food must then be tagged and categorised, to ensure there is no over-indulgence of one nutrient. Ellie is not allowed turmeric in her porridge in the morning if she plans to make spiced soup in the evening. It’s not allowed, because I am in Control.
After food has been committed to, Anonymous starts to manipulate it. Anorexia knows how to restrain me into satiety. Everything from utensil size, food shape and fibre content grooms food into submission. Ellie has to talk me into eating an energy ball as I promised, because I can’t measure the pace with which it is consumed. How on earth does one cut up a ball?
Control is a lonely place. Its borders hug me closely, and there never seems to be room for anyone else. Anonymous warned me that other people dilute Anorexia’s acidic concentration. Eating meals at the table together tears holes in my boundaries and exposes the power I cannot catch. Anorexia squeezes my parents to plate up in time to meet my deadline. She stares down wandering eyes over my plate. She dares people to venture out of her control by pushing me under it.
My illness will calculate the risk of another person’s company. Buried under Control, Ellie can’t meet people if they infect time designated for Anorexia’s rituals to celebrate Self-Control. What if I am made to sit? What if they try and make me fat?
My illness controls people, and so I avoid them.

Mind and Matter are walking hand in hand across this plateau of Recovery, trying to drag each other down. My doctors remind me in every session that a semi-starved brain is weak. It is weak, therefore it latches onto strength to make it feel safe. Nature forces me to listen to Anonymous. I really need her to like me.

Recovery is trying to hijack Ellie, and take her on a joyride out of Control. There is a presence out there. Sometimes it lurks in the bottom of an empty bowl. I think It is called Choice.
Choice never comes into Control voluntarily. It is swept in amongst festered emotion and fragmented hopes and dreams: the debris that bleeds out of the wounds inflicted by Recovery. Feeding my Matter has addled the strong Mind that introduced me to Anonymous. The longer Ellie lets time stretch, the thinner her resistance wears. I have noticed how much harder some things have become that were easy a few months ago.

A foreigner arrived this week, called the Flu. I had promised Anonymous I would never get ill. I promised I wouldn’t let it’s propaganda indoctrinate my matter into defying my mind. Denying Flu was easy at first, it’s symptoms felt somewhat comical in the context of starvation. Willpower leaked when time stretched and tore.
My body failed me.
Anonymous snarled. She recognised him as a friend of the weak. We are not weak. We will not rest, not for the sake of Flu.
This is not a choice, but the animal instinct of an illness.

Mind over Matter, Ellie.
Push yourself. 

I have never studied the floor at work before. It’s rather blurry, which is just as well. Those funny shapes and grimy smears trodden into the tiles have always had an air of mystery about them which I am only too happy to sustain. I don’t really want to know what they are.
Up close, things are a bit more black and white. I can fixate on the small things: like my trembling knees that had failed me in such a spectacular manner. My weak body was somewhere out of Control. By collapsing, it had completely contradicted Anonymous and called her a liar.
Mind over Matter, Ellie. Nobody has seen you, you could carry on.
The scales fell away from my eyes. I left work early, instead of completing a day’s exercise. I chose to listen to a voice made stronger by the nourishment of reason. It spoke to my mind and my matter. Ellie must be right: I cannot control someone’s choice to make me a victim. Not another Mind, not Anonymous, not even the Flu.

Ellie would never choose to waste me, this brain, on a rancid Mind. Anorexic concentration is acidic, and it eats into choices I never thought I would have.
Choosing to break her “oil” rule and roast some roots; choosing to sit when my heart fluttered and faltered – faded
only for a moment, because I sat; choosing to have a friend over at suppertime and enjoy her company.

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My first ever roasted (!) sweet potato!

Choosing feels gluttonous, because I am doing it for me. I am doing it for my Mind and Matter.
This is not a choice, but the animal instinct of a survivor.

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Be like Billy.

A Balancing Act

I placed my spoon and fork together, and held onto the silence. The bowl, a crater smeared with the residue of saliva, was empty.
I had scraped the final morsels into my mouth with relish, savouring every last lick:IMG_5280
Almonds had shattered into a cloud of quinoa. Plump olives and pulpy raisins had swollen under the smoke of hummus. Bouquets of broccoli were flecked with shreds of chilli and buttery cashews. The mousse of sweet potato had sponged the lining of my mouth with a spicy lathering, and glazed it in a bittersweet dressing. The marbled colour of my salad bowl snuggled, swirled and separated. Green grew creamy, and the rust of tomato ripened under the sun of a lemony stain. Steam curled its fingers up into my nose, and the aroma of sweet anticipation suffocated Anonymous for a moment. I could only hear clusters of chickpeas crumble between my teeth, and a floret rasp as my tongue caressed it from my fork.
Electrified, the firing of thoughts had ceased.
Pleasure pulled at my cheeks and made me smile: I couldn’t help it. It was just so yummy.

Smudged and smeared, the face reflected back at me from my spoon stared at Anonymous and Ellie. It’s eyes were curious, and challenged one of them to break the silence. “So,” they seemed to ask, “What have we learned today?”
Reflecting on a meal after I’ve eaten it allows me to gather my thoughts together, and order them in a way so that the recovery battle can begin again with renewed vigour. Writing my way out of my eating disorder has taken on many guises: it is an exercise that forces me to communicate with each voice as it prattles in harmony with my cutlery.
This particular moment of recuperation happened just last week, when I took myself to London. The Mae Deli has become an oasis: it is the only place I trust myself to eat in. It is the only place that doesn’t serve threat, in all it’s imagined glory.
I sat beside my empty plate, surrounded by the chatter of other diners. Ellie nodded with pride as she nursed the wounds inflicted by Anxiety during the long journey leading to that first bite. Anorexia’s visions of a certain future wobbles, and neutralises as it dissolves into the present. In the peace of my own solitude, I asked myself: “So, what have you learned today?”

I had walked through the door, intruding on that serene scene of well nourished respect. My eyes darted around the room. I need a table now. Anonymous, high on adrenaline and panic, had pursued me across the city convincing me there wouldn’t be space. There wouldn’t be space, and therefore I wouldn’t eat. I need to eat now, or I won’t. I won’t.
Oh look, you can sit here. Here, next to the flowers.
I looked into my empty bowl, and saw questions swirling in the dregs. What would have happened if you had to wait? Was your metabolism really going to trick you into ballooning seconds after your deadline?
I want to call on Ellie to question her claim of control. Anonymous is in control of when I eat.
– until someone sits at the last table.

The scoop of quinoa had bulged in the ladle, leering at me as it tumbled with muffled thunder into the bowl. It looked so big. I realised I hadn’t noted from which corner of the dish it had been conjured from. Perhaps it had been scraped from the depths of that pot, from the abyss where heavy bulbs of oily dressing had sunk? I hadn’t counted the chunks of sweet potato as they were nudged into place. The numbers were Anomalies: an unknown jumble of carbs and calories. They couldn’t be compared and contrasted with the data I consumed every other day. I couldn’t do the maths: have I earned this? What will the result be?

Those questions weren’t answered that day. Whilst they didn’t sour the enjoyment on my tongue, they did chase me around Hyde Park for the rest of the afternoon. Earn those calories.

Every mouthful was peppered with a question: what does this mean?

The will to try with this recovery battle hangs in the balance each day with how well Ellie and Anonymous can argue.
I swing from one conflict to the next, trying to balance out each argument and identify whose voice it belongs to. The most recent was the Great Grape Grievance: Surely, if I ate one grape now that’s greedy? I had lunch an hour ago, I don’t need it. How would it look in my food diary? A whole extra line, how greedy. How indulgent.
Yes, but how nice it would be.
(I didn’t eat the grape. I’m still trying to work out what that extra grape would say about me.)

Reflection allows me the freedom to engage with my food anxieties after they have climaxed.
I had a discussion with Anxiety in the Mae Deli. I asked her why she was afraid of breaching Anonymous’ rules. Thus began her tale:
Anxiety claims to have travelled to a land called the Future, where she met a monster. That monster was named Weight Gain. Trembling with fear, she retold me a tale that will leave her worthless and alone. Ellie wanted to know what made this demon so monstrous. She began to describe an independent creature with a life completely out of it’s control, with nobody to help it. Horns and fangs had grown from indulging on the forbidden fruit of food and freedom.
Anorexia has helped me keep this beast at bay thus far. Anonymous will stop me from being gobbled up.
Looking into my spoon, I can see through Anonymous’ deceptive tale. She isn’t afraid of Weight Gain, she is afraid of what it stands for. She is frightened by it’s power to control how other people treat me, long after they’ve forgotten that weight doesn’t fill the hole that made me starve out Ellie. She is frightened by how Ellie might treat me.
What would it mean?

Recovery needs to grow a hand for me to hold, because I am hanging in the balance of each bite, each day. My hopes of returning to university in September are slipping between my sweating palms, away into a static space balancing on the scales. It would mean a lot to Ellie if she could cope with going back, it really would. At the moment, that portion size looks a bit too much to ask for.

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Milk meditations

I savour those seconds of silence after a bite. Enjoyment doesn’t sour in my mouth, it lingers. An animal in me stirs: I am meant to eat. I deserve to eat. Somewhere, something swings into balance, and I can smile. These are precious moments, and they give me hope.

An aftertaste: Months before my diagnosis and a year ago today, I had my first meeting with my lovely nutritionist J. She would later save my life with a glass of milk, and give me the confidence to try: try something new, ask those questions, take that challenge. A year a ago today, I presented her with a list of foods I would not touch. I found that list in my diary, and Ellie is proud to say that she is able to cross most of them out. A precious moment, and it gives me hope.

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A year ago I never would have dreamed of making a rice bowl.