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.

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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:

An Ode to Fear

I opened the book again. The picture was perfect and the directions were simple, with small steps sweeping down the page. A string of safe words nodded up at Ellie: oats, seeds, a nut or two. I studied it closer, scrutinising the riddles snaking down the margin. Ingredients were planting calories like sugar-coated mines. They made the steps slippery, and threatened to trip Anonymous up. Determination would flat on it’s face. It was a list corrupted by lust. A seductive tbsp of sugary anxiety; several heaped tsps of guilty indulgence. A pinch of terror. And yet, the picture made it look so easy. How hard can it be to follow a recipe? I shut the book and retreated.

Anonymous took a pencil to the margin of that recipe book, and started to count. Her hand spread numbers down the list. Calculations scrawled like graffiti, burrowing between the lines and unearthing something she could understand. g, tbsp, kcal. I could plate up my defaced proposal, and wait to see if Fear devoured it.

We watched clouds of coconut oil melt in the pan. Those fluffy clumps turned glassy, stained by streaks of honey. I had done the maths: Ellie could afford some honey. Dancing beads of spice condensed and smoked over the surface. The air was humid, and Anonymous flinched as steamy calories licked my face.
I poured half the mixture over the oats, then stopped again. A thick lathering was swiping into the cavities between seeds. Their toothy grins became sticky. The feathery husks of oats became soggy, and splintered pecans were soldered together. A hand held the pan, and I fixed my eyes on it’s contents. The sweet romance of coconut and oil was turning sour. Anonymous sized them up, boring into the eyes reflecting back at me. Gold died as it disappeared down the plughole. I poured temptation down the drain, drowning Fear’s snarls under a furious gush.
Ellie sighed, and retreated back to the task at hand. Once stirred, the finished product lay before me. It was slightly dry, but my excitement was wetted.
I watched the oven’s heat flatter a crumpled heap into granola. Spice speckled oats blushed gold and began to sweat. Fear melted away as the heat of the moment crept closer. Ellie, you just made granola.

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Oh yes I did!

Fear is a thug. Some say it’s mouth is a gash ripped by the past, others that it has been worn open by diseased thoughts. The creed of Anorexia bleeds from Fear’s lips. Anxiety chooses to retreat into this small familiar space, and listen to it’s grey prophecies about the doom recovery would bring.
The face of Fear is said to be horrifying. Lingering in acceptance means I would never have to behold it, I would never have to look it in the eye. Instead, Ellie watches it’s shadow walk circles around Anonymous. Fear is Anorexia’s most loyal and effective protector. It provides a quality service for very little: it never even has to materialise into reality, or prove itself to be true. All Anonymous needs is for me to know that it is there, waiting to gobble me up.
Recovery regards Fear with morbid fascination. What makes Fear so trustworthy? Ellie has been encouraged by Recovery to engage with it. It is 9:27am. Why must I wait until 9:30am to take my dose of nuts?
Oh Ellie, why did you do it? Why did you bring about that great plague of confusion? Why Ellie, why, did you try and communicate with Fear? You know it doesn’t like confrontation.
A single question exposes Fear’s illiteracy. Put on the spot, terror squirms uncomfortably. It offers an explanation always starting with the only two words it knows: I can’t – then silence. Take a long hard look at Fear, Ellie. Listen. See, it cannot justify itself. It blinks stupidly when I can produce evidence even Anonymous would be proud of. Total kcal of my regular breakfast vs. total kcal of granola. Anonymous never told Fear why, it only told it what. Educated by Anorexia’s deprivation, Fear is starved of logic. I can relate to that, except I at least am hungry for answers.
I wonder if Fear will ever be able to justify why I’m not allowed to gain weight.

May has wrecked havoc on my hospital appointments. The aftershocks of bank holidays and technical glitches have rumbled long into the weeks that follow. Anonymous yelped when she heard that I was going to be weighed later in the day this week. My plan, my clinic routine, was ruined.
Fear spluttered: I can’t be weighed in the afternoon because I can’t sit in the afternoon because I can’t sit after lunch because lunch will be ruined too because of time there simply isn’t time. Anonymous was exposed to disruption, and she responded using Fear. I was forced into adapting for a day.
We waited for Fear’s predictions to come true. Covering my eyes, I got onto the scales after lunch. Don’t look. You know how heavy the consequences will be.
The number was the same. Nothing had happened.
Well, Anonymous, we weren’t expecting that were we?

Fear is strong, but brittle. Recovery can strike success through it’s time-rotten hide and suck knowledge from it’s core.
Shards of a broken fear fly into my eyes, scarring Anonymous’ sight but clearing some of Ellie’s blind spots. I barely recognise the corpse of a broken fear.
Since I first tried my granola, I have had it four times since. It was glorious (slightly burnt – but I prefer the term ‘toasty’). Defeated Fear provides a reassuring history lesson, and Ellie is learning how to respond to it.

Recovery finally rewarded me this week. I could indulge both Ellie and Anonymous in a treat: a yoga class.

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Ready to go!

As I squeezed my toes over the mat, I tested the gravity of being allowed to try some exercise after almost a year. Despair almost choked me when I struggled – osteoporosis snarled in my back and my legs twitched in shock – but then I exhaled. I stretched, and pulled myself together again. Needless to say you’re not as strong as you once were Ellie, but stand up straight. You’re trying hard.
I think Anonymous missed the point of yoga. She panicked in the moments my teacher asked us to simply practice breathing: exercise? You call this exercise? Moments later she was appeased, high on movement.
Ellie had made an informed choice about yoga. She had chosen a class, because it would keep Anorexia’s obsession under control. The hour for exercise would pass and expire: stop. You need to stop now. The temptation to carry on, to push harder and faster, would be rolled up and stuffed away. Someone else would be in control of my exercise, someone else might know better Ellie.
I am proud that I chose this class, and proud to say that I shan’t be going back this week. I can still taste exercise’s addictive tang, even a year after being banned from it. I’m not strong enough to resist it yet.

I watched my yogi flex out of a shoulder stand pose, and fold her hands over her baby bump. The human body is capable of so much. Imagine what the mind could do, if it was allowed.

Some food for thought: I am excited to announce that the charity Youth Mental Health Matters has included “Eating for Ellie” in it’s awareness campaign. This new organisation brings mental health education into schools in the UK, and is spreading from the northwest nationwide with the gathering support of MPs. There is nothing more nourishing than education.

Horizons

I kept my eyes on the horizon. Restrained by a seatbelt and a speed limit, I handed my attention into the nervous hands of Distraction. They held my gaze over the landscape. Bushes flaked away like scabs as forests melted into moorland. My phone glared in disapproval as I scrolled. Lorde and Ludovico flooded the space between my ears. My focus slipped over Woman’s Hour and was dropped between the pages of the Times. Jenni Murray had been jeering at me through my headphones: I’m sitting too. I was contained in a car burrowing deeper and deeper down that tarmac canal. I felt Anxiety shudder when I accidentally looked at the dashboard, and saw the time. All those seconds saturating all those minutes – hours – now drained away into my lap, and into my thighs.
Keep your eyes on the horizon, Ellie. You’re over halfway now.

It was crowded in there. The ransom of being allowed to travel sat next to me in a cool box, packed tightly next to myself and my overnight bag.

Anonymous had been baiting me with Anxiety as the date of our departure crept closer and closer. I had to sit with it. Ellie and Anonymous had struck a deal that would allow me to sit in the car for a long period of time, and it was being carried through. Everything was planned, the horizon already sealed off.

Opportunity was panting when I hit “submit” on the UCAS website. Drunk on my smoothie increase, I had committed Ellie to a series of battles designed to test her. If she survives, she may be able to take her place at Exeter University in September. That single click shook panic out of dormancy, and it began to snarl.

Looking into the future, I beheld the monstrosity Ellie had agreed to take on.
Hours of sitting was curled up in a bed made from fear. The pungent smell of inactivity choked me, sweating with the effort of staying still. Calories grew like warts over it’s time rotten hide. Fat pulsating as the car’s engine shuddered to a stop at traffic lights. Congested worry clogged up the roads and caused a jam.
Wait, there is more.
Anonymous beckoned me to the mouth of Fear’s lair, and there I saw it. Gravity was being ousted out of sight and the monster began to swell. I watched that greedy creature gobble up the time Anonymous had designated for movement: walking; standing; moving. It’s heaving breath tickled my legs and made them grow stiff. I was stuck like this: stuck between a rock and a crazy place.
I looked at the car journey, and asked what it wanted with Ellie. It began to foam at the mouth. Contorted with rage at my insolence, sound frothed from it’s lips. We couldn’t understand them: we couldn’t order the series of interrupted threats. I couldn’t work out what was so terrifying about that car journey. It just was.

Something is disturbing us, Ellie. Lets starve it out.

I responded to Anonymous. We sedated Anxiety by restricting my food. Had Ellie been allowed her meal plan, my Anorexia would have flared up. That’s the nature of the beast.

I met Anonymous halfway, and prepared all the food I would need for the trip. Pages of calculations was used as evidence for my Anorexic logic. Panic polluted thoughts clouded everything Ellie had been taught to recite in times of recovery hardship.
You need x no. cal to maintain your bodyweight.
Therefore, if you eat < x no cal …
Fact and fiction were chewed over and spat out in frustration. I cowered away from reason when I felt threatened. Everything became disordered. Problems were produced to fix a solution; interruptions conversed with denial; riddles revealed themselves in plain sight. Nothing made sense. Something was trying to trick me. Guided by the nervous hands of distraction, we managed to tiptoe through the trip.

When I arrived at midday, a wave of survivor’s guilt washed me out of the car. I felt contradiction rot into consequence: I hadn’t eaten enough. Anonymous cruised across familiar ground by starving me of food and feeding me words. It had felt so easy: we remembered every turning, every slippery spot. Mum and Dad praised me for winning the motorway battle, and Ellie shrank. You cheated.

Ellie blinked in the spring sunlight dancing off the harbour. Waves peeled off the sea and crept up the sand to greet me. The masts of a hundred yachts reached up to the cloudless sky, applauding it in the breeze. Salt frosted houses lined the weaving street, coloured pink, blue, stone and slate. People’s mouths sprang into smiles under beards, piercings and mouthfuls of pasty. I had been so terrified of the journey to Falmouth, I hadn’t been allowed to get excited about where I was actually going. The car journey’s enormous presence hadn’t let me see that I would wander across a beach with my parents, or be dragged down cobbled streets by my dog.

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It was magic.

Not being allowed to sit for long periods of time has meant that I have been contained by a small radius around my house: a seatbelt of disordered thoughts. Hope smelt salty, and delicious.
Oh Ellie, why haven’t you bought enough food. I ordered a glass of milk in a cafe, trying to atone for 48hours of restrictions. Nothing can compensate for effort.

It has taken me nearly two weeks to write this blog post, because I couldn’t face what I had done. The threat of the car journey still snarls, wounded but not slain. Waves of retrospective panic dump Ellie at Anonymous’ feet: what were you thinking? Sometimes, those billows lose momentum and drop back, defeated.
I remember Falmouth flirting with recovery, and the Exeter campus charming Ellie with it’s possibility of a life free from Anorexia. There was so much colour: societies; subjects; gardens and books – books with topics drowning each other out as they called from the library bookshelves. Conflicting, not contradicting.
I just sat in a car. Huh. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to sit in a lecture.

Regret sighs as I read this over. Ellie wants to be better, I just don’t want to get better. The journey is riddled with contradictions to the logic that doesn’t make sense, not while I let my brain shrink in hunger.
Ellie averts her eyes from the horizon, and focuses on the morsel of Anorexia she is gnawing away at presently. To navigate this journey through recovery, I just need to trust the horizon is there, and that hope is still breathing.

If anything, that trip gave me something to chew over, and now write about.

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I think Billy copes better in a car than I do!

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.