Monday, 22 February 2016

Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2016.

It's the beginning of Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2016 and I'm already starting to sweat a bit. In theory, I think EDAW is an excellent opportunity to make an often secretive disorder less shameful and better understood. It's just the way that both the traditional media and social media can choose to open dialogue that makes me cringe.

Let me explain. The first time I was particularly aware of EDAW would have been, oh, 2008. For those who didn't know me at that point, I was 17 and in my first year of college. My days consisted of a timetable of history, politics and philosophy classes that I sometimes bothered going to, afternoons doing shots in the pub and... a pretty serious eating disorder. During the college years, I never ate a thing whilst I was there or let anyone see me drink anything but Coke Zero (I didn't mature onto Pepsi Max until a bit later, bless). The lessons that I missed were mostly because I'd been up all night the night before in agony or I needed to binge or I needed to exercise, the latter two always taking priority over my education.

But for as ill as I was at that point, I looked healthy. Sure, my hair was falling out and my skin was a war zone, but my weight was healthy and so I managed mostly to keep it a secret.

So picture it: 17 year old me walking into reception at college, barely awake- barely alive- only to come face to face with images of Ana Carolina Reston and Kate Moss on big boards announcing EDAW. For those who don't know the name, Ana Carolina Reston was a South American model who died of heart failure as a result of Anorexia in 2006. You've maybe seen her photos, particularly if you've ever happened upon a Pro-Ana website. Kate Moss, of course, is another model associated with Pro-Ana, especially since she made some pretty problematic comments that seemed to promote eating disorders.

There were no pictures of people who looked like me on the EDAW boards. There was no reference to the fact that there are other eating disorders aside from Anorexia. There was no mention of the silence and secret agony. There were just sensational photos of emaciated, but still unarguably beautiful, women.

The problems with viewing eating disorders in this way are many, but the most significant, to me, are invalidation and competition.

By invalidation, I'm talking about how, of the 750,000 people with EDs in the UK (I'm using Beat's statistics here), only 75,000 are Anorexic. Falling back on the same tired examples of people with eating disorders being extremely underweight invalidates the 90%+ of those with eating disorders who are not. It says that those people aren't important and that they don't suffer enough to be counted. By using images of models, you're invalidating the average person with an ED. By only using images of women, you're allowing the 11% of those ill who are male to feel even less than they already do.

By competition, I'm talking about how eating disordered behaviours are often triggered by details of other people's disorders. I still have a lot of triggers myself: specific details of other people's weights, specific details of other disordered people's diets, specific details of other people's exercise and, when I'm particularly unwell, images of emaciated people. I don't expect underweight people to lock themselves away, but I'd hope that people wouldn't send me pictures of their jutting hip bones.

In the years since that first EDAW that I was aware of, I've noticed a trend on social media of people posting pictures of themselves at that worst for this week. I'm not saying don't do that, but what I am saying is, be aware of consequences. If your worst was you at a terrifyingly low BMI and you want to show how well you've done to overcome that, all power to you. That's up to you. But if your worst was you at a healthy weight, you overweight, or you obese, your pain is just as valid. You don't have to have been force fed to have been ill enough because, truth is, with eating disorders there is never 'enough.' There is pain, but there is also hope.

Just... be aware. Be aware that anorexic supermodels do not constitute the majority of EDs. Be aware that posting certain details of your disorder may be triggering to somebody on your friend list. Be aware that there are other ways of marking this week than posting pictures of jutting bones.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Perfection paralysis, part 3.

(in case you're interested, part 1- written 2011- is here and part 2- written 2013- is here)

Perfection paralysis is what I call it when you can't do anything for fear that whatever you do won't be perfect. Speak to any amateur eating disorder expert and they'll tell you that those of us who are/have been ill are perfection seekers in being ill and perfection seekers in being well. And I'll tell you, chasing a perfect death or recovery is like being stuck in a kind of purgatory, somewhere flitting between constant strides into the sunset and never moving from your blanket den. It's a bit like- and I'm loathe to use this example, for reasons that will be obvious- when a person goes on a diet but then eats something 'bad' and so decides that they may as well eat 16 doughnuts and write the day off as a bad job. It's taking the 'diet starts tomorrow' mentality and applying it to every area of your life.

I'm rocking the bejaysus out of perfection paralysis right now, if that can even be a thing (maybe I've found my perfection, in living paralysed). In the past, my perfection paralysis has been negative and, don't get me wrong, it still sort of is, but it's also got a sort of purity about it this time around. It's not just that I daren't increase how much I'm eating for fear that I won't then be either the perfect anorexic or be the model recovered anorexic, although I still am so desperate to be perfect in my recovery. There's something more this time, something innocent about it; the sense that I'm at a point in my life where I could actually end up brilliant. To use such an obvious cliche: my life is a brand new notebook and I don't want to commit anything to the first page because I really, really need it to be great. I've been mediocre for too long and I'm terrified of staying this way.

So I'm not doing much. I'm going through the motions. Parts of my life are great, parts are horrible, altogether it averages out flat. I know that everything levels off and we all have good and bad aspects in our lives, and that in this respect (as in too many respects), I'm nothing special. Somehow it's becoming a beast though. I'm not writing very much, because I want only to write perfect things. The fact that I have mentally committed to pushing 'publish' on this is horrible. I want to be insightful and inspired and unique, but I fear I never have been any of those things and never will be. I'm not expecting people to disagree with me here, I just want to try and explain.

I've started hearing voices again. I'm doing everything right though- I've seen my psychiatrist and had my anti-psychotic increased, my therapist is aware and I'm doing all that I can. I think it's because other parts of my life are coming together and I'm so, so afraid of not being ill. I'm great at being ill. Perhaps close to perfect. Far closer to perfect, anyway, than I am at being well because I've had far less practise at this. My calorific intake has dropped a bit, but I'm doing ok. It's not as low as it has been in the past and my weight is still healthy. I'm doing... average.

I just want to be perfect. I want to be at least working towards perfection, instead of treading water.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Damaged and troubled.

I found a report the other day from my GP in Colchester, where I was at uni. I've not seen that doctor for 4 years, because I'm from a good 4 hours north of Essex, so there's no recent reports to compare with. Actually that report was a referral for therapy. I remember when I first got a copy- oh, 5 or so years ago- of it I found it hilarious, because it made mention of me being 'a deeply damaged and troubled young woman.' It sound like the blurb from a really crappy made-for-tv movie and I found it pretty equally mortifying and hysterical. These days, I just find it really, really sad.

I don't like that description. I don't know whether it's because I'm looking at it with hindsight, with knowing all the hospital years that were to come and how hard I've had to fight for my life. It seemed funny at the time because I was just me. I didn't know any different. I knew I was ill, I knew I'd had a shaky start to life, but given my mind reading powers aren't what they ought to be, I didn't know how else I was meant to feel. It seemed embarrassing because it made me feel naked and exposed. And now it makes me sad for the same reasons- maybe I was damaged and troubled, demonstrated by the fact that I knew nothing but chaos and that feeling exposed felt like the most dangerous thing of all.

But maybe I was neither damaged nor troubled.

Maybe, I was just incredibly adaptive. Maybe, it was actually pretty impressive that I matched my environment so well. I only survived the last 25 years by being alert and on guard. It's made me anxious and jumpy and even, as I was diagnosed, 'hyper aroused' (as it happens, that's not a sex thing. It just means that my senses are heightened, which is a nightmare because it makes every hurt all the worse). It has some weird side-effects- I'm incredibly ticklish because even my sense of touch is more alert and I use a lot of salt and/or sugar on my food and drink because things taste vile otherwise. And of course I hallucinate (fun fact: my voices have returned. But I'm going to talk about that another day). All the energy that was spent on surviving doesn't now know what else to do.

Some days, it would be easier to give in and just let my instincts to take over. Some days, it would be easier to end it all. Some days, some days, some days. I can't rely on my instincts, because maybe they're damaged and troubled. Maybe now I don't rely on them like I used to, and now I have to put more thought into life than the average person, I can be separated from the damaged and troubled bits.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Me and my period.

When I was a kid, I was desperate for my period. I was pretty sure that when it came along, I'd suddenly be viewed as the adult I liked to think that I was. I mean, I won't sit and tell you that I was a mega mature child or anything, because I wasn't. On the surface, I was pretty ordinary. In reality, my home life was anything but. I've spoken before here and here about the years of sexual abuse and it was that stuff, I think, that made me desperate for adulthood. I was sure that when I was a grown up nobody could hurt or control me, that I would be the one directing my own life, rather than a victim of the whims of those around me. Somehow, I had it all centred around my period.

This might sound a bit gross, but from when I was 8 or 9 and knew what periods were, I liked the idea of bleeding from a part of me that had never seemed to match the pain it had been subjected to. I'm clumsy and I trip over or bump into everything. And when I have my little collisions, I find bruises. I bang my arm? Chances are I'll have a mark. But the sexual abuse left only mental marks- marks I wouldn't recognise until I was a bit older- and I hated that. I had nothing to show for it. It didn't make sense. It wasn't fair that the worst pain had no tangible signs, no scars from my war. But when I was a grown up, when I got my period, I would not only be a woman and untouchable, but I'd have earnt my warrior marks and would bleed it all out.

Of course, I was massively disappointed when I got my first period. I was bloated. I was weepy. I was spotty. I ruined a nice pair of knickers. There was no recognition because my mum had unceremoniously thrust pads upon me a few months before and because it started the summer holidays I was 11, I couldn't even go into school and brag. By then my sexual abuse had stopped, but even so, it didn't give me the closure I craved.

After that, I became determined to lose my period. Again, my period took on a higher importance to me and by the time I was 16, I'd banished it through starvation. And again, it was a massive anti-climax. Yeah, ok, the tampon tax wasn't an issue any more, but I was always petrified of it coming back and what I once eagerly looked forward to as a sign of womanhood, I then feared... as a sign of womanhood. I think by the time I was in my late teens I'd realised that, actually, as a woman I was even more at risk than I was as a child. So I became something in between. And I still wasn't happy.

I still have a complicated relationship with my reproductive system. I want children. I really, really want children. So I try to look at my period just as a sign that I might just be able to bear children, and nothing more. Yes, I am a woman. Yes, I am privileged to have to sex organs to match my gender. Yes, I am bloated and weepy and spotty and sometimes I'm caught unaware and inconvenienced. But yes, that's all ok.