Since I started blogging, I have considered writing about a subject that I should really know a lot about. I should have streams of knowledge on the issue and the ability to put first-hand experience into some kind of perspective to allow people to understand what it feels like to suffer from an eating disorder or what to do if someone you know shows the symptoms of developing one. In truth, I still feel like I haven’t got a bloody idea. Like most things in life, it seemed to happen in a whirlwind that was out of my control – which seems a bit ironic, when re-considering the issue. But I will tell you what I do know.
With anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders, everyone else tends to know before you do. It’s like dramatic irony, but in a really shit play. Often parents don’t really know either and they can get wound up in the stories, lies and conceptions – not that I created but that I actually felt were really true – such as the fact that I had some obscure stomach disorder which prevented me from absorbing nutrients (specifically fat) from my food. It could absolutely, under no circumstances, be that I wasn’t eating because that would be really bad and probably couldn’t be fixed by having an operation - like the kids who caught appendicitis - or by attending an appointment with a normal doctor. People knew I was thin as a child, they thought I was thin at 11… by 12 I was seeing dieticians, the memory of which seems to be a lot of advice about eggs and bread. By 13, it appeared that there was actually quite a serious problem (what with that increasingly serious, un-diagnosed ‘stomach disorder’). By 14 I weighed under 3 and a half stone and was sitting in an office in The Priory being told that, if I wasn’t admitted into hospital, my organs would shut down by about Spring of the following year and I would probably die.
More than anything, I just felt really confused because I felt that I had explained, in necessary detail to the terrifying Professor, what I ate in an average day – cereal, toast, pasta etc. He just looked at me, from his terrifyingly big Prof chair, and said ‘you are not a scientific anomaly Miss Corcoran, you are anorexic.’ This was actually incredibly liberating – apart from the obvious assault on my liberty which was keeping me banged up in the Priory for weeks and weeks and forcing me to eat more food than seemed humanly possible.
It is at this point when a lot of stories about eating disorders tend to all become some unrealistic, empowering story full of enlightenment and hope – about connecting with other women and engaging with whatever group sessions they force you to go to, when it doesn’t often work like that. Most women in The Priory were relapse patients, who would just be forcibly fattened up and released and would continue the cycle over and over until their bodies would not play ball anymore. A lot of anorexics are high functioning, intelligent women – two women on my ward had gone to Harvard, but the disease is ridiculously hard to kick once it sets in and no amount of intellectualising can get you out of it. And the worse thing about being there, for me, is that it actually pushed me to the brink (and, contrary to what people thought might happen, failed to pick me up again). I became absolutely terrified of food, far more than I had been previously, because of the intense pressure to ‘get better.’ I threw up nearly everything I ate. I felt invaded, seeing as you couldn’t even go for a wee or have a bath for a long time after you’d eaten without superintendence. Art therapy made me feel like I was about five and no amount of depicting my emotions through the medium of brightly coloured pipecleaners did me any fucking use. And because weight gain often takes a while to spread out (it can you leave you puffy faced for a long while at first), I became scared of gaining weight but terrified to stay how I was for fear of becoming institutionalised (one girl had been there for two years – TWO YEARS!). Everything you do, from the ten minute walk you’re allowed a day to the inspection of your plate after ‘biscuit time’ to make sure not a crumb has escaped, is micro-managed to such a degree that you feel completely colonised by the whole experience. And they were right – when you show that you can’t cope like an adult, then sometimes it helps having that responsibility taken away so they can build you up again.
But I was never built up again. I left the priory weighing four and a half stone. The only thing that corrected me was a shit load of medication and the over-use of pouring cream. So I guess everyone is different. I saw girls in there who were being fed through a tube and were missing most of their hair – girls who I know have probably died since. And the thing that I learned most from them (we did spend an awful lot of time together!) is that most people’s conceptions of eating disorders is just plain wrong. People simplify, like most things, and think that it’s just a bunch of vain little western girls reading too much Vogue magazine. Yet the women I met in The Priory were probably the least vain people I’ve ever met. There’s only so vain you can be when you’re showing bald patches of scalp and they force you to pee into a toilet-chair during observation period. When the big question of ‘why’ was thrown around, everyone had their story and I don’t remember one person actually mentioning women’s magazines. A few women had been sexually abused. A lot of girls came from difficult families, with a lot of hostility and violence. Most had a fear of growing up and a desire to be looked after – because something inside is missing. And I think that is the key to understanding someone with an eating disorder. Something went wrong, something is missing and the gap can’t just be filled with force-feeding them some bacon. They often had critically low self-esteem, a worryingly fearless approach to the possibility of death and an un-natural drive towards being thin, or, for most of them, a drive towards complete control. That was what connected every single woman in there and is the underlying thrill of an eating disorder: it gives you complete and utter control over just one thing, usually when everything else is chaotic. But when people asked me then, and if they ask me now, why I suffered from an eating disorder, I’d just tell them the truth – that I was sad. Far too sad to eat.
So, basically, I feel like I have a lot to say about eating disorders but nothing that is very useful to anyone. Lots of people don’t respond well to programmes, lots of people do, everyone is different. I recovered from an eating disorder when I was about 22 years old – which is years after everyone saw me looking better and ‘normal’. Throughout my teenage years, I maintained a normal weight through un-natural means – I won’t discuss them. Most of my relationships were problematic and I dreaded anyone saying they’d cook for me which should have been such a lovely thing but was the source of massive anxiety because it would be something that I hadn’t cooked or seen cooked and it would mean I’d have to eat in front of someone like a normal, functioning human being - and ‘normal/functioning’ were never really adjectives I had easily aligned myself with. But now, I guess I’m doing pretty great and hopefully will for a long time. I love eating out (food and women). I eat adult, human food. I’m neurotic as hell about saturated fat but I’m not going to turn into some chilled out, carpe diem woman over night…or probably ever. But, sadly for this article, I have absolutely no advice to give someone going through an eating disorder because everyone experiences it differently. I do have advice to people who know someone going through an eating disorder though. That is this. When they are recovering, never say ‘you are looking well.’ It literally feels like a smack in the face. ‘Looking well’ is code for fat. You think that you’re being kind and thoughtful. They are having images of rosy faced milk maids and fat faced midwives.
That’s not a lot to have learned from years of therapy but no-one’s perfect. I learned that in therapy though.