A Matter of Life or Death
9 Feb 2013
I am hungry.
My alarm goes off but I'm already awake, writhing with pains shooting through my stomach.
I am hungry, and I have taken too many laxatives the previous night which are now wreaking havoc with my body. Shakily I get up, sitting up slowly at first in order to avoid a postural drop in my blood pressure which will have me in an instant heap on the floor. My hands are cold and clammy, even though I've just emerged from a bed piled high with duvets and blankets; too many for the season but I just cannot get warm. I spend hours in the bathroom, wondering why I took the laxatives when it is so degrading, but deciding day after day that they serve their punishing purpose. Next I begin the only routine I have: as many cups of strong black coffee as I can stomach to force a false energy through my veins, and rolling cigarettes to smoke one after another to stave off the hunger pangs.
I am hungry but breakfast does not enter my mind. It ceased to be an option a long time ago. Lunch neither. Dinner I will eat, but my day will revolve around wrestling with myself over what I will allow myself to eat. When that desperately-longed-for-yet-feared time comes I will scrutinise labels, to check that nothing has changed calorifically. I will prepare my meal, often of foods in odd combinations, and set myself a time in which I must complete it. This is usually forty minutes, and I must make each morsel last as long as possible so that my fork hits the plate at exactly the right finishing time.
Then begins my evening of guilt, punctuated by laxative overdoses as an attempt at relief, and self-induced vomiting if the guilt overwhelms. At bedtime I crawl back under the blankets, writhing with pains shooting through my stomach.
I am hungry.
In 1995, I seemed to stumble completely accidentally into anorexia nervosa. I fell head over heels, tumbling my way through what would become a labyrinthine hell, with no idea of the way out. Of course, I did not know this at the time; I simply felt that if I lost some weight the pain in my life might ease.
I had never read a teen magazine, I had not been exposed to a saturation of media imagery telling me that thin equaled beautiful. I just wanted to be small. A little voice piped up, telling me that if only I could shrink, things would be okay. What it didn't tell me was that the more I withered beneath the orders of that little voice, the larger it would become.
It wasn't until 2000 when I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa that I tentatively began to understand what was happening to me. I knew of anorexia, I had heard about it in the news, and I knew that it had killed Karen Carpenter, whose dulcet voice I listened to on repeat through headphones, losing myself in the words that resonated so closely with my heavy feelings. Now I knew that I been boxed into a medical discourse that defines anorexia thus:
• Refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height. Weight loss leading to maintenance of body weight <85% of that expected or failure to make expected weight gain during period of growth, leading to body weight less than 85% of that expected.
• Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though underweight.
• Disturbance in the way one's body weight or shape are experienced, undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of current low body weight.
• Amenorrhea (at least three consecutive cycles) in post-menarchal girls and women. Amenorrhea is defined as periods occurring only following hormone (e.g. oestrogen) administration.
Well, 'four out of four isn't bad', I joked (ever the perfectionistic people-pleaser), although I strongly disputed that my body image was distorted. It was, and remains too difficult to comprehend how I can see something in the mirror that is not even there. But I definitely refused to maintain a body weight that the medics deemed 'acceptable'. In my early high school years I was sent to be weighed by the school nurse weekly, who would show how my weight simply plateaued under the upwards drifting centile curve. I certainly did not wish to go precariously upwards with it.
Within this I was further categorised, at the beginning as a restrictive anorexic (one who does not engage in binge-eating or purging behaviour: self-induced vomiting, or laxative and/or diuretic abuse). I merely ate a bowl of raisins each evening and exercised obsessively, walking up and down stairs incessantly and practicing calisthenics on my bedroom floor in the middle of the night when no one would hear me. Over time something shifted; I started eating again and I could not stop, morphing myself into a binge-purge 'type' (one who does engage in some or all of the binge/purge type behaviours). I would gorge myself on copious amounts of all the stodgiest, fattiest food I had been denying myself. A loaf of bread would be toasted, buttered and eaten within minutes, then vomited back up into bin bags. Laxatives, whilst degrading, relieved my guilt. Any money I could get my hands on was spent on food, meticulously planned (like the pharmacy visits for my laxatives) so that I never went to the same supermarket more than once a week. I often laughed my purchases off: 'hosting a massive children's party tomorrow!'
I ate my family out of house and home.
The entire Christmas cake gone, before Christmas had even arrived.
From 2000 onwards, I became a patient, trapped in a cycle of admissions into eating disorder units when my weight dropped precariously low, or when my binge/purge bulimic cycles were out of control. I also spent months in general psychiatric units, an adolescent in a world I should not know, frightened and trapped by and because of my suicidal thoughts and attempts. I lost friends. I lost family as I pushed everyone around me away for they would interfere with my 'anorexic activities'. My sustained and loyal companion was anorexia, the voice I heard through the dark days and the excruciatingly hungry and sleepless nights. This entity became the only thing I could trust, the only thing with my own wishes in its own heart.
This photo essay contains some of the self-portraiture work which I have made to both help me understand my relationship with anorexia, and to help others understand the dangers and precarious nature of struggling to survive with an eating disorder.