Order and disorder: recovering from anorexia

Student Life

Last week something miraculous happened. For most women, the arrival of your period isn’t really a jumping-for-joy occasion, despite what tampon manufacturers would have us believe. Aside for a lucky few, there’s no such thing as a happy period, and those few days every month are best spent in the company of a hot water bottle, BBC iplayer and a justified dose of self-pity. However, last week, in the History Faculty toilets, I experienced a rush of menstruation-elation. My library located joy probably surpassed that of the Oxonian who interpreted certain illicit substances as exempt from the no food or drink rules in the Bodleian.

It had been eight months since my last period, and the disruption of my menstrual cycle had marked the decline of my healthy body into a shape I no longer recognised. For me, starvation had not initially been about aesthetics, and as much as my horrified friends might tell me that I would look better for gaining some weight, it wasn’t a warped image of myself which led to my illness. I had been suffering with depression, and my unhappiness worked itself out as an obsession with food, initially that it must be healthy and delicious, and ultimately that it must not be eaten at all.

Before my depression, I had always had a healthy relationship with food. I had never been on a diet for more than a day, and while I might have enjoyed the thought of being thinner, I wouldn’t have passed up the opportunity to be prettier, cleverer or funnier either. When I was travelling I (obnoxiously) sent my parents a list of the food I wanted to eat upon my return a month in advance; finding it now it reads like an elegy to all the meals I once enjoyed without worrying about their effect on my body. Birthday celebrations always took place in restaurants; I shared dessert with my mum when we ate out, and at mealtimes I ate until I was full, or admittedly quite frequently past the point of satiation.

Having gone to a highly pressured girls’ school where eating disorders were rife, the signs of anorexia were not alien. The jutting shoulders and knobbly knees of the girls who sat in the canteen with glasses of water in front of them might not have been an unknown sight, but before my illness I could never understand how they could eat so little. Didn’t they get hungry? My fourteen-year-old self didn’t understand the ability of the body to cope with deprivation, and normalise hunger. Like the furtive eating habits which anorexia fostered, the ‘I’m too broke to eat out’ or filling up on water instead of food, the disease is subtle and insidious. After a few weeks of depriving myself, although I wasn’t even aware that this was what I was doing at the time, the food I would eat became increasingly restrictive, and I came to understand the mind-set of those painfully thin girls at school. It became more tempting not to eat, and while I indulged in talking about pasta, cakes and steaks, my diet consisted rather less indulgently of salad and low fat yoghurt.

After five months self-imposed starvation, I had never been so ill, and yet I didn’t feel ill at all. Anorexics often speak of the ‘high’ they experience from emptiness, and indeed that feeling of control in my energy-deprived mind gave me a sense of almost purity. I felt that I had transcended the necessity for sustenance, and yet while nothing passed my lips, I was consumed by thoughts of consumption. I spent hours on recipe websites or reading menus for restaurants I would never have the courage to visit. Elaborate meals were prepared for my family, and one of the few pleasures I found was watching my friends enjoy the food I had prepared, while claiming ‘I ate earlier’. I began to log my caloric intake, and if I hadn’t calculated exactly what I was eating I panicked. My unhealthy attitude towards my self was perpetuated by my sense of disappointment that my thoughts were so basely occupied. I was lucky; I could eat whenever, I wasn’t going to starve. Surely this privileged position should afford me the opportunity to think about things besides where my next meal was coming from, what it would involve, and whether it had been prepared with any oil.

I arrived in Oxford at one of the lowest ebbs of my illness, acutely conscious that I was about to spend Freshers’ Week eating in hall after a summer of meals consumed in increasing isolation. Having never seen me anything but skinny, the people I met would probably notice nothing wrong, but sitting across from a plate of salad topped with one slice of ham had to give a reasonably definitive impression to anyone with any awareness of eating disorders. I was petrified by the thought of what assumptions might be made, and afraid that slipping up at university would threaten any fragile eating equilibrium I managed to achieve.

In fact, Oxford turned out to be the jolt and distraction needed to force me to address my problem. Away from the fear of disappointing my old friends and around new people who had no idea about my illness, I wanted to return to being a person whose world didn’t collapse at the thought of food prepared by someone other than themselves. Of course, recovery is slow and arduous, and some innocuous foods remain unthinkable for me. Nevertheless, the significance of the transition from lettuce to lentils should not be underestimated. Easter eggs might be beyond reach this Hillary, but my twenty-first birthday offers a goal in the near future. After a year of grappling with myself, I’m hoping to be able to have my cake and eat it too.

PHOTO/Rebecca Ann Spencer