My journey towards reconciling with my eating disorder.
A few years ago I told my friend Claire that I was bulimic, she was unsurprised. She stated matter of factly that I had always been unhappy with myself, my face, my body and beyond that, I was unhappy with something deeper than just those superficial things.
At high school, Claire and I spent our work experience at a local fashion designers workshop and boutique. Claire was and still is, tall and effortlessly slim with beautiful collarbones and long dark wavy hair. I on the other hand was dumpy with thick thighs, a pot belly I called Fred and a red spotty face. The fashion designer, who was also tall and beautiful, overlooked me and immediately took to using Claire as her model. She praised Claire’s long legs and lithe body. I was mortified and ashamed. I had wanted to design clothes, I already had my own logo, but now I felt I couldn’t do this because my body was wrong.
I had always been an excruciatingly shy child and as I became a ‘woman’ I was surrounded by seemingly confident, outspoken and beautiful girls at high school. I strongly remember being jealous of one girl I knew who was so small she could buy GapKids clothes for herself. My cousin also had a glamorous blonde slim girlfriend. I found out that she was anorexic and I think this is the moment at which I associated thinness with not eating. I decided it was best for me to dress like a boy to cover my changing body.
I knew that I was all wrong and I got lost in my own shell of discomfort and shame. I felt heavy, both mentally and physically. If someone spoke to me I became a hot, red and stuttering mess. I hated any attention. I never put my hand up in class and repeatedly snuck out of school, hid in the art room or even faned illness if I had to, for example, give a presentation in class. My whole school life was a misery.
In sixth form things were a bit different. I had a small band of misfit friends around me, I had fun and I even had a loving boyfriend. I was two years away from ‘being free’, for me this was what I wanted more than anything. I hated authority figures, I hated being told what to do and when, I hated teachers, I disliked a lot of my peers. I wanted to make art, only art and not have to think about math or science or P.E. I couldn’t wait to be in art college. Then I thought, I could be ‘myself’.
At 18 I changed my name from Rosemary to just Rose. I started dressing in more hippy clothes, I wore dresses over baggy cord trousers and wooly jumpers. I really went to efforts to cover up my body. I got art school staples, the duffel coat and the leather satchel. I got a job in a little student cafe called Queens. I also became fat but I had no clue. I just relished in my freedom. I started making quirky art pieces, painting surreal images onto vinyl, overlapping screenprints of my childhood drawings with old family photos and religious texts. I took black and white photos and processed them in the darkroom. I started making zines and distributing them. I was living my dream. The way artists do in the movies. Making stuff in my room with car paint canisters and getting accidentally high. Living with my best friend, Lochan, and us going out very late at night to explore Belfast. Walking happily around and seeing what adventures would happen to us. We often found lone balloons and they became our mascots. We were constantly drawing.
But then I became a Christian. I started hanging around with different people. I left Ken Ham* pamplets on my housemates beds, I came to be judgemental of their actions, I ignored old friends to find solace in my bible. I thought it would save me from myself. But I was suddenly all wrong again. I knew that I needed another new life. One that wasn’t the art college life I had ruined with my narrow minded Christian attitude or one that was the authoritian life of high school.
As soon as college was over I quickly got a job at the hospital in my home town. I worked for six months and then in June 2007 I took off, alone. I wasn’t even scared or apprehensive. I just needed distance. I needed to be lost and unknown. This action changed my whole life. I fell in love with travelling. I loved seeing the world, other cultures, landscapes, hairstyles, languages, customs, clothes, people so different from me but essentially (crucially) the same. I wasn’t alone. There were people as lost and broken as I was. All at once I felt so small and so big. I was nothing but I could do anything.
But then the money ran out and I had to return from my travels. And I remembered how much I really hated myself, I hated how I sometimes treated friends, I hated how I treated my parents, I hated how shy and insecure I was, I hated how small Northern Ireland was and how the religious hatred present there permeated everything. Even as I kept running away from difficulties, I still always had to come home and face my past. Soon after I moved to Manchester but I had some trouble getting a job, I found job interviews difficult and stressful. I felt like I might drown in worry. I stupidly bought a bicycle with the very last of my money. Riding home down the Curry Mile gave me a release, a freedom I felt I didn’t have in my out of control life or in my mixed up self. It was totally worth my very last pennies.
The pinnicle came when I started dating a guy** that treated me the way I thought I deserved to be treated. He was attracted to many other women and he told me so. They were slim and slight, beautiful and quirky. Like little pixies. Finally I had someone who told me all the things I thought about myself. I was too big, too awkward, too unconfident. I don’t know where I got the idea to purge, maybe I did it as a natural reaction, I certainly didn’t look for inspiration. I loved food, I had an insatiable sweet tooth. I would buy brownie cake, vanilla cheesecake and custard donuts washed down with chocolate milkshake then I would tearfully make my way to the bathroom. Every single time I did it I felt insanely emotional. I felt desperate. I felt unhinged.
By this time I finally had a job as an Apprentice at Royal Mail. I worked 6 months each of 6am – 2pm delivering post then 2pm – 10pm sorting post. I loved it. I felt like a female Bukowski. Everyone was so friendly and interesting and I met one of my best friends, Mark, there. We instantly clicked. He was so gentle, unassuming and accepting of me. The other benefit for me was that I got to exercise – a lot. When I was delivering post I cycled 3 miles to work, then 3 miles to the route then did the four mile route with a 16kg post bag. When I was in the sorting office I would walk 1 hour to work, go to the work gym for the whole hour of my dinner break and then walk one hour home at night. These working hours were also perfect for my bulimia routine because there was always leisurely time for me to eat and purge with no one else around. My boyfriend worked 9-5pm and when we broke up and I moved out, my housemates also worked ‘normal’ hours. It was my secret.
I started losing weight very quickly. But I was often exhausted. The obsession with exercise combined with the bulimia meant that my way of life just couldn’t last. I was happy that now I could fit into a size 6-8. I felt small, petite, feminine, I started buying all the clothes that I felt I couldn’t before. I even cut my hair short. But I felt trapped in a vicious cycle. I remember four particularly scary times where I was so weak that I fainted from exhaustion. One was when I was at a French airport, I passed out in the toilet cubicle and a cleaner found me. The airport security didn’t want to let me get my flight and got me to sign a release form. Another time I fell hard onto the edge of a supermarket till and blacked out for ten minutes. The other times were in pubs with friends. Although these blackouts were painful, physically as well as denting my pride, I encountered such kindness and concern. I felt so guilty that these self-induced faintings caused such genuine worry and I felt loved, like I mattered, even to these strangers.
To purge is like a huge release. And it quickly becomes a habit, an almost religious daily ritual. I felt sanctified. That feeling of having a ‘clean’ body, mind and soul only arrives if you gorge (your disgust at yourself, your filth and wrongness) then to let all of that go. To be on your knees is like a sacrifice, a prayer, a redemption. To slump exhausted on the toilet bowl, empty, is like freedom from yourself. Almost an out of body experience. The difficult part comes when you can’t quite get it all out. You get desperate, scrape your throat until it bleeds, your belly in convulsions, your eyes bulging. This is the physical agony of bulimia. You feel so hopeless and useless that often you go through the whole process again. Or you take laxatives and drink literally litres of water. Your only goal is to feel ‘better’ about yourself and your body. The mental agony is harder to define. I was entrenched in many many years of self-deprecation. It is all really exhausting work.
I couldn’t really cope with the pain of trying to cure myself, being in the city where it had all happened, near my ex and people who had seen me thin and who would now possibly see me becoming bloated and fat again was too much to bear. I made to run again. I was successful in my application to do a Masters degree, I applied for a loan from Barclays and asked for a years sabbatical from work. I moved to Newcastle upon Tyne to start my new non-bulimic life. However it turned out, over many many years of trying and failing, to be a less-bulimic life.
I am still a bulimic. I always will be. I have to surrender to that fact. Every day I struggle with my body and my relationship with food. The last time I purged was only a week ago. Unfortunately writing this blog post has brought up many ugly memories. However the instants now are few and far between but the urge is still rife within me. I realise now that I never got into the full flow of womanhood. I was a woman when I wanted to remain a girl.
To help you understand what having an eating disorder is like I can only ask that you imagine recovering from heroin but that instead of heroin it is food, something you have to confront every day, it’s all around you, people offer you it all the time, you need to have at least a little of it every day just to survive, to sustain yourself, to be alive. That is trying to recover from an eating An everyday battle
Maybe an addiction like this is too difficult for some people to imagine as it is not culturally or socially normal, unlike addictions to sugar, fast food or screens which are ‘normal’. The point is that there is a hold on you that is out of your control. And everyone has a hold like this in their lives. Even in modern culture where acceptable addictions are the norm it’s crazy to me how dismissive people can be about complex eating disorders, drug addictions or mental health. Most times people can’t just ‘get over it’ or change so easily. It is a process and it must start within the person. Words don’t cut it. It takes a huge consistent support network for a person to truly try to recover and it takes years.
My life as it is now really helps feed my wellness and wholeness. My body becomes a warrior. An instrument to look after which gets me independently from place to place. I cannot mistreat my body for I need it. I cannot have a weak body or mind because I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. I must care for my body. I must eat and keep that food inside me for it is my fuel. I am proud of my cycling achievements and I am very aware that it was my strong body and mind that pushed me to where I am today but… I still dislike my body. I am hopeful that this will change as I get older. Some series of life events happened to take me to this place of self-hatred and I try every day to hold dear how much I need and rely on my body and brain. I no longer have visions of cutting the fat off my legs and belly and my desire to binge has lessened dramatically. A lot of time nowadays I have this manic energy to clean or tidy everything and I believe this is a coping mechanism I’ve developed. Instead of purging myself I have to purge something else.
I was a passionate bulimic for two years. I had to pull myself out of that deep deep hole. I am so proud of myself for that. That one thing fills me with such emotion because I really don’t know how I did it. And that I ‘recovered’ alone. I feel like I can’t tell anyone that this is the one thing I am so incredibly proud of because I know it’s not the kind of thing that you are meant to be proud of.
I recently read a book called ‘Eva Luna’ by Isabel Allende and I was pretty stunned by the description of the femme fatale, “Zulema disrobed and stood revealed in all her splendid abundance”. She was huge, voluptuous, a Venus. I suddenly felt, “why have I been struggling my whole life to be a little unseen bird?” Writing this, although it’s not my complete story, and tracing my history has been healing. Looking back, I was always going to have an eating disorder because I have had body dismorphia since puberty. This doesn’t make me feel anything though. It’s just a stark undeniable truth. It’s a part of what makes me me.
I am angered by a society and culture that tells young girls that attractiveness lies in whiteness, perfection and thinness. Women used to be women. Full and round, tall or short, strong and soft, wiry and bold, bloody and veiny, with tummy rolls and places where their babies have left a scar or stretch tattooed to their skin. Women with crazy hair, crazy words and a crazier smile. Women who are wild. Women who jiggle. Women who speak their mind. Vibrant and laughing. Now a lot of the time all I see are women that are gaunt and lifeless, superficial and pale like death masking their true selves with lashes and lips. But I still want to be that petite boney woman. I can’t just come to a realisation that something isn’t right and then immediately be cured. That’s the catch-22.
Let’s make an effort to celebrate all women (and men) and all bodies. Go out today and tell someone that you admire them, that they are witty or clever or talented. And that they are beautiful. It might be exactly what they need to hear.
*Ken Ham is a prominent Christian fundamentalist and young Earth creationist. He believes in the reliability of Scripture in all matters of which it speaks, including science. He believes that abortion, same-sex marriage, homosexuality, and being transgender are sinful.
**my eating disorder was in no way this man’s fault. He battled his own insecurities.
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