It began when I was at University. I had not long left the family home, and was living in a rental with three of my girlfriends. A few months earlier, I had broken up with my boyfriend - my first love - and I was still tangled up over it. I remember the stew of messy emotions: insecurity, confusion and hurt. The pain was significant, though I can no longer recall exactly what was going on. I spent my days at university, where I studied art. Engrossed in my painting, I would lose track of time and forget to eat, so to begin, I lost weight unintentionally. As is usually the way, the weight loss was accompanied by an influx of compliments. I liked the feeling, and it wasn't long before I began restricting my food on purpose.
Without much of a clue, I fell into disordered eating. I was responsible only for myself, and there was no-one constant in my life to witness what was going on. My autonomy allowed me to slip easily into starvation, and my strange behaviour went largely unnoticed. It was the 90's, and my eating disorder developed and operated a little differently than it does now. Finding out the calorie content of a particular food meant a trip to the library, there were no App's to enable, and 'thinspo' wasn't a thing. Now I look back on it, I can see what it quickly became. I used it as a tool to express my self loathing, and as a voice to scream out my hurt when I didn't have the skills or the courage to speak.
My calorific intake was woeful. I aimed for between one and two hundred calories a day. Much more than that I considered to be a disaster. Some days, I'd have just the toothpaste that I would fret over as I brushed my teeth, and three pieces of low calorie chewing gum. I made all sorts of excuses when it came to eating with others. I hid and then threw out food that my flatmates cooked for me at night. My fear of fat nipped at my heels and I moved quickly around campus, in a race to expend the energy from anything I consumed. I was jittery and high, and there was a sharp, constant burn in my belly. I dropped weight rapidly, my period stopped, and I was left curled in a shivering heap in front of my heater. I was in trouble.
Lucky for me, someone was able to help. They saw and then spoke: clearly, directly and with compassion. Their hand reached into the thick viscose bubble I was hiding in, and I grabbed it. This acknowledgment and support turned me around.
My ascent out of the eating disorder was chaotic and unguided by any professional. I had no idea what was happening to my body and had few skills to deal with the emotion of it. I just blundered through, grasping at whatever I could. I suddenly went vegan (I remember eating nothing but raisins for three days). I read about and adopted some feminist body politics - I felt defiant, and that drove me forward. I remember extreme hunger, awful mood swings and depression. The weight gain felt terrible, but in some ways I think my ignorance at the time made it easier to progress. I swept all the hard emotions under various mats, and I 'got on'.
Things continued smoothly enough for a while. I rekindled my relationship with my boyfriend and moved back home. But after several months of good health, I was walloped with a brutal blow of betrayal. It sent me reeling backwards, top over tail and back into the arms of my eating disorder. Though I didn't attach the word to it at the time, it was a relapse. I dived straight into the extreme end of my behaviour, and lost weight quickly.
The descent was sharp but relatively short. Despite my illness, 'fun' started to bubble around me. There was a new boy, new friends, and I was making plans for a big overseas trip. It alleviated the pain, and the emotional fire that fuelled my eating disorder started to die down. The problem was, I was locked into anorexic behaviours and I didn't know how to get out.
I looked for medical help, but found virtually none. My memories are vague - it was such a strange time, but I remember seeing a counsellor who sat cold and silent like a stone, his arms folded across his chest. I tried to talk to him, but he remained unmoved. I felt lost and confused, and after a few visits, I gave up. I called an eating disorder clinic and the woman I spoke to asked me my weight. She didn't ask about my state of mind or my behaviour, and didn't want to know how tall I was. Maybe the Body Mass Index hadn't quite reach the South Island of New Zealand at that point, I'm not sure, but she said she could only help people that were x kilos or below. I was at a clinically anorexic weight for my height, but I'm tall, so I wasn't quite 'low enough'. That was the extent of the medical help I had. From then on, I flapped out furiously on my own. My insatiable hunger drove me to binge, and then I'd purge as I tried desperately to contain my emotion. I was riding a roller coaster in secret, and it was truly awful. Eventually though, my behaviour became less extreme. The good in my life came to outweigh the bad, and the illness subsided.
When I look back on it now, I can hardly believe I managed to get out. I was so very alone in it, and completely clueless. At least the second time around, I was living at home with my parents. I know they were worried, but aside from a few restrained, brief comments, we never really spoke about. My eating disorder was a scream I needed them to hear, but I never felt like it reached them. So this chapter never closed for me.
I wonder about why things were this way. I think people often don't know what to say or how to deal with eating disorders. It's a really difficult illness to understand, and there's so much shame attached. It's a body thing too, and in my home, I never felt like bodies could be discussed. Owning a body - particularly a female one - was not something I associated with anything positive. Bodily functions, puberty and sexuality were very hush, hush - so much so, that when I was young, they registered in me as bad. This story of body shame belonged to generations gone by, but it resided in my family home, and played out in me as I tried to get rid of my body.
Although I came out the other side of this illness back then, nothing was learned. I had no real understanding of why I became ill, how the disorder functioned, and what it was that needed unpicking. What happened and didn't happen at that time is the reason the eating disorder has come back to haunt me. Though I developed ways of managing as an adult, and coped on the surface, I didn't have sufficient skills to deal with the punishing circumstances I faced.
For twenty years the illness skulked in the shadows, subdued and usually quiet, but fully intact. Last March, utterly depleted, I had only to glance in its direction, and it roared into vigorous life. Before I had lost even one kilo and my body was very healthy, my brain belonged to anorexia. Round 3 began with a singular thought, though the voice wasn't mine: I am going to ravage my body.
So this time, I'm doing things differently - I'm going to recover and recover properly. I'm immersing myself fully in the process of learning, understanding and redefining myself. There's no button to push, no magic pill to take and no fix-it-quick recipe. I can't will myself into ignorance and bury it like I did before. There is immense pressure to hurry up and move on, but it would be an act, not a recovery, and ultimately no good would come of it. I need to do this slow, hard work to get well, and my life and the lives of my children will be infinitely better for it.