It started with a diet. It was the year before I turned twenty-one, and for my big birthday I would be going on holiday with my best friends. It was a beach holiday. I’d never been skinny. I wasn’t fat either, but I was bigger than my friends, and I was nervous about getting in a bikini in front of everyone.
It was around the time that the 5:2 craze started, and I thought I would try it.
That was the start. I went home and weighed myself that first night. I looked in the mirror naked. I had bigger boobs than anyone else in my flat chested family. I had a waist. I had a bum.
By the end of that first week I was still on the 5:2 diet, except the rules had changed for me. I was to eat five hundred calories for five days and eat normally for only two: the opposite of what everyone else was doing.
Soon the two days of eating normally became one. Then none. I started to isolate myself. After work in the evenings I would disappear to my room. The kitchen was the centre of our home, where we immediately went when we came in. The radio was always on and the kettle was always being boiled, but to me it soon became the place I avoided.
I’d been on diets before, tried lots of things to lose weight, but this time it was different. Something had changed. It wasn’t about looking a certain way anymore, it was about the rush I got when I saw my weight fall or managed to go another day on only an apple and some crackers.
My twenty first birthday came and went, I didn’t even taste my birthday cake or toast my milestone.
I loved food more than anyone else I knew and yet I had begun to hate it. I was a professional chef, I owned a café, collected cookery books. All day I cooked for others. What irony.
The kilos dropped off. It would become twenty-two kilos in total that I lost, but at first people just paid me compliments. The weight had fallen off my face and my cheekbones became more pronounced. Everyone thought I looked great.
Then the compliments stopped. I withdrew even more. The cinema meant popcorn. Drinks at the pub meant calories in alcohol. Shopping may involve a stop for coffee or lunch. There were dangers everywhere. Every time I received an invite I would spend the whole day figuring out what excuse I could use to avoid eating.
By this point I had lost my boobs completely. I am almost six feet tall and am built to have curves. I looked odd with my flat chest and jutting neck bones, but there was no telling me. I was tormented by self-hatred that only alleviated itself when I saw the figures on the scales drop twice-daily.
Gone was all sense of sexuality and womanhood. My once shiny hair had started to fall out. Curves were replaced with hollows and jutting bones. Rosy cheeks became pale, mottled, and I had constantly cold skin. Jeans slipped down my flat bum. Finally, and crucially, it was my periods.
Before anorexia I had measured my months by my menstrual cycle-my periods had been particularly bad-but now all I had was the number of months I had gone without one. Funny how an illness can make you less of a woman: not funny, actually, but very, very sad. My body had become a child’s body, devoid of any sexual characteristics of womanhood.
I was a cook. Food is sensual, sexual, motherly: I was none of these things. I did not feel sexually attractive at all. I couldn’t imagine anyone ever fancying me. I recoiled at physical affection. I felt unattractive because I thought I was gross and fat and a disappointment. In truth I was unattractive because I had become a person completely and utterly obsessed with food. It occupied every waking hour and woke me up at night. I had no sexual desire, no room in my head nor physical energy for boys, or friends, or flirting, or relationships.
I had made myself as unattractive as possible; I was a shell of my former self and yet I felt powerful. I was strong. I could do this. I remember being in the shower and feeling so weak that I had to sit down. This is good, I thought as I sat there; think of all the calories you must be burning.
Two years later, recently, I would stand in the mirror naked like I had that first night. I was, I am, recovering. The weight was relatively easy once I decided to start eating again and I reached my target within six months. My mind, however, is still prone to going back to that dark place. As I stared in the mirror the other night, I cried. I was crying because I had noticed my bras were too small for me, and I was shocked at how big my boobs were. It disgusted me. The sensible, healthy side of me tells me that they are only big in comparison to the rest of my family: that they look good, sexy, attractive. The side that is still sick wants to rid myself of all the sexual characteristics that I have regained. When my periods finally returned it was bittersweet: I celebrated like it was a massive milestone in my recovery, but in reality I was gutted.
Maybe I will always feel like this. I can eat ice cream now. Croissants and pizza, cheese and bread; all these things only induce a slight amount of guilt and not the torment and self-disgust that used to come, but I still hate myself. I am riddled with self-doubt. I have no pride in my sexuality; I am terrified of getting a boyfriend, of having to reveal myself and accept these characteristics that I fought so hard to rid myself of.
But each month becomes easier. When I see other anorexics now I no longer feel jealous or competitive, but I want to help. To tell them it can be ok, that all you need to do is get through the days one at a time and it will soon get easier. Eat for today; don’t think about the weight you might put on by next week. I also want to tell them that life can get better, and that you can go on to have a normal life. You may even find yourself like me; realizing one afternoon sometime during my recovery that you actually hadn’t thought about food for a couple of hours. It’s not easy. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, it is devastating and harrowing and awful, but it does get easier.
There is a wonderful photo of me taken by my best friend. It was taken on another holiday, much later on, and I’m eating my first ice cream in two years. I’m smiling, I’m so happy, because I can join in, and I’m no longer terrified of food.
I hope more than anything that one day, with the right help and support, I will learn how to love myself, and in turn, find someone to love me.