Sarah Illingworth anorexia impolitikal

Sarah Illingworth on anorexia, anxiety & letting go

I had an eating disorder for about eight years. I don’t talk about it a lot now – I certainly don’t often want to write about it, mostly because it feels a bit like tearing open an old wound. But even at the time it was important to me that if I did get better I’d be open about the experience, in case it could help other people with theirs. So, I’m not writing this to shock, or get a reaction, I’m writing in case it’s of help to people who struggle with similar things. And hopefully to shed a little light on eating and anxiety disorders for those who don’t have experience of them, or know people with one.

Read the short version.

To me, anorexia always seemed to stem from the same starting point as any other eating disorder. It’s addiction, it’s habit, it’s your body actually physically adapting to the new rules you’ve set for it – and it’s fear. Absolute terror at times; fear of losing autonomy, of the one thing you feel you can manage becoming unmanageable. Being able to negotiate at least one area of your life when a lot of others feel overwhelming and beyond your control. It’s a structure to live your life around, and it’s terrifying to give up. Nevermind the fact you don’t really have control, and the habit is making it even harder for you to function and cope with day-to-day stuff. Like many addictions, I suppose.

It’s a token focus, a weird sense of movement when in every other way you feel stuck. It is about how you look, about body image and insecurity – social and self-pressure to be a version of yourself you think you ought to be, to a point. Then it morphs into something else altogether, which is incredibly obsessive and controlling and hard to free yourself from. For me it became about desperately trying to find equilibrium. I was stuck on the belief that if I did things just-so I could secure some sort of balance and everything would be ok. But the lie of anorexia is that it’s not helping you control your life – it’s helping you manage, at best. It’s the thing you think is holding you together, when in reality it’s causing you to fall apart.

“It’s a token focus, a weird sense of movement when in every other way you feel stuck.”

The more you give an eating disorder, the more it demands. It saps your energy and time, and ‘real life’ is forced to fit in the gaps. Because you’re not eating enough, your body runs off adrenaline – you have moments of feeling manic, but at the same time like you’re in a constant fog, that clears only every now and then. I spent hours walking around like I was underwater, trying to decide what to have for a meal, then psyching myself up to prepare it, and eat it, then I’d wait to see if panic was going to kick in. Then repeat. I’d find it hard to relax into a happy moment because I was afraid it’d all turn, and often it did, on a dime. Whatever balance you’re trying to maintain is so fragile, it can barely claim to be peace at all. You’re caught in a cycle of constant damage control – of situations, of yourself. It can be day-to-day, or hour-to-hour; for me, it was often minute-to-minute. When it turns it’s incredibly distressing – you feel so close to clarity, then it slips through your fingers yet again.

Not being able to function with certainty and purpose had become so normal to me, it was hard to think a time might come when I’d be able to walk on my own. No hands holding me up. I made peace with the fact I might always just be in a cloud. I shrunk emotionally as well as physically, and I was incredibly unsure about saying what I thought, about having a voice. I didn’t get my period for eight years – my estrogen levels dropped to that of pre-adolescence – and even now I don’t know if or how that’s affected my fertility. I developed osteopenia (bone density loss) in my hips, and my hair fell out – the whole back of my head was bald, then it started falling out at the front. Somehow the rest of the hair, and that around my actual hairline stayed, so if I tied my hair in a ponytail and wore a hat you couldn’t tell. I did that for three years. I ignored the hair thing for ages, I felt like it was my own fault and that I just had to accept it as a consequence. It took me about two years to realise maybe it wouldn’t grow back on its own and actually talk to a doctor about it.

“I shrunk emotionally as well as physically, and I was incredibly unsure about saying what I thought, about having a voice.”

I was constantly trying to find some quiet in my head, always trying to be at peace. Each day I would wake up with the hope that perhaps it would be a good one, that if I was really careful, and did the exact right thing in every moment, I’d get there and then I could relax. Then I could be productive. Then I could get shit done, move forward – and out of limbo. Do the things that were in me to do. But there was a voice in my head that was always there, always telling me no. I was always second-guessing myself. I felt guilty all the time, confused, scared. I didn’t know what way was up, and every little decision – not just the ones about food – took on a massive importance, making decisions almost impossible to make some days. When I did, it was really hard to trust they were the right ones. Being ‘careful’ with my eating became about trying to maintain a clear head so I could just navigate each moment. It was confusing and exhausting and embarrassing. It’s still really important to me to spend a lot of time in the quiet, so I can tap into my intuition, but my understanding of what that is now is so different to what it was then.

I did try to get better, and would for a bit, then dip down again. By the time I finally acknowledged I couldn’t get better on my own, my anxiety was through the roof. It was emotional, but also in many ways just a logical, physiological outcome of running yourself on empty; I wasn’t eating enough to have the energy to function properly. It was really hard to focus, to make even the smallest decisions. I’d freeze up trying to decide which way to walk down the street, or which banana to choose at the supermarket. Anxiety around money collided with anxiety around eating and made for a shit-show. If I spent a couple cents more on something and then felt like I shouldn’t have had that thing later, guilt would crash in – about making the wrong choice, about being wasteful.

“By the time I finally acknowledged I couldn’t get better on my own, my anxiety was through the roof. It was emotional, but also in many ways just a logical, physiological outcome of running yourself on empty.”

Starjumps in toilet cubicles, gashing my foot on an escalator trying to run back up it because I ‘should’ve’ taken the stairs. Walking for hours because I ate this or that too quickly, or because I was meeting friends for a meal and wanted to be normal. Feeling ridiculous and ashamed for all of this, but like I had no choice but to obey the compulsions when they hit. It’s really embarrassing to own up to this stuff (and these aren’t the half of it), but I want to make the point that eating disorders aren’t some sort of win. They suck. They’re the shittest of the shit. Isolating, exhausting – they screw you physically and emotionally, and they suck the joy out of life. And the joy out of the people who are closest to you. I felt heaps of guilt around being a flakey friend, and a drain on the person I was a person to. I felt like I was always on the back foot, always catching up. It was really hard for me to be flexible from the decisions I did make, and to adapt to unexpected variables, and sometimes this could quickly flip into a panic. That feeling, and desperately trying to avoid it, became so standard I forgot it wasn’t ‘normal’.

It took me a long time to accept that I couldn’t get better on my own, and ask for help. From my dad, who is pretty much a superhero to me. When I did finally call him and ask for financial help to go see a doctor he just said, “I’m glad you asked.” I felt so ashamed anorexia was even (still) an issue for me, but the penny dropped that beating up on myself for having the disorder was the thing preventing me from addressing it. Anorexia felt so ungracious – I had no reason not to be healthy and good in the world, and there are so many people who really have so little to work with. It wasn’t until I allowed myself to accept that my issues around food weren’t about being selfish or ungrateful, but just my way of trying to cope with things that were hard for me, that I was able to ask for help and get better. However, asking for help also required acknowledging that all the energy I’d so diligently poured into this thing was a waste. There was a lot of grief around acknowledging it really was time lost, and I might not get to remedy the things I messed up along the way.

I was also real scared that if I stopped, to get better, I’d lose the last little grip on life I had. Of course, taking that risk has led me to be far stronger in myself than I ever was before. I went to a doctor, and a nutritionist and a therapist. I bowled down the path of getting better with the same intensity I’d done the reverse. Perhaps a little too aggressively, but I felt like I’d already lost so much time to it I didn’t want to lose any more. It was a frustrating journey, because it also consumed my life for a while, but I knew if I didn’t go there all the way I’d never clamber out of the hole I was in. It wasn’t the only thing I had to let go of; there were a few other pillars of identity I’d become reliant on to help define who I was in the world. I found it really painful to shed these skins, so to speak, but when you’ve gone through that process with one thing, you realise how freeing it is to just give up and let go. People can spend their entire lives hemmed in by walls they don’t realise can be broken down. It’s only been through crashing through one, and then another, and another that I realised it was possible for me to do so – or even that they existed. I now feel like there are few things I hold tightly to and can’t lose, but it’s only because I’ve clung onto stuff in the past that I didn’t think I could live without – and letting them go has opened me up, not shut me down.

“People can spend their entire lives hemmed in by walls they don’t realise can be broken down.”

Anorexia is behind me for the most part, but now and then I do slide into restriction, or weird habits. I can still be too cautious about what I eat and when, usually if I’m tired or stressed. I eat really slowly because my guts are messed up from not eating properly for so long, and social situations can still be a bit stressful because of that. It took me ages to re-learn how to eat – what a portion is – and to trust my sense of hunger, and also of being acceptably full. There’s still a patch of hair missing at the back of my head that didn’t grow back when the rest did. But my mind is clear, and my bones are strong. I love eating and drinking with friends, and if I start to feel anxious about something I can usually talk myself down quite quickly. I no longer lose days to that shit.

The little things are big joys. The fact I’m not immediately blitzed by fear when I wake up in the morning, and (hardly) dance to anxiety-driven compulsions blows my mind. ‘No’ is no longer the word that shouts in my head, like it used to be. The word boomed through me constantly. I still take my time to think things through, but I’ve learnt what real intuition is. Or at least the noise that stopped me connecting with it is gone. I’d get little glimpses, connect sometimes, and then lose it. Honestly, that was the thing that made me saddest. I wanted so badly to be able to hear my own, actual, thoughts, rather than the aggressive, self-flogging siren that was so loud in my head.

I don’t ever want to go back, lured in by the thought that perhaps it wasn’t really that bad, that I didn’t actually have a problem. Then I remember I don’t have to – that dips are part of life and don’t have to turn into black holes. That I bounce back way faster now. I feel like I’ve been given a second chance. I had so many cool experiences in my 20s, and I was only half-present for a lot of them. Life used to be really scary to me, and never being able to relax into a moment makes being able to take each as they come now so much sweeter. I thought I’d wasted my chance to be a kid in the world. To travel and explore and chase crazy dreams. So the fact I’m getting to do that now, in a different frame of mind, is the biggest gift and something I don’t take for granted. From being able to focus on a book, to eating and drinking with gusto. Every little thing feels like a big adventure, and I’ve gotten to have some pretty proper adventures too. And I get to do them all with a clear head and the ability to roll with the punches.

“I don’t ever want to go back, lured in by the thought that perhaps it wasn’t really that bad, that I didn’t actually have a problem.”

There’s no way this would be the case without the support of family and friends – whether that be emotional, directly financial, or in ways like letting me live with them for no, or low rent. It’s given me space and time to pull myself together without life whipping me around. Most days are good now, and every now and then it hits me that things that used to send me into a spin happen so naturally now. I know I’m really lucky, and that there are many people who if given even a fraction of the help I’ve had might also be able to find their way to good. If it weren’t for my family, and my buddies, I’d just be curled in a corner somewhere talking to myself. Some days, even with their support that’s… what I do. That’s me, and I have all the support and opportunity a girl could hope for.

We all have ways of coping when life gets tough, and we all have reasons life can be tough. I just feel like it would be really bad form, to myself, and to all the people who have had my back – with no expectations or strings attached, and no guarantee I’d ever actually get better – to not try in my own way to help do the same for people who have none of that. I finally found my voice, or at least the courage to develop one, and I know the avenues via which I can make it heard. So, on the days I dream about living in the middle of nowhere, not bothering with any of the bullshit, I think of those who would love to break free of whatever it is that’s keeping them on the other side of the glass – whether that be personal demons, or social and political situations. I’m not some sort of martyr, it’s just that if there are people who would like to be freer, I would like to help. Especially if they’re subdued by people who like to shout louder than everyone else.

Life is hard enough, and sometimes the kindest thing we can offer each other, and ourselves, is grace. It can feel like that costs us a lot, but it can also make a huge difference to the person we shoulder the cost for. Sometimes just accepting someone as they are, and helping them anyway, is all it takes.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.