Sarah Illingworth anorexia impolitikal

Sarah Illingworth on anorexia, anxiety & letting go

I let anorexia rule my world for about eight years. For me, it ended up being more about anxiety, and a way of dealing with it, than anything else, and it’s been amazing to not have either dictate my behavior for a while now. I think many of us struggle with similar things, so I wrote this in case it’s of help to those who do. And hopefully to shed a little light on eating and anxiety disorders for those who don’t have a personal experience of them.

Anorexia is addiction. It’s habit, it’s your body actually adapting to the new rules you’ve set for it, and it’s fear — absolute terror sometimes — at the thought of letting it go. It’s a structure to live your life around, a token sense of movement when you feel stuck in other ways. It is about how you look — social and self-pressure, insecurity — to a point. Then it morphs into something else altogether, something incredibly obsessive and controlling and hard to shake.

For me it became about desperately trying to find equilibrium. I was set on the belief that if I did things just so I could secure some sort of peace and everything would be ok. But the lie of anorexia is that it isn’t keeping you in balance, 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.

I shrunk emotionally as well as physically. Being cautious with my eating became about trying to maintain a clear head so I could just navigate each moment. Every little choice, not just the ones about food, took on a massive importance, making decisions almost impossible to make some days. I’d freeze up trying to decide which way to walk down the street, or which banana to choose at the supermarket. Each day I’d wake up hoping desperately it would be a good one, that if I played my cards right I could avoid anxiety and the tangents it took me on.

Star jumps 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 rushed a bite of food then second-guessed it, or because I was meeting friends for dinner and just wanted to have a normal time. It’s hard to own up to this stuff, but I want to make the point that having an eating disorder isn’t some sort of win. It’s isolating, exhausting — they screw you physically and emotionally, and they siphon the joy out of life. And the joy out of the people closest to you. They suck.

It took me a long time to accept that I couldn’t get better on my own, and by the time I did my anxiety was through the roof. It was emotional, but also a logical, physiological outcome of running my body on empty. I didn’t get my period for eight years — my estrogen levels dropped to that of pre-adolescence — and I don’t know if or how that’s affected my fertility. I developed osteopenia (bone density loss) in my hips, and a good chunk of my hair fell out.

I felt so ashamed anorexia was even an issue for me — I had no real reason not to be healthy and good in the world — but the penny eventually dropped that beating up on myself for having the disorder was preventing me from addressing it. However, asking for help (from my dad, who helped me afford to see doctors and a therapist) also required admitting 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.

It wasn’t the only thing I had to let go of; there were a few other pillars of identity that I’d become reliant on to define who I was. I found it really painful to shed these skins, so to speak, but when you’ve done it with one thing you realize how freeing it is to just give up and let go. We can spend way too long hemmed in by walls we don’t know can be broken down. It’s only been through crashing through one, and then another, and another that I understood it was possible for me to do so.

Anorexia and anxiety are behind me for the most part, but now and then I do slide into restriction, or weird habits. 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, my bones are strong, 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.

I don’t ever, 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. 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. 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.

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 a chance to pull myself together. 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. 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.