The A-B Battle

I am torn between two impossible choices. I’m torn between the presence of bones and the absence. I’m torn between starvation and binge eating. I’m torn between a complete emotional breakdown or numbing out with self harm. I’m torn between plain rice cakes and fruit and vegetables or bread and cake and peanut butter. I’m stuck between two impossibilities, and the further I stretch towards one, the further it leaps out of reach. The further safety leaps away, along with my sanity.

I am torn between anorexia and bulimia.

There are memories in the blank abscess of my brain, not many but a few. Starvation fucks with your mind. I can remember the book that started it all. I can remember the nose dive into excessive exercise, and orthorexic habits, and obsessions, and weight loss. I can remember the fear, taste its coating on my tongue: I was afraid of fat, and carbs, and sugar, and gaining weight, and people, and my parents, and failure. I was terrified of failure. I can remember the sit ups and push ups secretly on my bedroom floor, the inescapable urge to repeat exercises because I hadn’t done them right. I can remember the weight going down, and every drop brought with it only more elation. Every increase, however minor, brought with it self-deprecation, and punishment. I can remember the day I realised I had an eating disorder, and how it shattered me. I remember the day I called her Ana. I remember the text I sent to someone, the first person I ever opened up to about her. Have you met Ana, I asked? Ana who, she replied. Ana-rexia?

I remember doctor after doctor after doctor because my mum just wouldn’t fucking admit to herself that was the failure. That her perfect golden child was seeking perfection, and it was killing her.

I remember the anxiety. And tears, and the suicidal thoughts to come. I remember the utter intensity of pain and anguish that I felt. I remember being threatened with hospitalisation. I remember it was only 500 grams away, but it was 500 kilometres away too.

I remember that nobody noticed. Nobody dared to ask lest they face the wrath of my bitter sarcasm.

Bulimia is not like anorexia.

They are both eating disorders, but that is all. Bulimia is grounded in shame and desperation and hatred, but anorexia is placed on some sort of pedestal, even in our own minds. Even in my head, I value the bones I’ve lost during weight restoration, I envy the people I see and I think to myself, they know Ana too. Bulimia is misunderstood, more so than anorexia. As soon as I confess that I don’t purge by vomiting, because I physically cannot (I wish, believe me), my concerns are pushed away, as if there’s not more than one way to purge, and not more than one way to have an eating disorder.

The two battle against each other. I eat to combat Ana, but I exercise to fight eating. I binge to cope with emotions, but starvation suppresses them too. I’m no longer underweight, but I can’t help thinking that I was better off dead, when I had the chance, when I had the opportunity, and I was oh so close to heart failure, even if nobody knew it at the time. I can’t help thinking that this shift from anorexia to bulimia shouldn’t even be important, but it is. It is. 

There is nothing worse than your own head, nothing worse than memories which plague you. There is nothing worse than swapping one disorder for another, instead of recovering properly, like I was supposed to, like I should have, like I wasn’t good enough for. There is nothing worse than praying for a relapse, because I know, deep down, that this time, a relapse would kill me. 

And that, after all, is the final goal.

Chapter Zero: A Brief History of My Time with Mental Illness

I’m going to tell you a story:

There once was a girl who was slightly insane, with eyes so bright they matched her brain. She had no troubles of what the day might bring, and when it was silent she would secretly sing. There is still a girl who is more or less sane, but behind not so bright eyes, she hides layers of pain.

There was once a girl who was so energetic people described her as “crazy”. She had a wild, untameable personality, and loved nature, acting, art and school. She was proud of her intelligence, and she didn’t let being different stop her from doing anything.

Then her mind turned against her, and everything changed.

Looking back, things probably changed earlier than the date I’m going to call ‘the beginning’, but I think starting high school was the trigger for a spiral into mental illness. There were signs I suppose, before then, that I was not like the other kids, in more ways than one. Signs of BPD, precursors of anxiety, hypomanic episodes. I hated making decisions. I couldn’t stand it when I wasn’t in control. I was a perfectionist, and couldn’t make mistakes for fear that I would get in trouble and everybody would leave me.

In 2011, I started high school. All my friends from primary school except one had moved to other schools, or other towns. I was alone. I was isolated. I started to retreat to the library during lunchtimes. I was constantly irritable. I was constantly alone. This is what depression felt like to begin with.

Around the same time, I developed an eating disorder, which I’ve written about pretty extensively here, and here, and here, and a little bit more here, and here. It started when I realised I was never hungry. I needed to be hungry, otherwise it meant I was consuming more calories than my body could handle. No wonder I was so fat! (I was not. I could see ribs, even at this point in time) It started with sit ups and push ups and being really ‘healthy’ by not eating carbs or sugar or fat or anything over x number of calories that I had arbitrarily decided was the magic number for weight loss. I had a growth spurt, because, you know, puberty, and that was the final trigger. I weighed myself every day. I counted calories every day. I exercised every day. I needed to be hungry. I needed the numbers to go down. I needed to be perfect. Slowly, I saw hip bones creep to the edge of my shorts, I saw ribs peek through beneath my tummy, which was gradually falling away. By the time I was thirteen, I was at my lowest weight. I was emaciated, malnourished, exhausted, and alone. My inconsistent periods became non-existent, and wouldn’t return until my final year of high school. I was constantly anxious, self-conscious and insecure. The depression had also gotten worse. I was suicidal.

Oh yeah, and I was being bullied at school. Physically, verbally, and online. It only emphasised to me that if I was just thinner, if I was just better, that she might stop tormenting me. I tried to open up and was told to ignore it. When I retaliated, I was punished by the school for physically hurting another student. So I made a promise to myself that I would never open up. Two years later, when I eventually told the principal the whole messy story, the culprit was still never punished.

(Tears are starting to drip onto my keyboard)

I was sitting by myself every day. I was taunted every day. My eating disorder was at its worst. I had stopped socialising completely unless it was absolutely necessary. Not that I had ever been very social, but I honestly felt like my ‘friends’ were treating me horribly. They hadn’t noticed, they didn’t care, they weren’t interested. They could see my being bullied, and to this day I cannot understand why they didn’t step in for me. I maintained high grades – I remained top of my cohort year after year. I maintained a facade. Eventually, this facade shattered, and came crumbling down around me.

The strangest part throughout the development and maintenance of my eating disorder is that to me, this was normal. There was no problem with this sort of behaviour. Not for one second did it cross my mind that I had an eating disorder. It took me two years to realise. It took until I lost control, and until Ana consumed me entirely, and I couldn’t distinguish between myself and her anymore. And when I did finally realise my behaviour could be classified as both anorexia and bulimia (this came much later), that’s when things got really bad. Because I knew that if someone found out, they would try to take Ana away, and by this point, she was the only friend I had.

But at least I felt good about my body, at least my body was lithe and petite. Although, I hated buying clothes because nothing would fit. I didn’t feel like a woman. I didn’t feel alive. All I ever feel is numb. Exhausted. Hungry. But still, I thought this was okay. This was good. But I knew I could do better. It was a challenge, and I accepted it. It’s 2014.

Then, something changed. I don’t know what. I guess I looked up from the scales, and into the mirror, and I saw a skeleton staring back. I couldn’t believe it was my reflection.  From that moment, I started fighting. It was difficult. I wasn’t really gaining weight. I was still alone. But I was trying, trying, trying. Still on my own. For whatever reason, I began to eat more, consciously made an effort to try and eat more. I actually lost weight. I thought I had been in control. I wasn’t and I never had been. Every single thought was conflicting. If I felt strong, and ate a little more to try and combat these thoughts then I would instantly feel awful, instantly it was like another person (this voice is who I named Ana) had put these horrible horrible thoughts into my head and that little bit of extra food quickly disappeared when I went for an hour long bike ride, or a run, or obsessively engaged in sit-ups and push-ups until I was certain I could still get hungry.

I hated my skinny wrists. I hated getting my picture taken. I hated myself for doing this to my body. I hated myself for considering getting better. I hated eating for making me feel fat. I hated exercising for making me feel skinny. I hated a certain member of the female species for monumentally fucking me up. I hated my friends for leaving me on my own. I just had a lot of hate inside of me.

At some point, I told my mum that I was worried I couldn’t gain weight. I had lost control. Ana was in control now, and Rosie was fading away, a ghost for her to leech off of. Even now, I did not mention anything at all about an eating disorder. I did not really know it was an eating disorder. I knew I was doing it deliberately, I knew what anorexia nervosa was, what bulimia was, but I didn’t know they could manifest in quite this way.

My mum didn’t get the hint. She took me to doctor after doctor after doctor who all asked the same question “are you starving yourself?” and “the next step is a psychologist”. Over the next two years, I gained a very measly amount of weight, just enough to keep me out of inpatient treatment. Just enough so that nobody would try to take Ana away from me.

It’s 2016 now, and my weight has increased to just within the normal range. My eating disorder is still bad. Ana is still loud. My brother just got cancer. I’ve started self-harming. I’ve made plans to kill myself. I cry myself to sleep every night. I have finally started seeing a therapist. My parents still don’t know about Ana, or about depression, or about being bullied. My hatred for them is stronger than ever. There is constant yelling in my house with my brother at home. It’s my fault he has cancer. It’s my fault they’re always fighting. I worry my parents will get divorced. I’ve broken friendships with what I now recognise as BPD rage. I ask my parents through tears if I’m bipolar, a question that won’t be answered for another two years. Graduating high school is the best thing that ever happened to me, because I can finally leave behind the shithole that promised to protect me, and didn’t. More people who didn’t notice, and didn’t care. I thought I had beaten my ed thoughts but I hadn’t, they’re back. The feeling of being split in half has also returned and, even though I feel fat all the time, I can’t decide if I do or don’t want to be skinny again. Ana says “I’m fat” but Rosie isn’t so sure…

The problem is, when I have ed thoughts, I eat to try and combat them. Maybe I’ll have dessert tonight; that will counteract those thoughts. But then I feel terrible for eating extra, so I exercise in the morning to burn off the calories, and it just goes around and around and around and around. And this is the start of the shift from anorexia to bulimia. The irony is not lost on me. Recovering from one eating disorder by undergoing weight restoration alone, led to the development of another eating disorder. The underlying issues of low self-esteem, self deprecation and perfectionism weren’t addressed – so I never really recovered. Physically recovered, but not mentally. Never mentally.

And so concludes 2016, the year I actually started to open up. After nearly 5 years of endless anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and borderline personality disorder.

It’s 2017, and I’ve moved to Sydney, on the other side of the country. I thought I could escape my past, but turns out that I couldn’t escape my own mind. I thought I could escape an emotionally abusive and invalidating environment, but self-deprecation is its own form of invalidation. My eating disorder has faded somewhat, or so I thought, but it is actually bulimia in disguise, and that was just a fact I didn’t want to face, because being diagnosed with bulimia after suffering from anorexia is a giant slap in the face. I’m suicidal again. I have never been more depressed in my life. This year I will be hospitalised three times, and accumulate more scars on my thighs and wrists than I ever thought possible. I don’t speak to my family. I am still alone. I graduate my first ever eating disorder treatment, but there’s hatred simmering inside of me for the disorder I lost, and the one it was replaced by.

It’s 2018. Things have finally gotten better, just a little bit anyway. Rather than constantly being depressed, now I ride the emotional rollercoaster every day instead. I’ve been formally diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and bipolar II. I’ve tried a heap of medications and rotated through a bunch of psychiatrists and doctors who don’t know what to do with me. I’m coming to terms with my diagnosis of bulimia, and the anorexia I so desperately wish I hadn’t left behind.

And I draw on my arms when I feel down, and scribble poetry on scrap paper, and do headstands in dangerous places for the rush, and practice yoga as I revise material for exams, and binge on peanut butter and bread and chocolate, and exercise to cope with the aftermath of binging, and gauge at my skin with sharp objects, and scrape the word fat into the body parts I like the least, as a reminder that good will never be good enough. All in an effort to feel better, to feel safe. To feel okay again. Finally.

Because the only time I have ever felt good about myself and about my body was when anorexia took hold completely.

For much of this time, I never knew that what I had was an eating disorder. It took me a really long time to realise that maybe, just maybe, what I had been doing to my body was what is known as anorexia. I was scared to use the term, because it made what I was doing seem real. Real and wrong, when to me all that it felt was right. I have never been diagnosed of course, and there are very few people who know how I really felt/still feel, and fewer still who have called it ‘anorexia’. I am still scared to use the term, because now that my weight is restored, it feels even more invalidating.

I called her ‘Ana’. Because you’re not in control, there’s another person inside your head, a voice telling you to act a certain way, feel a certain way, appear a certain way. This voice tells you that skinny is never skinny enough and that a single calorie is a calorie too many. She tells me that good will never be good enough, and that only bones will ever be enough.

Sometimes I want to kill these thoughts. I want to be happy. Sometimes I want them back. These thoughts tell me I would be happy if I was just a little skinnier. They tell me that I’m fat, but now that I’ve gained weight, I don’t know if these thoughts are actually true, or if I’m just making them up.

It took four years to reveal I was struggling with depression. Five to reveal I was anorexic. Five and a half to be medicated. Six to be hospitalised so I didn’t kill myself. And now, nearly seven years after ‘the beginning’, I finally come to realise that the first thing I should have done is just say what was on my mind. Instead of waiting, and berating, and getting sicker and sicker and sicker, and more and more isolated and withdrawn and losing more and more time, I should have just spat the words out:

Anorexic. Bulimic. Depressed. Anxious. Bullied. Obsessive. Traumatised. Borderline. Bipolar. Self-harming. Suicidal. 

Eleven adjectives which do not define me, but are a chapter in my history, and a part of my identity nonetheless.

Eggs For Breakfast

My eating disorder, who I named Ana, (even once my diagnosis became bulimia) took a lot of things from me. She took my memories, she stole precious experiences, friendship, smiles and joy. She took energy, warmth, strength, focus, self-worth, concentration and control – the irony of that last one is not lost on me. She took my health, my womanhood, my childhood. She took most of the pleasure out of my life.

She took away a long list of bad foods.

She took away eggs.

She took away breakfast.

She took away lazy Sundays with tea and toast and a book and a blanket. My mornings were replaced with strenuous exercise and meticulous calculation of calories in and out for the day ahead.

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This morning, I had eggs for breakfast. I was met with a torrent of guilt, a wave of uncomfortable emotions, and the familiar berating voice of my best friend and worst enemy as I took each bite. But I didn’t listen. I didn’t let Ana control me. I ate my eggs, I read my book, and I wrapped myself in a blanket on the first cold day of the year (winter is my favourite season) before migrating to my desk to study. There was no compensation. That’s what I would call progress.

Reasons to Recover

I was thinking about my eating disorder, as I do, as I always do. I was ruminating, remembering the sensations of anorexia. I remember, even as I try to forget, to force the images from my mind, the memories of bony reflections. I try to forget these tainted memories, the lies that Ana feeds me, the experiences I am convinced were good, were wonderful, even as I am simultaneously aware of how fucking awful this illness was, and the toll it has taken, and continues to take, on my mind and body. I made a list. Because lists are great, and deeply satisfying.

Here is a list of things I need to remember, as I am trying to forget. These are my reasons to recover:

The good things about anorexia:

  • being thin and perfect
  • feeling powerful, purposeful and fulfilled
  • feeling good about my body (this one’s more complicated than it first appears: I have a love-hate relationship with my body, then and now. I hated bones, but I loved them too. I loved what they represented – success, achievement, and perfect and total control)
  • having a very reliable, way too effective coping mechanism
  • having a channel and outlet to suppress uncontrollable emotions by restricting and over-exercising
  • being incredibly fit, never sweating, and having no acne

The bad:

  • I was no longer able to run, I physically did not have enough muscle mass to sustain a sprint beyond ten or twenty metres, and I love running
  • Constant cold
  • Constant exhaustion
  • Constant preoccupation with food and exercise
  • Constant weighing, and a mood dictated by the number I saw
  • Constant counting, calculating and measuring 
  • Broken friendships
  • I looked like I was “dying”, and people constantly commented on my gaunt appearance and yellowed skin, which only increased my insecurities and need to hide my disorder
  • Insecurity in general, about weight, eating and appearance
  • Fear of being discovered and of Ana being taken from me
  • Isolation and social avoidance
  • Social anxiety
  • Regular anxiety
  • Eventually being excluded from social events altogether after constantly turning them down because I couldn’t allow any interruption to my rigid routine
  • … Being controlled by a rigid, completely fixed routine
  • Becoming extremely distressed if I could not follow my routine
  • Losing my childhood
  • Losing my womanhood
  • Losing my strength, muscle, and physical health
  • Losing laughter and smiles
  • Losing hope

Isn’t it strange how the list of bad far outweighs the list of good, yet I still want so badly to return? It’s a sign of the disorder that still pervades my thoughts, and taints my memories, and clouds my judgement until I can only see what Ana wants me to see, and nothing else, until I lose my reasons to recover altogether.