The Book That Ruined My Life

I love to read. I love all sorts of books, I love to savour every word, every syllable like a sweet morsel to dangle off my tongue. I love adding new words to my extensive repertoire, words like surreptitious, superfluous, vernacular, kintsukuroi, and petrichor – all of which are very real, very beautiful words you should look up the definitions for immediately. I love to caress the covers of new novels, and old ones too, and the smell of the pages being turned, and losing track of time in bookshops and spending money I don’t have on books I don’t need because the best books are never found in libraries.

When I was ten, I read a book that ruined my life. This book gave me ideas that would contribute to me developing anorexia. I’m not going to share its title, but if my description of it sounds familiar and you or anyone you know have any sort of predisposition to disordered eating or currently suffer from an eating disorder, then I am pleading with you to avoid it at all costs.

Even before I turned the pages of this book, the cover itself sparked a wave of anxiety. It is a cover emblazoned with the words “you ate too much you fat pig”, with a picture of an apple core. My sister sardonically pointed it out to me, when I was ten years old, and said “this sounds like you”.

Sorry sis, but that was a terrible, terrible idea.

I read this book, and it gave me ideas, which is ordinarily a very positive outcome for a book to have, but not this book. This is how my eating disorder started: it started with the sit ups, and the push ups. It started with measuring, and label checking, and calorie counting, and offhanded comments by people who didn’t intend to damage me. It started with social isolation, with an exercise addiction, and with dietary restriction. With cutting out entire food groups, and with weighing myself every day, multiple times a day.

Exactly as this book described.

This book was not intended to be one which sparked eating disorders amongst its readership. In fact, it’s a semi-fictional semi-biographical novel written by a girl recovered from anorexia, and her experience of inpatient treatment. It was probably intended as a warning.

Yet somehow, this was the book that ruined my life.

 

Chronic Depression, My Old Friend

When I was younger, before all the bad shit happened (read: anorexia followed by years of intense bullying which only reaffirmed that if I was just thinner, things would be better) I thought depression was purely episodic. I thought it only occurred during grief after a death, that it was a really intense sadness that hung around for a couple weeks and then disappeared.

Seven years later, and I’m still depressed. Because depression can be chronic too.

Earlier this year, I think I experienced my first manic episode. Not irritability or hypomania, true mania. I was buzzing. I couldn’t sleep and didn’t need to, I was planning and fantasising wildly, I spent two weeks pay in five days (as a normally frugal person who spends half of every pay on therapy), I was over-committing to everything: I was go go go, fast fast fast. Talking and thinking faster and louder. I’ve never been formally diagnosed as bipolar, and although I recognise patterns of mania in myself, I definitely identify more with borderline personality disorder. I’m also not a psychiatrist, no matter how often I read the DSM, and like to believe I mostly know what I’m talking about. Something to know about me: I try to keep my intelligence kinda hidden because it’s gotten me into trouble before, and at the risk of sounding like a total dick, I am pretty fucking smart, and pretty fucking confident I know a decent amount about mental health.

Anyway, prior to that weird little manic week, for the first time in those seven years, I actually felt content. I can’t use the H-adjective, because that word alone always seems to trigger another wave of numbness for whatever reason, but it was like my mind just wanted to tease me with the possibility of a depression free life. I was satisfied with work, with my savings, with a few tentative plans for the future. I felt at ease, not anxious, not stressed, not fearful. I wasn’t overly focused on my eating disorder, and I was actually sticking to meal plan. I had come up with a vague sort of self-soothing routine which involved touching leaves on every tree I passed on my walk to the park, and stopping to meditate and practice yoga before returning home. It was a very mindful couple of days.

Then the mania hit.

Then the anxiety peaked.

And now the sadness has returned.

For some reason, I’m welcoming it back into my life. It’s an old friend, safe and familiar. Even when I am a danger to myself, at least it’s familiar. But this happiness thing? That’s foreign territory. And I don’t like it. I don’t like the mania, I don’t like the anxiety, and I definitely don’t like the BPD emotion surges.

Depression is my friend. It keeps me from feeling all of my feelings, in the same way my eating disorder helps me avoid things that need avoiding. Depression also keeps me from having nice things, like recovery. It keeps the metaphorical marble rolling down the same metaphorical ruts, the same neural pathways strengthening, the same core beliefs coursing through my mind every moment of every day – I’m worthless. I’m undeserving of life and love. I let everybody down. Killing myself will release the burden I put on other people. I’m fat, and ugly, and stupid, and useless. I’m never going to get better. I never make any progress.

I cling to these thoughts because I don’t know any different. I’ve never found lasting comfort in any of the suggested places. Yes I’ve tried yoga, and mindfulness, and art therapy, and writing, and regular therapy, and inpatient treatment, and day treatment, and medications. They don’t work for me.

Intuitively, I know that none of these beliefs are the truth – just as I know that according to my BMI I am not overweight. But even when my BMI fell to 14 and I was on the verge of involuntary hospital admission I thought I was fat. So why should a stranger telling me to smile lift my mood? Why should someone saying I look upset, make me any less upset?

Chronic depression, in fact, any depression, is not just sadness that passes. It’s sadness that stays. That fills my entire being with darkness and despair. It whispers harsh words in my ear, and ways to escape. It twists every object in my house into something I could use to hurt myself. I become dangerous. I become bitter. I hate my depression. I hate everything it’s done to me. But for some reason, I cherish it too.

Anorexia: An Introduction

Have you met Ana?
Ana-who? I hope you wonder
Murmurs – Ana-rexia.

When my spiral down the eating disorder rabbit hole began, I didn’t know anorexia existed. I had seen pictures of emaciated women, of course. I thought it was purely about looking in the mirror and seeing an obese person staring back. Having now experienced this illness, I can say with 110% certainty that it is so, so much more than this. Still, I think it took my adolescent brain a solid year or two to even realise that my behaviours were a problem. They felt so right. Turns out, there’s nothing right about anorexia nervosa.

It’s a little like having two personalities. And before I even knew that “healthy self” and “eating disorder self” was a fairly common concept and hallmark of eating disorder treatment, I had given a name to my second personality, two years in to my struggle, when I was about thirteen. I read, and still do read, the DSM a lot.

I called her Ana.

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Now, Rosie started out as a pretty wild, cheeky, sassy, and fun child. In fact, she had so much energy, the adjective ‘crazy’ was tossed around fairly often – and I don’t fail to see the irony in this now. But Ana is a tumour, and she hijacked that bubbly personality. Rosie became more and more withdrawn, anxious, secretive, manipulative, deceptive and damaged. Ana was just a voice, but she felt entirely separate from me. It is truly like having a whole other person freeloading off your rapidly firing, rapidly shifting, neurons.

These neurons were morphing into a shape it would take nearly a decade to unravel. And they’re still being unravelled.

The thing is, eating disorders shift, they shift, and morph, and strengthen, and change, all the while continuing to hijack your brain. Once my weight was restored by the beginning of 2017, moving out of home triggered a whole new set of neurons to fire.

They arranged themselves into bulimia nervosa.

I never vomited. And because of this, it did take me a little while to recognise the bulimic battle. But there’s more than one way to have bulimia, just as there’s more than one way to have an eating disorder in general. I binge. I purge. I just don’t throw up. I abuse laxatives, I exercise excessively, I restrict for the following day, and then the cycle begins all over again. There’s normally some self-harm in there too.

Some people choose to identify as having both Ana and Mia inside their minds. Personally though, my disorder has always been, and will always be, Ana.

The Dangers of Numbers

I’m good with numbers. In fact, I like to think I’m pretty exceptional when it comes to working with numbers. My mental arithmetic is pretty on point, which comes in handy at my IRL paying jobs: running an Etsy store, working at a bakery, and tutoring high school students. It definitely speeds up the cash handling process, and I guess it’s what landed me the tutoring gig in the first place. Helped me to develop a pretty kickass budget too.

But numbers can be damaging. Oh, how they can damage me. Not only are they a refuge – doing complicated calculus in my head calms me down – but they’re also dangerous. The written word isn’t my most dangerous outlet (although, I suppose that’s a little dangerous too); the real danger lies in the numbers.

This danger, coupled with perfectionistic traits, low self-esteem somewhat satisfied by solving complex equations, and an imagined loss and consequent need for control, was the spark to my anorexia. Watching numbers drop is its own form of complicated mathematics. Calories in and calories out. Multiplication and division, addition and subtraction.

Thanks brain. Mental illness has hijacked yet another one of those handy life skills.

The other problem with numbers is a little like the problem of evil – once the numbers are known, they are impossible to forget. And that is why, even though my weight is restored, the struggles against that fucking voice are just as hard as they always were. Calories in and calories out. Multiplication, division. Addition, subtraction.

Words aren’t the weapon for me, although they make a mighty sword at times. The real problem is with the numbers.