Breaking the Fast

They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
For a time, it was my only meal of the day.
For a time, it was the only thing keeping me alive.
But eventually, of even that I deprived myself.

It is difficult to explain what it is like to go through something, knowing it is an impossible thing to understand having not gone through it. I didn’t understand until it was over, until after I got better. I feel as though Eating Disorders are often misperceived as something one, in a way, decides to have; as if one day that person wakes up and decides “you know what, I’m kind of sick of eating and want to be super thin, so I’m going to be anorexic from now on”. This is a misconception, and a dangerous misunderstanding. You don’t wake up one day and decide you’re going to starve yourself. It’s not something you choose; the eating disorder chooses you. The illness happens to you. It haunts you; develops from deep within you, growing slowly and malevolently inside until it takes over completely and you’re helpless to stop it. It isn’t your fault. A mental illness is exactly that: an illness, and it is not something that can be fixed by a good pep talk or simple change of perspective.It takes time; infinite time, constant effort and consistent determination.

I craved the feeling of ice cold water trickling
down to fill an empty stomach with nothing.
Water could do no harm. Once it was digested
it was weightless, only passing through,
cleaning, cleansing, untraceable, invisible.

First, I cut out sweets. No jellies or chocolate or snack foods. I was very strict, but my discipline wasn’t dangerous at this point; I was still eating all the other important food groups. It may have been okay if I had just gone as far as this. It wouldn’t have put my physical health in such a dangerous position or put my life at risk. But I went further; I slowly cut things out of my diet completely; bit by bit, I cut out bread, I cut out red meat, I cut out chicken, I cut out pasta and rice. Eventually I cut out most foods until all I was living on was fruit and water. As humans, we cannot survive on just fruit and water. We need food. Just as a car needs fuel to run, we need food to function; and even more than a car needs fuel to run, we need food to survive. And not just any food, but the right food in the right amounts. But part of the illness is the problem that arises when these lines are blurred, when you no longer trust what is the right food or the right amount. You construct your own rules and regulations, or rather, the illness does. It tells you that less is more and less needs to be as minimal as possible until eventually the most you can have is nothing. Then the voice; nothing is still too much, you need less less less and so you abuse your body in every way you physically can in such a condition to lose, shake off, get rid of the unnecessary, which is of course the necessary, the vital for survival, but the illness will not accept that.

I was always cold, as I wanted to be,
the warmth uncomfortable, suffocating.
Freezing all my softness, shrinking and
restricting until I was small enough.
But I was never small enough, and
just before it was too late I learned
that I never would be, I never would be
small enough. That was the trick,
the game, and no one ever wins.

You see the thing is; I was never going to be small enough, thin enough, good enough. Every step I took, even if I said it would be my last, was never my last. But I wasn’t walking alone; it was walking with me. Not even with me, but for me; I had no say. It developed slowly, little steps spread out over time, over months. But it builds up and escalates and then spirals too fast and out of control; and once you’re caught up in that downward spinning spiral, it seems impossible to get out; a rollercoaster of thought you can’t get off. It takes over everything; it effects everything. No part of your life is left untouched, untainted, undisturbed. The first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning, and the last thing you contemplate before you fall to sleep at night; what to eat (less), what not to eat (more), when to eat (timing is important, nothing after 7pm, only water water water), ways to hide it (make them think you ate), when to walk (as much as possible), when to run (whenever you physically could), you can do it, you can do it, you don’t need it (food), you’re ok (you won’t die), you can do it.

Tea with friends was missing out on
conversations because my mind was
overcome with contemplations,
did I deserve a biscuit?
Tea with a drop of milk was twenty already.
You see a harmless treat, I see
no exceptions for a week.
Another hour long walk, run
if you can, and sixty jumping jacks,
one hundred to be sure.

Friends and family and even strangers could see, plain as day, that you were un-eating yourself apart from the inside out. It shows in your eyes, the dark circles and gaping holes; it shows in the clothes hanging loosely from protruding bones; it shows in your hair, in how it was thinning and falling out; it shows in the weak and insincere “no thank you” smile every time you were offered something to eat. “Are you sure you don’t want a biscuit?”. Of course, I wanted a biscuit, I just didn’t know it. I wasn’t let know, because what I later came to call ‘the illness’ knew better, what it wanted was what I wanted. I had no say. I am not a liar, but I would lie; I would say I ate when I didn’t; I would wrap my food up in napkins or kitchen paper and throw it away; I would say I wasn’t hungry when my stomach was sore and screaming out for food, when my body was physically shaking, my mind barely tuning into what was going on. At the same time I wouldn’t let my mind stop ticking, constantly on high alert; think distraction distraction distraction; anything to keep me busy (take my mind off the hunger, the cold, the exhaustion).

All day every day, the calculator checklist
in my head would monitor every bite,
every move, even when empty
it was still too full.
Adding and subtracting,
taking more than giving.
Every bite alarm bells, every swallow
death resounding like a canon as in
the hunger games, only this was real.

You think of nothing else. All day every day it’s what you’ll eat, or rather what you will not eat; what you’ll do, the walking, running, anything to keep your body moving, going, shedding. Many people are under the impression that someone with an eating disorder only have that eating disorder because of a strong desire to be thin or skinny or slim, but that isn’t true for all cases. Eating Disorders can be more than a desire to be thin; they can stem from many things, one of them control. Mine stemmed from a bad combination of perfectionism and high-functioning anxiety. I felt like I wasn’t good enough, like I wasn’t doing well enough in school (meaning I wasn’t getting a perfect score in every test), I wasn’t getting at least over 90% in my violin exams, I wasn’t smart enough, I wasn’t pretty enough, I wasn’t good enough, I just wasn’t enough.; in every way, I just wasn’t enough… But what is enough?

Breakfast is still my favourite meal of the day,
and that is ok, now that I no longer deprive
myself of the others. The calculator isn’t gone
away completely, it interjects now and then,
but I know now how to tune it out. I know
now, not only what I deserve, but what I need.

It wasn’t easy, getting better. There was no clear turning point. I didn’t decide one day “ok I’m going to stop this now”. At first, I was “getting better” for my parents. I was doing what I could to please them, to put them at ease, to get them off my back enough so that I could quietly, beneath the surface of what could be picked up on (in a place I managed to keep from everyone for a long time before I really started to get better), tick away on what I’d been working on. That’s what’s strange too; it’s like you are working hard on something, the illness’ own malicious little missions, and you were so secretly happy every time the scales didn’t show “an improvement” or so they called it. Once I distinguished the illness from myself, once I knew that this was something I was going to have to fight, things began to turn around. I managed to separate, at least a little bit, myself from the illness and in this way, I was able to begin my fight to get my life back. A 24 hour seven days a week preoccupation with food and body image is no way to live; it is no life. I believe that the three years I was ill for were stolen from me by the illness itself, and I perform a quiet background battle every day to keep that illness from taking me over again.

I played the game, and discovered that what I
once believed to be a win was not, for the
only prize is death, a losing battle all the way.
But I got out of it ok, and need not admit
defeat, for truth be told I’m better now,
I’ve gained more than what you see.

[If you are worried, either for yourself or for a friend, do not hesitate to contact the Student Health services offered to us here in UCC. You can call into the Student Health Department, Ardpatrick, College Road, or call on (021) 4902311 to make an appointment. A few more specific details; I suffered from Anorexia Nervosa, a psychological eating disorder defined by extremely low body weight relative to stature (BMI), extreme and needless weight loss, irrational fear of weight gain, and distorted perception of self-image and body. It is often shortened to anorexia which refers to self-starvation and lack of appetite. A few statistics: It is estimated that 1% to 4.2% of women have suffered from anorexia in their lifetime. Anorexia kills people; it has the highest fatality rate of any mental illness or psychiatric disorder; approximately 4% of anorexic individuals die from complications of the disease. But anorexia, or any eating disorder for that matter, is not unbeatable and can be treated. You can find more information on these websites; www.bodywhys.ie, www.eatingdisorderhope.com]

Ciara D.

Originally published in UCC Express newspaper, November 2016.

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