The tormenting started just after my 17th birthday.
“You aren’t working hard enough.”
“You are too fat to wear that.”
“You are a complete failure.”
“You definitely cannot wear that.”
The voice was relentless, but from experience, I knew I could make it happy and I could get back on track with it. I longed for the value and reassurance that she gave me.
I met Anorexia when I was about 13 years old, and I loved being her best friend. I wanted everything with her and longed to focus on her so that she was happy. I was brilliant at having anorexia and I knew that whatever life threw at me, I would be able to manage it — anorexia and I could tackle it together. We could take on whatever the world threw at us. She was there when my parents argued, when my older brother stormed out of the house, and when my mind would wander to my history with sexual abuse.
She helped me to switch off and gave me distractions I needed. I would often lay in bed at night listening to my parents arguing, and I could switch off any emotions and sadness as my mind would wander to calories. It felt good when anorexia gave me the escape I needed from the real world. Above all, I could totally and utterly rely on her. I had never had that relationship with anyone before. Other relationships always ended badly, and someone always got hurt — but not this one! Anorexia and I had become one. We did everything together — we well and truly tackled life from the early hours of the morning right through to bed time.
She was my dirty secret and I liked it that way.
Well, I thought she was, all up until one day when I was ambushed by my school and my parents. It was then that my relationship with anorexia went massively downhill. For some reason, I could no longer make her happy. I don’t know what went wrong — up until this point, I had felt like I was brilliant at having anorexia. I had never been that good at much, but I was good at this — in fact, I was brilliant at it.
Those few months after my 17th birthday turned into daily relentless arguments with my anorexia. I was running out of energy completely. I wasn’t good enough for her and whatever I did wasn’t enough. The days turned into a nasty battle with so much arguing in my head, constant bickering about what I should and shouldn’t be doing. It was endless and I felt completely trapped. I ended up arguing a lot with my parents when they wanted me to eat. One evening, I even threw a loaf of bread across the kitchen while my dad watched with tears welling in his eyes. Part of me really cared that I was hurting people, but the anorexic part of me didn’t.
I couldn’t get my head around why people were trying to take this amazing thing away from me. How could something I thought was this incredible actually be killing me?
Little did I know that five months after my 17th birthday, I would be admitted to a mental health hospital, on the brink of death, my skin yellowing, and my hair falling out. I was about to face the hardest year of my life. I had to beat anorexia, beat that voice that had possessed me for so long — a voice that I had thought was my everything, my best friend.
Being in the hospital was such hard work, and looking back, I don’t know how I ever managed to beat that voice. It was a complete and utter minefield being in a mental health hospital, and at the age of 17 when all my friends were out and about clubbing and finishing school, it was the place where I absolutely did not want to be.
I had to beat anorexia, beat that voice that had possessed me for so long — a voice that I had thought was my everything, my best friend.
When I was admitted, I suppose part of me was relieved. The battle with anorexia had gotten so bad, so hard, and I was no longer happy. The months leading up to my time in the hospital had been horrific, and I had felt completely trapped. I would exercise at every opportunity, spend hours in the bathroom making myself sick whenever anyone made me eat, and I missed out on so much.
In those few months, I didn’t know if I was ever going to be happy again, but that stupid anorexic voice in my head, which I realized was not, in fact, my friend, would tell me that tomorrow would be different— that if my weight kept dropping, life would be okay, and that tomorrow, things would be amazing.
But it never quite worked out like that.
I was trapped, lost, and caught up in something else. Looking back, I’m lucky my school friends didn’t stop liking me. Both my family and friends saw beyond the anorexia. After a year in the hospital, I was discharged and have had to manage my recovery ever since. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, but fighting onward and maintaining my health has been the best decision I’ve ever made.
Keeping some things in mind helped me significantly along the way:
- Talking about it: After every meal in the hospital, we had to talk about the meal. This helped me remove every single bit of emotion from the food. It also kept me on track and helped me learn to express myself more.
- Knowing my motivations: Anorexia used to made me feel invincible. I thought I could take on the world and still live with it, but the reality is, you can’t. I wanted to start running again, I wanted to travel, I want to have children — none of this is possible if anorexia is still in my life.
- Realizing anorexia doesn’t actually make you happy: This took me well over four years to realize, but when I started to recognize it, I had to hold on to that. When things go wrong in life and I start to feel that emotion again, I sometimes let my mind wander. If anorexia was still in my life, it would allow me to switch off from everything, but I don’t want that anymore.
- Finding value elsewhere: This is a tough one for someone like me, who struggles immensely with her body image and general self-esteem, but the “value” anorexia gives you is so short-lived. It is so important to acknowledge that and find value elsewhere.
- Discovering other ways to communicate: For me, this is as simple as sending a text saying “I feel fat” or “I am not OK.” Responses from friends and family let me know others care and, again, is a healthier way to express myself than through food.
When I was in the hospital, I never thought that nasty, manipulative voice would shut up. I never thought I would have a day without her, but I have. And life when I ignore that voice is so much better.
If you or someone you know has anorexia or another eating disorder, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at (800) 931-2237 or text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at Crisis Text Line.
Hope Virgo is the author of “Stand Tall Little Girl” and an ambassador for the Shaw Mind Foundation. Her 4-year battle with anorexia inspired her mental health advocacy and efforts to fight stigma surrounding mental illness. To read more about women changing the conversation surrounding mental health, check out Better’s advocacy series here.