Patients share a fake, brittle, laugh, frowning with anxiety over having been potentially ‘out-disordered’.
Finding the right way to explain the ‘Battle of the Anorexics’ is, in itself, a battle. The desire to be the ‘sickest’, to be the worst, for a healthy mind probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The absolute necessity to be valid, is an illness in itself. Well, really, it is just part of the illness. No individual with healthy neurotransmitters and regular levels of serotonin feels this compulsive need to be the ‘sickest’. When you have a cold, you don’t examine their friends and family, targeting whoever’s worst and setting your goals solely towards that individuals symptoms. You think to yourself, ‘I feel like crap’, and go through fifteen boxes of tissues, down eight pints of Lemsip and reminisce over times you could actually breathe through your nose normally. As my old eating disorder psychologist said, ‘a desire to be sick is a trait of the sickness itself’.
The thing is, I thought that when I finally felt ‘ill enough’, when I finally felt like my disorder was valid and severe, I would recover. In my naive and slightly deluded mind, I truly thought that I would get to a point where that horrible voice in my head would go, ‘Yeah, you know what, I’m bored, that’s enough now, see you later’. I think anybody who’s struggled with an eating disorder will know half the battle is feeling valid – the actual craving to be wrapped up in a hospital bed, hooked up to a machine, tubes entangled round a frail and decaying body, worried looks from doctors. It sounds sick and twisted, but the system is slightly to blame. It’s difficult, because if you had meningitis, you wouldn’t need to look a certain way in order to be treated. People wouldn’t listen to your symptoms, nod, tell you with a sympathetic smile that they can see you’re struggling and send you off with a ‘How to stop hating your body’ leaflet. Or, in this case, a, ‘How to stop having meningitis ‘, leaflet.
Comparing mental and physical illnesses is difficult, because there are so many differences perceived within society. There are also just standard, undeniable facts. A critical injury takes priority over somebody struggling badly with their body image – that is, simply, basic knowledge. Life threatening scenarios will and should always be put before anything else.
It’s funny, because in the world of anorexics and eating disorder patients, everybody knows everybody. Whether they’ve attended group therapy with you, because ‘talking about your problems, helps solve them’. No thanks Susan, I’m more triggered now than I was before hearing about your patient who ended up in a wheelchair. Yes, I know it wasn’t their fault. I understand they are ill. But you didn’t need to tell me and everybody else because now we can’t stop thinking about being ill enough to have to be manoeuvred round Sainsbury’s in a wheelchair too, but we won’t say that because we’ll sound even more insane than the clinic already perceives us. I don’t like the word community very much, but I think it describes it best. The Eating Disorder community is a really strange place. You have this sort of magnified view of somebody’s life. You see their struggles, their good days. You know their fear foods, safe foods, their tricks, their lowest weight, their highest weight, what they had for breakfast, what they had for am snack.
Everybody knows everybody. And buried deep in the back of your mind, or maybe some days it’s not so deep, and is standing tall and prominent, screaming at you, is that horrible voice, telling you that you just aren’t as sick as them. That they’re better anorexics. You’re not a real anorexic. Remember yesterday when you ate that sandwich without checking the percentage of fat from the sodium level? See, you’re a fake. All anorexics know the exact calories in everything, tablets, vitamins, water, air. You’re not a real anorexic.
There are no rules for having lung disease. You wouldn’t want to prove how ill you are. You wouldn’t feel as if you had to have experienced every single symptom to a certain degree, otherwise you’re a fake. But there are these unwritten rules, that are strung through my head, like fairy lights, all tangled up.
Rule number 25: Never ever ask for help because anorexics aren’t allowed to do that.
This is the reality of such a horrible illness. It makes you believe that you want to be sick. That without your illness, you are worthless, unloved and a failure. That nobody will care about you anymore. It traps you in this destructive web of lies, promising that everything, absolutely everything, will be better if you follow it’s never ending list of rules. Because you look around you, and see gaunt, pale faces, greying eyes, bruised skin, and you feel like you have to stay here forever and ever and ever and ever.
Anorexia is a bitch. A lying, scheming, twisted, selfish, destructive, horrific, awful, pathetic, crappy, manipulative bitch. Because no matter what you do it is never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever enough.
As my consultant said to me, ‘Darling, the best anorexic is a dead one’.