25th June 2014
My metamorphosis from a shy, anxious child into an anarchic anti-establishment adult was slow but assured and reached it's pinnacle when I was trying to juggle a demanding job with an equally demanding eating disorder. Not that I was an angelic child, I didn't misbehave at home but at primary school there were glimpses early on of my non conformist streak. Interestingly, the only time that I was difficult at Primary school was in the canteen. I refused to eat most of the school dinners because I was such a picky eater and this meant that I regularly faced the wrath of my ultra fierce, super scary dinner lady. I would sit there with my arms folded, refuse to eat the plate of slop in front of me and it would be a daily stand off. That woman's talents were wasted, she so should have had a lead role in Prisoner Cell Block H. What a lovely nurturing environment it was for small children experiencing eating with others in their early years.
Secondary school for me was bitter sweet. On the one hand I loved my lessons. I was a model student and was called a 'swot' and 'teacher's pet' on a daily basis. I found it terribly difficult to fit in. I was desperately shy and I remember eating my sandwiches in the toilet and hiding in there for as long as I could at break and lunchtimes. I also remember a painful few months, when we were suffering from financial difficulties at home and I was therefore granted free school meals. For me, actually walking into the dining room and sitting down to eat with others was actually worse than the jibes I would get about being poor. I think I used my free school meal pass about 3 times, when I decided that no lunch would be better than the ordeal of the dreaded dining room. I told my mum and so she found the money for sandwiches, which I would eat in the farthest corner of the field, or the toilet. PE was particularly distressing for me at high school, I was hopeless at pretty much everything and I was the last kid to get picked, with a sigh of groans coming from the suddenly hampered team. My teacher of course gave me loads of positive reinforcement, comments like 'Look, I know that she's useless but somebody's got to have her' really helped my case. She once told me that my lack of exercise would mean that I would end up an overweight 40 year old woman. Oh the irony of it, if she could see me now she would rue those words.
College was trauma free. I was finally only doing the subjects that I liked and I achieved well. University was not such a walk in the park however. Once again, I felt like a fish out of water. Everybody came from wealthier backgrounds than me, many were from public schools and I felt inadequate. I started to skip lectures, which just made my tutorials more difficult and I went home every weekend to see my boyfriend. It was only when I met Sharon (who is still my best friend to this day) that things got better. She made me feel that I was worth something. During this time I gained a considerable amount of weight. This did not bother me at the time as through Sharon, I had found myself in a circle of cool friends and I was relatively happy.
Unfortunately my absence record from uni resulted in me flunking my first year completely, so I had to move to a different University. I was in an alien environment yet again and for someone who hates change this is a huge cause of anguish. I trudged to my lectures reeking of failure and I made no effort to interact with my peers. I actually went out of my way for some unknown reason to ostracize myself. I wouldn't go to the canteen at lunch to sit on my own. I kept to myself. Being in this new environment amongst other factors were making me uncomfortable with my weight. A diet ensued, anorexia took hold and all of a sudden all of the things that I had deemed to be a disadvantage worked in my favour. It didn't matter that I had no one to have my lunch with because I didn't do lunch and the more solitary time I had the better. I spent my evenings in the swimming pool and for the first time I began to really focus on my studies again. When I look back on these years, it helps me to shed some light on my fear of lunchtimes and my reluctance to accept that they are a part of normal life. Social anxiety had caused me to eat in secret at lunchtime, as when you are studying or working, it is the only time of the day when people are forced to eat together. I never had the confidence to do this and so lunch was something I was always keen to avoid. It still is.
The irritation of change reared it's ugly head once again because as part of my degree I had to spend 6 months in France and 6 in Germany. I was becoming increasingly obsessed with my weight at the time and I was scared rigid of unknown foods and their calorie content. In France I had no option, I had to do lunch and I had to accept food graciously (you don't offend the French when it comes to food!) and after a while I relaxed and I began to enjoy crusty baguettes with pâté and croissants with jam. It was only when I went home for 2 weeks and everybody said 'Oh you look well, French living obviously agrees with you' that the panic set in. I started to look up the calorie content of everything that I had eaten and I was horrified to discover just how much fat I had been consuming. I returned with one goal and one goal only, to lose weight and get home as soon as. My new diet alienated me from my French roommates, as I refused to eat with them and I became dreadfully homesick.
I was only home a matter of months, when I had to go to Germany. This time I was devastated to leave, I just couldn't face another upheaval. I was very lonely there and focusing on my eating was a welcome distraction, I felt superior when I refused the other students' carbohydrate laden meals and I ate in my room on my own. I ended up coming home early, as I was so depressed and this was another failure under my belt. I try not to have regrets, but I cannot help to this day berating myself for not making more of my time abroad. Other students got offered jobs at Audi and Renault and I had come back with my tail between my legs because I just couldn't hack it. I realise looking back that my eating disorder was tightening its grip at this point, but I couldn't see it at the time.
The summer before my finals I spent almost solely on my dissertation. I was surviving on coffee and cigarettes but I loved every second of writing it. My final exams were very stressful. I would revise all night and work myself up into a frenzy. It was at this point that I confided in my literature professor that I was having issues with food and his support just about got me through and I got my dream degree.
Teacher training meant yet another move though and my PGCE and NQT year were tough. I had a new partner who I used to see at weekends. I would eat normally with him but the rest of the week I would restrict. I didn't want him to know about my issues with food. I remember my mentor telling me 'you don't eat enough to have the energy for this profession' if only I had listened. Again, lunch was a none event as I simply didn't have time and I was up until the early hours planning lessons and burning yet more calories. This pattern continued, but I got an early promotion from my first school and became second in department at a really good school, which I loved. During my 3 glorious years working there my eating improved and I even started to eat round the coveted table in the staff room, although people would stare in disbelief that a yogurt and fruit and jelly in a pot could be considered a lunch, this was progress for me and I was happy.
My new partner however, wanted to move and he gave me an ultimatum 'Move with me or it's over' so I had to leave my beloved job. I was promoted way above my capabilities to Head of Department and this turned out to be a horrible turning point in my teaching career. I hated my new job, the headmistress was a tyrant and we argued constantly. I was in over my head. The staffroom was like a war zone and I was struggling to cope. This job stripped me of all my confidence in my abilities as a teacher, as nothing was ever good enough and the atmosphere amongst the staff was toxic. My relationship was also in trouble as I resented my partner for making me leave my old job. I was becoming depressed and this is when my bulimia really kicked in. I left this job after 6 months and took a job as HOD in a smaller school. Yet again I had failed and I carried this with me through the 8 years that I worked in my most recent post.
The school in which I spent my last days as a teacher was a world apart from the huge high schools I had been used to. It was a small school in a small town and from day one my face didn't fit. It didn't help that I had been given the job over an internal candidate, who then had to work for me. It had disaster written all over it. Unlike my previous schools this school had a predominantly female staff, which in this school led to much bitching and competitiveness. I had lost weight again to start this job, but I managed my eating disorder pretty well for my first few years there. It wasn't all bad though, I got on really well with my classes, as I always had and I got good results. It was only when the form group that I had had since year 7 left that I felt this gut wrenching void. I missed them dreadfully. Their departure just happened to coincide with an unwelcome shake up in the leadership team. Staff were unhappy and everyone was out for themselves. The school was in uproar and I hated it. I had never been part of the duplicitous female clique who dominated the staffroom (which I avoided unless it was absolutely necessary) and I had no respect for our ineffective senior managers. I was wishing my days away and when half term came round I would often spend it bingeing and vomiting.
My erratic eating was causing me to have more and more time off. I caught every bug and virus going and I had started to have panic attacks about going into work. After a particularly vicious self assault of bulimia I landed myself in A & E. I was put on a drip as my potassium was through the floor. I ended up being transferred to a ward where I had to stay for a week until I ate something. I remember looking in the mirror in the toilet and swearing to myself that I would NEVER AGAIN eat anything that I couldn't keep down. I got signed off work with depression and when I returned, I returned with a new best friend 'Ana' We got through our lonely, thankless days restricting and counting the minutes until we could go to the gym. People were judgmental about my lengthy absence so I blanked most of them and contained myself in my own little world. I felt that my colleagues had lost respect for me as a professional, so in my mind the only way I knew how to cope was by concentrating on something which I knew I could succeed at, losing weight. My battles with the head were becoming more frequent and more heated as I was an emotional wreck. He nicknamed me the Tasmanian Devil (there was no love lost there) and I was becoming a very angry confrontational individual.
As my weight plummeted more time off ensued and it was all getting too much. I did not take my decision to leave my teaching career lightly, on the contrary, my partner was telling me that the job was killing me and my GP advised me to take time out to focus on my recovery. For once, I listened. Unfortunately leaving my job did not turn out to be the miracle cure I had expected it to be.
Suddenly I was home alone and the reality of not having a job for the first time in my life hit me with a resounding thud. I became paranoid that the staff and students from school thought that I was a fake and that there was nothing wrong with me. 'The devil makes work for idle hands' rings sadly true for me at this time, as with nothing to fill my days I began bingeing and vomiting again. I became a virtual recluse (apart from my trips to the shop), I put my gym membership on hold and I spent days in bed crying, eating and vomiting. The more I binged the worse I felt, quite frankly I was becoming suicidal. My partner and I started to take small trips out at weekends away from our local area to get me out of the house and bit by bit my confidence came back. He helped me to stop bingeing which meant that I managed to significantly reduce my vomiting and I rejoined the gym. This was a positive step initially because it lifted my mood and made me feel better about my body. It very quickly, however became an obsessive grueling daily ritual. I had planned to go back to work in September last year but in the few months previous to this I was living in the gym and counting the calories again. My GP refused to sign me back as I had lost so much weight and with nothing else to focus on anorexia became my new career. Anorexia is a very single minded existence. You get to the point where you simply have no headspace for anything else.
As I write this I know that I am fully in the grips of anorexia. I am in outpatient treatment but the road back I fear is going to be long. The problem with anorexia when you are no longer in denial is, you know exactly what you should be doing but doing it and accepting the weight gain is more difficult than I can put into words. I know what this illness has done to my life but living without it seems equally as terrifying. I am hoping that all of the help that I am now getting is going to be my turning point. I have finally stopped being so defensive and volatile towards those who have been trying to help me and I am engaging well in my group and individual sessions. As my CBT therapist quite rightly said 'It's ok talking the talk. Now you got to walk the walk' this is so true as if I am to overcome this it will be down to me. And I tell you this, if I do beat anorexia it will be the single biggest achievement of my life.