10th March 2021
‘Hunger hurts but starving works when it costs too much to love…’
Fiona Apple, ‘Paper Bag’
Humans are creatures of habit. We eat the same food, drink the same brand of coffee or wine, we buy clothes from the same stores, we like certain seats in cafes. Habit provides comfort, it makes us feel safe. It helps us feel in control when some aspects of our lives feel out of our hands. This can be a positive, helping someone stay organised, to prioritise, and keep their head above water. However, many people who suffer from depression and anxiety have habits that can then develop into rituals, that eventually take on a life and illness of their very own. Some stay forever, some change: wiping door handles; checking plug sockets; making sure the door is locked. Why? Control. To calm the inner voice that tells them something dreadful will happen if that ritual is not completed.
I don’t think I was aware as a child of having patterns of behaviour, that any part of my day to day life was a possible sign of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I would never say my compulsions have overly prevented me from living a ‘normal’ (for want of a less stigmatising word) life, but I recognise that they flare up at moments of stress and low mood. When I was younger, I would do things in groups of four. I remember having a set of VHS Buffy the Vampire Slayer boxsets (yes, I am that old) and I would need them to be perfectly straight on my shelf. When I touched one to move it into the correct position I would have touch and move it four times. If another tape didn’t look quite right, I would have to touch and move it four times as well. This then started to multiply into four x four x four x four… and so on. I remember one night staying up well after my brother and parents had gone to sleep, sitting on my bed and looking at the row of tapes, squinting, making sure that all the videos were straight and if they weren’t, well… the ritual of four started again. At that age, about twelve or thirteen, I didn’t question it. It was just something I did and felt I needed to do.
By the time I got to University though, this obsession with controlling something had managed to morph its way into my eating habits. I had initially started to exercise as a way to improve my mood. I would go jogging or swimming, and for the first time I started to look at the food I ate and why I was eating certain things. I began to question whether I needed that biscuit or sandwich, and if I really should eat that chocolate bar or drink that milkshake. As good as exercise was for me mentally, the way I allowed it to change – no, I didn’t let it happen… my illness manipulated it – into controlling food, soon became a very serious issue of its own. At twenty years of age, I was studying for my final exams and working on my dissertation, undergoing psychotherapy once a week, on medication, not sleeping due to continued invasive thoughts, feeling hungry and tried constantly, working myself to the bone because I had to get a First Class degree – I had to - and all the while feeling utterly, completely hollow and exhausted and alone. I used to go to bed most nights and imagine my own death. It gave me comfort. It was the only way I saw of escaping this prison I felt that I was in. Voices told me constantly that I was a risk to everyone around me. Food made me feel ill just to look at it. My body ached from not eating and making myself vomit the little that I did consume. I was exhausted from lack of sleep. I kept a diary of food and drink that I had eaten that day and if I had managed to sick it back up (in a toilet, sink, bin, bush, even a carrier bag once which I took home with me on the bus) I would place an ‘X’ next to it in my little book.
One evening I remember sobbing because my lightbulb went out, and when I went to fix it I dropped the replacement bulb on the floor and it shattered. I spent the rest of the night in complete darkness. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere. Each night I would run my fingertips over my stomach and hips and ribs, feeling the bones below. I would fall asleep with my iPod on, huddled under covers, envisaging drowning myself in Sefton Park lake near where I lived. It was probably the darkest period of my life, but I didn’t see it.
I thought that was what my life was: how it had to be and should be.
At the time, anyone who tried to broach the subject of my eating and weight with me, such as my parents and one or two friends, would be placated (I hoped) with my replies of “I ate earlier” or “I’m not hungry” or “I’ll eat later when I get home” or, or, or… I would run the shower or bath taps to cover the sound of me being sick. My mum soon cottoned onto that one. It’s odd the things you remember at moments like that… a pivotal event in my life and relationship with my parents and I can still hear, clear as a bell, Kate Bush’s Ariel playing in the living room when they talked to me about my eating.
I would try to change my routine and eating habits so that other students in my house wouldn’t be as aware of what I was doing: one day I’d shower / vomit into the sink in the morning in my house; then go to the bathroom / vomit in the toilet after a lecture in the afternoon; then go for a walk / vomit into a bush of an evening. The next day I’d change the order. I was crafty. I was obsessed. I was ill. But any type of obsessive behaviour develops into more than just a part of your life, it becomes your life. You plan your whole day around it. I suppose that my OCD did prevent me from living a ‘normal’ life, after all. But why did I do it?
On one hand it was about weight. I didn’t want to become fat because in my mind I associated fat with death and I didn’t want to die. Ironic, given that I was self-harming daily in one form or another, slowly killing myself with staving and purging. On the other hand, it was about control – if I could control my eating and what went into my body then maybe, possibly, hopefully, potentially, my life would become better and I’d feel safer. On a third and final hand it was all about punishment. More than anything, it was to hurt myself. I was evil. I had voices telling me that I was all day every day. Words that stood out on a magazine page, words being spoken by the piano keys I played, words being spoken loudly inside my head every time I took a bite of something.
Munch, evil. Crunch, sicko.
So, I had to harm myself. What other choice did I have? I deserved to feel bad about myself, and what I did not deserve was food.
It became the ultimate method to control everything that I didn’t feel I could control. When I was powerless to prevent the voices and words inside my head and the pendulum of mood swings, being able to restrict and weaponise my food intake, or vomit up anything I ate, was at least an aspect of my life I had a say in. I drank more than I ate, but only tea or coffee and never with milk. I read somewhere that hot water and lemon helped you lose weight, so I started to drink that. Because eating is a such a huge part of socialising with friends and those you live with, I spent less time with those in my house. I would spend as much time as possible out of the house, at the library, walking, sitting in cafes with black coffees completing my reading and writing for my courses. On one occasion I was (unironically) reading As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner and trying to annotate the text but fell asleep in the middle of Starbucks. Being out so much naturally led to animosity from my friends: they questioned why I worked all the time, making me feel even more of an outcast and loser for actually studying at university; they stopped inviting me to do things with them, understandable because I would only decline anyway. If I did rarely eat with them it would be something like soup which I knew I could easily sick up afterwards. I know that I probably wasn’t the easiest person to live with, especially when I had slowly become more and more reclusive since the first months of us being a group, but I was in so much pain, so much turmoil inside me, that I honestly didn’t know what to do.
During my third year I was pretty much a loner, going to lectures, studying into the night, occasionally going back home. By then my parents were concerned about my appearance and one night asked me about my eating and self-harming. They had heard me being sick after dinner, but I insisted that I had only been using the toilet and would never vomit up food. How crazy! I was an educated young white man at university who wrote and read and played piano… why would I have an eating disorder? But after more and more questions I realised I couldn’t deny it, it was fruitless. My mum was upset and concerned, as was my dad - I can only imagine the worry and ache I caused for them both, and it is something that still haunts me. At the time though it didn’t haunt me enough to stop. I constantly took showers and baths so I could hide the sound of me being sick with running water. I worked at a hotel when back home from University, and I would have dinner with my parents as near to when my shift started as possible so that I could quickly drive to work and vomit in the toilets there before clocking on. My skin became dry, my lips were constantly chapped. I felt weak and tired all the time.
Eventually, my parents, seeing I wasn’t getting any better, encouraged me to go to the doctors. I didn’t want to and at the time didn’t see the point – all I knew and understood was that this was how I deserved to feel and be. The GP organised sessions of psychotherapy for me and I was put on my first course of medication. Anyone who has been through psychotherapy will know how tough those hours can be. You are talking about some of the darkest thoughts and feelings you have ever experienced, sitting nakedly in front of someone you have never met before, worrying that at any minute the mirror behind you will be revealed to be a two-way mirror and you’ll taken away to an asylum and never shown the light of day again. “You’re a menace to yourself! You’re a danger to society!” they’ll say, poking at you as they cart you off. Nadiya Hussain was the focus of a documentary in 2019 called Anxiety and Me, in which she raised a similar concern, that revealing her anxious and troublesome thoughts would lead to her children being taken away from her. This is a very real fear for people wanting and needing support for their mental illness: what will people think? What will I lose? What will change? Do I deserve to get better?
During the sessions we looked the image of a wolf, with my psychotherapist referring to a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ wolf. Originally a traditional Cherokee story, in it a grandfather speaks of two wolves: the good wolf which represents joy, peace, happiness, empathy and positives in life, and the bad wolf, which symbolises anger, sorrow, regret, guilt, resentment and only negative emotions and experiences. The grandfather simply asks “Which one wins? The one you feed the most”, the moral of the story being that whilst we can’t always control what happens inside our minds and thoughts, we can control our reactions to it. If a violent and distressing thought intruded would I feed the bad wolf, strengthening my feelings of shame and pain, or would I feed the good wolf, turning that uncomfortable moment into an opportunity to see myself as a survivor, a person overcoming trauma, as someone who deserves empathy from myself and others. I had a choice to make when moving forward with psychotherapy and my personal journey, to decide which wolf would I feed. This shift in perception takes a lot of practice. I am still not perfect at it. I am still too quick to jump to the negative, to be critical, to be hypersensitive, to allow worries to spiral out of control without even realising it. It takes dedication and time, time that you give yourself to sit, think, weigh up your thoughts logically rather than emotionally, to formulate a sort of list where you see whether your anxieties are founded in fact or the myths created by your intrusive thoughts. I still haven’t got it nailed down and over the course of my psychotherapy sessions I missed meetings, rescheduled them, unconvinced they were working, concerned they were actually making me worse, fighting against that ever-present voice telling me that I didn’t have the right to be there in the first place. After decades of feeding the bad wolf it takes a long time to give even a few scraps to the good wolf.
I don’t like using the word “recover” because to me it implies you have fixed a problem which will never return. Like any illness you can get better, you can improve, but you can always relapse. If you break your ankle playing sport you can repair and rest and strengthen the bone and muscle, but there will always be a weakness that wasn’t there before. The very same is true of mental illness: you can be given and use tools to help you with problematic emotions, but you are always open to suffering from them again. That is the nature of the beast which some call ‘The Black Dog’, a term once used by Winston Churchill to describe his depression. It can rear its head at any moment: sometimes you can feel and sense the warning signs, try to ignore them and carry on, but sometimes it can appear suddenly, out of nowhere, and pull the rug out from under your feet: like a dog, the illness of depression can be perhaps tamed for a time, but like any pet or animal it can also unpredictably, and unprovoked, bite back.
I am reminded here of a scene from the television show Pure, where the lead character Marnie desperately asks her therapist when she will get better. She’s three sessions in, she rants, when will she see results? When will she feel less anxious? When, she wants to know more than anything, will her intrusive thoughts stop? Watching this scene made me cry because, like the therapist informs Marnie, it’s not as easy as that and is unlikely that anyone can ever be completely ‘fixed’ at all. All we can do is work on ourselves, take it one day at a time, even one hour at a time, and try. We might never fully “recover”, but we can be proud of the work we are doing on ourselves. Whether it be a wolf, dog or another symbol of your choosing, just make sure you allow yourself the time and patience to feed the right one. Easier said than done though, I know. Am I better now? Yes. Do I enjoy food now? Yes. Do I still worry about eating and drinking? Not as much. Do I have days where I stress about it more than others? Yes. Will I ever be completely comfortable with my eating habits? No. Is it still about weight? Yes. Is it still about punishment? Yes.
Shame is a powerful and destructive emotion. It is a beast. It is an illness. It takes root and grows weeds that are seemingly impossible to dig up. It comes from rejection, from arguments, from disappointments, from pain, from abuse, from quips and comments, from comparison. It comes from others. It comes from within yourself. It took me many years to understand what self – compassion was and how I could relate it to myself. Also, why I should - why it was something I deserved to have and feel for myself. It is something I have been working on for a long, long time.
Shame, for many people, is attached to their physical appearance. Think about it: how many times have you wished for a flatter stomach or more toned thighs, to have clearer skin or a smaller nose? We live in a society where we strive for the best, to be better, for the next achievement - and that is not just with careers or possessions, but in how we look. I don’t think anyone is ever completely at ease with how they look, and it is something I have struggled with over the years. When I first started controlling my diet and food intake it was about finding something that I could control when my mind and life felt so out of control. Eventually though, and it didn’t take long, the obsession with controlling what I ate and drank became as much about being able to dominate an aspect of my life as it was about my weight and how I looked.
When writing this essay, I have reflected on the different reasons there may have been for the anxieties I have felt over the years about the way that I look. Being now in my thirties, I have started using face masks and face creams, trying to slow the aging process where possible. But why?
Being bullied in school and targeted for walking in a way that was deemed ‘camp’, having hand gestures that were called ‘girly’, with a voice that even I myself disliked the sound of, I can see now that it would have easy for me to develop a negative relationship with my body: it wasn’t just my personality that was mocked by my peers, but my physical gait too. I remember experimenting with hair straighteners and hair gel for the first time when I was about sixteen, moulding it into what resembled some type of afro pyre. It was at college that I was first aware of clothing and how to put together an outfit; not having to wear a school uniform meant that I was faced with the decision of what I thought suited me every day and would make the best impression. This relationship is clothing is something that I have never really felt comfortable with: I am the antithesis of the stereotypical gay man – I don’t know what colours match or clash, I am not aware of what fits each season, I have no idea about current trends. The lack of certainty I felt in how I looked began to mirror how unsure I was about my feelings in general, and vice versa: why was I hearing these words, why was I seeing these images in my head, why do I look like this, why do I not dress like they do, how come I don’t have the confidence, posture and social awareness that others have? At university I would often wear large jumpers, hoodies, hats, anything to cover myself up. In one of my therapy sessions, I explained how worrisome I found the summer months, the idea of showing more of myself in shorts and t-shirts being something I didn’t relish. When students from my course would leave lectures and head to meet friends in the central square garden, having picnics and drinking, shirtless and presenting their bodies to the world, I would go to the library and be inside - cool, dimmed, and safe. No one would notice me. All of the awkwardness about my appearance and how I measured myself against how others looked only added to, and strengthened, that ever-present sensation of ‘otherness’.
Now that I exercise for a more positive reason than to merely lose weight, using exercise to keep both physically and mentally well, I have a slightly better relationship with my body. By running, cycling and swimming, I have had to come to terms with showing off parts of myself to strangers, getting changed in a locker room, running in shorts, wearing trunks, wearing sleeveless shirts for cycling in warm weather. But the pressure to have a certain body type is, I feel, greater than it ever has been, with social media playing a huge part. Television shows like Love Island have, on one hand, made it more socially acceptable for men to openly take care of their appearance: to moisturise, to dye their hair, to fake tan, to take pride in how they look. I have no problem with that, and the metrosexualization of men is nothing new, considering the David Beckham effect which started in the late 90’s, but with the influx of social media accounts where so called ‘influencers’ promote their own appearance, their bodies, their workout routines and diets, turning their body essentially into a product, is where I feel there is a very real, and potentially serious problem. Social media allows for an easy way to instantly compare yourselves to others: millions of people, countless times a day, always there at your fingertips, and it doesn’t take long before those questions and niggles and anxieties start to flood back in – why don’t I look like them, why are my arms thin and weak looking, why don’t my calf muscles look as defined as his do, should I just give up? Where exercise should be used to support people to develop a positive relationship with their bodies, this new obsession we seem to be developing with having the perfect ‘selfie’ and ‘Instagram-able’ body is possibly destroying any healthy work being done.
Jameela Jamil is vocal about diets, body shaming and the dangers of social media on mental health. Regularly, using her Instagram account as a platform for positive conversations about weight, she calls out weight loss products and companies offering cosmetic procedures. Now, partly in response to Jameela Jamil’s crusade for social media outlets to take more responsibility for their content in regard to dieting and body image, in September 2019 Instagram developed a new policy focused on tackling dieting products such as detox teas, diet pills and other appetite-suppressing products. It worries me about the impact this has on younger generations: I look at students I teach, I think about my nieces and nephew, and grow concerned about the messages being spread through social media, magazines and television which I didn’t have so consistently thrust upon me as a teenager. The reminder of a supposed ‘perfect body’ is now just a tap and swipe away. And although eating disorders mainly develop during adolescence, they can start as early as six years of age and have been known to continue into seventy years of age and even older. When you are faced with an onslaught of perfect bodies, weight loss products, cosmetic surgeries, images that can seem almost impossible to escape, it’s not really a shock to see how shame and body image can become intertwined. It is also just another form of self-harm, with every click, every like, every picture, acting like another small cut into your body and self-esteem.
My personal struggles with my body, and the anxiety and shame it sometimes creates for me, I do believe stems from the experiences I had growing up, being made to feel unattractive and different to, and by, my peers. But I also know that social media has definitely had an impact on how I see and feel about my looks. In that same interview, Jameela Jamil, herself a survivor of eating disorders when younger, calls the negative role social media has upon body image “an issue at its peak”. She continues to explain: “I don’t follow models, people who sell weight loss products, or anyone who makes me feel bad about the way I look…they just want our money” and perhaps most poignantly she tells readers “You have the power.”
I can’t speak for everyone, but for me the overwhelming catalyst for my eating disorder was punishment, and to be able to control something that could also punish me was an intoxicating mix. It made me feel good about making myself feel bad. I was succeeding at being ill. A vicious, painful and potentially fatal circle – but one that doesn’t have to last forever.