Illustration by Kate Towsey for Varsity

Content note: This article contains detailed discussion of anorexia, illness and recovery.

I was trying to explain to a friend what it is like to be so tired, ill, weak and thin. He said – “But how do you even do that? How could you not be able to move and still not eat? Why didn’t you just stop?”

This is a perfectly valid and very logical question. If you’ve been threatened with hospital admission, if you’re so weak you cannot move – why wouldn’t you stop?

The plain truth is that for some, you can’t. When you starve yourself for over a year, your brain becomes entirely consumed by thoughts of food: what you will eat, what you won’t, when you next will, who you’ll be eating with. You begin to develop all kinds of strange food rules. For example, not eating after 7pm, no carbs in at least one meal a day, or perhaps the strangest – I used to refuse to eat dinner unless it could fit inside four leaves of lettuce. I was entirely obsessed. There was one point where I could list everything my best friends had eaten for lunch in a week. I knew the calories in everything. I couldn’t concentrate on anything because anorexia had become my mind – it had taken over.

“Part of recovery then is turning this idea around in your mind: to win is to beat anorexia, and live your life”

My mind raced constantly with thoughts of food and food alone. It was exhausting. Anorexia is a form of self-harm, a reflection of a dissatisfaction in yourself and in your external circumstances. Yet, perhaps one of the worst aspects of it is its competitive nature which fuels this can’t stop, won’t stop mind-set. Not eating, for that point in your life, feels like winning. Why?

Looking at it from an outsider’s perspective, surely hurting your body so much can only feel like losing. But it doesn’t. With anorexia, at first it’s a competition with yourself – how much weight can you lose, can you eat less food than the day before, run further, burn more calories?

Then, it becomes a competition with all the people who are concerned about you. Looking them in the eyes and still refusing to eat, no matter what they say, somehow feels good – like a little win.

Finally, it becomes a competition with other people who suffer with anorexia. A lot of anorexic people want to be the best – that’s why you keep going, keep continuing not to eat and to over exercise when really you desperately need to stop. The trouble is that there will always be someone who has been in hospital for longer, had more out patient admissions. This mind-set is disgustingly encouraged by ‘Pro –Ana’ websites – which I urge everyone never to visit.

There becomes a moment at some point in an eating disorder that you envy these very ill people, the people confined to a hospital bed being fed through a tube in their arm. Sounds crazy right? Well, it is. You’re not yourself. By this point your mind is almost entirely anorexia. Anorexia is winning because you are dying. This is why it’s so hard to stop, because it feels like anorexia has won. To surrender to it seems the easiest option.

“This is why it’s so hard to stop, because it feels like anorexia has won”

Don’t get me wrong; there’s a small part of you left in your brain that is desperately screaming for help. I used to run a lot when I was most ill – miles and miles, without eating anything – and sometimes I found myself wishing someone would jump out of one of the passing cars, shake me and tell me to please, please stop.

It’s such a hard mind-set to understand – you have to have lived it to really get it. Your body gives up on you – my hair fell out, my white blood cell count was so low I probably wouldn’t have been able to fight off an infection, I didn’t have periods and my heart rate was very low. I was scarily skinny, but it still felt like winning. Part of recovery then is turning this idea around in your mind: to win is to beat anorexia, and live your life. To lose is to allow it to win, and to kill you.


Mountain View

How perfectionism fuelled my eating disorder

You have to realise that no one can be the best at anorexia – in truth, the person who is best at being anorexic is dead and buried in the ground. They lost to anorexia a long time ago; they never beat their demon. It takes an incredibly long amount of time to turn this around in your head – but once you do, recovery is a sure, rocky, but straight path.

If you have been affected by any of the content of this article, B-eat Eating disorders provides useful information and resources, as well as a helpline at 0808 801 0677. The Students’ Union Advice Service provides a more comprehensive list of support resources.

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