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An Apple a Day
A Memoir of Love and Recovery from Anorexia
A public declaration of war on my eating disorder has left me happier and healthier than I've been in years
It's exactly a year and a half ago that I wrote these words:
'I'm setting myself the biggest challenge of my life - I'm going to overcome anorexia. I'm going to reach a healthy weight so that I'm fertile again.'
Soon after, I had that conversation with T in Starbucks, in which I made that promise to him and to myself. I managed to stop running, I began writing my column in The Times, and working on my book, An Apple a Day, I even started to eat. Slowly, and incredibly painfully, I gained weight. And then, something else happened.
It was New Year's Day. I woke up and felt that low-down ache in my abdomen. I went to the bathroom and yes, my period was here. The hard work had been worthwhile - at long last my body was working the way it should, despite my best efforts to wreck it; despite the years of stupidity and starvation. I just sat for a while on the chilly bathroom floor, overwhelmed with relief - and gratitude and respect for whatever was going on inside me. For years I'd felt like a broken piece of machinery: now I felt whole again. I'd waited so long for this little red flag to signal the start of new things. Finally it had arrived and I wasn't freaking out. It was the right time, I was ready.
So many times in the past decade I'd imagined that moment. Whatever I said, no matter how much I promised my parents, doctors and therapists that I wanted to be healthy, deep down part of me wanted to remain sick. I needed to be visibly thin; I needed the chaos inside my head to show on the outside. Much as I fought for my independence and pushed others away, the anorexia - that most visible of falling-aparts - was the proof that I was struggling.
What surprised me on New Year's morning was how happy I felt. It was only 6am but I was wide awake. I ran a hot bath with Moroccan rose oil and soaked for a long time. If you'd asked me how much I weighed at that moment, I couldn't have told you and I didn't care. Imagine that: I didn't care. Of course, it was a temporary euphoria (the anxiety comes back soon enough), but I was so unused to the peace, the contentment. All the fretting over scans and weight charts seemed suddenly irrelevant now: my body told me all I needed to know. I slid back into bed, fresh and clean. T turned, opened his eyes sleepily, and smiled. 'All OK, Em?' Yes. All OK. All very OK.
So I'm all mended now? Well no, not quite. If you were to give me a slice of buttered toast, or chocolate cake, or four-cheese pizza, there is no way I could eat that. Last weekend, at my godmother's cottage, T munched through three toasted teacakes, dripping with butter, and a couple of chocolate brownies. It looked delicious (and we'd missed lunch) but I didn't dare. Not even a mouthful. But I have, in my own weird eating ways, made sufficient progress to get to this point.
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That period was the physical marker of the end (or perhaps the beginning of the end) of anorexia, but psychological recovery is a work in progress. As I predicted, the anxiety has crept back in. But I have the upper hand this time. I know what I'm feeling - 'your period is back, so you must be fat' - but I know it's not true. And here's the difference between this recovery and all my previous attempts: I didn't panic when my period arrived, I didn't immediately stop eating, I don't want to lose the weight again. There is so much chaos in my head, but I don't feel defined by the sickness any more. I really want to be normal: not fat, not thin - just healthy, active, OK. OK about food, OK about myself, OK about being loved.
That's why I've subtitled my book A Memoir of Love and Recovery. Not that falling in love was the answer — there have been many ups and downs, and we're not out of the woods yet. Not that T cured me: no one can do that for an anorexic. Much as he and my parents and psychiatrist have supported me, the hardest work was mine; when I say that every bite of food, every pound of weight has been 'agony', it's true. But it's been a gradual process of growing up, understanding my demons, letting the painful past fade a little, and finding someone with whom I want to live, love and have a baby.
Ah yes - that baby. Many of us know what trying for a baby can do to a relationship. On top of the ticking of the biological clock is the pressure I've imposed on myself: of beating anorexia in public. When I started the column a psychologist e-mailed: 'I have concerns about this sort of 'reality' journalism, and the pressure it places on the individual in the public gaze.'
I suppose that's right. I'm conducting an experiment on myself, and I'm OK with that. The exposure has given me a purpose - whenever I felt greedy, or panicky, or tempted to lose weight, I reminded myself: you're doing this for a reason, Emma. You've made this public commitment and you have to follow through. It gave me a reason outside myself to try to eat.
While writing An Apple a Day, I had to confront painful realities: more than ten years of loneliness and hunger; a lot of wasted opportunities, relationships and loss. But I've come to the conclusion that anorexia was not pointless. I refuse to believe I've wasted the past decade. I never had a nervous breakdown but the gradual physical breakdown forced me to stop, to look inside myself, to admit that I was struggling; finally, to ask for help. In the oddest way, anorexia got me back in touch with myself and others. I found oceans of support and kindness I never knew existed. There is a lot of disordered eating, body confusion and sadness out there - readers of all ages, male and female, have written to tell me their stories. One anorexic woman wrote: 'If you find the secret, please don't keep it yourself.'
I don't have the secret. I am not going to lie and say that everything is perfect now. There is physical proof that I'm healing: my ovaries are working, my bones are strong and mended, I eat regularly in public, in restaurants, with others. Not only do I weigh a stone more than I did when I started my book but I'm also an inch taller. I can't pretend to understand the science behind this, but I'm taller (and I know of other anorexics whose feet have grown a size as they've recovered). So Dr R was right when he told me: 'There will just be slightly more of you.' And I'm fitter, not fatter: I cycle around town and every muscle in my body feels strong, not exhausted. Gaining weight has not been pain free, but I'm stupidly proud of my physical achievements.
But anorexia is a mental illness, and the anorexic mindset runs deep. I still have days when I avoid food and experience the seductive, manic energy of starvation; the hunger sweeping through my veins giving me the sweetest, easiest high I've ever known. That's the addiction I'm still fighting, but it doesn't mean I've failed. Loving someone else fully, which I couldn't do while in the grip of anorexia, is more important than being thin. Nutrition matters now, for me and for a baby.
It has been difficult at times; when my relationship was falling apart, when my weight was spiralling downwards again. As I was working on the final chapters of my book, in the depths of last winter, I would lie awake every night, worrying about love stories, recovery and endings. You know how this one should end, right? A blue line on a pregnancy test, or a white dress and pealing church bells, maybe even that newborn baby in my arms. Well, I can't give you that ending. Not yet.
A bite of the apple
So why now? It began in the autumn, after a conversation with my boyfriend Tom, when he said: 'There's one more thing I want you to promise me.' He looked more serious than I'd ever seen him. 'You have to stop running. And if we're serious about having a baby, you have to eat more.' Stop running and start eating, was he kidding? What did he think I was, Wonder Woman? Running is my lifesaver, my natural Prozac; it's the addiction that replaced cigarettes five years ago.
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We were sitting in Starbucks. The place was packed with secretaries and businessmen in suits, holding work meetings or catching up on gossip. We were tucked away at our favourite table in the corner. Stop running? I eyed my boyfriend sceptically. 'I mean it Em, you're going to have to cut out the running. You've been avoiding this for way too long.' He looked at me and I looked back and neither of us said a word. This was an ultimatum of sorts, we both knew that.
And Tom wasn't telling me anything new: I've known for years that my lifestyle is unsustainable. Getting up at 6am and running four or five miles on nothing but a double espresso, burning up fuel (and fat and muscle) which I simply don't have to spare. I was out there pounding the pavements every morning without fail, rain or shine; I was running myself into the ground. I could carry on that way forever, but there'd be no chance of having a baby. Yes, I understood that.
Tom reached across and took my hand, softening the tension in the air. 'I know you can do this Em, your body needs a break. And as well as cutting out the running, you're going to have to start eating properly. Eating isn't greedy - it's fuel, it's about our plans and dreams, making all that possible. It's you taking the decision to get your health back; simple as that.'
We'd had that conversation many times before - sometimes in anger, sometimes in sadness or despair - but that time it was different. That day we talked about the future with a new seriousness, all the happy things that could be waiting around the corner (a baby among them) if only I could get myself unstuck. It's a question of gaining 5 or 10 kilos, according to my doctors. So little and yet so much.
As well as control and food and body image and all the other issues in eating disorders, there's a huge degree of self-deceit. It's not rocket science and I know it: I haven't recovered because I haven't wanted it enough.
And here's the thing: time runs out. Remember your twenties? Didn't you feel like you were invincible? I had serious boyfriends, but I didn't seriously want to have children back then. I was too busy building my career, and buying my first flat, and generally finding out who I was ... it was never the right time or place.
Sitting in Starbucks that autumn day, I felt differently. Looking across at Tom, thinking about our future, our baby, making a home, a family together, I realised I wanted all that more now than being thin. When I think of the wasted years, the evenings spent alone, the friends lost, the conviviality and enjoyment of eating with others, all those shared meals I've avoided ... it strikes me as incredibly sad. I'll never get those years back. Anorexia is a young person's game and I don't have the time or energy to play any more.
I knew Tom was right; I knew that something had to change. People have told me I have an iron will, resisting food, starving myself into oblivion and all that ... but I didn't know if I had the willpower for this.
That was the hardest and most honest conversation Tom and I had ever had. I agreed to stop running and start eating. We finished our coffees and walked along the docks and kissed goodbye; Tom went back to his office and I went off to find my bike.
Cycling back through the city, around the Barbican and up to Angel, I was filled with hope and fear. The wind in my hair, the first chill of autumn in the air, the promise of a new start. I stopped at Sainsbury's and bought a large pot of natural organic probiotic yoghurt with fat in. Not much fat (and admittedly I dithered in front of the chiller cabinet for half an hour) but it was a huge step for a fat-phobic food-dodger like me.
Eyeing up my running shoes, I realised this was going to be bloody hard to put into practice. Waking up and not running? Waking up and eating instead? How do other people do it?
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