Death is considered perfection for someone suffering from an eating disorder.
When Amanda’s friend died of bulimia, her reaction was rather strange. Instead of grieving for her friend, she just thought: “Bitch reached perfection before I did.”
For the 21-year-old, her eating disorder was a way through which she could control her emotions, forget her past and concentrate on the present. After being sexually abused at the age of six, she found that controlling her diet was a good way to regulate her fear and anxiety. Unknowingly, that control turned into an eating disorder that would last for 15 years.
Classified as an anorexic who binges and makes herself vomit, she says that food is the one thing that is constantly playing on her mind. When she wakes up all she can think about is what to eat, how many calories to take in, how many calories to lose…the list goes on. She admits to having periods where she barely eats anything and even starves herself at times.
“I didn’t understand why I had the urge to look skinnier,” Amanda says. “I was only six. It was really strange as it was something that wasn’t in my hands and I couldn’t get it to stop. I am 21 now and I still have an eating disorder.”
For her age and height of 5ft 7, Amanda’s ideal weight is supposed to be around 11 stone; however she weighs much less. “I need to put on weight to be classified as healthy, although I wouldn’t mind losing more weight,” she says.
The need to lose weight for Amanda kept growing as years passed by. It got to the point where she only saw calories in everything she ate.
“My mother packed a box of butter next to my fat-free yoghurt when we went shopping. The thought of the fatty butter next to my yoghurt drove me crazy. I kept thinking how many calories are passing through the packet. My 62 calories are now 4,000 calories!”
The repercussions of having an eating disorder are irreversible. It has been six years since Amanda’s menstrual cycle stopped and she cannot conceive anymore. The glands near her oesophagus are swollen from vomiting. She has collapsed around three times, once in the lecture hall during class time. She also has blisters on her fingers from making herself sick and the doctors say her heart is very weak.
According to her therapist, when the body doesn’t have any fat to burn, it moves on to muscle. One of the main muscles in the body is the heart. Therefore when you starve yourself to an extreme extent, your body feeds on the heart.
Knowing the reason behind her problems, Amanda still blames herself for her condition. “Some people tell me it’s not my fault, it’s not something you’ve asked for, but I know it’s me who’s doing it – no one’s forcing me.”
Like a tragic movie, the memories of being abused by her friend’s father still replay in her head. She recalls the incidents with sheer ease, but moments of hesitation reflect her pain. “I still remember the feeling, his breath on my neck, his body on top of me. I would hide in the closet with my teddy bear and try not to cry,” she says.
“I would leave my teddy bear hidden so that he wouldn’t see what was happening. When it was over, I would just run back to him and say it was okay…he won’t bother us again.” The abuse continued for a week, as she stayed at her friends’ house.
Being stripped of her innocence at a tender age, she not only suffers through an eating disorder, but also post-traumatic stress disorder and a borderline personality disorder. The recurring memories affected her to an extent where she couldn’t control her emotions. Hence binging and purging was what she used as a coping mechanism.
“You try to put them in a box and lock it and not look at it again, but it just comes back,” she says. “That’s why I eat food and then vomit it. I am just killing myself because I can’t stop those memories from coming back in my head.”
Independent psychotherapist, Susan Pagella, says: “The most common age for the onset of eating disorders is in adolescence, although children as young as eight may become anorexic.
“Anorexia nervosa, is one of a number of eating disorders along with bulimia and binge eating. The subject of anorexia is a complex one. Often people with anorexia, although usually ‘body dysmorphic’, do not consider themselves as ill, but instead may imagine they are making lifestyle choices and are often incapable of thinking symbolically.”
Pagella adds: “Medical experts have noted that a common factor in both borderline personality disorders and eating disorders is an association with childhood trauma, especially, sexual, physical or emotional abuse. This state can be a precipitating factor in self harm which could therefore be linked to the eating disorder.”
Rebecca Field, communications officer for Beat, an organisation that helps adolescents treat their eating disorders, says: “The causes of eating disorders are complex and not yet fully determined but include genetic, psychological, environmental, social and biological influences. Poor body image and low self-esteem are key factors in the development of eating disorders and social and cultural pressures are strong in this area.”
Amanda says that her family doesn’t know how she’s suffering. She states that her behaviour is considered as taboo at home and therefore it cannot be discussed. She recalls an incident where she was at the beach with her family, and her three-year-old nephew asked her ‘Amanda are you dead? You’ve got bones all over you’. What shocked her more than the question itself was that the rest of her family didn’t say anything at all.
“They don’t know what is going on,” says Amanda. My mother would be really disappointed – she would say I don’t deserve to be her daughter. Even if I know it’s not my fault, it’s not nice to know that your own mother would…” She looks away as she drifts off in thought.
Amanda’s support system is her friends and her boyfriend, who are very compassionate and understanding towards her circumstances. “When I told my boyfriend, I thought it would push him away, but he stayed. If he had left, it would have really hurt me.”
Amanda’s boyfriend has helped her each and every step of the way for 10 months now and hopes for her recovery.
With the current trend in eating disorders that is fuelled by media, Amanda believes that it is one of the factors that play a role in encouraging it, but not the main factor. According to her, even celebrities are considered fat for a person with anorexia or bulimia.
Amanda started counselling three years ago, but only went to six or seven sessions before she ran away. She admitted to not being ready for treatment, she decided to quit. But then an incident scared her into going back for treatment.
“There was a girl in rehab who was admitted because she cut her thighs open to remove the fat,” Amanda says. “She also had scars on her lips from stitches as she sewed her mouth shut to avoid eating. When I saw my therapist, I told him I wasn’t as sick as her, but he thought differently. He told me that I wasn’t as bad as her, but I was on my way there. That scared me.”
After resuming therapy a year ago, she admits she wants to get better. She can see her friends and boyfriend hurting as she puts herself through a new level of torture every day. Being very supportive of her eating disorder, they work alongside her during family therapy sessions. Amanda goes through individual therapy, as well as group therapy sessions at rehab.
“If I knew I had an eating disorder early on, I would’ve done something to stop it. In therapy, when you see someone go through the same thing as you, it makes you happy to know you’re not alone,” she confesses.
As therapy progresses, she feels that she’s getting better. However it will take a lot of time and effort. In order to treat her eating disorder, her other two disorders need to be sorted out first. Knowing that the eating disorder isn’t 100 per cent curable discourages her a little every day. “Even if you eat healthily, you keep thinking how many calories you’re taking in. It’s always at the back of your mind. It’s kind of scary knowing that you aren’t going to get better.”
Although she wants to get better, a part of her fears the loss of her identity. The anorexia was something that has defined her for 15 years and she is afraid of losing herself. “It’s like a cocoon you don’t want to get out of, but you do want to get better. Even if you want to get rid of it, you don’t want it to go away. It’s contradictory. I know if I don’t stop now, I will die by the time I am 23.”
On the road to recovery, Amanda wishes every day that she could forget she ever had an eating disorder. She hopes that one day she can look at food without thinking about the calories and eventually see herself for who she is. But with the help and support of her loving friends, she knows she will get better someday.
*Name changed for personal reasons