I always make it a policy to reply to each message individually, off the forum, to give space for a more personal exchange.
But I have more and more seen the benefit of giving others a chance to gain perspective from reading conversations. I had always hoped that there would come a time when the exchanges I have been holding behind closed curtains, would one day feel ready to inch their way bravely to centre stage, so the helping hand could to reach further, hug closer.
Romy wrote to me a few months ago. Her words will speak alone, with no need for me to add any more. May they speak out to you, and make you feel less alone…
From Romy to Emily, April 2009:
(Apologies in advance for the embarrassing length of this email, it just sort of all came out and before I knew it I’d written a full-blown dissertation!)
I was compelled to contact you because I really felt as if you could help me which feels terribly selfish now I have written it but I really am desperate for a taste of hope; the sound of release from the lid of this glass jar that I have screwed tighter and tighter above my suffocating soul.
Your book arrived a few weeks ago and from the moment I shut the door on the postman I got lost in a world of words that I could so much relate to and sort of woke up on the last page. So much of your situation, prior to and during your “break-down” years, mirrors my life at the moment not just in terms of thoughts, feelings and behaviours but practicalities of life too. If you wouldn’t mind listening, I’d really like to tell you a bit about my struggle, what I’m going through at the moment and would love any support you can offer me, even just a few words to lift me from this miserable low. Just to be let known that yes, someone else knows what this or that feels like and no, I’m not a totally anomalous case that’s beyond help. I know it is impossible to show someone a way out but I feel that just by showing that there IS indeed a means of escaping then that person won’t give up until they’ve found it; it is precisely this that has fuelled my perseverance with recovery but the lack of results and the constant searching has left me with a diminished supply of hope which desperately needs to be replenished if I am to keep my head above the water.
I’m 19 years old and had a place at Oxford to start last October but because of my horrible eating disorder the doctor deferred it and forced me to take another year out to recover. My descent into this wretched life I lead started about 3 years ago although I’m pretty sure it was brewing long before then. I’ve been depressed for about as long as that without really knowing it; I honestly thought that it was normal to feel the way that I did, that I still do…desperately dissatisfied with life, and so I never sought to change things. From about 16 until a year ago my disordered thoughts and behaviours with weight and food fluctuated, bordering on dangerous and then receding depending on my happiness but it was not until last summer that the knife-edge finally tipped and I was really dragged under. It was the end of my gap year, my first gap year…a gap year I had chosen to take in contrast to this miserable 2ndenforced gap year I am current struggling my way through…I was desperately unhappy with myself, and people and life in general and I sought a way to make it all ok. Somewhere between then and Christmas I lost Emily and became a walking eating disorder with little mental space for anything other than anorexia. I was admitted to hospital in early December last year with heart problems and kidney failure and a dying soul. After months of fighting the system and with little encouragement from my parsimonious consultant I left having put on a little bit of weight, enough to make sure I wasn’t in for an imminent heart attack and could get out of bed without finding myself in a heap on the floor from collapsing from head rush but certainly nowhere near healthy not to mention my mental state. My parents and I were not at all happy with the treatment I was receiving and so we agreed we’d do it as a family and seek professional help alongside that. One thing I did gain from being in hospital was an appetite for life; I had a brief glimpse of the person I want to be to get back to being.
When I left the unit, which hadn’t been too painful perhaps because the devious devil inside me found little loopholes in the system and I managed to almost take weight gain at my own pace, I was suddenly faced with life outside of this little bubble and all the horrors that came with it. I can honestly say that this initial period was worst time of it yet. Even more painful than when I was really in the unrelenting grip of anorexia! I had brought to the surface a little of the poison that is at the root of my eating disorder and had gained a real want to get better yet because of this want I had stripped myself of my only coping mechanism so not only was I finally beginning to feel these painful emotions I had stifled but I was also naked, without a method of dealing with anything and completely lost. It was at this time that I swallowed the pill, literally, and decided to give anti-depressants a go which I had been so hugely adverse to…“I was feeling like this for a reason and the solution was to sort the reason out and not manipulate my feelings!” but nevertheless I hit rock bottom and viewed them as my last chance. Surprisingly I feel a lot more stable, a little less lost in the world and not so dissatisfied with life but what I really hoped it would do was get rid of the witch inside my head chastising me but it didn’t. What I suppose I really would like to hear from you is “What is recovery?”, what does it feel like and how do you go about it?
I constantly think about food, so obsessively that I don’t ever feel that I’m truly in the here and now in any situation. There is always a part of my mind that is occupied by food. This coupled with the fact that, since I have begun refeeding my body I never seem able to satisfy my hunger or my cravings, I worry myself to death that I am, in fact, NOT suffering from anorexia but that I actually have a food addiction. I don’t want to start eating because I know that as soon as I do I battle fiercely with a urge to just keep going. I worry and fear and obsess that I will always worry and fear and obsess about food. I used to force myself to be around people at mealtimes so that I would eat SOMETHING and now I force myself to be around people to stop me eating EVERYTHING. Will my whole life be a constant struggle with an intense compulsion to overeat!? This all sounds totally ridiculous now that it’s in front of me but ridiculous or not, it’s what I’m going through.
I am also deeply anxious about starting Oxford in October. Not only are there the usual feelings of inadequacy and the fear of my inability to cope with the pressure but also that I will not be far enough down the line on my recovery as well as from a confidence point of view. I still suffer terribly with severe depression, I can’t seem to find a purpose to life or have any interest in anything apart from food. I feel desperately lonely and scared and vulnerable. I can’t switch my mind off and I can’t concentrate on anything apart from depressed eating disordered thoughts so how on earth am I going to put my mind to academic work. I have become so dependant on my family’s support and fear that this being taken away will only cause a relapse. I also fear that the way my mind is at the moment is not just due to anorexia but also a deeper underlying depression and something that will not be resolved even if I do manage to restore my weight and recover from this eating disorder.
I have been given until August by the doctor at Merton to reach certain BMI criteria as well as being “emotionally” signed-off by my recovery team and I feel under an immense amount of pressure to “hurry-up” my recovery! Until now I have been stalling my physical recovery and maintaining my weight after initially managing to gain a little after hospital discharge but I now realise that I have to do it to get to Uni, I absolutely cannot let this take away my place at Oxford yet I am struggling hugely with the fear of getting bigger and overwhelming guilty feelings of greed and lack of control. I have found the work with my therapist immensely helpful and I am aware of a lot of the issues behind my eating disorder yet it hasn’t seemed to change my body image.
What I really want to hear is a magic cure…just do this and it will all disappear but I know it just doesn’t exist. I suppose I want to be reassured that gaining weight will take away a lot of this and that I’m not battling this voice for nothing. I need to know that I CAN recover and that my life will not be a string of relapses followed my this horrendous toil that calls itself recovery!
I am so sorry for the tediously long content of this email and I congratulate you if you’ve even managed to get through all my whining to this point! Any hope you can give me would make such a difference. I’m just so desperately exhausted and worn down with struggling with the basic task of just living!
I really do hope you are happy and well and I can’t thank you enough for the immeasurable help you have already given me through your book.
I hope to hear from you soon,
From Emily to Romy, April 2009:
Before I write anything else, let me take a moment to remind you of the strength it takes to reach out for support in the way you just did when you decided to contact me – and that no matter how dark a place you may sometimes feel trapped in, this is the brave determination that will see you through back into the light.
With this, and in answer to your question, yes. I put together my website in order to offer an extra shoulder, a voice to say “i understand”, and hopefully what solace i can bring.
But, Dearest Romy,
Thank you for being so honest, truthful and real.
Please don’t apologise for the length of your email. I was so touched by your words, and hope that the simple act of writing them down (beautifully) will have helped a little in relieving the heavy weight that stifles you.
There are so many things that I want to say to you. I only wish I had finished the book today, when I could have focused more on the path to recovery, and underlined more clearly what an amazing journey it is back to Life. But above all, I want to say that I UNDERSTAND, that YOU ARE NOT ALONE, that you WILL GET BETTERand that GETTING BETTER IS SO SO WORTH IT.
First of all, there is that twisted fear of getting better. You say over and over again how ‘lost’ you feel, and somehow Cruella makes you believe that you are safe with her, that she gives you control. Of course you know that she is lying. Anorexia feeds off our fears, whatever they may be, and fuels these fears at the same time. It literally becomes the case of the prisoner afraid of walking out back into the wide world once set free, convinced by now that incarceration is somehow the more reassuring way. What I am trying to say, and may not be expressing in the simplest of words (I’m so sorry, I have an awful cold and blocked ear having just returned from 8 months in HK – so probably not at my best to reply as I would like to!), is that you have NOTHING to be afraid of, but the disease itself.
You’re at that stage in life where there is so much ahead of you, but none of it is tangible, none of it can yet be defined really, all of it is still a bit too hazy to distinguish – and that can be scary for people like you and me. But actually, it is all so so exciting! You are clearly such a clever, bright, sensitive girl. You clearly have so much to offer. I’m sure I am neither the first nor the last to say these things to you, and I know that at times it can be counter-productive because then we feel like there are just more expectations to live up to; more pressure. But you HAVE to believe that you are a very special person, and that you deserve to live your Life in the sunshine.
I know that the thought of food consumes your every thought, throughout the day. I know how exhausting it is. I know the fear that giving into that crying hunger will turn into a hellish scene with you gorging yourself without restraint. I can promise you that the sooner you start trusting that tummy of yours, the quicker you will realise that it knows exactly what it’s doing and that it WILL tell you when it’s had enough. Just listen to it, and dont be afraid. At first you might have strange eating habits (stranger still than these rituals you may have adopted in the last few years of your disease). You may find yourself taken with odd cravings at odd times. A classic is that you will suddenly be hungry for cereal (this was the case for me, but also seems to apply to many others who have written to me so far). My only word of caution would be to stick as much as you can to wholefoods – wholegrains, no trans fats, nothing too tinned or refined… – so that your body can really replenish and will not just pass through empty calories which will have you wanting more just a few minutes later, thereby triggering the cycle you worry about entering. But JUST LISTEN TO YOUR HUNGER, and feed your soul.
It does take a while, but it does eventually become easier. One day you’ll wake up and have breakfast and switch on the TV (or what have you), and go out and meet with friends and chat and laugh and before you know it you’ll be back home in bed having spent a whole 24hrs without thinking, consciously, of food – but just ‘doing it’. I promise. Just give it time.
My mother always used to tell me that my ‘mind’ needed oiling. She always used to go on and on about the need for my mind, literally brain, to function properly; to coat my emotions with foods that calm. Of course, she was right. In putting on weight, in a sustained and balanced way that will keep you feeling safe, all these choking fears, all the endless tears, just ease their way out and float away. In becoming physically stronger, so mentally you do too – and therefore emotionally. We have too much of a tendency to separate head/mind from the rest of our body; it’s all part of a whole, and every part needs attention for the whole to work. So yes, you will begin to feel better, and I believe you will feel less lost, because you will be standing on far firmer feet.
As for Oxford, it isn’t an easy place to be. I understand your concerns and can fully sympathise. You are so brave to voice your apprehension, and should be proud of this instinct to protect yourself – it tells me you are so very much on the right path. I do think you should go with a serious support network set in place. I did not really rate the University’s councelling services, at all, to be truthful, but I can try to find names of therapists/doctors for you if you want. Think carefully before you decide to go. Oxford can be an amazing amazing experience, and so much fun too. I met my very best friends for life there, and the boy I am due to marry in a few months’ time (Sam – as you ‘know’ him). But it can feel so lonely at times, and you are very much left to your own devices (bar weekly tutorials), which brings me back to your needing a safety net there. That said, maybe Oxford isn’t the place for you. Oxford is not the be all and end all. You need to find what feels right for you – and that is where you will reach fulfillment and make the most of your great potential.
Recovery is so hard, and tiring. It is so much easier (at first) to keep behind those bars of imprisonment. But it is the initial struggle that is most exhausting, because the uphill is so steep at first and you are at your most fragile. Then the incline gets softer, gradually, and as you become stronger so the walk forward does become easier. Soon you will be hopping back into the sun. I believe that, and so should you.
I hope this helps.
From Romy to Emily, May 2009:
Emily, Emily, Emily!
How can I possibly say how much you have helped me! Thank-you doesn’t do it justice, here words fail me.
Every single thing you wrote struck a chord in my mind and I now feel refuelled in motivation and hope. You even managed to make recovery sound a little exciting, dare I say it! Your email has given me a little Aladdin’s Cave of advice to dip into when I’m feeling lost, something I have long needed.
I would really like to email you in the near future when I’m a little further in to my journey and would appreciate any recommendations/discouragements about which routes to pursue when setting up a support network whilst at Oxford…if I make the decision to go.
You really have restored mine and my family’s faith in the kindness of the human race…thank-you again (such a meagre phrase)!
I wish you all the happiness in the world,
From Emily to Romy, May 2009:
I cannot possibly, in turn, tell you how much this last email of yours warmed my heart upon opening my inbox yesterday night.
You have such strength in you, and such a light of life that shines through all the way to this living room of mine.
Of course be in touch, and I will of course carry on offering what little I can. Mostly in the form of reassurance that I do understand, so well, where perhaps at times it may feel nobody else really does – for the little things that seem so absurd to the outside world.
Please do be in touch – via email, to me only, with no fear that any of it will go to the blog until or unless you tell me you are ready to share your words with a wider audience in need.
GO FOR IT! Recovery CAN be kind of fun at times, when you find yourself cracking a smile, or letting out an unexpected giggle; when you get to spend more and more time with your family and friends, without Cruella interfering in every conversation…
There is so much more that I want to say to you, and so much more encouragement I want to offer on this journey in recovery you are racing through. You say I gave you hope – you fill me with the same.