I have spent six years in recovery from anorexia but will never
forget my experience of the illness that lasted for the same length
Every moment – awake and asleep – was spent thinking about food,
weight and exercise. Looking in all reflective surfaces to check
whether I looked bigger than the day before became a habit. My
handwriting was tiny and neat. I wore several layers of clothes
even in the summer because I was cold. I felt compelled to act out
rituals around food such as wrapping a loaf of bread in several
carrier bags only to go back and check it dozens of times. Although
I ate only breadcrumbs each day, I hoarded food. Sometimes I would
have an apple, agonising over this choice and throwing the fruit
away if it wasn’t perfect.
Not believing I was thin or fat, all I cared about was the
number on the scales. When starving you believe you will turn
things round after losing only a few more pounds.
What made me start to eat after becoming critically ill was a
dream that felt like a vision. I saw myself shrink and vanish from
the world and how my life then amounted to nothing. I decided to
fight. At the time I believed I was part of a cruel experiment
conducted by my psychiatrist. Confused as to what was reality and
what was fantasy I made the life-changing decision to accept
Treatment was in a local hospital and two eating disorders
units. Competition between anorexic patients was rife: who had
reached the lowest weight, caused most physical damage or been in a
coma. Food was hidden in sleeves at mealtimes or thrown across the
room as plates smashed. Slowly, I began to set myself apart from
the behaviour of the rest. I discovered voluntary work when I had
freedom to leave the unit and joined an integrated dance company
involving people with learning difficulties.
The truth is that anorexia is a terrible existence. Other people
treat you like a child, stare at your thinness and whisper to each
Being on a ward waiting to be fed with a high-calorie diet is
terrifying but boring. I wish other people did not have to suffer
as I did but so many people do and even health and social care
professionals will be frustrated when they try to help.
No one can take anorexia away from a sufferer without looking at
how they gain a sense of achievement in other ways than starving.
It is important to keep an eye on food intake while building
someone’s self-worth and exploring feelings that fuel the eating
Over the past six years I have always had the thought that I
could go back to anorexia at any time. It has been a comfort when I
have been scared of being well. Sometimes it has appeared seductive
– I would have control and it would be a distraction from emotional
issues. But thinking about the reality has convinced me that there
is no going back.
Alex Williams is a mental health service user and a