My dear client Catriona has been clear of intense anorexia for a good couple of years now. Watching her recover was like watching a rebirth - the pain, the beauty - all coming together into a newly flowered, more mature woman. I am so grateful to her for writing this letter to anyone who is currently in the dark grasp of the disease - please read it and have faith; your hard work will pay off.
Dear...., I'm writing to help you, writing to pass to you what I've learned going through what you are, writing to tell you there will be a time when you don't feel the hatred and sadness towards your body that you do. I can't say I know how you feel exactly, no one does, but I have an idea. I have been to the point where I thought I couldn't go on any more, where fighting myself was just too exhausting and I thought I couldn't get better, didn't want to get better, that I'd lose a part of myself. But then I got better, slowly, painfully, and I can say now that I am so much stronger for it. I want you to feel this way too. I know you will say "it's all very well you saying this but..." and make some justification as to why I don't understand you, why you are different to me, or maybe say that I can say this because I'm now "fat" (if you are scared of becoming fat) or "slim" (if you feel you are fat). You're right - we are different. But I'm pretty sure I can relate to whatever you are feeling in some way. Maybe you hate your body, or fear letting yourself go, losing control and getting fat, to the point of fearing yourself. I've been there. Perhaps you feel like you don't deserve treats (or even food), that you have some awful flaw or messed-up metabolism that means this will make you fat. I've been there. You feel like you're not good enough yet, not skinny enough yet. I've been there. You will never think you are skinny enough until you can pull yourself up out of the hole you are in and properly look at yourself. This takes effort, months of effort, to look in the mirror and see you're not ugly. Sure you may not love everything, but you don't hate it all either. You may have good arms, or a nice waist but want to cover your hips. This is ok. You will never achieve perfection, because you're a human. I'm not suggesting for you to "let yourself go" - I still exercise a few times a week most of the time, and eat healthily as much as I can - just to love yourself enough to let yourself live. I don't just mean to enjoy your life, which is not possible when you deprive yourself, but also because the road you are on may well take your life from you. You may feel like everyone is overreacting when they express concern about your weight and that you're still fat/there are other people who are skinnier/they're just jealous. I can't make you see that they are probably not overreacting. If they are saying something to you, they can probably see what's happening from the outside. But you may not realise this until you have turned around. And if you can see what's happening, but feel you can't stop it, hang in there. It's like a battle but you need to back yourself not fight yourself. You are battling this dark, faceless thing, and it's not you you want to be fighting. You are not your eating disorder. But I know how hard it is to separate yourself from it. Almost to be scared of losing it as well, scared of losing the control or the thing that makes you feel better/stronger/more virtuous than other people. However, being in control is not about restriction. Once you have an eating disorder, being in control is about winning your life back from it - not letting it control you. Hopefully I've now shown you I've been there, enough for you to trust me. Trust me that things get better. My eating disorder will never leave me. Not fully. It flares up when I'm tired or stressed. But the level of stress needed to provoke it is now so much higher. For the most part I've suppressed it, and when it rears its ugly head I know how to push it back in its box. The very fact that I have been through what I have, that I had to pull myself out of it, has made me so much stronger. I've had to learn so much about myself, both mentally and physically. From learning to feed myself again, I have learned to listen to my body, and from overcoming the psychological mountain that is depression (which came for me alongside the eating issue) I know more about how I think and feel. I still hate feeling full, and resent myself for "letting go" if I eat something unhealthy. But I can get over it rather than punishing myself by eating less or exercising more. I've started to see the bigger picture, the long term health-goal rather than what I eat (or not) for every single meal. I would say that took me at least 18 months after you'd have called me "recovered". I am starting to love exercise, rather than to force myself to do it to stay slim, but I do still struggle with this. If someone is doing more than me, I feel lazy. Comparing yourself to other people is the worst thing to do but it's a fact when you're a perfectionist; I've just had to get better at being more realistic with my expectations of myself, my body and my time. I still sometimes talk about myself as two people when trying to make decisions such as whether to go to the gym - lazy or indulgent me and "sensible" me (neither is my lazy self lazy, nor my sensible self particularly sensible). But I know how the conversation goes now. I don't feel it's a fight anymore. I'm not exhausted trying to make decisions others might think simple (like whether to eat something when I'm hungry, and what to eat if so). I finally feel happy in myself - there's parts I don't like, both physically and in my character, but I'm content to work on them slowly. To enjoy my life now, not when I'm a bit thinner. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, please get help. Although you have to take the steps, you need someone holding your hand. You can't always see the way forward by yourself. But also, please have faith there's a beautiful future ahead of you. There are so many of us who have got through it. You can join us. And finally, the most useful thing anyone told me - "when you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hold on"!