5:30AM: The alarm goes off. Rolling over, you stare at it for a moment, debating whether to hit snooze… What’s the point when you’ve already been awake an hour? Sleep is an unfamiliar friend these days. Slowly, you push back the covers and stumble out of bed.
Making your way to the bathroom, the morning judgment awaits. Stripping down, you feel your hairs stand on end as the chill hits your exposed skin. You step onto the glass square and wait for the numbers to appear.
There is no good outcome these days. If the numbers are up, you have failed (according to the eating disorder) and you are moving forward (according to recovery). If they are down, the sides change.
The number flashes at you and you sigh as you step off, your stomach knotted and your mind already whirring, calculating what this means for the day.
You get dressed, pulling your once thick hair into a tiny bun, splashing water on your face, empty eyes and dark circles stare back at you, an empty shell of who you once were. Grabbing your water, you head to the gym.
6AM: The studio is nice and warm, a welcome relief as you are perpetually cold. For the next 45 minutes you sweat, you work. You relish the site of muscle lines and bones. There is a sense of satisfaction, almost even pride, at how strong you are, and at how much you push through. As the class goes on, your breathing louder in your ears, sounds around you are becoming muffled… a sign you are unwell, but you shove it away and press on. At the end, you walk out, relief washing over you with the cool air outside. As you walk home, the shakiness in your legs does not diminish. You realise you will have to eat something in order to continue on your day.
7AM: You open the pantry, staring at your options. Muesli? No, too many calories, not filling. Yoghurt? Too filling, too much food this early. Perhaps a protein bar? No, too many calories this early in the day – you don’t want to waste what you just did. In the end, 2 rice crackers win out – enough to stave off the shakiness, but not enough to be a catastrophic overspend in the calorie department.
7:15AM: As the cool shower water hits your skin you gradually increase the temperature, careful to not overheat and risk passing out. You slowly wash your hair, grimacing at the amount that is falling out in your hands. You notice your ribs, how visible they are or are not; and the bloat of your stomach. Inch by inch you evaluate and critique your body, admiring where muscle has formed and fat melted away, shaming where it still remains. Once complete you stand in your towel, staring again at your reflection. Who is this person you have become?
8AM: Packing a bag for work, to you the amount of food is excessive; to another it might be a couple of snacks. Each snack calculated to ensure the calorie budget is not exceeded, and that room remains for an unexpected coffee invitation.
9AM: You start your workday. The tasks in front of you seem overwhelming – it’s as if everything has become urgent and written in a foreign language. Routinely you must remind yourself to stop, take a deep breath, take a step back. You recognise that the intensity in your mind is higher than reality, but you don’t know how to turn the volume down.
10:30AM: It’s technically time for your snack… but you’re not hungry enough yet, so you have to wait. After all, if you wait long enough, snack time might be lunch time, and then you’ve saved calories. But you know you should eat. That every missed snack, every missed meal just keeps you stuck in this cycle. You pull the snack out of your bag & it sits in front of you for 15 minutes… taunting you. You argue with yourself… what do I want more? To be ill, or to be happy? Another voice chimes in, ‘but if you eat this you will gain a heap of weight’. You try and tell yourself this cannot possibly be true, while secretly afraid it is. Your mind flashes back to the scale this morning… Can you justify these calories? Today, you choose to push through and eat the snack. For the next hour as you continue to try and work you are riddled with anxiety, wondering whether you should have done that, and what will happen now, and how can you make up for it and will you get fat and have you lost control?
12:00pm: It is only noon, and you are already exhausted. There are still 4 more meals/snacks to go in this day. And this is just one day. You must do this, day in, day out, week in, week out… Fighting off the voices, fighting off the fear. Trying to wear the brave face and look happy and ‘normal’ to everyone else. Trying to be productive and complete your work, your studies. Trying to be present with your friends. All the while, wrestling these thoughts.
The invitation comes to go for lunch, but fortunately your phone rings at the same time. As you answer the phone, you whisper apologetically “maybe next time”, while breathing a sigh of relief.
2pm: You realise you need to eat your ‘lunch’ for the day, and you reluctantly pull out the small serving of yoghurt and tablespoon of muesli. You wander in to the kitchen, thankful you have left lunch late enough that anyone would think you’re just having a snack, rather than question the size of your meal. You are exhausted and could really use a nap.
3pm: The fatigue is growing and you wonder how you are going to make it through the rest of the day. Your ability to concentrate on your work is diminishing rapidly. You decide to go outside and take a brisk 5-minute walk to wake up. Taking your phone, you disguise your true intention by making a phone call while you walk up and down the street.
4:15pm: You really should have your other snack. Nothing in you wants to do this, but you are fearful of the risk of a binge later if you don’t. You remind yourself it is just rice crackers and a kiwifruit. You eat them slowly, trying to convince your body it has just had a big meal.
Throughout your day you face comments where people say they’d give anything to look like you; you sign to yourself knowing you wouldn’t wish this on anyone, meanwhile outwardly smiling and pretending to appreciate the compliment. You dread when they ask what you’ve done or how you’ve reached this goal… you either must lie or be deliberately vague and hope your cover is not blown. You are surrounded by conversations about diet, exercise, which foods are good or bad, how to cut fat, how to eat clean… it is ever-present. It doesn’t seem fair that everyone else can try to achieve the same goals as you, and it is completely acceptable; and yet you are being asked to go completely against the grain. Rather than lose weight, like everyone wants to do, you are being asked to gain. Rather than eat ‘sugar free, low carb, vegan, raw, whole30’ etc., you are being asked to eat the very foods every diet demonises – carbs, cookies, cakes, sugar, butter, and more. It feels completely foreign and like you don’t belong.
5:30PM: time to go home. You have to stop for groceries first, you remember. Arriving at the store, you brace as the knots in your stomach tighten. Fruit and vegetables first – they’re easy, or so it seems. But how many do you get? How much are you going to eat? Bananas are unsafe remember and beware the calories in grapes. Berries are good. Carrots and celery, cucumber too. You move on to the cereal aisle and you shudder – you start to look at the options but the anxiety induces so much nausea you have to rush out of that aisle. Maybe another day. You roam the bakery – nothing here either… although you would give anything to have fresh bread guilt free… well, almost. The biscuit aisle – here you find your staples. Rice crackers, multiple flavours, ready for your choosing. Then the muesli bars… each box examined – how many calories? How much sugar? Protein? Carbs? The guy stocking the shelves gives you a funny look as you examine each box, ultimately taking none because today nothing meets the requirements. Vitamins and pills… laxatives, multivitamin and diet pills now in your basket, buried under the few other items. Frantically you look around ensuring there is no one you know in sight. You continue on. Every aisle, every item calorie checked. After an hour you leave with your pills, fruit, vegetables and rice crackers. The anxiety lifts and shame floods in as you realise yet again the anorexia has outsmarted you.
6:30PM: it feels too early for dinner so you decide to take a quick walk around the block… “to clear your head”. While walking you also feel relief as you burn off any calories that may have infected you at the store. You know this is illogical and yet you still feel contaminated.
7pm: arriving home you cook your dinner of steamed vegetables and a single scrambled egg. You place it on a small plate so it looks gourmet, and proceed to your room to eat in peace. Shortly after finishing the guilt and panic set in. You check your weight… it’s up too much for the day, so you take some laxatives, knowing there goes another night of sleep.
8pm: you try to study or read but you find yourself recalculating all the calories of the day, and planning tomorrow. How can it be enough but not too much? How much will let you lose weight? What foods are low calorie and also light weight so they won’t sit too heavy on your stomach?
10pm: should start thinking of bed. But first, stretches and sit-ups and squats… the cat doesn’t know what to do and keeps attacking your feet, thinking this is a game.
10:30PM: getting ready for bed and evaluating yourself in the mirror again… disgust at how fat you now look from the bloating, how tired your eyes look. How tired you are… this life is no life at all. Turning off the lights you head to bed, but sleep does not come easily…
2AM: it feels as though you’ve only just fallen asleep but you are awake again. Your mind races but you can’t even identify the thoughts. You run your hands over your hipbones, relieved to feel some of the bloating has diminished. You reach up to count your ribs… how prominent are they? It feels as though they’re disappearing. You get up to use the bathroom, and check your weight… frustration builds as it seems that today you will have gained, despite being good. You go to bed, falling asleep with pleas of weight loss on your lips, waiting for the next day to begin.
And then there are the days of appointments. In and amongst the ever present noise and planning, you are forced to face the reality of this disorder head on. You have appointments with doctors, where they tell you whether you are making progress or not, whether your vitals are stable, your weight up or down. You see the psychologist who tries to help you to stay focused on taking steps towards recovery; tries to help you find strategies to quieten the incessant noise in your mind; tries to help you find and access even more support. You see the dietitian and again have the stark reminder that you are not eating enough. It feels overwhelming, this sense of ambivalence – knowing you are not having enough and yet paralysed in fear at the thought of more; while knowing that more is the only way out of this hell.
These are the days that you must rely on your family and friends. Some are good – some understand. Some try to meet you where you are and help you find the key to take that next step. Some offer hope. Some help you recognise that every meal you fight back is a victory, even if you fall over other times; that this is not about perfection, but progress. They remind you that the desire and the willingness to push through – to choose to live in this permanent exhausted state – that, in itself, is progress. They remind you that life is worth living. They tell you they love you, no matter what. You have friends who remind you who you really are – that you are more than the hollow shell in the mirror. Each of these friends, each of these professionals are all pivotal in helping you find your way home again. And one day, you hope, the battles at the meals will lessen, and maybe the trend of the scale will matter less (or even not at all). One day you will sleep through the night. One day, you will be fully living your life and realise how free you suddenly feel.