Eating Disorders and Personality Disorder
Chapter 2 – My History, 1 of 2 : ages 3 – 16
In this chapter, I’m going to tell you a bit about the history of my own eating difficulties, as an overview. I am not going to go into detail of my feelings and the reasons I started to restrict or overeat at each stage, as I will go on to that in subsequent chapters.
I have done my best not to go into any detailed description of the techniques I used to eat less or conceal how little I was eating and so on, as I understand that this can be triggering for people who are unwell with eating difficulties.
It has proved much more difficult to write this “history” than I anticipated. I think what lies behind each of the periods of my life is more raw than I had admitted to myself.
Although I probably did not meet clinical criteria for an eating disorder until I was about 15, my relationship with food and my body was distorted throughout my life from preschool age.
I first knew I was “fat” when I was 3 years old. I remember vividly sitting on the stairs. It was shortly after Easter. On Easter Sunday I had been given a chocolate Easter egg with my name iced on it, and some other chocolate treats. As a typical child, I guess, I delighted in the egg. I shared it with my Nana and my parents but probably not very generously! (Typically, again, for a 3 year old.) I remember that on that Easter Sunday, I was praised for sharing. But then that day on the stairs (I don’t know how long after Easter), my mother was calling me “greedy” and shouting at me for how I had stuffed my face with chocolate and everyone else just had a crumb. I remember so clearly and it hurts even now. I remember knowing I was greedy and bad, and FAT. How exactly I knew to make that link, I am not sure, but I knew it meant FAT, and BIG, and that was bad. Perhaps I had already absorbed some of my mother’s preoccupation with food and body size.
My mother began weighing me in secret around this time, and keeping the fact hidden from my dad. (My dad recalls this and has told me about it. I myself recalled it from when I was a little older, maybe 5 years old.) When my dad found out what she was doing, he told her to stop, and she agreed, but actually continued with increased frequency and forbade me to tell my dad.
From the age of around 6, she would regularly tell me that I looked “too plump” and would send me to weigh myself and report back to her my weight. She would not believe the figure I told her and would then have me get the scales, bring them to her bedroom or the upstairs landing and weigh myself in front of her. Then she would stand me, often undressed, in front of the long mirror in her bedroom and point out the bits of my body that were too plump and too fat. Then I had to go on a diet until she considered I had lost enough weight. She did not want my father to know so I still ate the main course of the evening meal, but the diet meant no snacks or biscuits (most of the range of sweets and chocolates children ate were banned in any case) and something like lettuce and rice crackers or a small amount of plain pasta for lunch. Not the most extreme by any means, but I didn’t like it. When I got older, it meant exercise in the living room as well, sometimes with exercise videos and tapes.
I did dance classes from the age of 3 or 4; two or three classes twice or three times a week. This was about the only contact I had with other children and the outside world (my mother taught me at home until secondary school age and almost completely restricted any contact with friends or wider family members). In my classes, I knew that I was bigger than the other girls. I think partly I actually was rather a fat child and partly I was very tall for my age and so of a larger build than the other girls. In any case, candy pink leotards and tights or white ankle socks were not the most flattering outfit, to say the least!
I wanted to be little, thin and tiny. I wanted to be the smallest, not the biggest. From as soon as I could start to read (which was early, around 5 or 6 years old), I would go through my mother’s Prima magazines whilst she was asleep (there was a big stack of back issues beside her bedroom mirror). I’d look at the pictures of the women there and, as I got older, read the diet features where you were supposed to live on grapes, yoghurt and hard boiled eggs. I remember in particular, one picture of a woman in a sparkly red dress. This was the late 80s when the extremely thin, emaciated look of models was popular, perhaps even more than it is today. I had pretty much uncensored access to these magazines whilst my mother slept. (My dad would go to work but my mother frequently would not get up until a good 2 – 3 hours or more later, during which time I’d play by myself or read books and magazines that I could find lying around.)
My mother, meanwhile, was very concerned with her own weight. She was convinced that she was fat (she was not). Her morning toiletry and beauty routine took an incredibly long time. She would spend a long time on extremely precise application of a lot of make up, then in front of the mirror looking at her body. One of her delusions with her schizophrenia was that she was being bitten by insects or that there was poison under her skin, which she would try to scratch out in front of the mirror. Her eating patterns were very irregular. She would eat nothing at all during the day and instead smoke a vast amount and drink coffee and later, wine. She would then eat an evening meal (except during the terrible arguments, when she might not even eat this). I thought that was how grown up women ate and waited for it to happen to me that I didn’t want to eat any more during the day. I didn’t have enough contact with anyone other than my mother to know that this wasn’t normal. I thought something was wrong with me that I still ate breakfast and lunch.
Food was also a big focus of my mother’s ill thoughts and actions. Arguments often started during the evening meal. If the argument (her shouting, crying, threatening and so on) had already gone on all the day until she suddenly went away to bed, it would resume over dinner on my father’s return from work. When I was older and had been out to school during the day or, rarely, elsewhere, dinner was the time for her cross-examinations about what I had done, what marks I had got, who I had seen, what conversations I had had, what I had said and what the other person had said, usually followed by a rehearsal of why that was not good enough and exactly what I had to say the next time and what the other person would say in response.
During dinner she would watch me intently, observing in minute detail how I held cutlery and crockery, commenting and criticising and even accusing me that particular mannerisms or movements were done to punish her or because I was “pretending to be a little girl” and knew it would upset her. My father and I had to give effusive praise of every part of the meal if she had cooked it. She had a rotation of elaborate dishes. Not liking something was not acceptable. Other times she would completely stop cooking at all for months on end. The food had to be set out in dishes in a particular arrangement on the dinner table. She would eat with particular precisely repetitive actions that on top of everything else, just raised the tension to absolute boiling point. If she was eating yoghurt from a bowl (it had to be decanted into a bowl, never eaten from the pot), she would circle her spoon twice clockwise and twice anti-clockwise round the bowl, then tap it three times on the top of the bowl, before taking each mouthful. As a result, she ate incredibly slowly. My father and I had to sit still until she had finished. (Even writing this my anger is boiling!) If she was angry, or going to accuse me of punishing her in some way, her actions became more elaborate and pantomime-like. It was frightening and the spring that lived in my stomach around those years coiled tighter and tighter waiting for the explosion that came no matter what I did, anyway.
By the time I went to secondary school aged 11, having been taught at home by my mother from 4 – 11 years old, I was probably a completely average weight. I was still tall although not quite as extremely so as when I was younger. I was not particularly slim but I was not fat either.
At school, able to choose what I wanted for lunch and with some spending money for break time, suddenly I was away from my mother’s intense scrutiny of my food intake. She would always watch me extremely intently if she was sitting with me when I ate. At dinner time I hated the feeling of her intense gaze. It was strange. In other ways she almost ignored my food – for example, I got my own breakfast (unless my dad did before he went to work) and lunch from the age of around 6 years old. After her hospital admissions started I often cooked all or part of the family evening meal, when I was around 8 years old. But when she was present, she watched intently, worrying and judging and controlling.
So with this new-found freedom at school, I wanted to try all the foods my friends were eating which I had not been allowed. I wanted to eat sweets when they had them. I was hungry with the busy school schedule. The result was I did definitely have too much candy and sweet food in my diet. I ate it in secret from her, fearful of what her reaction would be.
Unfortunately, when I was around 12, my physical health problems started, first from an ankle injury and then a serious knee injury, following which I was on crutches for a long time. I have a mild form of joint hypermobility which did not help.
Not able to continue my dance classes or to join in sports or move around so much whilst I was on crutches, my weight started to go up. I yo yo’ed for a while, restricting severely when I was on a diet (drinking only fizzy drinks during the day at school and eating nothing) and at other times eating far too much sweet food. My physical health problems did not really get any better from this age and I was in constant pain in my legs and back (apart from a brief period when I was about 14).
By this stage, my mother was going into hospital with increasing frequency. When she was at home, she seemed the more angry with me. I was starting to challenge more her world that was wrapped up in the schizophrenia and closed in at home, I guess. She became angrier with me for my weight. The weighing had become less frequent but she would still call me to stand in front of the mirror and undress for her to show me what was wrong with my body. I was plenty old enough now that I did not want to do this in front of her.
Nevertheless, I did want to lose weight. I still wanted to be the thinnest, the smallest, the youngest. Over the summer I was 14, turning 15, I started to diet in earnest and this was probably the start of the longest period I had yet spent on a diet. I also started cycling into the next town, swimming, then cycling home. I had gone from being fairly inactive to doing a lot of activity. My stamina had increased and I pushed and pushed myself. I would swim 30 – 50 lengths of the 50 metre pool and cycle 5 miles there an back. Though I hated my body at this time, looking back I can see I was strong and fit for perhaps the first time. All I saw was fat, and my mother ensured that it stayed that way and commented constantly on my food combinations and portion sizes and if I went down a clothes size, would say it was ridiculous and I could not be that size, the clothes were sized wrong and I was much bigger. Nevertheless I enjoyed my swimming and cycling. It gave me some freedom to get away from my mother and out of the tiny village where I grew up. I was free of her whilst I was cycling and swimming and it was something she couldn’t take over.
When I went back to school that autumn, I was pleased with the comments on my weight loss. I continued to further restrict my food intake and fill up on fizzy drinks. I would skip breakfast, hiding it from my dad, and eat only vegetables sometimes with a tiny bit of potato or pasta at lunch time. I was in a musical production with my school, which I also loved (plus more time staying at school for rehearsals equalled more time escaping my mother). I was losing weight very rapidly now and by the time the performance came, the costumes that had been ordered to fit to me a few weeks earlier were hanging loose and had to be pinned in. I collapsed from exhaustion on one day and was so very cold and could not get warm. Although nobody appeared to notice at the time, and I certainly did not acknowledge it, I was probably entering the underweight range at this point.
I then took my dieting further and further and could not stop. My memory of this time is really not at all clear so it is hard to write about. People started to express concern – teachers and even other children at my school who normally hardly paid me any attention at all. I hated the concern and attention and was angry inside. I didn’t want anyone to notice me. I didn’t want anyone to stop me. I was fine. They should leave me alone, I thought. Nothing was wrong and what right did they have to try to reach me. They didn’t understand.
I kept on going swimming in this time, but my energy was now wearing out fast and the distances that I could swim were reducing. It was as if a switch flicked. For weeks I was able to push myself on, swimming 50 or 60 lengths of the pool despite being underweight, determined to go further and further and wishing I could keep going forever. That was safe and everything else stopped. But then within a couple of days, the power had entirely gone. I was so, so cold in the water. It was hard to move. I was being dragged down and it was so so very cold. Everything was pain and not being able to breathe. Even getting changed and getting into the pool took longer and longer and I could see the teachers watching me now. Suddenly it wasn’t where everything stopped anymore – I was being watched there too. I can still remember the last day I went swimming and the cold I felt then somehow seemed to get right inside me and I could not warm up and the feeling did not leave me for years.
I was still dropping weight and by now experiencing physical effects. Downy hair grew over my arms. I was shattered all the time. I caught a cold and cough that I could not shake and would cough over and over in the mornings waking up. It hurt. My skin cracked and split and didn’t heal. I was freezing cold and even basic things like washing and changing became painful because I could not bear taking my clothes off – partly from hatred of my body but a big part of it was the intense cold. I bruised easily. I injured my toes in a fall and the bruising did not clear up for months. I started losing bladder control, often barely making it to the toilet in time. Moving anywhere was such an immense effort and I walked more and more slowly.
Somehow this did not stop me or shock me. I brushed everything off. Nothing mattered because it was all obscured by the need to become smaller and disappear and shrink. The drive not to eat was overpowering. It was a desperate, driven, angry need.
My parents were late to express their concerns. I had done quite a good job of hiding from them what was actually going on and how much food I wasn’t eating. The illness made me nasty and devious. I did not tend to wear revealing clothes anyway and wearing more and more layers against the cold hid how thin I was.
When they did express concern I was furious. It was probably the one occasion on which they both, eventually, when I was severely anorexic, expressed unified concern for me. This stunned me. I hated inside that I was hurting and worrying them. Yet, starvation was stronger.
It was my dad who got me to admit to having a problem with my weight. He spoke to me one morning before my mother had got up and there was something in the distress in his eyes that finally shocked and scared me. I admitted that morning that I had a problem. I was 15 years old.
There were still many months before I actually began to regain the weight. During this time I suffered a serious back injury from which I still have disc damage. I was painfully helpless and I think this made me start to hate the disorder. I was walking with crutches and could not get up from a chair or out of the bath without help. The starvation which had previously protected me now threw me into far more intimate dependency on my mother than I could stand.
Nevertheless, I received very little medical input or help. My memory around this time is again very very poor. It was a really distressing time and I can remember arguments I could not cope with and immense sadness and fear and anger. I know now I was causing my parents a massive amount of hurt and pain and I feel terrible guilt for this.
My mother, in her illness, was adamant that I should not have help from the GP or specialists. My GP wanted me to attend a centre nearby for children and teenagers with eating disorders and to go to therapy and group sessions there. My mother did not want me to have this. She told me what to say to the doctor and what to hide so that I would not be sent to this centre. As she had done with the threats of her, my dad or I being sent away when I was younger, she made the idea that I might be sent away to a hospital into a terrifying thing that would destroy her and mean I was sent away from the family permanently. She coached and rehearsed me on exactly what to say. She said that she had to be in complete control of my food.
For some reason, her power over me was so great that I went along with what she wanted me to say. For some reason, the doctor believed it. For some reason, my father did not know what was really going on.
So I didn’t get the referral. I didn’t see any specialist. I saw the GP for monitoring a few times, where I’d be weighed and spout the rehearsed sentences that would make it clear that I did not need any help and supposedly was completely in control.
What realised a few years ago, when I was working in an eating disorder service, is that at this time at the age of 15, my BMI was about 13 (I will not share my weight as I know that this may be sensitive and triggering to anyone in the midst of struggling with anorexia). I had Anorexia Nervosa so severe as to be considered life threatening.
When I realised just how unwell I was when my mother had done all she could to prevent me from getting help, my view of her started to change. I believe now that she prevented me from getting help from a specialist because she knew that if I was seen by a psychiatrist, the abuse she was subjecting my dad and I to might be discovered.
A physiotherapist I was seeing for my back injury realised exactly what was going on, I think. My mother hated her. The physiotherapist urged me to try to get more help. I was too much wrapped in my mother’s constructed world to understand what was happening to me. I could not speak outside of what she had told me to say and pretend was true.
I started to gain weight and I could walk again, but just as she said, she got complete control of me again.
This is the first time I have written about this period in my life. It is very very hard and it feels incredibly shameful. I am not ashamed of having had an eating disorder and/or still having eating difficulties. I don’t know exactly what it is. Somehow telling the story seems scary, unreal and I think part of the problem is knowing it won’t just be hidden inside anymore now that I’ve written it. It hurts much more than I thought it would. However, I think it needs to be said. It’s almost as if the purpose the starvation served is lessened as I tell it. That probably doesn’t make sense right now but in my later chapters I hope it will.