As somebody who has been ‘acquainted with’ anorexia since 2014, I can say that more often than not, a sufferer is always ‘on the edge.’
On the edge of recovery, or on the edge of a relapse. On the edge of finally snapping, grabbing the voice by the throat and telling it to leave your life once and for all, or on the edge of blindly reaching out to The Voice as it shines its fickle illusion of light into the murkiness that surrounds it.
I was lucky enough to live anorexia free for a few years, between my initial recovery in 2016, and my relapse in 2019. During that blissful time, I didn’t give The Voice the time of day. It was quite simply no longer entitled to its warped opinions of my life, or my happiness. I refused to allow it to dictate my self-worth.
Since my relapse in 2019, The Voice has reared its ugly head, sneered its accusations and barked its orders on more than one occasion. I’ve found it harder this time around to shake it indefinitely. Although my relapse was nowhere near as intense or draining as my first battle, it has still required a lot of determination and strength to plough through. While the voice of anorexia might be fainter than it once was, it’s still there, subtly controlling a lot of my decisions.
It takes courage to admit this fact, because I don’t like to give in to it or hold my hands up and say that it still has a hold on me. But it’s there, and that’s the reality.
The more I’ve got to know my anorexia, the more I’ve come to understand it. I’ve become quite savvy to its triggers and weak points, and for the most part, I know how to handle and pacify it. I’m very much aware of how it makes me feel and act, and more to the point, why it makes me feel and act in a certain way.
Anorexia manifests itself in my self-discipline.
For me, anorexia has never been about losing weight; it's about my need for meticulous control over my own life, and adhering to the massive pressure I put myself under in favor of achieving. I don't want to lose weight, but even more so, I don't want to lose control.
For example, recently, I’ve been running a half marathon every Saturday morning. I really enjoy running, and that’s difference between now and my first battle: exercise is no longer something I dread or perceive as a chore.
I’m proud of the fact that this time last year, I had only ever run one half marathon and vowed never to do it again, and now, I run one with ease every week.
The buzz I get after completing a run - particularly a long one - is incomparable to any other feeling I’ve ever experienced.
As that timer comes to an end at 13.1 miles, I feel metaphorically draped in gold medals. I feel smug; it’s only 9 O’clock in the morning, and I’ve already achieved something.
I visit at my Mum’s every Saturday (she’s in my support bubble), and during these long, lockdown weekends, we spend the days chilling out, binging on Netflix and eating ungodly amounts of Revels. After running my half marathons, I feel like I’ve really earned my Saturday afternoons doing absolutely nothing, scoffing chocolate. There’s no guilt, and my mind doesn’t unravel in a frenzy as I try to work out what I’ll need to sacrifice from my evening meal to substitute the treats I’ve consumed.
For some reason, I never feel entitled to relax. If I spend so much as an evening after work sat in-front of the TV, I feel disgusted with myself. I cannot relax if I feel that I could be doing something more productive instead, be it writing, housework, or even a task as bland as clearing my purse of old receipts. I don’t really know why I feel this way; I guess it just links in with the earlier mentioned phenomenal amount of pressure that I have put myself under in terms of achievement and an obsession with productivity.
That’s why I love my Saturdays at my Mum’s so much. Run completed, I’m not at my own house, so have no access to my laptop, or any of my household chores. I’m forced to relax, and I’ll be honest, as hard as I initially found it, it’s become a real lifeline.
I guess the reason I’m writing this is leading onto the anxieties of the past weekend, where things didn’t quite go according to plan. My routine was scuppered, and I was left in the lurch, free falling alongside the shrieks of The Voice.
Last Saturday, about half way into my half marathon, I noticed that my knees were starting to hurt. It wasn’t an excruciating pain, but it was enough for me to notice and wince a little. I pushed it to the back of my mind and raced that bit faster, in search of a new personal best. I did run my best ever half marathon time, at 1 hour, 46 minutes.
When I got home, my knees started to protest bitterly, but the high that I felt was enough to numb the subtle warnings that my body was giving out.
By Monday, my knees were still no better, but according to my strict, meticulous exercise plan, Monday is a running day. So is Tuesday, and so is Wednesday.
I ran 5k at 7pm on the Monday night, and then another 5k at 9am on Tuesday morning.
My knees felt so stiff all day Tuesday, and I kept getting alarming shoots of pain down the length of my legs.
From past experience, I knew it was my body’s way of telling me to slow down. And to be honest, who really runs a half marathon - plus three 5ks - every single week? It’s not recommended. Experts advise at least a few days of complete rest after finishing a half marathon and partaking in another run of any distance.
But that’s just me all over: I can’t do things by half, or I feel as though I’ve failed.
My injury also coincided with the UK’s sudden spat of unbearably cold weather. Being underweight, I’m very much susceptible to lower temperatures, and often get dizzy spells if I’m subjected to sub-freezing conditions for too long.
I’ve never been a fan of running in cold weather. For some reason, it leaves me gasping for breath, with quite horrendous chest pains, and, as previously mentioned, a very light head.
And so I missed my Wednesday night 5k. I also missed my Saturday morning half marathon.
And yes, it affected me. My mood was very low and I felt irritable. At half past 9 on Saturday morning, when I’d usually have finished my run, I felt as though the whole entire weekend was a write off. I perceived myself as such a failure. I had badly let myself down, and was already counting down the hours until the following Saturday when I would be able to run a half marathon again, proving a meaningless point to the relentless voice.
I enjoyed my Saturday off running, nonetheless. Mum and I dived back into my childhood and indulged in the new Tracey Beaker movie on iPlayer, while eating German cookies left over from Christmas. Casting a eye over the weather – the ice glinting maliciously on the pavements – I was thankful to be warm inside.
So why couldn’t I shake the feeling of unease buried deep within me?
Why did I feel so let down by myself?
Why do I feel so exempt from the freedom and divine right to relax on a weekend, after five solid days working at the office, meeting writing deadlines after work, jogging, and running a house?
Why should a half marathon define my weekend, and be the deciding factor in whether or not I eat without guilt, or kick back, chill and watch TV without feeling restless and uncomfortable?
I’m a driven, ambitious person by nature. I’m a painful perfectionist. I like to be busy, and I thrive on a certain degree of stress. I have to be ferociously in control of my life from every angle, constantly striving to better myself.
In that respect, The Voice and I work hand in hand, often in seeming harmony, albeit with a detrimental undertone.
But when things go wrong outside of my control, the voice quickly shifts its blame, and the anxiety kicks in.
I’m ashamed and embarrassed that I feel this way. I often try to disguise my gumption and get-up-and-go with a zest for life. What people don’t understand is that that drive, that determination, is being spurred on by unhealthy obsession, urged by the control of The Voice. Of course, it’s not all bad – consciously making an effort to keep yourself healthy by participating in exercise and moderating your diet are all positive factors that we regularly have recommended to us.
Like anything in life, it’s all about finding the balance. Finding the balance is easy – it’s the retaining that can present as a challenge, especially when your mind is split is two, partly ruled by The Voice.
But I did it: I got through the weekend without running. In the past, the feelings of guilt would become too much to ignore, and I'd flee from the house, pounding forwards, 5, 10, 21k down, satisfying The Voice.
This week, although I found it hard, I didn't run.
In the face of the rest of this article, and the somewhat negative tone set, I classify that as a small victory. And really, that's what anorexia is all about: small victories, one after another, day-in-day-out. You learn to manage it, and sometimes, you have to bypass all of the setbacks and the negatives to pluck out the little mini successes hiding within, like buried treasure.
Cara Jasmine Bradley ©