about eating and abuse

CN: eating disorders, abusive relationships

When I was seven, I told a teacher at my primary school that I wanted to have liposuction. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew that it made you thinner.

When I was twenty two, I stopped eating.

My eating disorder feels like an inevitability. It has always been looming over my life, waiting for me to walk towards it, dying to envelop me. But for many years, despite it foreshadowing itself as a constant ebb and flow of confusion about and dislike towards my body, I did not need to be enveloped. 

Until, of course, I did. Last summer I came to the end of an abusive relationship with a man who had been my boyfriend for two years. For around half of that period, he had another girlfriend, too. When I suspected, he lied and screamed and cried, telling me that my paranoia was making him want to leave me. If I imagined my life without him, it was shapeless – I had moved to London to be nearer to him, and I loved him much, much more than I loved myself – so I swallowed the hard lump of what I’m sure I unconsciously knew was his grave dishonesty, because even though choking it down was difficult, it was safe.

But I couldn’t quell my curiosity – I always had questions. When friends told me they’d seen him with the same girl repeatedly, he made up vile, sexist lies about her that relied on boring ‘psycho girl’ stereotypes (I, unfortunately, was all too ready to believe them, though now I am very grateful to say that she’s a good friend of mine); if I saw posts on social media that made me think twice and asked about them, he’d say that I’d gone looking for trouble. Sometimes my questions would cause him to rage around my flat, punching and kicking furniture (though never touching me, because as long as you don’t actually hit a woman, it’s not abuse, right?) and when I told him that his behaviour reminded me of a violent former stepfather, he screwed up his face. He assured me that it was nothing like that at all. 

What I want you to know, though, is that these outward shows of aggression were not everything. When you are talking about abuse, people expect stories involving physical threat, and I have always felt as though I have to include them when I relay my experience of the relationship so that the other, more insidious and ultimately much more damaging parts are taken seriously as well. Because as scary as his actions during arguments could be, it was being frequently told that my perception of things was incorrect – even dramatic or fantastical – that took the greatest toll. My hands shook all the time; panic made the air feel like it was strangling me. A deep sadness manifested inside me, felt like it was leaking out of me, and it remained when I finally found out about his other relationship. He lied to me for six months more, stringing me along as if I deserved nothing better.

When someone acts as though they are certain that you’ll always be there regardless of what they say or do to you, it affects you even when they’re gone. And even though I was eventually brave enough to cut the tumour of him out of my life, I didn’t stop feeling like I had no worth. It is quite astonishing how easily influenced humans are: when you are treated like nothing you get to feel like nothing and eventually you want to be nothing. You can tumble through this trajectory without even being aware of it. In hindsight I can tell that I had lost control of my life – I always see myself as the driver of a car that had careered off the road, flipped over and burned out, its last sparks spluttering like somebody dying – so I took it back by finally, if not quite knowingly, choosing to have what I had always desired with a hot want in my chest, more than anything else, more than any other person, more than even him: thinness. 

I was already what most would categorise as thin, though the warped view of myself that I had cultivated over years of quiet self-consciousness and low self-esteem told me that my body was somehow wrong. So I got thinner. I strictly limited my calorie intake per day, measuring and logging my food in my phone’s Notes app. I weighed myself every morning before showering, making sure to remove all my clothes and hair ties lest they force a marginally inaccurate result, and I berated myself via more restriction if one day’s figure was higher than the last. Because I lived in a shared house with people who were not my friends, nobody noticed. At my lightest I weighed six-and-a-half stone, but as far as I know, no one could tell the extent of what I had shed so rapidly.

Rather, the opposite. When, at seven, I told the teacher that I wanted liposuction, I felt crushed when her response was not to tell me that I didn’t need it. At twenty two, I was validated every day by people who told me how wonderful I looked. I was drunk on myself – I loved how I felt in my clothes, and stared at the ribcage which protruded a little through my skin with a novel fascination in the mirror, a sign that I was finally, properly thin.

But all that time, I thought only of food – of when and what I would next eat. Eventually, my body took the power away from my mind, and instead of avoiding food, I ate constantly. It felt like my body’s response to a long period of being held hostage. By the end of last year, I had gone from being extremely thin to the heaviest I have ever been in a relatively short time. After that, my weight levelled out again, which I suppose brings us to now.

I don’t know what I weigh anymore. I am trying extremely hard not to care. I don’t have a set of scales in my flat, and I make a point never to look at how many calories are in the foods I eat, for fear of triggering the counting behaviours I employed when my eating was at its worst. A lot of days, however, I still feel debilitatingly self-conscious. I take photographs of myself all the time as a method of building confidence, but sometimes I catch my reflection in a window and it will force me into entire days of worrying about how I look and how others perceive my body. Summer is a particularly difficult time – the fact that I’m more exposed to my body now than I was during the winter is the entire reason I have started to understand my problem in the first place. I’m aware that writing about all of this a year on may seem strange, but it’s only recently that I’ve been able to put words to both my problems with food and my abusive relationship. I was fortunate enough that my eating disorder, even when most rampant, never put me in enough danger to require medical attention, but because of this – and especially because I didn’t have the correct language to describe what had happened to me – I failed to see it as a real concern for a very long time.

This year, however, when the same negative thoughts that I have experienced before approach, I am in a much better position to deal with them: fully rid of the man who made my life miserable, I’m now surrounded by friends and support all the time, and as pervasive as my thoughts about myself can be, I am dealing with them. Ultimately, my eating disorder is a sad, dark part of me that makes me feel frightened and ashamed. I am frightened of it because it took hold of me without my even being conscious of it, and because it has taken me such a long time to name it for what it is. I am ashamed of it because I very badly wish I could follow the example of people I know who love their bodies no matter their shape. But, I am trying. I’m working hard to overcome painful ideas about myself, exacerbated as they were by abuse. And right now – now that everything finally feels clear, now that my experiences have a form in my mind – that feels like the best thing I could possibly be doing.

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