Elle Magazine – 04/06
Making Myself Eat
by Grace Bowman
Author Grace Bowman, 28, has achieved something rare: she’s beaten anorexia and bulimia and is finally enjoying a normal life again. She tells ELLE her story
I’m in a coffee shop with my laptop, grande latte and blueberry muffin, getting stuck into all three as an article about my experience of anorexia takes shape. As I drain my final drops of coffee and savour the last crumbs of my cake, I’m aware of how different things are now, with my relationship with food back to normal. It’s nice to enjoy breakfast without a voice inside berating me for every mouthful.
Ten years ago it was a different story. I couldn’t consume a morsel without going to hell and back in my head. I was nearly 19 and at five foot five and six stone, painfully thin. My bones stuck out, my veins stuck out, my hair was falling out and I was always freezing. The doctor diagnosed anorexia nervosa and it stripped me of my future. I couldn’t take up the university place I’d been offered; I had to concentrate on ‘getting better’. Except I had no comprehension of how getting ‘fatter’ equated to betterness.
The anorexia had hit me suddenly and sucked me under quickly. One day, I was a happy and lively teenager attending my local comprehensive school. I was a happy straight-A student with friends, a boyfriend, and only the usual teenage hang-ups about my looks. But just before my A-levels, I made a snap decision to diet.
I can only explain it as a moment of agitation. I was suddenly uncomfortably aware of my body and wanted to dissolve myself, wriggle out of my own skin. A diet seemed to be the answer. The less I ate the more in control I felt and my anxiety faded. But within a couple of months, I was cutting down what I could eat, until there was almost nothing I would touch. I was surviving only on the power I felt when I refused food.
A hazy blur fell over me and the only thing that mattered was lowering the numbers on the scales. My parents were confused at first – their outgoing daughter was fading away; their oldest child beginning to look more like their youngest – but this quickly turned to love and support. By the time they could drag me to the doctor’s though it was too late. I was addicted to starving myself.
Three months later I hit five-and-a-half stone, amid threats of hospitalisation and drip- feeding. That’s when I decided to save myself. I didn’t want to be defeated, even if it meant putting on weight. With the help of my family and friends, I started to feed myself by accessing the same willpower I’d used to starve myself. I started by eating slightly larger amounts of the foods I wasn’t so frightened of – extra cottage cheese, half a tomato or a second bowl of Special K. This stopped the weight loss, then I slowly (and painfully) began to reverse it, adding more foods to my allowed list. The doctors were startled and suspicious – anorexia creates such a resolve to self-destruct that it’s extremely rare for a sufferer to turn a corner single-handedly – but I’d set myself a task.
When I finally arrived at university exactly a year after my diagnosis, I still didn’t understand what had happened to me, but I was confident that this life change would finally spell the end of the problem.
But anorexia is more than a diet gone wrong. Its roots are in emotional issues, in genetics, in low self-esteem and high anxiety; in fear of failure and a need for control. This parent-pleasing super-achiever didn’t want to express her vulnerability and the feeling that impending adult responsibility was overwhelming her. My anorexia was a silent manifestation of this fear played out in my body. The diet had turned into a physical addiction, which stayed even after I’d put on weight.
So while I looked healthier at university and kept my problem under wraps it haunted me in private. I’d get up a six am to do secret exercise routines, and I ate the same things – soup and muesli – every day to feel in control. When I couldn’t do that anymore without revealing something was wrong, I started to make myself sick. I became an expert in concealing my new habit, but the more I hid it the deeper it engrained itself. I was ravaged by guilt. By my final year of university things started to change. I remember watching a group of girls laughing over a few glasses of champagne and feeling so lonely. My entire student career had been dominated by anorexia to the detriment of me having fun, and I regretted it. Luckily, I was more aware of my own strengths by that stage, and realised that I was the only person who could put an end to this.
After graduation, I got a job in an advertising agency in London. Getting to grips with a new life helped displace my food obsession even further. My weight returned to a normal level (I am now size eight-10), and I even fell in love for the first time (and let him love me back). In fact, my boyfriend really helped me break down my demons. Anorexia closes you up, and he helped me open out again.
It’s hard to express the kind of total consumption I felt when anorexia ruled my life, but that’s what I’ve tried to do in my book, A Shape of My Own. The view of anorexia from the outside is of statistics and facts, but these don’t get to the core of how it disrupts and fragments you. Stepping back inside my experience I found an 18 year old who was happy with herself, but suddenly anorexia swooped in her passion, leaving only raw angst and self-esteem. In time, she realised the only way to deal with the problem was to face her insecurities head-on and start rebuilding herself. So my book is also a story of growing up and becoming a woman.
I can’t claim that my adding my tale to the many others out there that I will cure anorexia, but I might just be able to stop one person destroying themselves. I may also be able to show that recovery is possible, even in this highly pressurised, skinny-fit world. Because I do believe eating disorders are fertilised by the current wafer-thin ideals of physical perfection and by a notion that being skinny spells success. Even I’m not immune, despite all I’ve been through. I still err on the skinny side of things. I wear skinny jeans, drink skinny lattes and can’t help thinking some of today’s skinny celebs really do look great in that outfit.
Still, I work hard against these influences. The first thing I do when something is upsetting me is tell myself I’m fat, but the second is to counteract it. I sit down and listen to myself to find out what I’m really feeling. Unsurprisingly, the issue is never really ‘fat’. Normally, it’s a moment of self-doubt about work or what others think of me. Sometimes, I’m just plain bored. But I’ve learned that being bored is ok. Ten years have taught be a lot. Anorexia unravelled me and I had to remake myself, but it’s been worth the effort. Now I have concerns and ambitions that are way beyond the scales.