You know that way that Facebook uses some complex algorithm to determine what news appears in your feed? Recently, it just so happened to be the death of an old friend. Wow, all those RIPs flooding my timeline and suddenly I realised something real had happened. This girl, barely a couple years older than myself, had passed away from complications related to a long-term eating disorder. Heart problems. I thought of that poor, floundering heart, afloat in the brittle body which held it for so long, traversing the contours of death. The wide, bright, pretty eyes, which would open no longer. I felt a shockwave pass through my blood, my own heart starting to shiver.
These things only happen so many times in your life. My connection to this girl was — these days at least — tenuous. We had both been part of an online eating disorders community, eight or so years ago now. We would blog on a near daily basis about our struggles with food, family, friends. We all had our dark side (which varied between addictions to thinspiration sites, a history of self-harm, documents of extreme weight loss, hospitalisation), but somehow here we were, writing candidly about our everyday lives, sharing them not with loved ones but with strangers online. Eating disorders, like most mental illnesses, are peculiar things. There’s a great deal of stigma attached to them, and thus sufferers tend to hide them, to keep the mechanics of their illness a secret. The difference between, say, anorexia and depression, is that anorexia carves itself into your body. It literally eats away the flesh.
“I can wrap my fingers ’round your whole thigh,” a friend once told me. “I could fit three of you into my pair of jeans.” Yes, it’s true. You become conspicuously visible; your disease is etched into your skin: the place where the ankle pops out, the hipbones protrude, the sinews of your arms ripple weirdly as you stretch in gym class. Paradoxically, the more visible you are, the harder it is to articulate what is happening to you. In the street, in the playground, people will hurl names because they don’t understand. They see someone who is very sick, cadaverously thin — someone who is doing this to themselves, and that seems perverse. They have to react. They have to maintain the borders of the normal by emphasising your freakishness. That’s okay, I understand. It’s like our reaction to anything uncanny: We have to reject it as monstrous, an aberration of nature, to conceal the fact that it’s unsettling because it actually reminds us of the fragile boundaries between the human and nonhuman, between life and death.
In the midst of illness, understanding is often in short supply. The thing about anorexia, like depression, is its lack of perspective. Everything is scaled down to the kernel of pain that lives in your mind, infecting everything. Too fat, cut the calories, everybody hates you — the familiar, drifting litany. It’s easier to retreat into that upside-down world, the underwater existence where everything that happens is somehow apart from this self that you deeply loathe and yet cherish. The thing you are trying to perfect, it isn’t exactly real. You covet the image, withdrawing further from the life of home and school. It’s not easy; it has its price to pay. That’s where the Internet comes in. It’s part of that safe, inner world, and yet it is connected to other inner worlds. You can reach out to people without betraying your real existence. We had an array of pseudonyms, most of them food-related, some of them cheesily positive, incongruous with the dark material that was written under them. Most of us have deleted our blogs now, though we keep in touch on Facebook, where our identities are out in the open — where perhaps only a handful of people on each of our timelines actually know about this hidden part of us, this secret story.
What happened to me? How did I go from being desperately self-destructive to actively pursuing my recovery? This is the mystery. I guess that revelations arrive for no reason at all. They pop into your life and subtly change everything. All summer I had been shedding weight — a good stone and a half — and I spent the October holidays at my Nan’s house while my Mum took a well-deserved holiday. I spent a lot of that week in my room, the room my mother would have slept in thirty odd years ago. In it, there’s a thin mirror attached to the wardrobe. It isn’t like other mirrors, which add a few pounds, which reduce even the healthiest person into self-doubting tears. It exposed my thinness. I stood in that mirror and took a picture for my MySpace profile: eyes chalked dark, limbs stick-thin, hair withered to straw-like wisps, face shrunken into the smile of a skull. I suddenly, and quite inexplicably, saw my body for what it really was. Skeletal. That night, I could hear the scarily slow beat of my heart echoing through my head as if it were in the pillow. I thought of that poor, struggling organ woefully beating on as if the body it lived in wasn’t trying daily to kill itself. It occurred to me that I might die in my sleep.
My BMI was in the dangerously low bracket for almost four years. It’s a credit, perhaps, to my skills at spinning a good veganism yarn, to the strains within my local adolescent mental health system, that I wasn’t hospitalised. I would do fine by myself, thank you very much. I thought that was completely okay, that all I had to do was eat an extra slice of bread a day or maybe a bowl of cereal and some melon, until I logged onto CalorieCount. On the eating disorder forums, I posted a brief story about myself: weight, height, history of restrictive eating, bulimia, and so on. I kept it all very factual. What I got in reply, quite unexpectedly, was a tirade of concern. In block capitals, strangers were telling me to go and see a doctor, to check myself in right away. I thought it was terribly sweet of them, but they didn’t understand. I had this under control. I could quite easily live on a BMI of twelve. The daily struggle of aching joints, draining energy, dizziness, and bone-deep cold was so familiar by now that I’d forgotten what it was to live without it. It was easier to cope by just eating less, by slipping further and further away from the world.
I’m glad I wasn’t hospitalised. Another competitive environment (school was bad enough) would have had its toxic allure. I’m not sure I would have wanted to leave once I’d gotten comfortable. I could have shirked off the terrifying prospect of university. I could have avoided my problematic friendships and cut my ties to the world once and for all. If I didn’t have some drive to recover within me, I probably would have needed it, as many do; but, something triggered that afternoon at my Nan’s as I read the spiralling replies to my forum post, and I realised I wanted to live again — whatever the hell that meant.
Blogging was the next best thing I had to a proper, informed support system. I kept it secret from my family because I realised they’d probably had enough of my problems: putting up with self-destructive, selfish behaviour; dealing with questions from friends and colleagues; judgmental glances in the street. It’s up to you to drag yourself out of your own upside-down existence, a world of skewed mirrors and distorted scales, of tiny cupcakes swollen to monstrous, fattening gateaus. I finally started googling “anorexia recovery plans.” I started listening to the advice that was being hurled my way online. I found myself taking pictures of my meals, my outfits, making lists of my daily calorie intake; I found myself writing nice little encouraging comments on other folks’ blogs. It was a way of feeling tangible, attached to something, where for so long I had felt invisible. I made a few friends who would send me “recovery bracelets” in the post, who would look at my photos and insist that three undressed cherry tomatoes do not constitute a 200-calorie “salad,” who would tell me that crackers and pickle isn’t a sustainable lunch for a girl weighing 5 ½ stone.
Sometimes the advice was difficult to swallow, but gradually I changed my behaviour around it. If such advice had come (which indeed it previously had) from “real life” loved ones, I would have scorned and ignored it: They’re just trying to get to me, control me; it’s none of their business. However, the anonymity afforded by blogging allowed me to experiment with eating again. I didn’t need to concoct counterfeit, life-affirming narratives to justify my changed behaviour. The empathy I received from my fellow bloggers wasn’t entangled in the complicated agendas of real-life friendships. Some had come close to death, documenting their experiences with heart failure or forced feeding in dingy, state-run hospital wards (many bloggers were from the US). The horror stories, the nudging encouragement, the sweet delivery of daily comments kept me going at a time when maybe I’d rather have stopped “going” anywhere at all.
The online community has its drawbacks, of course. There’s the inevitable jealousy, the competition, the striving to be the “healthiest” blogger. Squabbles over the calorie content of bulgur wheat, the appropriate intake of monounsaturated fats and the like abide. The main problem is that blogging constitutes another seductive, alternate world in which to escape the realities of your actual life: preparing for exams, university applications, negotiating the tricky emotional terrain of relationships and friendships. It can become another manifestation of disordered eating, a fetishising of meal plans and exercise routines, turning daily habits into obsessive, performative rituals. I stopped blogging when I felt I had reached a healthy weight — when food was, finally, no longer my number one concern in life. The thought of reading another food blog suddenly bored me, and nowadays I can’t even face researching recipes online. I skip over the diet sections of magazines. I evade conversations about food and weight. It’s triggering; it takes me back to the dark times, the abyss of depressive thinking, of eating my bran flakes one by one, the cold tearing a blinding pain in my chest.
Still, blogging got me through the worst of my anorexia. I don’t know if I’d have properly recovered without it. I expect I’d have needed more invasive professional help than the weekly counselling I received that winter. It gave me dignity and a sense of purpose, a support network that encouraged me to eat my daily bread but also to pursue creative writing after I posted a few non-food related pieces on my blog. I started to remember the things in life that I enjoyed before my eating disorder consumed nearly everything.
These days, we remain Facebook friends. By some miracle, we have become artists, teachers, and writers, have married and had children. I was one of the youngest, and a secret part of me still looks up to my fellow bloggers, the ones who shook off a long and terrible illness. Nobody knows what goes on beneath the surface of people’s lives, but we have to remember that the Internet is not just a hotbed of dangerous thinspo; it’s also a source of support and community. It can be a reminder of stark reality. The death of this girl on my timeline — who lived so far away, who I hadn’t contacted for years — shook me to the core. I was reminded of the struggle it is sometimes just to be alive, just to eat, but also the reasons why we continue; at least we still have a choice.