When I was inpatient, it was a running joke that new admissions would always have had ‘the worst anorexia in the world ever’, a claim backed up with evidence – usually blood-test related – from a medical professional: “My consultant had never met anyone as anaemic as me.”; “I had the lowest temperature of anyone ever admitted here.”. Before you brand me a mean inpatient, I am pretty sure that people said the same thing about me when I was first admitted too.
What you need to know here is that there’s a certain type of black humour adopted by people who are facing really awful situations. When you’re completely surrounded by illness and sadness, finding the funny side of things is an arguably necessary protective strategy. When you’re recovering from an illness, being able to laugh at yourself sometimes can make the nauseatingly unrelenting self-discovery somewhat easier.
However, I have been discharged from the ward for a while now, and I have noticed – I am ashamed to say – that I feel a need for people to know quite how ill I have been. I don’t make any outlandish claims about blood tests because I don’t have any to make, and I’m sure someone will have had worse, but I do have a burning desire for people to know that I have been in hospital, and that it has taken me a long time to get to where I am now. I’m the first to laugh at myself, because otherwise I would have had a very serious and pointless life thus far, and also I like to take a top tip from Enid Blyton now and again, but I began to wonder whether there is a deeper meaning to this need to share, or overshare. See the effect therapy has had on me? See?
The idea that has lodged itself into my brain is that it is part of an instinct to protect ourselves when recovering from illness. Say you broke your leg (yes, that old chestnut). Say you’d had your plaster cast removed but you were worried about your fragile newly-mended bone. Telling people you came into contact with that you’d recently broken your leg would probably make them cautious around the damaged leg. They would probably offer you a seat and ask if you needed any extra help. The same goes for pregnant ladies on the tube: if they wear a badge which says ‘Baby on Board’, people are more likely to offer them a seat. Telling others about their condition protects them, and their unborn baby, from harm.
What has this got to do with anorexia? I hear absolutely none of you cry.
Because, fending for yourself in the big, wide world is difficult when you’re fresh out of hospital and dealing with stuff yourself for the first time. The instinct is to let people know that you’re still fragile; that you still need help.
But then the media steps in and ruins everything. Again.
Telling people that you’re in recovery from anorexia means very little. Where anorexia is a mental illness with devastating, sometimes fatal, consequences, much of the general public associate it with losing weight; the thin ideal; having perfect and unshakeable self-control. There is, therefore and also, very little evidence once someone is weight-restored that they are still in any way ill. There is no slight limp or brand new baby. You look more normal than you’ve looked in years.
And yet, for most people, their new-found health is balanced on a single skein of spider web. What is worse is that there is no way of telling people to be careful, or what exactly to be careful of. Saying to people ‘I’m in recovery from anorexia’ often prompts a reply along the lines of ‘well, aren’t you looking well?’, avoided at any lengths by people with eating disorders because disordered brains hear, ‘Aren’t you looking fat?’. If, on the other hand, you can tell somebody that you’ve recently been in a dire physical state, they are perhaps more likely to respond appropriately.
It’s a protective factor. Sometimes, it’s staking a claim to the need for treatment: nobody in an inpatient setting really believes they need to be there. Physical evidence helps to justify it. Other times, it’s hoping that other people will understand physical symptoms more than a history of mental illness.
Something which is also very important to me, and something that I will return to (perhaps) in a future post is that the trauma of having an eating disorder, and being treated either as inpatient or outpatient for an eating disorder is massive. I find myself needing to talk about what happened when I was inpatient, or ill, a lot. And I mean a lot. I wonder whether, some of the time, my need to explain my illness to others is my brain trying to make sense of an event which was actually more traumatic than is often realised?
I suppose the answer has to be spreading awareness. If people know that saying ‘I had anorexia’ means more than I’ve been thin, perhaps they would be able to treat people better without them having to list physical symptoms. Perhaps if people understood what it means to be emotionally vulnerable, it would help prevent the vicious cycle in which sufferers highlight physical symptoms so people only understand physical symptoms, meaning that sufferers feel the need to over-exaggerate physical symptoms in order to get the desired reaction. As per, I don’t think there is one straightforward answer, but I think the need to be listened to as someone recovering from an eating disorder pervades more than just time spent with clinical staff.