Not so long ago, I started a new job. Without wishing to jinx anything (because that’s the sort of anxious person I am), I love it. It’s the type of job I always hoped for when I was training.
But, last week, I found myself feeling unexpectedly lonely.
Inpatient treatment – for me, anyway – was a very community-focused process: I was recovering with wonderful people and we were (as far as I knew) working towards the same goal. There were many, many times (as I have said many, many times) that I could not have moved forwards without the help of other patients, and – although I found it difficult – there were trained staff on hand all the time to help us.
They do a certain amount of preparation for the big, wide world before you’re discharged out there, but it’s rather like preparing for university: you can’t quite take it in because you have absolutely no idea of what it’s going to be like. Anyhow, I was weaned slowly; day patient for a while, and then discharged to volunteering and focusing on food at home, in much the same way as I had on the ward. I was also very lucky because I had made friends in hospital, and we supported each other through the beginnings of the new world we’d entered (my friends, by the way, are still incredible in all the ways. I just can’t take them to work with me, and I miss them and their wit and wisdom.).
Loneliness is, I think, a very common part of anorexia (and, outside that, a very common part of life). It’s quite hard to explain the extent to which I feel compelled to cuddle my friends and tell them that I’m here and I’m not going to leave them. It’s also heartbreaking to know that this makes very little difference.
Starting work is different, though. Although you meet people going through the same thing as you in hospital, it is very unlikely that there will be anybody at work coping with the dual conundrum of starting a new job and dealing with an eating disorder. It’s almost impossible to understand the challenges work is going to present until you’re there, and definitely impossible for someone who’s not lived with anorexia to understand the exact situation you find yourself in during your first days at work.
The focus changes. I can no longer have ‘bad days’ food-wise: I’ve got a job and I’ve got to be responsible and professional. The focus is no longer upon ‘recovery’ but in ‘sustenance’, in more than one sense of the word. I can’t afford to go backwards because other people are relying upon me to do my job.
The people with whom I am working are nothing short of lovely, but there is no way that they can know that lunchtime is the most difficult part of the day for me, and that one of the trickiest decisions to make is when (and what) to have for my snack in the morning. The easiest part of the day for them is the hardest part of the day for me, and there’s no way to communicate that.
And what would I usually do in this situation? Drastically reduce what I allow myself to eat.
Anorexia, of course, is safety.
Anorexia is the friend in my head who’s previously (for almost as long as I can remember) been there to comfort me when I’ve felt alone or frightened, or in a new situation. Anorexia has cushioned me through change more times than I care to admit.
But I can’t use anorexia anymore. This isn’t the dress rehearsal, carefully practised in managed situations: this is the real thing.
Thus, with nobody in my situation – fresh out of recovery and headlong into work – I am utterly alone.
And it’s hard.
Really, really hard.