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An article by Jock Howard
When we went on long car journeys when I was a small boy, we used to play this game in the car, where each of us would take it in turns to come up with our ‘dream’ meal. “Imagine you are being executed in the morning,” my bloodthirsty older sister would say. “What would you choose to eat as your final meal?”
Mine was a starter of cheese and onion crisps, followed by a fish finger toasted sandwich with loads of tomato ketchup, followed by orange jelly, all washed down with quite a lot of Coke!
Even today, food plays a major part in my thinking. I regard it as one of the major joys of life. I’ve been on cooking courses because I like to be in control of what I put in my stomach. I’d like to stop short of saying I’m obsessed with food; but I often think about what I am going to eat, several hours before I actually do!
Until a couple of weeks ago, I had virtually no clue about the disease Anorexia Nervosa. I would occasionally see someone in the street with it, and stare in astonishment at how anybody could reach such a dreadful and desperate state. Why couldn’t they see - like I could - how awful and ill they looked? Or maybe they could see it; and if they could, why wouldn’t they want to do something about it? Or maybe they did want to do something about it, but just couldn’t. Why? Why? Why?
Perhaps the most burning question of all, which has always been unanswerable to me, is why - if you showed an anorexic a healthy body, alongside one which is anorexic, would this not shock them into eating a lot, immediately?
After some research, and talking to a delightfully down-to-earth and honest sufferer called Chloe, I have a slightly less neanderthal understanding of this disease.
“Anorexia has only one thing it wants from you,” says Chloe. “It wants you to die. That’s the only way you can get rid of it - by dying. So, you either have to fight it; or die with it. It’s also a very ‘secret’ disease. You suffer alone. The moment other people start to metaphorically tread on your toes, the disease intensifies. It becomes more vicious.”
Anorexics are all very different; and the disease can manifest itself in many different ways. But in Chloe’s case, since the age of 7, she has been completely controlled by this voice in her head - a girl, a couple of years older than her, called ‘Anna’. (This is quite common.)
“It all started when I was bullied at school,” says Chloe. “One day they cornered me in the toilets, and said: ‘You’re fat, and ugly, and stupid, and a weirdo, and you’ve got horrible teeth, and horrible hair.’
When they’d gone, I turned around and looked in the mirror. That was the first time I heard her [Anna]. She said: ‘You’ve either got to be pretty, or you’ve got to be thin; and you’re never going to be pretty so…’
From that moment on, Anna was in control of Chloe; a ‘friend’ to her, sometimes her only friend. Being an anorexic is exhausting. You never have time to relax or turn off.
“She used to scream at me all the time,” says Chloe. “There was never a minute of peace. I couldn’t sleep. When I did finally fall asleep, I had nightmares and saw her. I knew she was a voice in my head; but I had accepted her as a friend. So, when people tried to get rid of her, I would say ‘No! She is there to help!’ I didn’t see her as a bad thing; or as someone who was trying to kill me. I saw her as someone who I could rely on. When other people tried to get rid of her, Anna would say to me ‘OK! I want you to do this now, because people are catching on, and we’re going to run out of time’.”
Chloe remembers sitting in a clinic, opposite a girl whose anorexia was so bad that her hair was falling out. This girl had massive bald patches, huge bags under her eyes and was just skin and bone; and all Chloe could think about was how much she wanted to look like that! Another past sufferer told me how she used to put subtle black eye make-up, on her face and arms, to make her look gaunt. She told me she didn’t want to be healthy. She wanted to look how she felt; which was incredibly vulnerable. “I craved that my ribs would start to show. I used to smile when I heard my stomach rumble.”
Try going up to someone like that, and telling them that anorexia has the highest mortality rates of any psychological disorder; or that huge numbers of sufferers commit suicide; and they will look at you like a smoker would, when you tell them the links between smoking and cancer. “It’ll never end like that with me,” is the attitude. Like a smoker, an anorexic becomes controlled by what they are doing. It’s what they want more than anything else in the world. They don’t see the dangers. The problem is anorexia is a lot more aggressive and dangerous than smoking.
It’s important to understand that major parts of anorexia are biological as well as psychological. In other words, just as someone with Diabetes can’t eat sugar like you and I can, (because the pancreas literally breaks down and cannot accompany the sugar into the cells and so the body starves) an anorexic does not experience eating in the same way that you and I do. Quite the reverse, in fact.
Instead of adoring every mouthful (as I would), when an anorexic eats they can experience massive anxiety attacks, severe thought disturbances and extreme noise. I’ve tried to imagine how awful this must be. Maybe it’s a bit like me (shy and tone deaf) being asked to sing a difficult opera, in front of a huge, aggressive and unsympathetic crowd. Or being asked to walk on a tightrope over the Grand Canyon (I get vertigo) without a safety harness.
Put simply, there are pathways in an anorexic’s brain which are not functioning as they should. The noise and the anxiety mean that when and after they have eaten something, anorexics find it incredibly difficult to function at all. In other words, if they want to carry on their lives ‘normally’ at school or work or play, they need to stop eating; otherwise the anxiety and noise will paralyse them.
Interestingly, at first the disease did not manifest itself in Chloe in not eating. When she didn’t eat, aged 7, she soon realised she couldn’t play; and ‘playing’ is what she really wanted to do. So the not-eating bit didn’t really kick in until she was 14 or 15. Then she lost a very unhealthy amount of weight. She also lost all her friends, except one, called ‘Wednesday’, who stuck by her through it all. Oh, and of course she still had that other ‘friend’ in her head - ‘Anna’. Her school told her she couldn’t come in anymore, because she was becoming bed bound and experiencing heart failure. Her brain was shrinking and she couldn’t function.
Lying in bed one night, looking up at the stars, Chloe thought about a favourite aunt - Rachel - who had died some years before. The battle in her head, with Anna convincing her to lose so much weight, had been going on for 10 years. Out loud, with the help of memories from her aunt Rachel, Chloe shouted “Enough!”
Chloe’s Mum, who was by this stage desperate, started giving her daughter a pound (in money) for every pound (in weight) she put on. Chloe asked her Mum if she could buy a kitten. Her Mum said that was fine, if she reached a certain weight, but the moment she started losing it again, that kitten was gone! It was a brilliant move. It finally gave Chloe a reason to live. It finally gave Chloe a reason to love.
Most anorexics ultimately want to get better. But they are involved in a battle. And too many give in; exhausted and beaten. Chloe’s kitten gave her something to nurture and cuddle; and just by doing that, she was beginning to nurture and cuddle herself. She was winning the battle.
When anorexics are in recovery, they are told to take on more ‘fat’. The problem is that just the word ‘fat’ can make recovery harder and more fearful. So, Chloe and her Mum decided to call it “Pixie Dust” instead. She had loved Peter Pan and Tinkerbell growing up. Her cat was christened Pixiebelle!
On March 3rd and 4th during eating disorder awareness week and supported by B-Eat the national charity Leicester Theatre Group, with choreography from The Naked dance company and Matthew Lambden are putting on an extraordinary production called “Pixie’s Project”, which is basically the story of Chloe’s life. I was fortunate enough to watch rehearsals a couple of weeks ago, and - despite being a hardened hack - was reduced to tears within minutes! It is an incredibly powerful and moving performance; and ultimately the aim is to take it on tour and visit schools around the country.
“It takes an unbelievable level of bravery and courage for Chloe to agree to put her story out there for everyone to see,” says Karl Strickland, the founder of the Leicester Theatre Group. “Anorexia is one of those diseases where your default position is to go into your shell and starve yourself. Like an alcoholic, you never really completely get over the disease. She still fights it daily.”
Despite this, Chloe is playing a full part in devising the show
Many experts in society have identified a bullying epidemic, raging like a forest fire, through our schools today. Mix that with the social media pressure on ‘body image’ and you have something very toxic indeed. This toxic mixture will make anorexia far more of a problem for our children than it ever has been before.
“There is so much misinformation about anorexia,” continues Karl. “And so much of what is written is sensational garbage. The only thing journalists want to write about are weights and show pictures of rib cages. What they fail to understand is that anorexics are competitive by nature, so this is actually incredibly irresponsible behaviour. We have to educate people. There’s no point doing the show otherwise. If we can educate people, they won’t be so quick to judge and hopefully we can make young people aware of the consequences of the disease.”
By Jock Howard
“Pixie’s Project” will be shown at the Sue Townsend theatre in Leicester, on March 3rd and 4th.