Full Text: Interview with Jimmi Campkin, “Coping Together: Carers and Eating Disorders.”

01/09/2014 at 20:02 (Anorexia, Personal, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

1) How did you two meet: under what circumstances? Was it in a “neutral zone”, or through friends? Was she open about her illness, its symptoms, or did she try to conceal any parts initially (to try to appear “normal” / to keep two elements of her life apart) ?

We met via the internet and a slightly snarky response to a rather lame attempt to appear to have wisdom. From the beginning, R was open about her illness, although not to the extent of how much it still had a grip. In the early days I was led to believe that she was further along the journey of recovery than she actually was. We did a lot of things when we initially lived apart that we stopped doing when we moved in together. Looking back now I presume that, when we lived apart, she could endure the weekends ‘normality’ and then make up for it during the week out of my sight. Unfortunately this confused me somewhat when we moved in together. I thought she was back-sliding, when actually she wasn’t. It was just that she didn’t conceal the extent of the illness any longer.

2) Was there a distinction between who she was as a personality, and the anorexia? How often did the lines blur, and what caused this to happen?

I initially tried to deal with R’s anorexia by treating it as a demon that occasionally controlled her, like a Jekyll & Hyde arrangement whereupon the actions of one were individual – the ‘normal’ person exonerated from the behaviour and habits of the ‘demon’. R was always insistent that she didn’t want to personalise the illness, which my analogy certainly does. It’s too easy to say that R switched between Anorexic and Non-Anorexic like a train switches rails, or a Victorian mad scientist switches personalities. Better to say that the anorexia was a bassline endlessly chugging away in the background of a song. Sometimes it would be loud and overpowering, sometimes it would be barely audible, but it was always there. It almost always got louder in times of stress – i.e. anything outside of the comfort zone. R’s life was regimented in black and white colours, which is oddly ironic considering her creative flourishes, synaesthesia, et al. Routine was key. Spontaneous acts, even (paradoxically) planned spontaneous acts would cause stress and with stress came the symptoms.

In terms of distinctions between personality, anorexia probably exaggerated some character traits that are woven deep. R makes emotional connections that are not just social but knee deep in the mud (and clay) of predecessors to which she has no blood relation or any family history. She spoke many times of just wanting to go off travelling and not have a fixed abode, but I never believed that. I think, much like me, that she enjoys the thought of travel but always wants a home to come back to. And in that way, anorexia exaggerated that desire to have something concrete. Something very fixed. Even if it is something as (seemingly) trivial as a particular route from the house to the town centre. It’s not enough to say it is about control, because anyone can control their own path. It is about knowing that a path is always there. R seemed to want to keep revisiting it, in case one day it wasn’t there any more – the terminal fear of the harmless nostalgist made into something more destructive. Why, for example, continue to measure a slice of bread when the chances are that every slice of bread is within a few grams of each other? Because there is always a chance that one day it won’t be. In her mind, this was important. R needed the reassurance.

3) What was her behaviour like when with you? Did you live together, and form a “safe zone”? Were there any particular routines or habits she had, which affected your own behaviour (overly or subconsciously.)

We never discussed a ‘safe zone’, but given our tight surroundings it probably would’ve been impractical. I’m sure she had safe zones in her own mind that she never let on about, and that’s fine. In terms of influencing my own behaviour – I knew that we could never just do something off the cuff. In terms of what one might call stereotypical romance, a surprise meal at a restaurant might be one girl’s idea of a dream Valentines date but I knew that this would send R into a spiral of anxiety.

I abided by her routines and worked my life around them. I knew when she would have dinner, when she would shower. I knew that, if we were walking to town, we would go a particular way. If I didn’t feel like walking that way, I’d go on my own and R would lose herself in music. It wasn’t a particularly big deal. Walks in the countryside were loosely regimented as well – there were a thousand routes we could take, but once we’d decided on a route we’d stick to it. Again, not a particularly earth shattering thing to deal with, and probably sensible given my sense of direction when wandering from the beaten path.

I was always conscious of knowing when to give her space, but at the same time wanting to judge when a kick up the arse was needed. I could tell from her body language that she would be irritated by my presence when she weighed her food, even though I’d seen her do it a thousand times. It was an open secret.
I suppose I did become less spontaneous around her, but I can’t pin that solely on her and anorexia. There were other considerations as well – money, long hours at work, general and periodic depressions linked to the previous. Nevertheless, the need to maintain routines was a part of it.

4) Did her behaviour differ in public surroundings, from when you were alone together – particularly if food was involved? (e.g. attentive and affectionate, clingy and needy, standoffish, nervous, panicky etc.)

R was never comfortable in a restaurant. Even in our favourite Thai restaurant, which was usually empty, she would be eager to eat and leave. On the whole though, our public arrangements tended to involve one of three scenarios – a pub (in which rum and coke would dull the spikes in her back), the countryside (in which barely a soul would be met) or London (where the imagination can run riot.) How much R tolerated crowds, especially strange crowds, I could never know. I know how well she hid her anorexia in the early days of our relationship, so I cannot know how genuinely involved she was when going to a gig or seeing friends in a pub.

5) Were there any environments in which you were unable to engage as a couple, or in which it was difficult – family get-togethers, meals out, parties, etc? How did this affect your relationship?

Any kind of night out; outside of the routine of home-made rum and coke and oats for supper, caused problems – at least when sober. A few drinks and R would either not care or be able to put up enough of a shield to pretend to not care. R initially was happy to attend get-togethers with my family but after we started living together they dwindled. This was partly down to anorexia.

6) Did she have particular habits surrounding food and eating; what were the symptoms that were peculiar to her? Was she strict about calories, counting them out; were there “good” / “bad” foods? Did she allow you to cook for her, and if so, how much control were you allowed to have over what was prepared?

R was incredibly strict on calories, counting etc. Again, initially I was able to cook for her and my parents bought her food, but once we lived together I didn’t cook for her and I could never do the shopping on my own. Even when giving her list to my parents, it was incredibly detailed so that they bought the exact packet or tin of a particular product – no substitutes tolerated. R would eat small, non-fat amounts often, rather like someone grazing over the course of a day. But I had absolutely no say whatsoever in R’s food. If I’d decided to make her a sandwich for work, I’m fairly certain it would’ve ended up in the bin and she would’ve bought a sandwich from a shop. She used to talk about how the boyfriend of a friend of her’s would surprise her with Spaghetti Bolognese and a bottle of wine if she’d had a bad day at work. If I’d ever tried that, I would have just made her bad day even worse.

7) Was she actively seeking help from professionals, from family, friends etc? Were you involved in any therapy together? How did this affect your relationship? Did her
mindset / behaviour change over the progression of your relationship – relapsing at times of stress and upset, improving when comfortable, happy, etc?

No, not during our relationship.
(Sorry hun, can’t add any more to this :P)

8) Did she have plans for the future, either with / without you? What did she choose to engage in – hobbies, work, relationships other than yours, to keep a “normal” lifestyle? How much were you involved in these aspects of her life?

Our hobbies very much meshed together. Hiking, writing, drinking… that’s basically our five years in a very pithy nutshell. We differed on a few things. R was/is a gym bunny, but I never classed the gym as a hobby, more something she needed to do (despite her constant protestations to the contrary). To me, the gym was an anathema, something people did to avoid the Great Outdoors. R’s work she kept separate from me, but that was genuinely necessary given the sensitivity of her workplace. Neither of us really made plans for the future – neither of us are/were interested in children and marriage. I remained involved in many aspects of her life, but I acknowledged that she was entitled to have friends outside of my sphere.

9) What were the reasons for your breaking up – did her illness have anything to do with it? Were there any particularly “bad episodes” in your time together, related to the illness? Do you still keep in contact with each other? Has her behaviour / mindset changed at all?

We had plenty of bad episodes together. Tears in supermarkets watching her breakdown when trying to buy a frozen pizza, tears when she felt like everything was overcoming her, and a lot of anger as well mixed in.
Our break up was a slow burn that became hot very quickly. As I said before, I don’t think there was a ‘Normal R’ and an ‘Anorexic R’. The two coincided. R, anorexic or not, could be difficult.

We’d had a scare or two beforehand, and our housing situation collapsing had tested us to the limit. The straw that broke the camel’s back and made me realise the relationship was over came about during a conversation where I speculated on spending the rest of the year at a house-share we had only just obtained by the shells of our fingernails (literally, we were hours from being homeless.) R’s response was ‘It doesn’t matter because I won’t be here.’

I analysed that sentence for a few days. Obvious points first – there is no mention of me in this scenario, no acknowledgement of how lucky we were to still have a roof over our heads together, and a general apathetic sentiment. At this point, R’s Anorexic Bassline was overpowering everything. She had been thrown out of her comfort zone – losing her home, possibly her job as well at the time. This would test someone without anorexia, but for someone who desired so much to be in control of her own destiny, and to always have a stable platform, this was all too much turmoil.

The strange part is that we were actually (relatively) secure, but it wasn’t enough. It was different and all R wanted was to be back in the old flat, not this new place with such maverick factors as a housemate who clearly wasn’t accustomed to the routinely habits of an anorexic in the same way that I had been conditioned over the previous five years.

We broke up because R wanted to be away at that moment, and I was emotionally exhausted. R had a selfish streak that reared up in times of difficulty, unrelated to anorexia. A desire to put on blinkers and run away from unfamiliar situations or problems rather than face them. Anorexia, and the desire for control, no doubt took that streak and turned it into an overflowing river.

I am no angel in all this. But I was ill-prepared. When we started living together and I began to discover the true extent of her anorexia, I realised how little information there was on dealing with someone with the illness. I found plenty of literature on how to identify someone with anorexia, even how to get them to admit they have it. But R had already done all that. She’d told me. So how do you help someone recover? The way the books and leaflets were worded, it seemed that acceptance was most of the way to recovery. Which, as I learned, is horse shit.

I also learned quickly that anorexia is 9/10th in the mind and only 1/10th the stomach. I had been fed (if you’ll excuse the tasteless – oh there I go again – pun) that anorexia was a disease primarily about not eating, thanks to endless reports in tabloid newspapers about various celebrities who looked thin and who were apparently chasing a particular size to further their career. It wasn’t enough to eat a pizza and then joke the following morning that the world hadn’t ended and I wasn’t suddenly 17st. I thought too logically about anorexia and nothing about anorexia is logical. I wasn’t so out of touch to not realise how often eating disorders are linked to trauma, but I didn’t anticipate a). how few anorexics just want to be thin to fit in dresses and b). how difficult it was to convince an anorexic that eating a Mars bar wouldn’t cause them to balloon like a character from Roald Dahl. That wasn’t the point, and I didn’t understand that initially. I didn’t understand that the very act of ‘forcing’ a Mars bar down an anorexic’s throat through logic was ultimately being harmful.

In the end, I settled for trying to be a calming influence, an arm around the shoulder trying to gently guide R towards some sort of salvation, trying to remain as neutral as possible and shielding her from any stress as best I could. I often thought that she needed a cattle prod more than a hug, but I didn’t and still don’t have the expertise to be able to apply the electric current without doing significantly more damage.

If I were to date someone right now with anorexia, it would be the same situation. I would slip straight back into the calming influence without actually knowing what to do or say to be more proactive. I would be better prepared for the bad times ahead, and in many ways that could be a negative thing. At the beginning, myself and R would go out to places because I thought that it was fine. We had a family Chinese meal and takeaway pizza because I thought she was cool with it. But she wasn’t. Now, if I’m dating someone with anorexia, I’m probably shying away from these experiences, knowing how miserable it is making her. And yet, I’m sure that these sledgehammer moments for R – even if they weren’t often repeated – played a small part in her ongoing recovery. A brief glimpse of life outside of food that is judged entirely by numbers. Would I treat someone new in my life, who also had anorexia, with too many kid gloves? Would I pamper and protect them to death?

We still maintain contact. R is still one of my best friends. I want for her to recover one day so that I can visit her and she’ll order Chinese and not have kittens about it. The anorexic bassline that chugs in the background isn’t catchy or engrossing – it’s lame and out of tune. I’d rather hear more of that lead guitar, which on the good days would rise above everything and sound more vital than a heartbeat.

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Full text: Interview with Brent Allard, “Coping Together: Carers and Eating Disorders.”

01/09/2014 at 19:45 (Anorexia, Personal, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

I approached Brent with the premise of this interview, on the back of a Twitter conversation. As is so often the case, a random fact dropped in had set off ripples; I had mentioned my (past and present) experiences with anorexia nervosa, whereupon he began to tell me of a former girlfriend who also suffered from its effects. Setting out a rough guideline of questions based around personal memories of behavioural patterns, and research into the study of eating disorders, I sought to frame Brent’s unique insight in such a way that would give a broader perspective of anorexia, and its effect upon relationships.

While my mother loves me by default (if I can go on assumptions here), her caring for me in those dark days might be considered a prerequisite of our familial bond.
Where my former partner, Jimmi, and Brent Allard are concerned, the responsibility originated from a different point of care.

1) How did you two meet: under what circumstances? Was it in a “neutral zone”, or through friends? Was she open about her illness, its symptoms, or did she try to conceal any parts initially (to try to appear “normal” / to keep two elements of her life apart) ?

We had a business writing class together (you know, memos, correspondence like that). One day we were told that our next assignment was going to be with partners. I didn’t know anyone in the class, it was always at the end of a long day walking around campus in Arizona, so I just wanted to get out and go home. When we were asked to pick partners I looked around the room and caught this girl waiting for my eyes to meet hers in the back corner of the room.

I never thought about dating a sorority girl at all, but eventually B and I would start walking out of class together and one day we finally decided to sit in the dining commons and talk. That’s when I found out she was from Hawaii and she found out I was from Massachusetts, and we found common ground being so far away from home and lonely.

Through her I learned a lot about snacking, that was healthy, she had good ideas, but getting herself to do the things was another. I learned a lot about health from her, and at times I thought it was too much thinking, like, we just needed to eat.

2) Was there a distinction between who she was as a personality, and the anorexia? How often did the lines blur, and what caused this to happen?

She was under a lot of stress. She became the sorority president (something her family pressured her into). When I met her she was a little overweight, but it didn’t seem to be anything unusual for being in college. I put on weight too, it happens. I didn’t know that she was recovering until she showed me the pictures of what she used to look like. She was always busy and took on so much to keep it that way. Most of the time I would see her after a long day and night and she’d be exhausted or high-strung, always on the move, stressing about a speech she has to make, all of her work, the sorority, and I’d kind of be there to take her away from it all. It was when our worlds outside crossed that it was no fun.

3) What was her behaviour like when with you? Did you live together, and form a “safe zone”? Were there any particular routines or habits she had, which affected your own behaviour (overly or subconsciously.)

She was a very picky eater, so when I realized that she wasn’t eating that much we started to talk about it. Being home more than her I would cook meals for her, always keeping in mind what she told me she liked. She went long periods without food, which was not normal for me. I began to eat healthier, but when we ate together it was like she was eating a fistful of food and I’d eat maybe three times as much as her. She told me that she was on a cottage cheese and fruit diet when she was really skinny, and she’d even count calories then. With me she felt comfortable and started eating better, but I wasn’t eating as much and felt weak.

4) Did her behaviour differ in public surroundings, from when you were alone together – particularly if food was involved? (e.g. attentive and affectionate, clingy and needy, standoffish, nervous, panicky etc.)

Yes. She was very insecure about herself in public with me. If my ex-girlfriend was around she would panic and get down on herself. I wasn’t drinking at the time, so going out with friends wasn’t something we were doing a lot. We were both healing, and in the middle of it we were helping each other in different ways.

I had no interest in my ex, but she was always convinced that there was something going on, even though there was nothing. She began going through my emails, and it wasn’t for over a year that my ex emailed me. I never saw the email, and I wouldn’t have responded to it, but she told me one night that she had deleted it… and another one from before. This became a recurring theme and ultimately was the reason we broke up. She never trusted me to be left alone even though I was trying to get into my writing and focus on being sober.

5) Were there any environments in which you were unable to engage as a couple, or in which it was difficult – family get-togethers, meals out, parties, etc? How did this affect your relationship?

Family get-togethers were the toughest. Her parents wanted me to have a drink, and that’s when I noticed her eating habits the most. Her father was very judgemental, and those were the times when I realized the pressure she had on herself. Steaks, hollandaise sauce, cheese, potatoes, alcohol, eating out at country clubs and canoe clubs a lot of nights, her father saying that every girl “could use a boost in the world” when referring to her breasts. Those were the toughest times.

I relapsed around her father and wanted to break up with her immediately, but a part of me understood her pain and that she needed me. I also needed her because it was a safe place. We were both recovering. When other people became intertwined in our lives, that’s when it got messy. I lost best friends over my decisions, I pushed a lot of people away, and at times it was really not healthy, the amount of time we spent alone, but I think we both needed it. I know I did.

6) Did she have particular habits surrounding food and eating; what were the symptoms that were peculiar to her? Was she strict about calories, counting them out; were there “good” / “bad” foods? Did she allow you to cook for her, and if so, how much control were you allowed to have over what was prepared?

She told me a lot about counting calories, and we began shopping together and focusing on healthy meals we could eat together. At first it was vegan, then sushi was introduced on occasion, then we moved onto eating chicken and veggies, and even would go out for a hamburger once a month. She wasn’t putting on weight, but she was healthy. She trusted me to cook for her, which she said was rare, but I also understood what she would eat and what she wouldn’t. She expressed having “tactile” issues as a kid, like if something didn’t have the right texture, she wouldn’t eat it.

7) Was she actively seeking help from professionals, from family, friends etc.? Were you involved in any therapy together? How did this affect your relationship? Did her mindset / behaviour change over the progression of your relationship – relapsing at times of stress and upset, improving when comfortable, happy?

I never noticed her relapses, but would see when she was stressed that she was high-strung and not eating as much. We did not seek any help. She had wanted to be a nutritionist when she first came to college, but went into marketing. She was very controlling about getting help, and I think it was her friends who helped her through it, but being in a sorority I could tell was not the best thing for self-image.

Ultimately we broke up and that was when she went back into a relapse. She had been going through my emails and there was one I had sent with a few friends who were wondering how to go about asking a girl out. I said, it’s not a big deal, watch this, and I was on MySpace, and sent a girl a message. In my mind there was nothing that was going to happen, the girl was leaving soon, I was sending a message that had no feeling to it, didn’t sound like me, I was merely showing my friends that it wasn’t a big deal.

Well, she went through my email, called my mom, freaked out, but she was 6,000 miles away, had left me when I said I just needed two more months to save up and we’d move back to Hawaii. She became very controlling over those two months and I was alone for the first time in years. We tried to talk about it, she said she was starving herself, I said that I’d quit my job and come be with her, I didn’t mean it, it was something stupid I was doing with my friends. One contention she had with the girl I messaged was that she was “fat” anyway. She took it very personally.

What I felt was unhealthy was that her support network were co-workers and old friends from home. There was never a neutral voice in the help she sought. Every little thing I did would be scrutinized without my side. Things became divided and whenever I met someone from work, it was like I was being judged. I never got a chance around them. Mainly they were older women.

I finally sought professional help in my late twenties, I don’t know if she ever did or if she did. She was good at keeping secrets, whereas I was an open book.

8) Did she have plans for the future, either with / without you? What did she choose to engage in – hobbies, work, relationships other than yours, to keep a “normal” lifestyle? How much were you involved in these aspects of her life?

A lot of her social life was through work and the sorority. Things with the sorority didn’t work with me, so her sisters began telling her to break up with me, but I knew she wanted to get out of it so she wasn’t going to break up with me. She attended work parties, none of which I would go to, but she became more dependent upon me for everything. She ended up hanging out with my friends, was in my home space (before we started living together) a lot, when I told her I needed space to do my work and writing, she would take it very personally, so I’d sleep at her place to put her at ease even though I loved my place much more than the sorority.

Eventually she had me move with her out of a place I had lived for over two years and kept it a secret from her parents. I didn’t know this, she did this again when we moved to Maui.

9) What were the reasons for your breaking up (if any) – did her illness have anything to do with it? Were there any particularly “bad episodes” in your time together, related to the illness? Do you still keep in contact with each other? Has her behaviour / mindset changed at all?

There were several instances when I realized that she was starving herself. Sometimes she would pass out standing up, but I’d see it coming, therefore becoming her “hero,” but I’d make sure we’d talk about it, although at that point I couldn’t say much because I had relapsed several times in our time together. I wanted out, told her many times that there’s someone out there for her, but she kept by my side even though her father didn’t want us together because I wasn’t going to make enough money, and I’d argue with him about everything, from politics to the way he treated women.

That’s when my drinking became more severe, and that is when I realized her habits. We were both serious athletes when we were younger. There is a lot of pressure on you to perform in both the classroom and in your sport, and some people become health nuts, obsessed with calories and such. I was just hungry all of the time, so I’d eat when I could get it, never had a problem with weight until I quit sports. We were both very proficient, captains, stars, leaders, it was serious for us.

We began eating more Mediterranean meals, we went grocery shopping together, shared recipes, made meals together. Those were the nice things. When it came to other people it would fall apart. She lost her sorority friends when she chose to be with me, basically, it was drama. She was president, figure that’s what happens in that kind of environment. They all thought she was going down a wrong road, but I was under her control, it was up to her. It was always up to her. Her family didn’t want us together, I knew it was not going anywhere, but she kept hanging on.

When we lived in New England together she put on weight, but it was truly the first time I saw her as healthy. She felt awful, and before fall and winter came around she left to be with her grandmother, or at least that’s what she said.

I remember her talking in Europe about all the food she was eating, how unhealthy she felt. This time it was the opposite. She was not eating, and when she found that stupid MySpace correspondence, it had already been two months of being apart, and I screwed up, but nothing came of it, except my girlfriend said she was now starving herself and that if I didn’t come out, it was over. She went to my mom first, which showed she didn’t trust me anyway.

The last time we talked together, we met in a mall food court. She told me that she was starving herself because she was getting breast enhancements. I said that I thought there was no need, she’s lucky to not have back problems, but she had money, so I wasn’t surprised, and all of the pressure from the sorority, her father, Hawaiian beaches, media, it all made sense, given what I know about her. She said she couldn’t change it, she already put a down payment on them.

I shook my head, said the obvious things like, “Starving is not the way to go about this. You look good.” She said I was the only one who thought like I do.
In the food court she began to nod off, and I caught her, for what was the third time. I don’t know how many times I told her to lie down, but I remember the falls. So I held her by my side, told her I was getting beans and rice, and then we ate. She felt better.

On the way to the airport we stopped at the health food store. She looked at the food in the raw bar and said, “We should’ve eaten here.” I told her, “You wouldn’t have made it. Sometimes you just have to eat what’s there.”

We don’t talk anymore. I saw her on Facebook being friends with all of my friends, my brother, his fiancé, and I knew she had told everyone what I did. I got mad at her because she wouldn’t friend me and told her she couldn’t be friends with my family and friends if she wasn’t going to be mine and I called her out on some things like inner-beauty, how her father rules her life, she needs to let go of things… you know, I laid it down. She reported me to Facebook authorities for harassment, even though it was just a long message or two. Shortly after I got a call from her dad telling me to leave her alone, that I’m a nice guy, I just wasn’t for her. That pretty much summed it up for me and was closure.

Even if she was contacting me, it was my decision to break up with her after a month. There was nothing to be jealous of, other than the fact that she was skinny (from drug use and cigarettes, drinking, and not much food). She couldn’t see that I didn’t want that and be confident being my girlfriend. I remember a time when she was away and came back to find out that I watched a pornographic video when she was gone. It was always something. Then she told people at work, friends, about my porn habit, and although it was obsessive, I was a young twenty-two year old spending all of time at home while my girlfriend is on the road. Holy crap, call me crazy, I have flaws. Every flaw was scrutinized, and made to be the worst thing ever.

It was truly maddening.

The good thing I took from it was the time alone. We loved going out to eat healthy food, doing yoga, taking walks after meals, going on weekend hikes, drinking lots of water, making teas, recycling, keeping things simple, but it would brink on obsessiveness. We’d go to movies, concerts, explore towns and take day trips. I wouldn’t drink, that was more of a social thing with us, but she didn’t see my relapses as relapses, so I guess I didn’t see her relapses either.

We were caught up in our own worlds of healing. I don’t look at it as a bad thing at all, but I feel like she doesn’t want to face that point in her life because it is rife with failure for her. Flaws. I embrace them, she doesn’t.

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Coping Together: Carers and Eating Disorders

01/09/2014 at 19:45 (Anorexia, Personal, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I remember the look on my mothers’ face, as the doctor uttered the words that would change our lives forever. Frozen, all colours and none, it was a diamond-expression, with every conceivable emotion flitting from one facet to another. It was autumn 2001, with a darkening sky and bitter winds, and I shivered in a thin top. There was a method behind this – a little tip I had picked up from reading a celebrity magazine. My mother, of course, had no idea, and I wasn’t about to tell her of all the neat little tricks I had developed over the summer of chaos, when my life spun down as the golden leaves outside, crackling now with a riming of ice.

After leaving compulsory education and starting at a new college (with the fear of loss nesting in my chest, watching others pull ahead in classes where I had once set the pace), getting involved in my first “serious” relationship and discovering that the abuse from the year before had dulled my appetite for sex – not that I was about to admit any of this – I had flung out my hands for some kind of equilibrium. An anchor. Anorexia had quietly slipped in and wrapped chill little fingers around mine; told me things, about how dieting for my school prom and upping my fitness regime, would make me a better person. Not just feel better, but be better. I could finally get some order into my life; concentrate, hard, on such things, while the rest of the world went on smoking and drinking and eating and losing itself in flab.

Such an innocent arrogance, a thin-ice superiority. I am above and beyond you – look how I disappear.

Listening to my mother’s voice crack, as she asked the doctor how long my treatment would be, I hunched over my chair with white knuckles. I was cold under the skin, in a way that no fire or radiator could warm; there were red welts to prove it. A slimy fish-oil guilt went sliding through my mind. I remember that vividly, fourteen years on. My Ma had not worked while caring for her family, me with two siblings; now we were growing up, and she had taken what opportunities came her way – especially after the divorce, when she learned her own mind. She had become the co-partner of a private firm, and was progressing at a rate which – looking back, with the heavy heart of retrospect – I wish I had been well enough, old enough, aware enough, to fully appreciate. There are a lot of things I have allowed to slip by without notice, being strung out on anorexia and its symptoms. The very last thing I wanted to do was deprive Ma of any business prospects, any chances of promotion. Most of all, that keen look on her face, whenever she talked about work. She looked great, too. A handful of boys in school often remarked upon it. They were only friends, only teasing – and still. And still.

But in that surgery, she was my Ma, full of the cold-fire defiance and steely tone (masking her fear) which I remember so well. I often wonder if I got the dagger-chin from her, lifted to face whatever challenge presents itself. My ex will know what I mean.
I was curled over like the leaf husks, aching with hunger right into my bones, with a low-grade sneer that told everyone quite plainly that I had no idea of the very real threat to my life. It didn’t matter when the doctor told me that this particular mental disorder, anorexia nervosa, held the dubious claim of the highest mortality rate among depressive illnesses. All I could focus upon was the white static in my head, telling me that they were going to make me fat. Even more unloveable, unnoticeable; while paradoxically, the shivering fear inside wanted just this, and more. It was, and always has been, the push-pull of wanting to be recognized and appreciated, while craving the fate of the blue ice outside, ready to vanish when you breathe upon it. Fade out of sight, out of mind, the control of others.

The part of me that was still Me, fretted over becoming a burden to my mother. The build-up plan that the GP was trotting out – the medication for depression, which he was ready to prescribe – was not going to be cheap. Ma supported us both financially, since I was no longer well enough to work my part-time job, and college was already dwindling into the lamplight haven. The Thing crouching in my head, didn’t allow for intrusions.

It also didn’t want me to have a carer. This would mean constant surveillance, the thwarting of starvation and purging symptoms (frenetic exercise, and shivering in thin clothes, being only the start of the coil.) The bigger picture – which I could not see, dialled down on these absorbing details – would be weight gain, of course, but with the parallel therapy treatment which would examine whatever thoughts and emotions resurfaced. For any of this to happen, I would need to be placed under my mother’s care, since she was the only person available at the time (though I would go on to wreak havoc in my Nanna’s comfortable routines, to give Ma a break for a bit – even the most beloved relatives are not spared, and anorexia has fingers that like to pinch and needle. I still grieve over that time, though our bond is now stronger for it.) All the carefully-learned, unwillingly-met responsibilities of early independence – choosing food, and its preparation, running under the lamplight each evening – would be taken away, allowing Ma to protect me from the panic attacks and obsessive-compulsive rituals which had begun to appear in earnest. We didn’t twig at the time how much this would be weight-relative. Had I known what the following two years would bring –

No, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference.

It’s only now, over a decade later, that I can look back on the reality of that situation. We were muddling through. The fear and tension were palpable in the house, with only the two of us living there, and so often going around in circles of constant-questions-asked (“how many calories in this? can I rest now? No, I’ve not done enough, I’ve eaten too much.”) Ma kept on working to support us, often pulling such wearying shifts; while struggling to understand how the child she had raised and nurtured from a baby, was now slowly killing herself. She told me some years on – when we were able to look back on those blue-black days with rueful smiles – that at my worst, she would wake each morning and expect me to be dead, either by my own hand, or the physical side-effects of anorexia.

Imagine living with that, day in and day out.

By 2003, the  illness had become too contentious. Our mother-daughter relationship was frayed to its edge, despite the help of other family members. I trusted only Ma, and my Nanna, to look after me “properly”, and then only in the (decreasing) lucid moments. Her own life had become a coil of watching for my self-destructive behavioural patterns. She had lost weight, and I noticed, with a venom that makes me cringe to remember. All of the normal hunger cues were long dead, replaced by a continuous gnawing starvation, which sparked into panic around meal-times (yet more questions, frantic pacing, surreptitious trips to the bathroom to throw away food. She knew it. She was just too tired to stop me.) My skin was full of holes, with patches in my hair. We tip-toed around each other in the house; I hated having visitors, because they disrupted my routines of exercise (I rarely went outside by then.) The world seemed a lost cause.

An inverted kaleidoscope.

The worry and strain of living in that state of constant alert, left Ma exhausted. She had little time, or patience, for others. Anorexia had driven us into a spiral of negativity. Her love for me – at her own admittance – was sometimes overshadowed by hatred for the Thing in my head. As Granddad once put it, “Hate the act, not the person.”
It was becoming increasingly difficult to do this; to discern the real Me from the illness. That was when we knew it couldn’t go on, that outside intervention had to step in. The guilt tore Ma apart at the time, but I know she did the bravest thing imaginable. She walked away, letting the professionals take over.

Of course I wanted to make her happy – I hated seeing her upset, but the guilt associated with this – the denial of hope that I could recover – drove me further down into symptoms. “I can’t please anyone.” Deadening all emotions, I became convinced that my mother would be better off without me.
In light of this, my local psychiatric team broke the cycle at the prevalent moment, before the thread was cut. I would receive care in a neutral environment, away from outside influences, where staff were trained to cope with anorexia and is barbed comments, to look out for its sneaky ways. This would give my mother a break, while effecting some actual change to my physical and mental well-being.

Recovery from an eating disorder does not begin or end overnight. It is a day-by-day, year-on-year battle for many, with each case a process of rediscovering the true self, in conjunction with therapy to root out the cause = effect of underlying factors. These will be reflective of the circumstances and personal history unique to each individual; though in terms of how symptoms are presented, the song remains the same.

It’s always worth considering the involvement of carer(s) in the recovery process. To my knowledge and belief, no one with an eating disorder can effectively contain and manage its symptoms alone, healing without help – the love of a partner, the spur of a close friend, the attention of a teacher or guidance counsellor. There are in/out patient units available across the country, with staff who are able to deal with mental illness in a professional capacity. For a carer, it is a matter of choice, of emotions, of instinctive protection. It is learning the basics from scratch.

I would certainly not be where I am today – able to function independently, work full-time, socialize, write articles like this one – without the support of family and friends, who continued to pop in to see me whenever possible (even if I didn’t want to see them), lending my mother a helping hand, reminding me of who I was in school. It’s been a long process, and at times, I think some were scared off by what they saw – afraid that they would do more damage, perhaps. Others continued to see the person locked beneath the ice; there was the boy from school, the one I loved and never found as my own, who would text silly stuff to make me laugh while in hospital. He also invited me out to house parties, and knew when to keep quiet if I just felt – for once – like talking.

It is of the utmost importance to remember the child, the partner, the individual, with character traits and preferences wholly separate from the eating disorder.

Significant improvements have been made to the level of support available for carers – giving strength to the ones who must be strong – since my time in hospital, with the internet playing an important and interactive role in disseminating advice, both personal and professional. Nothing gets down to the heart of a matter like a shared experience; family members, those closely associated with someone suffering from an eating disorder, can feel less alone when speaking out on carefully moderated forums that are (rightly) kept separate from those available for sufferers. Here, discussions on topical issues can take place, with the guidance of mods, in a safe environment built upon mutual trust. As a matter of principle, I have never asked my mother for her personal thoughts / emotional reactions concerning those days when she looked after me; all the information I do know, was volunteered some years later, when our relationship was on more steady ground, and I was in a secure enough state of mind to deal with the sometimes painful truth.

Organizations such as the UK-based charity Beat, host message board forums and online tutorial workshops, with the aim of raising awareness of signs and symptoms to watch out for, while providing crucial advice on how to maintain as relatively normal a life as possible around the eating disorder. I say “crucial”, because – above all else – life must go on. With convoluted routines linked to the practise of disordered eating (starvation, binging) and any subsequent purging (exercise, vomiting, etc.), a sufferer may isolate themselves in such a way that is detrimental to their relationships. It is important to recognize this for what it is, and to reassure the sufferer that they are a firm part of a unit, and not alone in recovery.

The person with an eating disorder is likely to experience periods of depression, anger, hopelessness and despair. Home may feel like a battleground with parents or partners feeling that they have become the enemy. It is important to remember it is the disorder that is taking over, and not the person who is changing.”

To this day, I am still somewhat at odds with the solitude I keep. In analysing preferences and tendencies, a fear-lockdown often occurs, should I question too much of what I do. I am left wondering how much of this is now a lifestyle, something so deeply ingrained as to be accepted for a faux-part of my nature. Would I have been a more sociable person, without the ED? Is it even worth asking this question? For the most part, the routines are linked to exercise – I am easier with eating now, having let go of a great many habits and compulsive routines while in my last relationship, though more out of necessity than any real desire to do so. Yet it was the impetus needed. They are not missed, and have not crept back in now that I live alone.

I was four years out of hospital when I met my former partner, Jimmi. Having edged back onto the dating scene through websites and social networking (these held a “distancing” effect, both reassuring and useful, in terms of maintaining “safe parallel realities” until I was able to cope with actual contact), I perceived myself to be close enough to an evolved form of myself, to try giving affection to another. The truth was felt in a low gradient of ego, a mind still woven about with thorns; I struggled to remember who I had been prior to the illness. What had I liked to do? Who did I respect, look up to, aspire to be? When I should have been trawling art galleries, going to the cinema, messing about with friends, I had instead been shuttled to and fro between psychiatric wards. Some quite formative years, as well as certain historical and cultural world events, will always be as black holes in my memory.

In 2008, using the internet for tentative steps out into the world beyond my room, it became habit to latch onto people so as to gain access to their thoughts and opinions, their preferences and dislikes. I had nothing of my own character to bring to the table, or so it felt at the time – I blagged it a good deal. This is probably true of us all, to some extent. Again, I must pull myself up – am I being too negative on myself? But I do feel like a social amoeba, sometimes.

Jimmi became something of an educative and influential force in my life. I absorbed his recommendations for literature, music, films and art, while giving back what I could – though it never felt like enough, and I lived in fear that he would look for someone more interesting, with a greater awareness of the world and its people. The latter, I still didn’t trust to any great extent, but he was a keen people-watcher, drawing inspiration from the idyllic pub gardens we sat in, the random encounters we often had while out and about. He would pull some contextual snippet out of the air, relevant to the situation, stirring up an old flicker inside me – that competitive streak, long buried inside a pillar of anorexia’s ice. I wanted my mind to work as swiftly, to be able to link one thought or concept to another in such a way that would make him laugh.

I went looking for literature that he had not read, watched films he had not seen – all of them parallel to his preferences. With each weekend visit, our discussions were fleshed out into debates, as I began setting out my own analyses, voicing opinions. I’m not sure how much he was aware of my hesitancy, the constant gnawing fear of upsetting him, or making a prat of myself. Again, this is probably true of any fledgling relationship, but it gave me more than a few sleepless nights at first … until I became comfortable enough to believe that he wanted me for Me. This would take a while, with stormy scenes between – misinterpretations, passive-aggressive warfare. His patience was balanced on a knife edge, with my inability to voice worries. Instead, he interpreted negativity through watching my body language (and is probably grinning in remembrance, if he’s reading this now) and my eating/exercise habits. No sooner had any upset filtered its way down, then meals would become a battleground and walks a forced march. My weight was a fairly safe barometer for moods.

Over time – and out of necessity, for the survival of our relationship – I learned to speak out with my voice, as opposed to symptoms. His company outweighed the need to keep silent.

I gained access to J’s mind, itself a rather private place. His interests became my interests, and it wasn’t long before I found myself thinking less and less about food. Hunger cues returned, with weight increases that saw the static-white in my head reduced to a background burr. This is not to say that the low-level moods and symptoms disappeared overnight – at times, they would rear up like wild beasts, particularly in response to a sudden change of plan or a moment of spontaneity, where my instinctive reaction was (and sometimes still is) to feel under pressure, as though control has been taken away. The illness saw J as a rival for my attention, and that nasty-bitch side of myself gave him some hard times. Our weekends together were always caught up in long-distance hikes, as compensation for what I saw as the laziness-crime of having slept in that morning, or stretching out to read in his back garden.

To put this into context – I was still underweight, with a disordered mindset, and no actual therapy in place. Having chosen to cut all ties with my mental health team, to go it alone in recovery, I was pinballing from one distraction to another, while maintaining a weight that felt “safe.” Our long walks required stamina – I needed to eat more, to reduce the gym exercise, so I could keep up with his strides. In winter, when poor circulation caused my blue fingertips to turn purple, then white, he would hold my hands and breathe on them to make the pain go away, while encouraging me to put on a bit more weight, so we wouldn’t have to keep making the stops.

Though we are no longer together, Jimmi is still one of my best friends, and continues to be an inspiration – which means he kicks my arse when he knows I’m dithering. Though I certainly had no intention of allowing him to become my “carer” from the outset, at times it was inevitable. There was only so much I could conceal. It is a mark of his patience – and the lasting effect of his company, on my mindset – that our relationship survived beyond the first few difficult months.
When I asked him to give his own perspective of those five years together, he responded with the style that has always been reminiscent of a leather jacket, whisky and cigars.

In similar fashion, I asked a Twitter friend, Brent Allard, to tell me of his experiences with anorexia. As is so often the case, a random fact dropped into conversation had set off ripples. I had mentioned my (past and present) experiences with anorexia nervosa, whereupon he began to tell me of a former girlfriend who also suffered from its effects. Setting out a rough guideline of questions based around personal memories of behavioural patterns, and research into the study of eating disorders, I sought to frame Brent’s unique insight in such a way that would give a broader perspective of anorexia, and its effect upon relationships.

While my mother loves me by default (if I can go on assumptions here), her caring for me in those dark days might be considered a prerequisite of our familial bond.
Where my former partner, and Brent Allard are concerned, the responsibility originated from a different point of care. I’d like to give them a voice, on this blog.

To assume that love alone has the power to cure anorexia et al, would be a gross underestimation of the influence a mental disorder can have on a person’s life. First and foremost, they must want to be well themselves – this requires finding an internal equilibrium that I cannot even begin to describe here, as much as this sounds like a cop-out. I still do not know how I survived, where others didn’t. Hitting rock-bottom in 2003, it seemed that there would be no escape, until the duty of care was taken from my mother’s hands – she had done all that she could. The physical dangers of an eating disorder are very real, while the underlying dark waters of depression can bring on a relapse, into symptoms perhaps abandoned years before, thought forgotten. It is then that the network of support found in friends, family, colleagues, lovers, teachers – the relationships that make up a life – are as necessary for recovery as psychiatric treatment. No one should feel that they are fighting alone.

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Gym Etiquette and Sociability: Co-Authored by Christopher Smith

18/08/2014 at 05:45 (Anorexia, Personal, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Flicking down my Twitter feed, I was caught on the iron-grin humour of a friend’s comment about his experiences in the gym – notably, those inexplicable fluctuations of energy, which carry such pleasure and such pain.
“Some mornings the gym feels good, some mornings it feels like attempted murder. If I don’t make it through the day, tell my wife I said ‘hi.'”

It made me pause, not only to chuckle in sympathy, but to reassess my reaction to his words. I first mistook his meaning for the atmosphere of (any) fitness environment, which – from personal experience spanning a decade, and several locations – is highly mutable in itself. Some days, the gym floor is soft with the faint tinge of music and light, while the chink of weights set back into their cradles is reminiscent of glasses laid out on a pristine table-cloth. Exercise is a peaceful endeavour, and I can retreat inside myself to become a single point of light in sifting darkness.

On other occasions, the music blares across the floor like a rainbow sluice of paint from upended pots; the machines are in full throttle, and the cacophony mingles with the thrum of voices and feet. The air is thick with sweat and bad manners. Some meat axe, having decided to commandeer half the rack of free weights, will leave a heap of dumbbells scattered across the floor like oversized Christmas baubles.
Me: “Can I borrow one?”
M.A: “I’m just about to do another set.”
Me: “How about this one?”
M.A: “I’m using that in a minute, too.”
Me: “….”
Image: http://www.pacificoceanfitness.com

The conversation that followed on from Chris’s initial tweet, wove an interesting thread of thoughts around subjects like public-area etiquette (particularly in the context of fitness health and safety), and exercise sociability v.s. solitariness. Chris told me of his active participation with other gym users, as a source of mental and emotional stimulus:

“Five years ago, I was one of the usual folks who has a gym membership that they paid for with good intentions but never used. My wife told me that I needed to start using it or we were going to stop paying for it… At work that day, I mentioned at the lunch table that I was planning to start going to the YMCA after work to just walk 2 miles on their track. One of the guys I worked with, who I didn’t know very well, said ‘I have a membership too that I never use, I’ll go with you.’ That’s how it started.”

What struck me, was the catalysing effect of company – the offer of this, from an acquaintance known only by work-association – on Chris’s decision to make exercise a regular feature. This was not always the case:

“I grew up pretty sedentary – never much of a sports player, besides paintball (which I didn’t get into until I was 16 or so anyway), so exercise has never been a regular part of my routine. Even paintball would be a burst of weekend activity, but nothing for the other 5 – 6 days.”

Incorporating a fitness programme into a daily / weekly schedule, can make exercise as easily accessible (and acceptable) as driving to work, or sitting for a meal. One of the main reasons people cite for skipping the gym / avoiding exercise, is lack of time; digging a little deeper, it seems that a sense of guilt for putting personal health and well-being before the needs of others, is a crucial point when it comes to taking steps for setting aside “me” time. However, factoring in the additional commitment of company (e.g. a gym buddy or track partner) with a regular time-slot, sees the chances of exercise falling by the wayside decrease; while the physical and mental benefits become more apparent, if social stimuli generates an energy boost.

Image: http://www.athletesgps.com

Exercise is not only about progressive physical fitness, after all – it’s the release of endorphins, during and after a workout, which are the body’s way of giving us a positivity kick:
“Improved self-esteem is a key psychological benefit of regular physical activity… These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain. Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. For example, the feeling that follows a run or workout is often described as ‘euphoric.’ That feeling, known as a ‘runner’s high,’ can be accompanied by a positive and energizing outlook on life.”

Chris found this to be true, once he had committed time to exercising with his colleague – though it is arguably through the realization of willpower, the achievement of fitness levels previously thought to be unattainable, which saw him take the most from this initial change in lifestyle:

“We started by just walking two miles a day, but after a while, Andrew decided we should start running. I hesitated at first, but the track at the YMCA is long enough that 12 laps is equal to one mile, and he suggested we start by running two laps. I didn’t think I could do it, but I did…and he kept pressing me. ‘Let’s do four this week,’ he’d say, and as much as I doubted I could do it I would reluctantly agree… The ecstasy I felt the first time I jogged 1/2 of a mile was amazing. I still remember it. That is something I never in my life thought I’d be able to do.”

Regular exercise is particularly beneficial for individuals suffering with depression and anxiety caused by obsessive compulsive disorder. In my case, it was the presence of anorexia nervosa, as well as OCD, which prompted my GP to issue a referral for my local fitness centre in June 2004. This provided a means of monitoring my (hyper) exercise habit, which was an acute symptom of the eating disorder for purging calories, and was often conducted in secret.

I was by that point an outpatient, with the still-frayed state of mind that demands stability, and craves routine. While the doctor’s decision might sound odd (my mother certainly thought so), the logic ran that – since I had always led an active lifestyle, and would continue to do so (most likely by excessive and surreptitious means) – I should be given the chance to prove myself responsible in a formal setting, under the eyes of qualified staff. Having completed my “allotted time” each day, I would then (theoretically) feel comfortable enough to relax, and focus on other activities. Pivotal to this decision was the maintenance of a healthy weight, to sustain mental cognition and emotional stability, and my continuation of outpatient therapy. Should I choose to let anorexia do the talking, and take advantage of the freedom given back, then my gym membership would be revoked and that outpatient status reviewed by my psych team. These terms were non-negotiable.

Of course, nothing is ever as easy as it looks on paper. The very nature of anorexia is that it will take an inch to run a mile. The real turning point came in 2008, when I took my first full-time job since leaving hospital. As a full-time member of staff in a health spa and gym, I now stood on the other side of the glass, with an insight to both formal training and fitness management. Team members were privy to the usual perks that subsidise such work: unlimited access to facilities, and eligibility to attend promotional training courses. These included Level 2 Fitness Instructor and Level 3 Personal Training, with the option to branch out into more career-based training such as Spin Class and Aqua Fitness.

Image: http://www.visionfitnessacademy.com

In July 2009, I took part in a fast-track Fitness Instructor course based in London. The experience proved to be a lifesaver. Returning to work, I found that exercise had become less about perfecting self-destruction with each session, and more about progression of the self as a whole. With weight gain and therapy had come the inevitable rise of memories and emotional fluctuations, which could no more be sidelined in favour of daily hard exercise routines, than I could cut off my own arm. I also had a developing relationship to think about, to make time for. This meant skipping solitary gym sessions, breaking out of OCD routines, and eating and drinking outside of my ‘safe’ environs.

With each relocation (I’ve moved around a fair bit since 2009) and new gym membership, I’ve made a point of giving staff some context, in a rough outline of my past-and-present mental health status. I am exercising on their premises, after all; should I push too hard in any activity, and pass out due to (for example) low blood sugar, the consequences will certainly affect others.

This is not only relevant to my condition: a recent study has further explored the theory that more exerciseis not necessarily beneficial for the heart, and that an “upper limit” might exist for those who are prone to heart conditions, or who exercise at a high-frequency / intensity. Exercise addiction has its own ream of dangers, particularly in conjunction with an eating disorder; but anyone can be vulnerable to injuries incurred through inadequate rest and/or over-training muscle groups, as well as depression, limited appetite, and decreased illness immunity.

Image: http://www.the-fitness-doc.blogspot.com

All this being said, there is a “comfort blanket” mentality to using the gym, which has kept me in a good place for some time. I still dream of one day owning a house with a basement gym – if only to play my choice of music, and avoid other’s sweat – but there is the lingering thread of wary precaution against returning to exercise that is out of the public eye. The allure of an addiction is that you are never quite aware of its presence until it’s too late to care, and I still hold a fear of crossing back into those bad old days of not staying still until bedtime.

Though I no longer work in a fitness environment, the mentality still carries over; it has the double-edged influence of allowing me to spot a potential accident before it happens … while feeling my hackles rise at the sight of a staff member using a machine as a couch, to text / call on their phone. It makes me feel a bit invasive, not to mention snippy; but I can’t get along with the “sloppiness” of this image, when staff – while not employed to be performing monkeys – are hired on the basis of their accessibility, as well as their knowledge of health and fitness.

Good gym etiquette doesn’t cost much. It’s the little things – pausing to pick up a scrap of paper towel dropped on the floor, reporting a water spillage to staff (or mopping it up yourself) – that make the difference. It’s about being aware of how bloody heavy those weights are before attempting a lift (and knowing how to do so safely in the first place), balancing this against awareness of the physical proximity of others. It may well be the alternative to someone spending time in hospital after they’ve tripped over a barbell, or caught an infection from someone who has decided to come to the gym when they’re down and out with the ‘flu. The disinfectant wipes placed at strategic points across the gym floor, particularly in “heavy sweat” areas like aerobic stations (treadmills, cross-trainers etc), are a must-use. If dispensers are empty, don’t be afraid to approach a member of staff for more. Those little sweaty angel-wings might testify to a good workout … but they’re also off-putting for the next gym member to come along.

On the subject of hygiene – Chris told me of finding signs stuck upon the mirrors of his own gym, asking members to not spit upon the glass. Exercise is, by its nature, rather vigorous, and projectile saliva can be an unfortunate side effect when pedalling at Mac 3, or running down the last mile on the clock. That being said, the average gym layout tends to position machines at a fair enough distance from all glass panels, for safety reasons. So it’s either an impressive range, or someone has an acute aversion to their own reflection.

Sanitary items were an occasional occupational hazard of my old job in that health spa. First thing in the morning, on an inspection of the female changing rooms, I’d find used/unused items left on the floor tiles. Since sanitary bins were in evidence by the toilet stalls, I can only assume that convenience was the pretext for such actions. I know I’ve wished my own ovaries a thousand miles away on more than one occasion, but have yet to take such an overt stand against the curse of womanhood. Maybe I’m missing a trick.

One aspect of gym etiquette which I enjoy (covertly) watching, is the sociability between new and old members. In the free weights section, it’s not unusual to see a veteran offer to spot for a newcomer; a bridge of trust is formed between two people who are testing both the fitness and self-awareness of the other. Between the sweat-strain of reps, the schadenfreude-shine of grins, and not-so-soft sounds reminiscent of a farm yard, there runs a cunning weave of words to pull together a unique form of companionship found in exercise. Rivalry seems to have a lot to say in the matter; of particular interest are the couples who, on a joint membership, egg each other on to greater efforts, gleefully setting weights higher and ratcheting up the speed of a treadmill, to watch their partner’s face turn pink. The way some words are crossed with knives, I imagine it’s all for the benefit of the other, as well as personal health.

Image: http://www.gettyimages.com

A change in routine is necessary to combat exercise-stagnancy, and the dreaded plateau. While the afore-mentioned regularity of a fitness program keeps exercise at the forefront of the mind, it can also create a complacent attitude:

“What I discovered is that exercising in the morning is awesome. Brad is a pillar of consistency – he had gone for the previous year by himself, though when he started exercising regularly he had an exercise partner as well. I drastically changed my workout routine to match up with what he was doing, and this is where I discovered that I have a love of freeweights and different lifting techniques.”

Exercising at an unfamiliar time of the day, and with a new companion, Chris broke out of his comfort zone by pushing against personal physical and mental “boundaries.” Had he stuck with only the familiar routine of running – an activity he admitted he was not overly keen on – there is the chance that he would not have made progress:

“Andrew loved running, and while I certainly didn’t (and don’t) love running, it felt good to be able to do it. It was also during this time that he and I both started getting complacent. You saw me mention that we were running it three-or-more times per week; that’s because we both started getting lazy. We were comfortable enough with one another that on days when we were both tired, we would decide to skip the run, or just do something “lazy” at the gym.”

Of significant importance when engaging in exercise, is to find an activity and/or routine that does not feel like exercise, but is closer to forming a strong pyramid of physical, emotional and mental stimulation. It must be both sustainable and dynamic – something to be enjoyed, adjusted accordingly when a certain level becomes too easy, that no more benefits are being made.

To leave the gym barely standing was once the daily target (I still wonder now how I made it through A Levels), and if even a scrap of energy remained, I had not done my work well. What eluded me – and still does, from time to time – was the sheer pleasure of feeling my body work as I wish it to. I danced ballet as a child, and those were times when I felt quicksilver with life, fluid and keen – proud of my appearance, as something alive and alert, symbolic of both strength and grace. If any concern for imperfection was felt, it was based more upon choreography than calories burnt.
Image: http://www.favim.com

Movement, for its own sake. For all my strict expectations, each gym session is not a foregone conclusion, but an achievement in itself. The fact that I – and others – have turned up at all, should not be overlooked.

I wonder now whether the reason for my doing so, is rooted in a continuation of this perceived idea of exercise-solitude. For all that I workout alone in the gym, I can guarantee being greeted by name at the front desk, while other members will take the time to initiate conversation with me as well as each other. Out in town, we exchange the gym equivalent of the “biker’s nod,” where a name might prove elusive but the face is indelibly familiar.
Along with the obvious physical benefits, it’s the positive social aspects of exercise which need taking into consideration, for a balanced lifestyle.

“The morning employees greet us by name, and at times when I’ve missed a few days, I always have people asking where I’ve been… With better physical health comes better mental health. It’s nice to feel a sense of belonging at the YMCA, with the morning crowd; that same feeling you get when you see friends you haven’t seen in a while? That’s the little shot-in-the-arm I get, every time I step through the doors and am greeted by some employees or other regulars. I start my day with physical activity, which gets the blood flowing and the brain working hard. I really find it worthwhile for the better sense of well-being, overall.”

Image: http://www.imacwallpapers.com

Special thanks to Chris for his insight, help, and limitless patience. Chris can be followed on Twitter at @Reckoner67

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Going the extra mile: Life with Anorexia Athletica

23/06/2014 at 05:45 (Anorexia, Personal) (, , , , , , , , )

With parents who had both served in the RAF, I spent my early childhood accustomed to a spotless house and routine lifestyle. This may not be the case in every such military household, but it was standard practise in mine to meet expectations fairly sharpish. We visited outlying family members each weekend when living in the UK, and spent holidays in the north with my Ma’s side, in Cheshire. Yet each situation would find me traipsing off at some point, to be alone, when the colours of each voice got too bright and the company too claustrophobic. I loved them all dearly, but there is always a need to be silent and still when irritation begins to itch behind the eyes. This generally meant hiding behind a floor-length curtain with a book, or clambering up a tree in the green-black woods surrounding my paternal Nanna’s home, or beating a path over the gorse and purple heather on the moors.

To be alone, was to dictate my moods and follow my own thoughts. For the most part, I was left to it – better this than to deal with a fractious and hyperactive child. From my first year to around age 9, I had suffered with universal eczema, and was hospitalized with red-raw skin while we were stationed in Germany. The bandages wound about my fists had not been protection enough; my nails sought out the ant-sting itch that seemed to go as far down as my bones. But for all that – or perhaps because of that – I was lively, over-eager to get into everything, and drove my parents to distraction with the energy of about three children rolled into one. It got to the point where, for fear I would never sleep at night (though nursery school would find me curled up and sparko on the reading-carpet), my poor mother was advised by the doctor to give me a mild sedative around bedtime. Anything to keep me calm, so that the frail skin under my bandages would heal.

Wandering off down the heat-cracked pavements, I didn’t give a thought to leaving a note behind for my parents; besides, I couldn’t write much English at the time. This absent-mindedness went on well into double-digits, until I grew old enough to care about such things as consequences, and other people’s feelings.

But until that point, there were mugs left on my windowsill with old apple cores stuck inside, and books strewn across my bedroom floor. There were midnight-wanderings with no shoes on my feet, to leave dark trails of mud and mulch on the carpet with my return. When asked to help with housework, or to wash up, or to get my homework in on time, I simply rolled my eyes and – as with most things that involve responsibility – wandered away.

Retrospect is a bitch.

Then came my parent’s divorce, and the breakdown of our family unit. Long silences, which weighed out heavy as tarpaulin full of rainwater. My ignorant behaviour became more than just an irritant, then. I will never forgive myself for making the already-fractured lives of my family, that much more difficult. As it was, something dark was crawling out of my mind.

Solitude became isolation.
Creative flare became stagnant silence.
Running for pleasure became training to die.

I turned in on myself, full of hate and guilt for the things I had done (or more comparably, not done). Each moment I was awake and alive, was spent going to every conceivable length to make amends to people … Or so I told myself, and keep on telling myself.

When an anorexic cooks for people, she will not feed herself. She will appear to be catering for the needs of others, while simultaneously denying herself nourishment. “Some persons with eating disorders may get vicarious pleasure from watching others eat, and enjoy being in control while others give in to the fattening foods.”

Whatever symptoms of anorexia nervosa and anorexia athletica – its compulsive-exercise counterpart – are made apparent, their instigation seems to stem from the same source: a desperate cry for order and control, in the face of chaos, emotions which cannot be expressed in words, or trauma. I cannot speak for every sufferer, but I was well aware – even while being admitted as an inpatient – that with the push-pull of Self vs. the Illness, I wanted someone else to take the reins for a bit; to take the onus off me. If I was forced back to health with the threat of being sectioned, I could (reluctantly) cede, and tell myself / the eating disorder, that I’d had no choice.

Then again, there was still the hot-eyed denial.
“Leave me alone. I’m doing just fine. I’m being healthy – isn’t that what everyone wants, to eat well and exercise? Stop trying to control my life.”

Always, other people’s opinions mattered more than my own.


Twelve years down the line, I am slowly extracting myself from the obsessions and neurosis that had fed into the cycle of subsequent compulsions, which in turn had strung up my life on an exhausting loop of starvation and over-exercising. To be perfect wasn’t really the goal; only to be strong, to put up a decent image of mental and physical independence, with the parallel hope that if I trained hard enough no one would want (or be able) to hurt me again. To block out all emotions, meant I didn’t have to give a damn about anyone or anything; the paradox of this being, I cared all the more with every kilo lost, so that the obsessive cleaning and silently-passive behaviour, were my compensation for the shitty attitude of my teens.

I would take that 20-year old by the hand now, and tell her that every adolescent acts up. But I still don’t think I would believe myself. We would end up laughing at each other, with a hollow sound.

I knew a girl on one inpatient ward who, when not required to, would not move an inch. She reluctantly joined us at the dining table, crawling through each meal and snack, until our spines were rigid. The system worked with peer pressure – a calorie drink would be issued to anyone did not or could not finish eating within a set period of time. While this may seem severe, it was essential for regulating the fear that was trying to grind us all down, and to re-teach us how to eat at what may be deemed an appropriate pace, before the food got too cold and was wasted. Aside from this habit, the girl engaged in no more behaviours that might “buck the system.” But to try to get her out on a group walk, or into any kind of physical therapy, was a wasted cause; she would curl into a ball and hide. The same thing tended to happen when she was called upon to express an opinion, on pretty much anything. She was a living shadow, a restrictive type of anorexic.

I was, on the other hand, what the doctor called a “purging type” – which basically means, I restricted calories but also used methods to be rid of them. In this case, exercise came to the fore – and believe me, I played that “I was hyper as a child!” card, as well as “But exercise is good for you!”

Which is true. But, as with anything, too much activity can be a bad thing, whether an individual has an eating disorder or not. Top athletes may work through sustained injuries, only to lose out in competitions due to lack of rest.

Put into the context of an eating disorder, compulsive exercise can be deadly. Which is why I find it startling that the illness is not yet recognized by mental health standards, considering its prevalence among athletes who engage in sports that necessitate a small body / lightweight frame. Training is bloody hard work – so is competition. I once danced ballet, and am well aware of the pressure to stay linear, to appear at once made of steel wires and seashell. To stay in control of racing thoughts, to quell any emotional reaction that might get in the way, I have always resorted to exercise.

That girl was, perhaps on a subconscious level, taking back control in whatever way was available to her, while steadily refusing to lift her voice. I was told by one member of staff that I ought to take notes from her, since it was usually my heels heard thrumming up and down on the thin carpets, pacing away the calories that were supposed to make me well. In practising this illicit exercise, I prolonged my stay on the ward. I wasn’t ready to relax my guard, to admit that the exercise I deemed “healthy”, might actually be doing more harm than good. For a person of well mind and body, such levels of activity would be a positive thing – but I simply couldn’t see my own fragile state. I thought the government guidelines for daily levels of activity in adults, should apply to me too – and then some.

I couldn’t understand how that girl managed to stay so still while so full of food, as I was; with a racing heart and shaking hands, full of (what seemed to me) useless energy, that might well have gone towards a bloody hard run outside. It was for this reason that I was taken off of group walks, and put onto 15-minute checks. My blood results kept coming back with low glycogen and haemoglobin levels – all relating to a low weight, in conjunction with compulsive exercise. The staff tried to keep me alive, while I systematically tore my room apart in a blue-black rage.

Now, twelve years down the line and with a broader perspective of health and experience, I think I know where that girl was coming from, and why the staff were so desperate to keep me still.

Anorexia Athletica – or Hypergymnasia / Compulsive Exercise Disorder, as it is sometimes known – occurs when an individual participates in levels of exercise that may be deemed excessive in light of its effect on social, physical and emotional aspects of life. When a woman takes an evening spin class in favour of sitting before the TV, this is a positive move away from a sedentary lifestyle – particularly if she has been inactive during the day.
But if the same woman takes a spin class in conjunction with not eating enough calories to fuel the exercise and as part of a rigorous training program / in favour of socializing / because she feels “fat/lazy” without the activity, then there are underlying problems, based upon a negative cycle of thoughts —> obsessions –> compulsions.

Post-hospital, my GP referred me to a local sports club to build back up my bone mineral density, skeletal muscle strength and cardiovascular health – though the latter wasn’t such a priority, since it would involve aerobic activities that tend to promote weight-loss, as opposed to the lean-muscle gains he wanted me to make with anaerobic exercise.
My mother was horrified.
“Surely that’s the worst kind of environment for you?”

She may have been right, at least in the early days. I was still fiercely competitive, and watched other gym-goers with the burning eyes of one who knows she can – must – do better. I abused the control that had been handed back to me, by over-training on just about every machine available. Unable to sustain the calorie intake prescribed while on the ward, my weight dropped, and with it my mental health. I stopped attending outpatient therapy, since I was determined to do things “my way” this time … and couldn’t conceive of the fact that what I was doing was in fact, wrong.

Needless to say, the fitness staff and my GP soon amended my view, and took a very stern hand. I was faced with a) Quitting the gym and the A Levels I had recently returned to, and going back on the inpatient ward or b) Listening to staff, and allowing them to take control by plotting out a very basic training programme, aimed at weight gain with the use of resistance machines – while keeping me well away from the treadmills and cross-trainers.

I conceded.

A few years later, working in a health spa, I was sent on a free course for training as a fitness instructor. I had no intention of taking such a role, but the experience proved to be of incalculable value for someone in my situation. I was given the chance to come at the obsessive-compulsions and rigid ideas surrounding exercise, from an entirely different angle. The course focused on the figurative dissembling and reassembling of the human body; on a four-day fast track, we learned the names of every single bone and muscle, their connections to one another and relevant exercises to work them to optimum strength; as well as finding constructive ways to balance mental, emotional and physical health (breaking this down to relationships, employment, leisure time, etc.) It was the equivalent of taking a clock apart to see how each part of the mechanism works, before putting it all back together and listening to the familiar ticking, with an awareness of what to do should something go wrong inside.

If seeing the DEXA scan results of my spine while in hospital was a tap on the shoulder, then that course was a kick up the backside, to keep going. I finally twigged what I was doing to my body – to the bones, muscles and internal organs. The knowledge frightened me, and broke another of anorexia’s chains.

However – there are still restraints. I am not completely in the clear. The crunch-point always comes when I try to take back control by refusing the voice in my head, if I wish to engage in other activities (socializing, dining out, writing.) It’s then that the Panic Button is pressed, with attacks of this kind never a fun experience. The results are invariably worse when there is an external force involved; then, my mind will go into a white-out lock-down. The blinkers will go on, and I become irrationally angry, frightened and desperate for escape.

I once elbowed my way out of a conference, because the press of bodies around me – the sound of all those voices – was too cloying. It felt as though my movements were being restricted, and I had to get out.

This is the reason why, since hospital, I have refused every job that does not involve some physical activity – the livelier and more structured, the better. Weight-training appeals to me on the same basis – the force of the movement vs. the control it takes to lift and lower smoothly, appeals to my nature. However, this does mean that I have put on weight. I must confess to you all that I am terrified, every time I look in a mirror and see this evolved adult form. It feels as though I have lost control; as though I have “given in”, though to who or to what, I couldn’t tell you.

But on the flipside, I am thinking more clearly than has been possible for over a decade. I’m writing this confession down in an article which, among others, I would not have dared to put into print. Not even for the fear of other’s opinions, but for the fear that anorexia would somehow “punish” me.
Now, I have creative sparks that give the same dizzying rush as completing a decent run.
I can wake on a golden Sunday morning, and not immediately leap out of bed to go and do Whatever. Lie-ins are a revelation.
And I have known love.

I wouldn’t have any of these things, had I not gained weight and recovered my health. That being said, it’s also essential for anyone in recovery to have therapy run in tangent with weight gain, to offset the inevitable mood swings and to provide a vocal outlet, as opposed to a physical one. Which is one of the reasons why I have gone back, after ten years without speaking to a professional about what is going on inside.

Still, there is that last wraith of the illness, hovering over my future with its sunken sullen eyes, and a malevolent whisper.
You’ll be unhealthy, if you slacken off the exercise.
Look at all the muscle gains you’ve made
(oh it’s cunning, isn’t it) – do you want to see that turn into fat?
But why does it all have to be so black and white?
It never has an answer to that.

My world now, the world of a synaesthete (this too has become more apparent, with improved mental health), is alive and vivid. It is populated with people, some of whom I care for and who care about me; others who couldn’t give a damn, and that’s fine too. I don’t need to please them, or to gain their attention.

There are days, usually after insomniac nights, when I am plagued by self-doubt and the need for reassurance, for someone else to take the reins. Other times, I am red-black with anger and fear, after someone has overstepped a mark and seemingly taken more from me than they deserve –
A look
A word
A hand on my shoulder.
Get. Away. From. Me.

But as a male friend recently brought to my attention, not everyone is out to get me. There are lives, experiences and emotions behind every word and action. A look may not be a leer. A word could be something other than flirtation or slander. A brief touch, is not immediately a desire to control my movements.

Which is what it all comes back to, I suppose. The sexual abuse in my teens, changed me in ways I am only now starting to realize, let alone understand.

But he was right, and I was humbled by his mild words. This passive-aggression is exhausting (adrenalin only runs so far), and is by turns infuriating, upsetting and off-putting for others. Now, with the new therapist, I’m working towards being less reactive, while simultaneously trying to break the last rigid routines around exercise compulsions. I want to try different careers, perhaps to work in foreign politics; to travel, to see the world as I dreamed I would in childhood, when things were so much easier. When wandering off down a sun-struck Mercy Street, veering off the beaten track of humanity and following cats around corners, was as natural to me as blinking, breathing.

To trust everyone at first glance would be a mistake. But to constantly prejudge people based upon personal experiences, would be a far worse outcome. My hope is that if I start laying off on myself about things that cannot be changed, then perhaps I’ll ease up on others, too.

Which is where I’d like to leave you all, with this thought: Where does the buck stop? When do we start taking responsibility for our own thoughts, actions and reactions? The obsessive-compulsive cycle cannot be based upon the future, because it is stuck in the mad rush of instant relief – before the fear comes creeping back in.

Recognizing the problem and asking for help, are the first steps forward. The rest is your own open road.

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