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Column I can’t pinpoint the moment I decided I wasn’t going to eat anymore

Suffering from anorexia as a teenager, Jenny Conlon’s weight dropped to just 6 stone before. While speaking about her experience for the first time is difficult, she says if it helps one person, it will be worth it.

I THINK THE turning point for me was being given the choice by a GP and child psychologist to either start working with them to improve my eating or be admitted to hospital on a drip. That was when I knew I wasn’t getting away with destructing myself any more. That was 11 years ago when I was 16 in Transition Year in school.

I can’t actually pinpoint the moment where I decided that I wasn’t going to eat anymore. But what I do know is that being anorexic is not to do with celebrities and magazines as most people assume, its way way deeper than that. It’s about control. If you can’t control what’s happening in your life, the one thing you can control is what you put into your body. It’s completely emotionally related. My parents were splitting up at aged 16 and I don’t think this was a very happy time for me. I’d say this was one of the main triggers. If you assess any person suffering from anorexia, you will most likely find that they’re going through a turbulent time in their personal life and most like unhappy.

I ended up at 6 stone

I was a bit over 9 stone before I started that really dark journey and ended up at 6 stone. I don’t think anyone who has not gone through it can understand it. It’s a silent disease that slowly consumes every aspect of your life. Your self-confidence is so low and you feel disconnected from everyone around you. It’s a really lonely dark place and became a struggle on a daily basis. It’s like a fight within yourself and pretty much self torture.

I was never really a breakfast person so I never ate breakfast. My mum would always make lunch for me so that would go straight in the bin at school. And then dinner was always a home-cooked, healthy meal. I did eat my dinner most days with my Mum and my sister but that’s all – I was eating once in 24 hours. I think I was lucky that I did actually eat dinner as that included all the nutrients that I needed so my hair and nails were always healthy enough considering what I was putting my body through.

To those that are close to you, everything appears normal. Those who are close to you can’t see the weight loss as quickly as they see you every day and it’s not as obvious. Eating becomes militant and it takes extreme self control to sustain and deprive yourself of food on a daily basis. The hunger pains start to get easier as time goes by and the hunger becomes your strength in the warped mental mindset that you’re in.

Friends and family find it difficult to understand

It’s often difficult for your friends and family to deal with as they are unable to understand it. I would find articles and print outs in my mum’s room as I knew she was reading up on it and trying to understand. My friends in school were aware that I wasn’t eating and this was obvious at the lunch table when I would sit there with an apple and I was constantly chew chewing gum.

It’s a difficult conversation for your friends to have with you as they’re not going to ring your parents and tell them you’re not eating at 16. A lot of girls in my year suffered from some form of eating disorder and I think there are many different levels and reasons why girls suffer. Sixteen is an awkward age for any child and couple that with family issues and other teenage struggles and it’s not a happy picture.

At the start it’s actually quite a satisfying feeling and people tell you that you look great when you initially lose a bit of weight. You then will start to like the feeling of losing weight so you keep doing it. I used to actually go into Boots in Stephen’s Green and weigh myself on the scales at weekends. I would actually quite enjoy the feeling of seeing the numbers decrease on a weekly basis. We didn’t have a weighing scale at home.  I think that’s the control element taking hold and you can see that you’re fully in control of your body. I think you actually find comfort in that feeling of weight loss to begin with.

I was so cold, because I was so thin

I remember feeling and being freezing the whole time. One summer that stands out was when I went to French college for three weeks. I was about 7 stone going there and during my time there, I basically would eat special k with water for breakfast and maybe a small bowl of soup for lunch and something like salad leaves for the dinner. I hated that time, the canteen and having to sit at a table with other people watching what you’re eating.

I actually came out of that French college early as my weight was just getting worse. It was July and everyone else my age was playing sport in summer clothes. I remember having jumpers and jackets on and using a hairdryer to make myself warm. I had no energy and was just pretty much fading away. But you can’t see that yourself. It was such an awful time thinking back on it.

I also went to a wedding that same summer,  I bought a shawl to put around me to cover up my arms thinking it would make me look bigger but you really can’t fool anyone when you’re that thin. Below is some pictures of me from that time, I’m on the beach when I was on holidays in Cyprus, I was probably just under 7 stone at that time. It shocks me looking back on it now as you really can’t see yourself like that when you’re in that dark place.

There was one weekend my aunt came over to Dublin from London for the weekend. She probably hadn’t seen me in a year or before I became anorexic and when she saw me she just broke down crying. I remember thinking, I wish people would just mind their own business and like stop looking me up and down and monitor what I’m putting in my mouth.

You can’t tell an anorexic person to eat something. In fact, they’ll do the opposite and it’s not the way to deal with it at all.

Family and friends encourage you to eat more and that’s because they think they’re helping you. I remember when I was recovering from anorexia; family and friends would stare at me up and down every time they saw me and watch everything I was eating. This can be highly frustrating as it’s bad enough trying to recover without people monitoring your every bite. This is why I feel the only way to a full recovery is to seek professional help. Friends and family will be an amazing support but realistically you need to establish the main root of the cause as it’s nothing to do with food.

I was told that I could ruin my chances of having kids in later life

When I reached 6 stone, I’d have weekly meetings and a weigh in with the GP. I would genuinely think that if I ate a sandwich and downed a few litres of water before I went that I’d weigh more. I probably tried every trick in the book to make myself heavier.

My periods had stopped for about six months and I was told that I could ruin my chances of having kids in later life if I kept going the way I was going. At that time, I was 16 so kids were not really a priority so I didn’t care at all about that.

The GP had also told me a story of how he had seen a girl in her 30s die a few weeks before in hospital as she had refused to eat. He assured me that I could also head down that road and that hospital would be the next stop for me. I thought I could trick him and put on a bit of weight so that I could just stop coming to see him and then I could just lose it again afterwards. He would also take blood tests from me and because my arm was so thin he’d struggle to get a vein to draw blood. I shudder at the thought of it now as it was such a bleak time.

He was really an amazing GP and I built up a great trust with him so I slowly began to play ball with him and make a slow, tough, emotional and challenging but stable recovery. It wasn’t easy to get back things back on track but I slowly started to put back on weight. It’s a very scary process. The thought of not fitting into certain clothes is daunting as you don’t want to feel like you’re losing the control again.

The fear of putting on weight

I think the fear of putting on weight and not being in control is what stops those from recovering. But once you ease yourself back into a routine by adding things back in bit by bit, things will then start to progress. I think once you’ve been anorexic, little elements will stay with you for life. It’s emotionally triggered but with support and professional help, recovering to full health is really achievable.

I’ve never spoken about this openly until now, it’s been 11 years so I feel happy and comfortable to write about it. I’ve been lucky as I’ve not had any serious side effects from that time although one thing that I still suffer from is really bad circulation in my feet.

I wrote this article because if I help even one person by writing this then that will be an achievement in itself. I think if I or my family and friends had read something similar when I was going through it, it might of helped, just a little bit.

Jenny Conlon is an Irish journalist living in London.

If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this article please visit – The Eating Disorder Association of Ireland or contact them on LoCall 1890 200 444 or their Teens Online Support Group.

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