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Life with an eating disorder 'Don’t wait for rock bottom'

Louise* writes about her struggles with an eating disorder and her daily push for recovery.


I AM TRYING to come up with an engaging first line for this article but it’s a difficult task.

On the one hand, I am a perfectionist. And so the responsibility and determination that I feel to do this topic justice means I want every single sentence to be meaningful and brilliant.

On the other hand, it’s hard to concentrate on the opening because only a fraction of my brain is available to focus. You see, I have an eating disorder, and at any given time, a large proportion of my mental capacity is running a series of calculations totally concentrated on calories, food and my body.

You know that phrase “I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast”? Yep, not applicable. I can tell you what I had for breakfast every day for the last month if you’d like, although trust me that would be a seriously dull article.


When I first toyed with the idea of writing this article it was during one of my more romanticised moments where I pictured submitting it with a gracious smile and a recovered mindset. I envisaged a flawless and inspiring article that I would present with pride. Perfectionist much?

However, as it turns out I am working on changing my criteria for perfection. I have desired perfection in many ways over the last few years but perhaps more than anything else, I have yearned for the perfect moment to recover.

Early on, long before I would ever use the label of an eating disorder aloud, there was a part of me that recognised the unhealthy relationship. But the cognisant and aware part of my brain was muted by the power of the disordered habits I had adopted.

I convinced myself I was being dramatic and that I didn’t need to let anyone else know. In fact it was essential that no one else could ever know.

In moments of overwhelm, I reassured myself that my “food issues” were only temporary and would simply last until I lost weight. I convinced myself that I would see it through and seek support in the future only if or when things got really bad.

Because I was certain that only at rock bottom could I afford or deserve to recover. And so for a very long time, I waited for that perfect moment. I waited for that idealised epiphany or defining incident that would deem me deserving of help.

Here’s the truth of that perfect moment. It never happened. Throughout three complicated years of an unhealthy relationship with food, I never had a defining moment that set me on the path to recovery.

The beginning of my recovery journey was not initiated by a burst of lucidity. Instead, it was the result of little seeds of possibility that challenged the disordered thoughts characterising my mindset. Some of these were seeds of questioning I sowed myself but others were of clarity sown by perceptive friends. In particular, it was the unwavering patience of one friend that planted the idea of attending a therapist. Her gentle prodding and support included sending me the link to the Student Counselling Service in college and it was through this link that I scheduled my first appointment.

It was through the same link that I cancelled said appointment 48 hours later. But the idea was there. That seed of potential had not just been planted but it had also taken root. And even though it took me over a month to muster up the courage to schedule a subsequent appointment, I booked another slot. And it was this appointment that I attended and for the very first time acknowledged aloud, “I think I might have a bit of an issue with food”.

And here I am now and I have reached the halfway point where I am both scared at the idea of never turning to the control of my food intake again, but I am utterly terrified at the idea of food controlling me for the rest of my life. And for all that I have tried to dance around the darker side of it, there is a reality that the rest of my life faces harm the longer I disregard what my heart and body need.

Everyday torment

The list of things I have done during my eating disorder is both long and bizarre. I could tell you about the times I’ve checked the calories on baby food, the occasions of spitting out food in a sudden burst of regret, or about Googling the calories in toothpaste. For page after page, I could go into explicit and borderline boastful detail.

But honestly, I used to read articles like this one. On the one hand, they made me feel less alone and less ridiculous. Yet on the other, much more dangerous hand, I absorbed them like an instruction manual. I approached articles like this one as an inspirational how-to guide of tips and tricks.

So I could write about all of the habits I adopted but it would be more harmful than helpful. Instead, I would rather tell you how miserable it is to possess this knowledge. I would rather tell you about a racing heart, dizzy spells, and cold hands that just won’t warm up. I would rather tell you that I know the calories of the food I consume as innately as I know the sheer exhaustion of trying to track everything that crosses my lips. Trust me, it is a fatigue that no hours of sleep can ever replenish.

Every single day I wake up and I am thinking about it before I have even climbed out of bed. I am thinking about it every evening before I succumb to sleep and hundreds of times in between. But this is an internal process. To the unknowing bystander, I look nothing like the traditional depiction of an eating disorder. Perhaps at this point, your eyes have wandered this article in pursuit of an image. But it is to no avail. Because you will find none of the before or after photos that often accompany pieces like this.

There are a few reasons for this. The notably anonymous byline is the obvious first rationalisation. But beyond that clear point is another key explanation. Even at my lowest weight, I was not medically underweight. Nor did I at any stage, fit the visual stereotypes of an individual with an eating disorder.

‘But she looks healthy’

I recognise that I am privileged to exist in a body that fits societal norms and averages. If one were to look at me, they would see a perfectly healthy individual with no indication of anything to arouse concerns.

My body is healthy until proven unwell and like innocent until proven guilty I have a case to make. To the outside world, my body will neither illustrate nor explain my difficulties.

Despite the heavily ingrained media connotations and cultural depictions, an eating disorder is not a singular aesthetic. The vast majority of eating disorder sufferers remain within the healthy parameters of weight or BMI scales. And while anorexia may be the most well-known form of an eating disorder, Bodywhys points out that it is Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED) that are most prevalent. 

In many ways, an eating disorder is an addiction, but unlike alcoholism or a drug addiction, cold turkey is not an option. I have to learn to foster a relationship with food in which my day is not dictated by my daily calories. I cannot simply cut out food and honestly I don’t want to.

Counterproductive and bizarre though that might seem at this stage in the article, I love food. I adore the chocolate muffins from Caffé Nero and the Biscoff doughnuts from Offbeat. I love 3 am Wowburgers from Camden Street and cheese toasties from horse-boxes-turned-coffee-carts. I love Italian dinners with my friends and bottles of wine that accompany glorious desserts. I love all of these foods and more. But my eating disorder doesn’t. It weaponises each of these experiences and turns them into a guilt that generates sufficient anxiety to fuel me through another day of weighing meals or piling up wrappers.

Like any perfectionist, I am prone to absolutes, to black and white binaries of one or the other. Having an eating disorder has played with these boundaries. To put this not-so-brief article, into a concise outline, I am not recovered but I am recovering. For the first time in a long time, I am actively engaging with my disordered thoughts in a way that challenges them as much as it challenges me.

Fighting to break free

For a prolonged period, it felt like a game of cat and mouse. But this is the kind of game in which everyone loses. Because when eating feels like cheating, there can be no winner. I craved an empty stomach and felt at my most powerful when I was surviving off less calories than a toddler requires.

But I wasn’t powerful. I wasn’t actually in control or disciplined or strong or any of those things I came to associate with restriction. Instead, I was snappy, resentful and short-tempered. I was unfocused, irritable and exhausted. I was lying to the people I loved and I was lying to myself too.

This article has been on my mind for some time. And I questioned and second-guessed writing it. My brain battled with a combination of imposter syndrome and an unwillingness to admit that I am not at the place of recovery I intended to be when writing this. But the very fact I am not fully recovered is perhaps my greatest motivator for writing today.

There are many articles about eating disorders written by those who have recovered. And there are scarily easy ways to find the words of those in the depths of it too (speaking from experience, it’s a Google search I wouldn’t recommend). But sometimes the eating disorder discourse skips over this muddling through the middle part. Yet this stage is real too. This phase of one foot leaning towards recovery and one foot leaning into the illness is valid. It is impossible to go from one to the other without taking hundreds of tiny steps in between.

I recently gave my Fitbit to my friend which felt like a motivating step forwards. And then on my first Fitbit-free day, I went on three walks and skipped two meals which felt like a discouraging step backwards. On my second Fitbit-free day, I desperately dug out my old sports watches with a combination of shame and despair. And then on my third Fitbit-free day, I voluntarily handed my friends my old Fitbits (plural because despite my only having two arms I somehow had three tracking watches), with a combination of apprehension and pride.

Continuing to push forward amidst these back and forth debates feels exhausting and contradictory. But the crucial perspective behind sharing this conflicting mindset is because it disrupts the notion that recovery can only be linear.

Recovery is many things but linear is not one of them. It has its highs and lows. It has the moments when it seems possible and those when it feels too overwhelming.

But more than anything I have discovered it has hope. Recovery has hope for a life where my brain is mine again, and I no longer share it with a toxic voice. Recovery has hope for a life where spontaneity becomes my friend, not my foe. And above all recovery has hope for a bright future, and it has trust that I will get there.

Every single eating disorder is unique. But just because it is individual, doesn’t mean it has to be faced independently. Regardless of what your body looks like, there is help out there. The weight on the scales is irrelevant when compared to the weight an eating disorder places on your shoulders and nobody deserves to carry that weight alone.

I have a team of people (family, friends and professionals) who help me share the weight. There is no one way to recover, no one route to take and no one timeframe to achieve it in. There is only us and our totally unique paths to the future.  And it’s a future we deserve with every fibre of our existence.

Louise* has withheld her real name to maintain her privacy. If you are living with an eating disorder, you can get help at Bodywhys, Samaritans and via the HSE

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