Actually, I’m a nearly-30-year-old, performing well in a relatively senior professional role. I’m more likely to read the New Statesman than Glamour magazine. I like expensive wine and going out to nice restaurants.
I’m also anorexic.
It’s not a word I ever use to describe myself, and just writing that sentence was a really difficult thing to do. I was diagnosed just over a year ago, but in hindsight I’ve probably ‘had’ it for the past nine years. I think that one of the main reasons why I never realised I was ‘ill’, and why many days I still find it difficult to believe that I have this condition, is that I just don’t fit that stereotypical image we all have of people who have anorexia. The incongruity of telling friends how I’d been referred to the specialist Eating Disorders Service whilst eating a burger and chips in the pub sums up for me the difficulty I have of reconciling myself to my diagnosis.
Unless, however, there is some massive conspiracy between health care professionals who are out to convince me I’m suffering from an illness I don’t really have (which even I accept is unlikely), then anorexic I am. I’ve been told that other people with the same BMI as myself are admitted to hospital for re-feeding. Certainly clinicians would expect me to suffer from slurred speech, have trouble following conversations and be unable to do more complex cognitive tasks such as problem solving because of my low weight.
One look at my career history to date would demonstrate that this isn’t me. Turns out I’m just very good at being anorexic.
That in itself causes problems though. Where is the incentive to undertake treatment you don’t want (and don’t think you need) when you’re already leading a relatively happy, relatively successful, independent life? It is true that I have done (and continue to do) physical damage to my body by being this underweight. It is also true that the stress and anxiety I experience around food and eating, and the time and effort it takes me to exert the level of control I feel I need around food and weight, is something I could do without. I’d love to be able to go out for a meal without worrying about it for days (and sometimes weeks) beforehand and beating myself up about it afterwards. I’d love to be able to go on holiday, or even attend a work function, and actually think about the things I was doing and seeing rather than obsessing about what I was going to eat when. Ironically, I do think it would be easier for me to accept the illness and get treatment if I was more ‘disabled’ by the disorder.
Friends, employers and family who I have told about my diagnosis have been nothing but supportive. I know that some, however, have also struggled with the fact I’m not a ‘typical anorexic’. They see me eat all the time, and I don’t seem ill, so how can I have an eating disorder?
I know that some, however, have also struggled with the fact I’m not a ‘typical anorexic’.
The stereotypical image of the schoolgirl hypnotised by airbrushed celebrities has also made it more difficult for me to tell people that I have this illness. It is somehow infantile and immature, and not something that sits well with the professional image I would want to portray. It’s embarrassing to be a grown-up with anorexia. Surely I should just grow up and start eating more? Do I really not have more serious things to worry about?
In common with many people who have an eating disorder, I am body dysmorphic. A skewed perception of my size and how I look makes it hard enough to accept I might need to put on weight; not fitting with the cultural stereotype of an anorexic makes it even harder. I believe passionately in the work that the Time to Change Wales campaign is doing, and hope that maybe, one day, if enough people come forward and share their experiences we can banish these harmful stereotypes and come to recognise that mental ill health really can affect anyone.
Alexandra McMillan is the Head of External Affairs for RNIB Cymru