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Possession

Helen's account of how she became anorexic

It all began in September 2002 when I was twelve years old. My younger cousin and I were exactly the same height at five foot tall and both of us regarded ourselves as overweight. We were upstairs at my grandmother’s house when Andy said, “Look how much fat I can grab”. Certain that I would seize less, I playfully retorted, “Look how much I can grab!”. But then I realised to my horror that I had grasped at least twice as much as she had. Still I found it hard to believe; it couldn’t be true! So I tried to prove myself wrong. We went to the bathroom and I asked her to step onto the scales. I can still remember what they said: “7:7”. So then I stepped on and the reading rose to “7:12”. I was shocked. What was so upsetting was that I hadn’t spotted how fat I had become. I already considered my cousin to be a little on the plump side - but if she was plump, then what was I ??? That was the defining moment for me - the instant when I decided that I had to do something to change my appearance. At first I thought I would try exercise because I had a friend who claimed to be bulimic and I didn’t want to end up like her. However, exercising might take too long and my weight was monstrously high. So I decided that when school restarted the following week, I would begin a diet and continue with it until I was happy with myself.

As soon as we returned to school I began to skip lunch. It was hard to do at first but by the end of the first week I’d lost two pounds - and this really strengthened my resolve. After a couple of weeks I’d lost six pounds, but what I didn’t realise was that I was beginning to become obsessed with the scales. Everyday after school as soon as I would arrive home I’d sneak upstairs to see if I’d lost any more weight and, if I had, it always brought a smile to my face. In November 2002, things really started to change for me. Instead of reducing by two pounds a week, my metabolism had slowed down and now I was only losing one pound per week. This was extremely disappointing so in order to recover my momentum, I decided that I would skip breakfast as well. Unfortunately, my mum had started to become suspicious because my weight had fallen dramatically in the past two months and I was constantly running back and forth to the bathroom scales.Possession

Still, skipping breakfast was easy to do because mum lives with her boyfriend whereas I live with my dad and my little brother, Jack. By the time mum had driven up from her boyfriend’s house in the mornings to eat with us, I would have just enough time to lay out a bowl with a small amount of milk in it and, to add authenticity, a few flakes of cereal and a spoon. I would also put out a cup with a small residue of apple juice in it. Sometimes mum would arrive a few minutes earlier than usual and that would be a very stressful moment for me in case she caught me laying out ‘the remains’ of my breakfast. On one occasion, I was too slow and I actually had to eat it. I felt really guilty about this and so, as extra insurance, I started to exercise each morning just in case mum would arrive earlier than I had expected. At least then if I had to eat something, I would not feel so bad about it. During this time, I used to be ravenous by the end of the school day and would look forward to 5.00 pm when I would allow myself a proper meal. But sometimes my resolve would weaken and instead of fasting at lunchtime I would binge on a Milky Way. After such occasions, I would have to compensate for my weakness. So, instead of doing two hundred sit-ups a night, I started to do four hundred in order to try and teach myself a lesson.

Finally the Christmas holidays arrived. On Christmas Eve, my dad and I went to visit a friend, Bethany, who I hadn’t seen in two years. By this time, I had lost 19 pounds and weighed “6:7”. I was pleased with my appearance but, to my amazement, Bethany was much slimmer than I was. In fact she was positively borderline thin. Any feelings of pride or well-being that I may have had before we arrived just vanished. I felt awkward the whole time that we were there. I was fascinated by her legs because when they were flat out on the chair that she was sitting in, they were twice as slim as mine. I became very self-conscious and had to slightly raise my legs off my chair so that they would seem nearly as slender as hers. It was like a competition to see who could be slimmer - and I was determined to win it. The next day, Christmas day, my brother and I were so excited. But whereas Jack was full of eager anticipation to see what Father Christmas had brought him (he was eight and still a believer!) my excitement was mingled with secret dread of the Christmas dinner. I knew I would have to eat it because mum was becoming so worried about me. She was suspicious about my attitude to eating because she had seen it all before. It had happened to her sister when she was 16 and she had never really recovered from it. Although her sister, my aunty, isn’t anorexic any more, she has suffered from severe depression ever since and has become an alcoholic as a result. But fortunately for me and my anorexia, dad kept telling my mum that it was just a phase and that I would grow out of it sooner or later.

That Christmas day was a very difficult time for me. There was so much to eat; three whole courses or, in my case, three half-eaten courses. Firstly, there was the soup. But that was followed swiftly by the main course which was so large that most of the adults were unable to finish it! And finally there was pudding - a terrifying combination of huge servings of trifle, Christmas pudding and fruit salad. Throughout the meal I knew mum was watching me closely so I had to make a brave attempt at indulging myself. Despite the happiness all around me, I sat at the table feeling scared, uncomfortable and very alone. Afterwards, I felt so guilty and longed to get home so that I could steal myself away from prying eyes to the sanctity of my own room where I could do the five hundred sit-ups which I hoped would help me to come to terms with what I had eaten. At the beginning of January, shortly before my thirteenth birthday , my weight had fallen to “6:3”. Apparently I looked very slim and so agreed to stay at that weight in order to keep my mum happy. In reality, of course, I continued to diet and to exercise with ever more intensity - and with increasing caution and secrecy. By the end of January my weight had fallen to “5:12”. I was so proud. I had now lost a grand total of two stone and it was beginning to look like all my effort and hard work were finally paying off - although I was nowhere near finished. I still had five stones and twelve pounds to play with and so there was a lot further that I could go. But this happiness was very short-lived. I was, of course, obsessed by weight - not just mine, but anybody’s weight with whom I could compare myself - generally my friends and my cousin Andy. I had been talking to my grandmother about Andy’s weight and, to my dismay, she insisted that Andy was not 7 1/2 stone, as I believed, but was really only 5 stone. This really confused me because last time I had seen her weighed with my very own eyes, I was certain that she had been 7 stone 7. She looked the same to me so how could she only be 5 stone now? I began to fear that I had not read the scales correctly. If so, then I could also be wrong about my present weight and, therefore, I might still be fat! I vividly remembered that time when we had weighed ourselves together back in September. What a buffalo I had been then!

I became depressed once more and lost much of the sense of pride and well-being that I had gained from having shed so many pounds. All of those weeks of struggle and effort all came to nothing. I had come all of this way just to find that my cousin was still lighter than me - and she definitely wasn’t thin! All of these fears and doubts caused me such distress. I became what my friends would call a “stress head“. The only way that I could cope was by setting myself the new target of proving everyone wrong. I had to make them see that I was right - that I was much slimmer than my cousin.

If all of this detail about pounds and ounces seems trivial to you, then you are unlikely to have had any experience of anorexia or any other related eating disorders. Pounds and ounces are as important to an account of anorexia as heroes and villains are to the thrillers that I like to watch on video with my dad. They filled me with both fear and excitement and thrust me into a world of lies and deceit. To try and put my mind at rest, I invited Andy up to my house on the pretext of hanging out together but immediately persuaded her to check our respective weights on our scales. I stepped on and the dial read “5:11”. Then she stepped on. I was nervous but when I saw the reading of “7:10”, I felt so relieved. I knew that my Grandmother had been terribly mistaken about Andy only weighing 5 stone. I couldn’t understand how she could have been so wrong about something so important but, nevertheless, I was overjoyed, though I tried not to show Andy the delight I felt at being nearly two stone lighter than she was. But if I felt this good at being just two stone lighter, then how much more ecstatic would I feel if I could increase the margin to three. Suddenly my new target became “4:10”. I was excited and exhilarated at the prospect.

Then, finally it hit March. By this time my obsession about not eating extended to not drinking as well. It was becoming increasingly difficult to shed weight and I was becoming ever more depressed and frustrated. I was weighing myself by the hour and so could instantly see the effect of anything that I ate or drank translated into pounds and ounces. Every time my weight seemed to have gone up, it was more pain than I could bear. Towards the middle of the month, another friend, Sarah, invited me up to her house. I was undecided about going even though she was good fun to be with. I was just too obsessed with the scales and lacked energy a lot of the time but in the end I agreed. On the way out to her house, my mother and her boyfriend decided that we would eat at a restaurant near to where Sarah lived as mum was insistent that I should eat something in her presence. Of course, eating was the last thing I wanted to do but I felt under pressure to abide by her wishes and so I ordered some pasta and water. As soon as the food arrived I almost cried knowing that I would have to consume it. I ate about three pieces of pasta and took a sip of water, then went off to the toilets. Luckily no-one was in there so I began to do star jumps and sit-ups just outside the cubicles. Mum came in and caught me. I can still remember the look of horror on her face and the tears she was trying to hold back. Now she knew for certain that I was anorexic and I knew that she knew it. I just knew it! And it frightened me because of what she might do as a result of her certainty.

By the time we left the restaurant, I think all I had actually eaten was about six pieces of pasta and I had drunk about a quarter of my bottle of water. I can remember crying in the car and mum saying that I should go home instead of going to Sarah’s house. I don’t know how I convinced her to let me stay with Sarah but I managed it somehow. But we were agreed that I had to finish off the water. As soon as I arrived at Sara’s house, and mum had driven away, I poured the rest of the water out of the bottle. Then I rang the doorbell. I was greeted by the baby sitter who only looked as if she was fifteen. She must have thought that I was manic because once in the house, all I could talk about was my weight. Almost immediately, I manoeuvred my way up to the scales in Sarah’s bathroom which I remember admiring because they were even more accurate than mine.

I had been at “5:7” for about a week and my metabolism was really sluggish. However, when I looked at these scales I discovered that my weight was actually “5:6.7” - despite the fact that I felt that I had just eaten what I considered to be an enormous lunch. I was so proud and so happy. Only nine and a half pounds to go until I would be 4 stone 10. But even then in this temporary moment of triumph, it occurred to me that maybe I could do better than that. After all, I had lost two and a half stone since September. Was a further nine and a half pounds really enough?overweight Throughout that night before bedtime, my Dad kept ringing me up on Sarah’s house phone to see if I was okay. It sounded as though he was crying but he tried to disguise it by saying that he had a cold. I didn’t believe him. I kept asking him what was wrong but after the second, third and fourth time he rang, he convinced me that he was really okay. In actual fact he was crying. Mum had told him all about the episode in the restaurant toilets and now he finally realised how mistaken he had been. All this time he had thought that my skipping meals was just a teenage fad - and now I was in the grip of full-blown anorexia. But I had no idea that I was anorexic. So, in order to celebrate my weight being the lowest it had been in the past seven months, I decided that I would do four hundred sit-ups on the bed regardless of how much I was annoying, and even scaring, Sarah. To my amazement, Sarah objected to this notion so I persuaded her to let me do three hundred instead. After that, we both fell sleep.

The next morning I woke up with hot and cold flushes. I had a headache, felt dizzy and sick, and my throat was in agony. I remember making it as far as the stairs just outside Sarah’s bedroom and then falling over and bursting into tears. Sarah’s mother must have heard the commotion because she came out of her room and brought me a glass of water. I took the glass from her hand and because I felt so unbelievably ill I tried to drink it. But, at the same time, I was terrified of how much weight this would add onto me and how much it might show in my stomach. Sarah’s mother coaxed me and eventually I took a sip. As soon as the water hit my throat, the pain intensified. I had no idea what was happening to me. Eventually, with her encouragement, I finished off the glass but my throat was still torture. However, at least the headache, flushes and dizziness eventually went away. Sarah’s mother then offered to make me some breakfast. I immediately refused, claiming that I wasn’t hungry. So I sat and watched Sarah and her family eat until it was time to go swimming.

On reaching the swimming pool, my intention was to swim for the full hour and a half that we would be there but the water felt like ice and I lacked so much energy that I could only manage a couple of lengths. And yet, only a month before, I had been swimming with my dad and had swum three quarters of a mile. While I had to rest, Sarah carried on swimming. I couldn’t handle her being able to swim more lengths than me because I knew I was a stronger swimmer than she was. Even worse, if she carried on, she would burn more calories than me and that was a competition I couldn’t bear to lose. Once the session was over, Sarah’s mother offered to buy me lunch but yet again I refused. Already I had forgotten about the near-fainting fit I had had earlier on that morning at the top of Sarah’s stairs. Although Sarah’s mother seemed uneasy about this, she could not force me to eat or drink so she just let me carry on watching the swimmers from the balcony while they ate their meal. When I watched those people in the swimming pool, I felt sick with envy because they were burning calories and I wasn’t.

During the drive home, I persuaded Sarah into asking her mother not to come into my house and tell my parents that I had not had anything to eat or drink all day, apart from the cup of water I had drunk in the morning . Sarah agreed with me that it wasn’t any of her mother’s business. She begged her mum not to tell my parents because I had told her that they would “yell” at me but unfortunately Sarah’s mother didn’t quite see it the way that Sarah and I did. My plan failed and Sarah’s mum insisted on seeing my parents anyway . Mum answered the door. I knew that she would be worried and upset so I headed straight for the lounge. I was very tense as I waited for the inevitable confrontation about why I had not eaten or drunk anything. I kept sneaking up to the lounge door to listen to what Sarah’s Mother was saying to my mother. I could hear her talking about the near-fainting incident which had happened in the morning. I felt desperate, praying that mum would just ignore what Sarah’s mother was telling her. And I felt a real sense of injustice. It just wasn’t fair that she should take it upon herself to tell my mother what had happened. She didn’t live here so what gave her the right to pry into my business? She didn’t even know my side of the story.

But I was also frightened of the repercussions once Sarah’s mother left so I contemplated sneaking out through the back door and into the garden at the rear of our house. But then where would I go and what would I do? Besides which, I still felt so tired and so weak. And, after all, it wasn’t as though I had had nothing to eat or drink all day. I had had some water (which I was feeling really guilty about) so what more did they want? Once Sarah’s mother had left, I was summoned into the kitchen and asked what I had eaten for lunch. I began to lie but they already knew the truth. Dad was obviously trying not to cry. He offered me a drink of water and suddenly I began to panic. I started to hyperventilate and then I began to cry. But he still held out the glass to me. I started to yell at him: “I’m not drinking it! I’m not drinking it! You can’t make me!”. Both mum and dad were tearful and looked so sadly at me - at what I had become. “Why?” dad asked me, stifling his sobs. “Why can’t you drink the water?” “Because it’s weight!” I screamed. “IT’S WEIGHT! IT’S WEIGHT! IT’S WEIGHT!”

Much later on, when I was well again, my dad told me that he had never been really sure what the anorexia was - illness or entity. But whatever it was, it had got me. I was well and truly in its possession.