I was diagnosed with anorexia when I was 13. At an all-girls school where my peers were hypercritical of every aspect of appearance, periods and development before you were 13 were seen as a sign you were fat, you couldn’t control yourself. I remember feeling absolutely sick when I got my first period aged 11 because I didn’t know how I would conceal it when it came to our weekly swimming lesson. The idea of a P written in the register would identify me as openly as The Scarlet Letter. I think I actually faked illness to avoid it. I wore vests when I should’ve worn bras because I was so afraid of being a target, hearing someone talk about and laugh at me. The loss of my periods and flatness of my chest through anorexia was a relief, it anonymised me for a bit longer.
The loss of my periods and flatness of my chest through anorexia was a relief, it anonymised me for a bit longer.
Once I was old enough to take contraception, I discovered through trial and error (and some pretty awful mood swings) the existence of the mini pill. It allowed me to remove the inconvenience of periods, of that shameful identifier that I was heavy enough to be ‘normal’. I, of course, ignored the possibility that having an active eating disorder where I made myself sick and took laxatives would reduce the potential effectiveness, because I believed all the stories about anorexic people never being able to have children that my mum had told me to scare me into eating (ineffective on a 13 year old, unsurprisingly).
I always wanted two children. A little girl who looked like me and a little boy who looked like my other half. The face of the little boy changed as boyfriends changed, but the family in my head remained the same. My mum was 41 when she had me and I vowed to myself that I would be a younger parent than mine were. My mum’s age was another thing that made me stand out. People asked why my parents were so ‘old’ compared to theirs when I was growing up in the late 90s. I wanted to be a more invisible, normal type of parent. So I’d decided the ideal age to have two children was 27 and then 29.
When I’d just turned 26, I’d come out of inpatient treatment five years earlier. I had relapsed twice and I was living my life as a functioning anorexic with a pretty high dependence on wine to actually eat anything. Most of my friends drank a lot, it was kind of normal that I ate erratically and slept a lot. I’d been with an amazing boyfriend for over two years, we’d just bought our first house and I got a new job that actually led to a proper career. I liked the idea of marriage and kids (my boyfriend had actually started saving for an engagement ring a month after my 26th birthday) but not the idea of changing anything about the life that I liked. I had occasional periods, breakthrough bleeds they called them, but I never thought about structure.
For a few weeks, a couple of my friends had said I looked different in dresses (they thought I’d been doing something different at the gym) and joked maybe I had pregnancy boobs. I laughed at the time and ordered another double vodka because it was so ridiculous. After a family wedding one day, I remember just feeling so awful the next day that I couldn’t get out of bed. I’d never been able to shake a hangover before. So I took a test, just to be sure. It was negative, and I knew I was being ridiculous. But I continued feeling awful and went to the doctor saying I thought I might be pregnant, but it seemed crazy because I was anorexic and anorexic people needed lots of help to have children. My GP said that it was pretty unlikely, but take an expensive test to be sure. So I bought an expensive test and a bottle of wine to celebrate being absolutely sure. Which I didn’t drink for over a year.
I will never forget looking at the little digital window that said ‘2-3 weeks’ in my bathroom. You think that growing a baby immediately makes you a responsible parent and you have it all figured out because you love that bundle of cells. I started crying because I realised I didn’t know how to eat without drinking wine or throwing up afterwards. Or what I would tell my boss at the job I’d been excelling at for four months (and I’d wanted for over a year). Or whether my boyfriend would be ok with it, whether it would end our relationship. I’d talked about kids with my emotionally abusive long term boyfriend at university and he told me, deadly seriously, that if I unexpectedly got pregnant, he would end his life.
I will never forget looking at the little digital window that said ‘2-3 weeks’ in my bathroom. You think that growing a baby immediately makes you a responsible parent and you have it all figured out because you love that bundle of cells. I started crying…
So when my other half came home, he was really shocked, but we were both happy. We had no idea how we’d deal with it, but we wanted this. I decided I would eat properly, starting tomorrow.
It didn’t work like that. Every time I tried to eat, the guilt overwhelmed me. I tried to delay it, but always wound up in the bathroom, making myself sick until I cried. I cried every time, wondering how I could be the kind of mother that willingly hurts herself and her baby instead of wanting it to be healthy. It was formed around a bizarre logic in my head. All the baby books warned against ‘eating for two’, said you only needed to eat an extra couple of slices of toast. So in my head, eating more than that meant that my weight would rapidly spiral out of control.
It would be ok while I was pregnant, but what would happen afterwards? My mum has always been overweight and ever since I was old enough to remember, she has told me that she weighed nine stone until she had me, then she was unable to control her weight ever since. My fear lay in the idea that I would have my baby, then be uncontrollably heavy and either live like that, or relapse because I didn’t know how to lose weight any way other than anorexia.
I wondered if social services would take my child away from me if anyone knew what I was doing. But my protective instincts were greater, and I went to my new GP and nervously explained and asked for a dietician referral. I thought if I asked someone else to do a meal plan for me, it would be safer. By this time, I’d already lost weight because I’d stopped drinking wine (which turned out, was about 75% of the calories I’d been taking in). My GP refused. His reaction will stay with me the rest of my life and was the reason I began working as a campaigner in the future. He laughed and told me ‘if you don’t eat enough, your baby will eat you. You’ll both be fine.’
By the time I had my daughter, I had lost about a quarter of my body weight. I stood up on the bus at seven months pregnant and my pre-pregnancy skirt fell down around my ankles. I kept telling people around me I needed help, please help me, but no one listened because I’d been able to get pregnant, so I must have been fine. After all, amenorrhoea was part of the DSM IV guidelines at the time.
I kept telling people around me I needed help, please help me, but no one listened because I’d been able to get pregnant, so I must have been fine.
Eventually, a different midwife examined me after I’d had a fall, and was horrified when she could count my ribs. An immediate referral to eating disorders services was made and the first question they asked me was why it took me so long to ask for help (I burst into tears of frustration). I left work early and went on bed rest and my daughter was born a perfectly healthy 6lbs 4oz although I was totally emaciated and didn’t even have enough body weight to feed her myself. The first second I held her, I wanted to stop making myself sick. I never did it again (even though I wanted to). I stayed under eating disorders services and started to regain weight and settle into life as a family of three.
We decided to have a second child when our daughter was just over a year old. My siblings are much old than me and I wanted them to be close. The condition was that I engaged with eating disorders services and they monitored me closely. Which would have been great if they’d known how to cope with a pregnant woman who cried every time she was weighed.
When I was around five months pregnant, they discharged me ‘just until the baby comes, then you can go back to treatment’. This time, I was lucky. I had an amazing midwife who researched anorexia and fought tooth-and-nail for me to be referred to a specialist eating disorder obstetrician. I remained under her care, seeing her fortnightly until my son was born. She explained to me that she would help me safely control my weight gain, that baby weight was made up of baby, placenta, fluid and increased blood cells. She gave me her word that we would agree a safe zone for me and my baby and she would make sure I left the hospital in a body that felt familiar to me. I trusted her implicitly and she kept to her word. There were no diets or constraints, I just felt confident that she was looking out for me.
When my son was born, it was the end for my eating disorder. It didn’t disappear overnight. My daughter wanted to be a baby again and she refused food. That changed me. I realised I could be the reason my children lived a life just like mine, picked up all the wrong things from me. I read an article about a woman who said she realised her mother wasn’t beautiful when she heard her criticise herself and I had the option to change that for my children. They wouldn’t hear me criticise myself, they wouldn’t believe they weren’t amazing (because they are). It was a constant fight and struggle, but over time, I stopped caring if a yoghurt had two more calories than the one I ate yesterday and started caring about the family in front of me instead. I barely drink now and I eat food because I like it. It started as tiny, excruciating steps, but almost without me noticing, it became strides, then suddenly I was running.
When my son was born, it was the end for my eating disorder.
My children are 10 and 8 now. They are amazing, brilliant, healthy and beautiful. They are my biggest fans when I speak about eating disorders too. I campaign for eating disorder awareness to make sure that a GP never speaks to someone seeking help like I was spoken to again and that the impact of eating disorders in pregnancy is recognised and understood as it should be.