A moment with a muffin made me confront my eating disorder
Louise O'Neill shares her experience with Anorexia Nervosa and its devastating effect on her life.
Published 13/07/2014 | 00:13
I’m in a Starbucks in New York, waiting for the Q Train to resume service. I’m almost an hour late for work now, and trunks stuffed with thousands of dollars worth of designer clothing need to be shipped to St. Barts for an editorial shoot.
It’ll take a team of interns hours to check in all the samples, photograph them, carefully pack them, wrestle the heavy trunks into in the freight elevator, scream at the carrier for making yet another mistake that will probably result in the essential pair of Miu Miu shoes missing the shoot. They’re going to need all the help they can get – screaming at the carrier is not a one person job – this is not a good morning for me to be late. Yet I can’t seem to muster up the energy to care. I can’t seem to muster up enough energy to feel very much these days.
The scrape of a chairs leg against the tiled floor, a clatter as a plate bangs on to the table, and I watch as a petite blonde woman claims the seat next to me, shrugging her fur lined parka off and shaking snowflakes out of her fringe. She digs a chunk out of the muffin on the plate before her. Is it chocolate? I lean over to get a better look. Or blueberry? She takes another bite. She seems to do so unthinkingly, scrolling through her iPhone at the same time. It seems to be just a muffin to her.
I cannot have a muffin. I am so hungry. I cannot have a muffin. I am so hungry. I cannot have a muffin. If I have a muffin, I am weak. If I have a muffin, I have failed.
I return to my magazine, a photo diary chronicling the bodies of famous women, their shame circled in lurid red, and I nurse my steaming hot green tea in my mottled hands. Then an image flares in my mind, bold, beautiful, vivid. I see a young girl, about sixteen, standing in front of a classroom in a bikini. There is a bald woman in a black cloak wielding a red marker like a blade, drawing circles around the ‘defective’ body parts while a classroom of teenage girls watch, all chanting Fat, fat, fat, fat, fat, fat. I grab my journal from my handbag and I start writing, the words almost indecipherable as a story pours out from the depths of me, idea after idea bleeding on to the page. I write for what could have been two minutes or two days. I fill that notebook. Then I put it away, shove in to the bottom of my bag, try and lock it away from wherever it came from. The story seems unhappy, and I am not unhappy. I am successful, I am living in New York, I am working for one of the biggest fashion magazines in the world. I am thin.
I’m not sure exactly when I decided there was something wrong with me. It wasn’t when I was a child, that’s for sure. I spent a great deal of my time staring at myself in the mirror marvelling at how beautiful I was. (Photos taken at this time do not corroborate this view. I looked like Shirley Temple, if Shirley Temple had been stung by a swarm of wasps and then smeared chocolate all over her face.) Things changed when I was a teenager. Weight, fashion, discos, and boys all became regular topics of conversation and I developed a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t going to be much good at any of them. Then a family member died when I was fourteen. Over the next few days neighbours brought vats of soup, homemade apple tarts, freshly baked scones, and I couldn’t swallow anything. I had lost my appetite.
Weight loss, a period of exercise obsession where if I ate an extra apple outside of my meal plan I would sweat on my exercise bike for three hours, bulimia so rampant that in my first year of college I was vomiting up to eight times a day, waiting until I saw blood mixed with bile so that I would know that I was ‘clean’. Anorexia again. Hospitalisation at the age of 21, lost my place when I didn’t meet the requirements of the weight restoration plan. Life resumed. I still restricted my calorie intake if I was feeling anxious, and I occasionally still made myself get sick if I had a big meal, but I was fine.
Then I went to New York to embark upon a career in fashion. Within a week of starting at Elle, the weight began to drop off. I was stressed, working long hours, staring at images of beautiful, thin models all day. I felt slow, stupid, like I wasn’t catching on fast enough. I would look at myself in the mirror at work and think, you are so worthless, I can’t believe you broke that Marc Jacobs hat earlier, you have to be the best at this, if you’re not the best then what’s the point? I felt frustrated with myself, so disgusted with everything that I represented, that I wanted to shatter that mirror, take a piece of the glass and cut myself open from head to toe. I couldn’t stand to be in my body, I needed to get out of it, I needed to escape. So I did what I always did – I plastered a big smile on my face, I acted like a ‘nice girl’, and I stopped eating. I didn’t think about all the frustration and the irritation when I was watching the number decrease on my weighing scales, as my fingers caressed each of my visible rib bones, aching for attention beneath my wafer like skin.
You look amazing. My colleagues told me as I nabbed the freebie jeans that no one else could fit in to.
Are you OK? My parents asked me when I came home for a visit, their faces pinched and grey.
I’m fine, I trilled. I could barely see them, two shadows in my periphery vision, my mind focused on the half a roast potato I’d eaten with dinner. All I could think about was an escape route to the bathroom without their noticing. That’s the thing about addiction, it makes you selfish. I became like a black hole, devouring those that got too close, sucking the bone marrow from them until I could discard them, dried up and useless. Those were the ‘lucky’ ones. Everyone else I kept at a steady distance, in case they, saw behind the mask of I’m fine, and peered into the depths of nothingness that I really was. Addiction makes you lie. Addiction makes you hate being around other people because they’re wasting your time with their lives and their problems and their stories when you could be engaging in your favourite ‘activities.’ Addiction will leave you isolated and alone, but you won’t care because Addiction will make you think that you don’t need anybody else anyway.
It’s the night before I’m about to go back to New York. Everyone else is sleeping, and it’s just me and my mother still awake. We’re supposed to be watching TV, but all I want is for her to go to bed so that I can raid the fridge. I haven’t eaten all day and I’m ravenous, and I need her to leave me alone. She asks me a question, my answers get shorter and shorter, clipped, staccato, laced with hatred that she would dare to still be sitting here, in my way. That’s all she is to me at the moment, an obstacle that must be removed. She turns to me.
-You said you’d try.
-What are you talking about, Mom?
-You said you’d try.
-I don’t know what you’re talking about.
-You said you’d try.
She didn’t cry, or yell. Her face was like a sheet of plastic had melted over it, blank, pale, and dead-eyed.
-I didn’t... I don’t know what you’re on about.
-Do you think I’m stupid? Stop lying to me. Just stop lying to me.
Silence, a thickening of the air between us.
-I promise, Mom. I promise, I’ll try harder. It’ll be different this time.
She stood up, walked past me to go to bed. For the first time in my life, there was no hug or a kiss on the forehead. Her voice is weary, hollow as if someone has left the air out of her lungs,
-I just don’t believe you anymore.
That night, for the first time in years, I cried, and I meant it.
I wish I could tell you that from there on in that it was easy. I wish I could tell you that it was akin to a Eureka moment, a St. Paul on the road to Damascus type of enlightenment. But I would be lying if I told you that, and I’ve done enough lying to last me a lifetime. It was an unsteady type of progress, backwards and forwards, small little blips and mishaps, a few small relapses, another bigger one that lasted a couple of months, but I kept trying and trying and trying, taking the same dogged determination that had helped to whittle my body to its bones and using it to try and become more healthy. I started creating support systems around me, valuing how wonderful my parents had always been to me, becoming closer to my sister. I opened up to friends, was more honest about how I was feeling, and those friends did not turn away from my ‘weakness’ in disgust as I had feared, but offered me support, and opened up to me in turn. I started taking regular yoga classes, listening as the instructor encouraged us to stay connected to our bodies, to treat them with love and respect and kindness. I went to acupuncture once a month, I meditated every morning, I practiced mindfulness. I began to write again, and what would become my debut novel, Only Ever Yours, began to take shape.
My diet took a little while longer to regulate. I still found myself turning to food if I felt upset, either by skipping the occasional meal or by eating four bars of chocolate in a row. My New Year’s resolution for 2014 was to stop weighing myself daily and to eliminate refined sugar, and I’ve found that so helpful. It’s boring, I know, but I eat three balanced meals a day and two healthy snacks. I’m very conscious about the food I eat; its lots of leafy green vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, locally sourced meat, fish. I only eat meat from my father’s butcher shop, O’ Neills of Clonakilty, since he’s the only one in town who sources their cattle in Inchydoney and has their own abattoir. By doing so I can forget about food, it becomes merely fuel, something that I can nourish myself with now that I trust that I am someone who is worth being nourished. I know it can be difficult – believe me, I know – but I think that the sooner we can accept ourselves and our bodies as they naturally are, the happier we will be. That doesn’t mean that we should just ‘give up’, but maybe we could change the focus to how we feel rather than how we look. Is the food I’m eating giving me enough energy to do the things that I want to do? Are these feelings of stress and anxiety helpful to my emotional well being?
Of course, what works for me is not going to work for everyone who is reading this article. Some might feel deprived if they cut out sugar, and start binging as a result. Some might need to go gluten-free, or dairy-free, or decide that they want to become a vegetarian. I would hate to set myself as some sort of guru. I’m still just trying my best to figure out what my body wants, and needs, on a daily basis. Not to get all psycho-babble on you, but this my journey. Yours may look entirely different. And that’s OK. As Dr. Seuss so eloquently said, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.’
- Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill, is published by Quercus, €8.00