'I got out of the shower and frightened the life out of my mother' - Clelia Murphy on recovering from anorexia
Clelia Murphy opens up about her denial of anorexia as she tells Niamh Horan about her long road to recovery
Dancing is hungry work. Clelia Murphy knows this all too well as she tucks into a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast before another gruelling day training for Dancing with the Stars.
It's a heartwarming sight. Especially given that we've come here to talk about her teenage battle with anorexia and bulimia that left her body a shell of its former self.
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"My periods stopped, my hair fell out, my teeth were rotten," she says, refusing to hold back on the ugly reality of disordered eating.
"It's an addiction. It's an abuse of food. I was abusing myself and getting a high off of it."
The flame-haired beauty is probably best known for her former role as Niamh in RTE's Fair City.
But having left the show, she now feels freer to talk in a way she hopes can help others who are struggling with the disease. "My attitude now is I am not worrying about Fair City or representing [anyone], I am just being myself."
For Clelia, her body-conscious thoughts started between the ages of four and seven.
"In school I was always made to play the boy because I was taller. I never got to play the girlie parts in the school play. I played the prince. So it was always this sense that I was bigger and that I wasn't dainty."
She began comparing herself to girls who were naturally skinny and dainty and remembers "looking down at [my] stomach in a swimsuit and feeling embarrassed".
She also recalls the stick-thin actresses of TV soap Dynasty as part of the cultural backdrop of her teenage years, along with the era of heroin chic poster girl Kate Moss, whose infamous phrase "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels" blighted a generation of impressionable young girls. "I was looking at them, thinking that's what I am supposed to look like," she recalls.
In fifth year, her eating disorder slipped in with sneaking simplicity.
"I literally just went on a diet," she says.
She is slow to detail her starvation process, fearing it may be taken as motivation for anyone in a vulnerable position.
"You have to be careful. The anorexic mind works in a very weird way because they are not well. It's an illness. I remember reading what other people did to lose weight and thinking, 'Oh I can do that too'," she says.
She used to put water on her cereal, ate half a sandwich at lunch, and then picked at her dinner - "I cut it right back."
Illustrating the malefic way in which girls can spur each other on, she describes how, after dropping two dress sizes, people would tell her she looked amazing, followed religiously by the question: "So how did you do it?"
Another girl pulled her to one side and said: "People are going to try and tell you you're too skinny - you're not."
At the time teenage magazines were detailing the latest fad diets.
Clelia says: "I remember saying to myself 'I need to be eight stone' and I remember going out walking and my mantra would be 'eight stone', 'eight stone', 'eight stone' and then I got to that... so you get addicted to reaching the next number."
Within six months, she says: "I had starved myself down to six and a half stone."
Her mother had spotted her daughter's weight gradually decreasing and would ask if she was eating, but it wasn't until early one morning before school that she saw how serious her daughter's problem had become.
"I came out of the shower one day and I frightened the life out of her," Clelia recalls. "She said, come here you, get up on that scales and she said, 'Oh my Jesus Christ!'
"I think she got a terrible fright but I remember saying to her, 'You're an alarmist. There's nothing wrong with me, I'm fine.' I'd say it must have been a terrible time for her.
"My mother said, 'No, no, no. This is not happening. This disease is not going to ruin my little girl who I have fought my whole life for'. She was great and my grandparents were great. But they just couldn't understand.
"I remember them getting very angry with me and that came from a frustration of not understanding what I was doing. And I couldn't answer it."
She was taken to a doctor, who said: "If you lose another pound, I'm putting you in to hospital."
Food was slowly reintroduced but the terror of putting weight back on soon turned her illness into bulimia.
After each purge she felt horrendous afterwards and would religiously swear it would be her last every time, she says, looking visibly distressed at the memory - "Every single time."
In her own words: "It was a long road to recover."
She repeated her Leaving Cert: "I didn't have the mental energy for it."
It wasn't until a year later when, standing on a stage in the Gate Theatre, that she finally surrendered to her reality.
"One of the stage managers said to me, 'Oh God, you're very thin' and I said 'yeah' and he said, 'Were you sick or something?' and I said 'yeah'.
"It was the first time I had ever acknowledged the fact that I was sick.
"I went into town that morning on the bus and I remember thinking, 'Yeah I am that skinny bitch, I'm that one that everybody wants to be and I'm f**king miserable. So this ideal is not that ideal. This s**t is not working. I have to get better'."
Clelia is performing in Smock Alley Theatre's Scene + Heard Festival next week and Light a Penny Candle which is touring next month.
Now mindful of never slipping back into the grips of the addictive cycle, she says: "I am who I am and I love my body the way it is. I will never go to that extreme again."
The fact that she had an idyllic childhood, growing up in a large and loving family, only adds to her perplexity about the illness: "I don't think I even understand the disease and I went through it.
"All I know is it's not about how you look, it's about how you feel."
She adds: "It kind of has a personality and it feeds off you starving yourself. One part of you knows this isn't good but the other part is saying 'Go for it, you look great and don't let anyone tell you otherwise'.
"I'd love to know who owns that voice and where that narrative ever came from."
For more information, or anyone affected by any eating disorders, contact Bodywhys, The Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, on 1890 200444.