Tuesday 24 April 2018

'To recover from anorexia, you have to change how you think'

Eva O'Connor, whose new play draws on her struggle with an eating disorder, tells our reporter how she beat it

Recovery: Eva O'Connor (right) plays Caol in 'Overshadowed', a play about anorexia which she wrote and stars in after recovering from the illness herself.
Recovery: Eva O'Connor (right) plays Caol in 'Overshadowed', a play about anorexia which she wrote and stars in after recovering from the illness herself.

Clodagh Finn

Writer and performer Eva O'Connor rang in the new year with a victory dance to her recovery from anorexia, the eating disorder she struggled to overcome during her teenage years.

To show just how well she feels - "I am completely recovered" - she'll face her former illness head-on, becoming its embodiment in Overshadowed, the award-winning play she wrote to show how insidious and all-consuming the condition can be.

"'I wear a skin-tight, flesh-coloured body suit and play the character of anorexia, called Caol (meaning narrow in Irish)," she says.

"Playing that role in front of hundreds of people has made me realise how far I've come. That's not something I would have felt comfortable doing a few years ago."

The play, which won the Fishamble Award for new writing at the Tiger Dublin Fringe in 2015, tells the story of Imogene, a teenager who used to be vivacious and outgoing. Eva takes up the story: "She used to fancy lads, have curves and love chips. Recently, though, she's become gaunt, withdrawn and exercise-obsessed.

"She hangs out with her new invisible best friend Caol who is doing a great job of reducing Imogene to a shadow of her former self."

That Eva O'Connor (25) is willing to revisit the illness that stripped her of so much in her teenage years is a testament to her recovery.

She wanted anorexia to have a visual presence because, too often, people can't separate the condition from its sufferer.

"There is a huge awareness out there about anorexia but often people tend to lump the condition and person together. You are still the same person you always were, you're just struggling with this all-consuming condition and that can be really hard for outsiders to see past."

For Eva, the beginnings of anorexia are hard to pinpoint. Growing up in Co Clare, she had the same preoccupations as any other teenager. "You are riddled with insecurities and what you see in the mirror is just not good enough," she says.

But, she says, it's not just about the figures on the scales. "It's a much deeper thing; it's about being in control. Often, very determined people, high achievers or those who are very hard on themselves, suffer from anorexia."

In the play, the main character Imogene is asked by the lad she fancies why she's stopped eating. "Is it because you want to look like one of those bikini models?" he asks.

She tells him that it's much more than that: it's a control thing. It started as a routine and now it's more like an addiction. It's her coping mechanism; it's something she has to do.

Eva explains: "It's this negative, negative little voice in your head and it affects the way you see the world. To recover from anorexia, you have to shift your entire thinking. It's like putting on a new pair of glasses."

Ask her how she did that and she'll tell you by getting "excellent help". She had a great therapist and used cognitive behavioural therapy to challenge that voice in her head.

"My parents were amazing, but anorexia puts huge pressure on the family. This is explored in the play. There is tension all the time. You are shutting others out and becoming more and more isolated. You are not reliable, you can't function, you're not open to being helped. There are so many hurdles to recovery," she says.

"Recovery is there for everyone," she insists.

She went on to study English Literature and German at the University of Edinburgh and then trained in an MA theatre ensemble in the Rose Bruford Academy of Performing Arts, London.

For years, anorexia was something she didn't speak about, though Eva was never afraid to tackle hard subjects.

She works closely with her best friend, director and dramaturg Hildegard Ryan from Skerries, Co Dublin, and together they make up Sunday's Child, a London-based theatre company that sets out "to create new, vibrant work that deals with issues that are often swept under the carpet".

In 2014, My Name is Saorise told the story of an girl growing up in 1980s Ireland who faced an unwanted pregnancy. While the play didn't deal with abortion directly, when it opened Eva spoke openly about her own unwanted pregnancy and subsequent abortion in Edinburgh in 2013.

"If you are going to write about these issues, there is no point in hiding. I had really good care in the hospital in Scotland. All the nurses who treated me happened to be Irish, which struck me as ironic. It's the same old story of Ireland exporting its problem.

"Approximately 12 women a day travel to the UK for an abortion: we all know the statistics. It's just a matter of how long we have to wait for change."

When she won the 2014 Jean Benedetti award for performance, she decided the time was right to make a drama about anorexia.

"At some point, you have to choose not to buy into perceived societal expectations of how thin women should be. You have to decide to channel your energy into more powerful and productive pursuits than hitting targets on the scales.

"When you reach a point when you can focus on living again, rather that devoting all your time to your eating disorder, then space opens up in your life for really exciting things to happen.

"I would love people who didn't understand anorexia to come and understand it better; for others suffering from the condition to know they are not alone. But this [play] is also for anyone sick of watching TV over Christmas - come out and see some living, raw theatre."

'Overshadowed' runs in the Project Arts Centre, Dublin, from January 6 to 9

For information and support on Anorexia Nervosa or other eating disorders visit www.bodywhys.ie or call the Irish Helpline on: 1890 200 444

Irish Independent

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