'There was no escaping my fears of food, my weakened body, and my disappearing love for life'

Arklow woman Niamh Keoghan (29) battled the eating disorder anorexia and saw her weight plummet to a shocking five-and-a-half stone. she has just published a memoir about her inspiring journey back to good mental and physical health

Niamh Keoghan

For me, eating became a sin and a sign I was an imperfect, worthless waste of space. While in this darkest depression, I spent nine months in Holland in 2008 working as a travel agent, partly because I wanted little contact with my mother. I didn't want anyone to interfere with this idea I had in my head of what physical perfection was and so I chose to withdraw and to isolate myself.

When I finally visited home, my mum was very concerned about my weight. I listened, but a huge part of me didn't understand her worries. One night she dished up a plate of lasagne and I felt she was placing before me my biggest fear in life: failure.

Yet, in the end, it was this intense fear I felt while surrounded by the people I loved most in the world and who were more eager than ever to help me, which slowly forced me to face the truth about my life. I was anorexic.

Anorexia was breaking me down mentally and burning me out physically. My weight had dropped to 35kg (nearly 15kg less than a year and a half previously.)

I feared food more and more and in order to control that fear, I ate less and less.


The mirror was torture because I couldn't find the wish of my perfect self I'd been trying to make come true. Physically my body felt contracted, tight and my muscles had deteriorated.

Concentrating at work was a struggle and yet it was a welcome distraction from the pains of hunger and feelings of weakness tormenting my body.

And, while I pushed myself to socialise with friends, it wasn't a priority. In fact, the only priority in life was keeping myself away from a world that would wish for me to gain weight.

But taking time out from my job and life of isolation in Holland on a trip home in June 2008, I had no work to keep me distracted from my chaotic mind and from my growing hunger.

And because I had no occupation, there was no escape from my fear of food, and from my weakened body, and from my disappearing love for life, and from my disgust towards my entire self.

How on earth did this torment and terror become my life? How had my life become so joyless? My battle with anorexia started without my even being aware of the spiral of misery I was being sucked into when I was a 23-year-old backpacker back in 2006.

Before I headed off on my adventure, I had this notion in my head about wanting to feel, look and be completely vibrant. I was a young woman and my life was about to change for the better. This notion slowly started altering the amount of food I ate. I had this wish to present an image of my perfect self to others, always up and on the go and living my life to its fullest. And this pressure I put on myself slowly started altering the feelings I had towards myself when it came to my consumption of food.

What happened is that gradually this wish to be perfect turned into a belief that I'd only be accepted, successful and loved by others -- as well as by myself -- if I continued to control my food intake.

And with food restriction and an active lifestyle, it was natural for me to drop weight. I have to say weight loss had never been my ultimate goal. Instead I simply wanted to be the perfect version of myself.

Because weight loss was unnecessary, it meant that every kilo I lost was one I needed to regain. But I never did. So, as the months passed and I happily backpacked, I became thinner and thinner.

Yet I felt my existence in this world was becoming heavier. My reflection should have been the wake-up call telling me I was dangerously thin -- I was becoming increasingly skeletal. You can see it in my face at the time.

And yet my mind convinced me that I would reach an image of perfection only if I kept restricting my food and increasing my exercise.

My friends expressed their concern but I blocked them from my mind and instead listened to the voice in my head which was telling me how 'healthy' I was.

I was in this state of mind when I finished my year of backpacking in October 2007 and moved to Holland to set up a new life -- a life I'd envisioned as being distant from my mother (who was living in Ireland) as well as from my sisters (who lived over an hour away in the south of Holland).

I felt if I could find isolation, I could happily continue living a 'healthy lifestyle'.

Throughout the following nine months of 'happy distance' and 'healthy living', my appearance started reflecting more and more my ill health and dire unhappiness.


Finally and thankfully, and as a result of my mother's patience and perseverance, I admitted my behaviour, and slowly opened up about how anorexia had taken me over.

My mother found a therapist, Diann Fletcher Jones. And even though I was raging with anger and despair inside, I decided to stay in Ireland for as long as recovery would last.

It was the toughest period of my life. I tore myself away from the destructive part of my mind, and it was excruciating to do so.

I finally had to face my imperfections, embrace them, and acknowledge that I am only human.

As a result of tackling my eating disorder, I've chosen to live a life that's deeper and more meaningful.

Three years later, I'm still making changes in life to give me purpose and focus.

I continue to travel and I continue to write so I can be tuned in to that part of myself that's aware, learning, growing and always changing for the better.

>Anna Coogan

Digesting Wisdom, by Niamh Keoghan, published by Urlar Publications, price €14.99