| 7.4°C Dublin

Dear Patricia: I hate how I look and just want to be normal, pretty and slim

I'M feeling very low at the moment. I'm 26, and hate how I look so much that it has taken over my whole life. Weight is my biggest issue, due to regular out-of-control binge eating. I'm fat and have horrible stretch marks. I'm a size 14 but only 5'4" tall -- and that's after losing some weight recently.

I also have a horrible lumpy shape, and this, combined with my complete lack of style, means that I have hardly any clothes suitable to leave the house in. Every time I go shopping, I find nothing I like to fit me and end up coming home empty-handed and depressed.

Now I rarely leave the house other than for work. Whenever I'm invited to a social event, I feel nothing but deep anxiety and panic. My first thought is that I've nothing to wear. Then I start to imagine myself at the event -- looking awful, being socially awkward, and feeling humiliated. I will then usually search quite desperately for something nice to wear, fail miserably, and then make an excuse not to go. Fortunately, I no longer get very many invites. My anti-social attitude has ruined most of my friendships.

My mind is my worst enemy. Aside from my horrible negative thoughts about myself, I constantly imagine and suspect that other people are talking about me and laughing at me.

I can't even eat a meal in a restaurant without feeling as if people are staring at the fat girl stuffing her face. The only good thing in my life is my boyfriend, who I know loves me in spite of how I look. I need him so much it scares me, because I don't know what I'd do if he left me.

I know I have poor self-esteem and am a bit paranoid. And I know that my view of the world is warped. But knowing all this doesn't help me. I want so much to be pretty and slim -- a normal girl with a normal life.

Patricia replies:

THERE'S no such thing as a normal girl with a normal life -- well, not the way you mean it anyway. What you're really looking for is an effortless life. That's not possible. Believe me, everyone has to put in hard graft, just to keep afloat. Staying scared inside our comfort zone invariably brings unhappiness, and indeed despair, no matter who we are or what we've got. At the moment, the effort to leave that comfort zone just seems too great to you. So you choose unhappiness.

It's not that you lack courage. It takes courage to get through the day, one day after another, feeling so ugly. It takes courage to be so terrifyingly dependent on your boyfriend. It takes courage to live with such frightening low self-esteem. So you are most definitely not a coward. Nor are you weak. You're just trying to avoid change. You don't want to use your courage differently. Like I said, your unhappiness is a choice.

No, I'm not saying you'd be happy doing things differently. You wouldn't. You'd be terrified. It would be hard work. The point is, you would be putting yourself on the road to happiness, starting the journey by actively taking charge. Self-esteem doesn't come with looking good. It comes, slowly, as we take control. The reason you are both paranoid and dependent is because other people are too important to you. You worry about what they think, or whether or not they will love you. You feel your emotional safety lies with them. Taking control means that you become your own anchor, your own arbiter of your worth, your own safe harbour. Taking control means being much less exposed.

You could try testing your courage with a small change -- any change of your choice, just baby steps. Contact a self-help group for the binge eating like Bodywhys -- the number is in the telephone book. Take up an exercise routine for your body shape. Seek help from a nice member of staff in your local boutique to choose a flattering clothes style. I won't go on with the list. You definitely know the score.

Can I tell you something I've discovered in life? There is no substitute for faith -- which is the courage to take a blind leap into the unknown. We've already established how courageous you are. Are you ready to take that blind leap? Would you just trust that you can do it -- and make that first step? Your choice.

Sunday Independent