Blue Hair Day

There are times when I reach the frayed ends of my endurance and I really need to get out of this place but have to be content with a mental, rather than physical escape. I divide my time into sections between meals into which I feign productivity; the chapter of a book, a row of crochet, a crossword puzzle. It sounds like a perpetual all inclusive holiday but believe me, it is nothing of the sort.

I write this blog partly for myself, and also to offer some insight or solace to others who may be suffering in a similar way. It acts as a salve, and though it is not intended as such, I fear it also acts a means to keep some of those who know me updated without the need for real human contact. My words feel somehow reduced in power because of this one-way communication, but I have decided that this is not a reason to desist.

I want to write about an incident that occurred last week, again, not by way of an update but simply to verbalise something that remains a painful truth. I became involved, and indeed was the perpetrator, of what on the face of it should have been some harmless fun. A prior patient had left behind a pampering kit containing hair chalks, sparkly nail varnish in garish colours, and glitter tattoos. With some enthusiasm, I offered to ‘tattoo’ the arms of fellow patients and in return, was offered a hair make-over, which resulted in horrifying bright blue streaks. I went to view my locks in a mirror and the result was electrifying. Staring back at me was a woman who should have known better, a professional and a mother who should either be working or at the least looking after the home and the family. Sitting crossed legged on the floor in a hospital lounge having my hair tinted blue represented the worst part of me; the part that has failed and I hated myself for it. The flash of self hatred was both sudden and terrifying, and unfortunately had an effect on my ability to deal with the food situation, my go-to comfort of deliberate restriction and hunger could not be satisfied, and I despised myself all the more for needing this crutch.

Thanks to the staff here and to my therapist I have learned to be more reflective over the past months, dealing with stuff that I have never before faced up to and unravelled. Things that have affected me deeply around which I have built up brick walls and masked behind a capable and competent woman who knows her own mind. There is a child inside all of us but mine is frightened and abused and she does not like what is happening. I have learnt that the past cannot be left behind, what is happening now is sadly partly a reflection of my childhood and teenage years. I cower from abuse, I run from indifference. Only now do I realised that the constant anger, the fractured family, the being hit and shouted at was not the fault of that child. I grew up genuinely thinking I was a miscreant. I now face the uphill task of learning to be kind to myself and cannot continue to be so self-berating. It is clear that this is not sustainable.

Yesterday, I had a day and night out of the unit, the first night I have had at home in my own bed for almost a month. I found that at home I instantly fell back into the same old habits, being the person who must achieve, even if the tasks were as inane as dusting, weeding or ironing. I simply could not help but slip back into self-punishing ways in order to justify any fun I might have, as if I need to balance good times by enduring hard work and the restriction of food order to deserve it.

The first step is understanding and acceptance. The rest, I hope, will follow.

A Life in a Day

I awake each morning in a confused state, not knowing where I am. In the first moments my dreams flitter between the unconscious and conscious and then have gone, out of reach, I am only certain that I never dream about being here. I reach behind my head and pull the curtains. The light does not flood but rather seeps into the room; that northern European muted pale summer grey. It is both comforting and subduing.

The knowledge and pain of reality are still present but apart from me, though I can see it waiting, slung over a chair like my clothes, to be adorned, ready to face the day. At the moment my thoughts are gossamer thin, I can feel everything and nothing. My body rises from the bed and I can shower and dress but only as I slowly become more alert, will the knowledge become real and tangible.

The shower is indisputable. There Is no cold or hot water here. Nor are there any controls. The sensor knows more than I do when I am there and when I am not. I am enveloped in warm water that requires no thought or feeling. It simply is. The shower of mindlessness. I am tempted to stand under the water for hours, but by its very conformity to time, the shower too is rule bound, and I must leave.

What to wear? It matters too much yet matters not. The temperature is the same inside and out, clothes are simply my protective shell and form an appropriate response to social norms; my age, the weather, the current trend. Sometimes I get it wrong, but mostly not.

I fear the chemistry of medication. I would rather leave my body to its natural rhythms; to feel pain, rather than to mask it, but this is not an option. The extent to which I have resisted has been slowly broken down. Twice a day I stand obediently at the stable door of the dispensary, ready to be sedated and normalised. I would prefer to accept unquestionably the huge variety of coloured tablets which have been prescribed but I have to become focussed; I have noted that in their haste, the staff are not always correct. I have become an unwilling expert. My job in real life does not allow for error. I feel the tingle of frustration, but I smile and smile and conform.

Breakfast is by far the easiest meal of the day, I have the energy to battle the voice that resists. Yet even so, I have to score a victory. I pour less than the prescribed milk and cereal into my bowl, yet I eat the additional banana. I fear loss of control, the one balances the other. My fellow diners this morning are polite yet reserved, conversation is limited to the necessary. I find enough room in my head for the milk and cereal, the toast and peanut butter, the fruit juice and family-sized banana. I feel sated and bloated. How can I consume these extra calories when I am not allowed to even stand let alone move for a whole 9 hours in each day?

After each meal is a rest period of two hours when no type of exercise is permitted, including standing up. This is policed carefully by the ever watchful staff. Again, the tingle of frustration, sharper and more focussed this time. The toilets are in lock-down until the end of rest period. Forgetting to use them before a meal results in either having to hold on to the discomfort or suffer the consequence of being scrutinised. Dignity dictates that It’s usually better to adopt the former.

There is no option for solitude. I am checked up on every 15 minutes, including all through the night when a torch is shone onto my face. I am not sure why this is unless it is simply to check I am still alive. Between rest periods, I am allowed two 10 minute walks out, but am shackled by the presence of a chaperone. I long to have space alone in the open air. I dream of walking, steadily, one foot in front of the other, unbound by time, until I reach the top of a mountain and can gain the perspective I am craving. Instead I walk around the hospital grounds and make conversation with a nurse. I am lucky that small talk comes easily, it’s part of my armoury, but I would still rather have my own company, just for a few precious minutes, even just to enjoy the stunning view of Oxford from the nearby park.

Back again, a call to arms comes all too quickly; yet another visit to the dining room, this time for a snack. The routine is monotonous yet soothing. Every meal is a battle. The rigidity of the rules of combat are clear and so there is no cause for misunderstanding. The only problem is that I do not know whose side I am supposed to be on.

Hotel a la Manger 

It’s taken me 5 whole days to muster up enough courage to write this but I have unexpectedly ‘stepped up’ to inpatient admission as of last Friday. I would prefer to skirt around the reasons why but consequently I am currently having a fun-filled stay in Cotswold House Hotel. I could really go to town on trip advisor, given the lack of bedside lamp, soggy towels, un-openable windows and poor choice of food. At least I haven’t seen any cockroaches (yet). The bathroom facilities are fine but if you need to use them during rest periods it means someone standing outside listening. It’s altogether best to hold on, believe me…

This holiday has also resulted in a significant reduction in activity which I suppose is a good thing but means in consequence a loss of freedom as I can’t go out unaccompanied (or sometimes at all mainly due to staff shortages) or spend time in the garden unless they forget as they did on Sunday. ( I have discovered that there is a fairly easy escape route from the garden over a fence). I am also facing really difficult questions from other patients, who obviously want to know all the ins and outs of everything. This place is a hotbed for gossip as generally there is nothing else to do. Think of Butlins/Hospital/Concentration camp and you won’t be far wrong.

Overall is an almost overwhelming guilt that the timing coincides with the start of the summer holidays; what sort of a terrible mother  would absent themselves at such a time?

I don’t want to turn this into a rant as I know that the staff are all working under a lot of stress, but the inconsistencies in treatment are pretty frustrating. One minute I’m left alone for hours, and the next I am checked up on every 15 minutes. All electrical items have to be PAT tested which can take up to 3 weeks meaning I’m having to leap out of bed at just the right moment of sleepiness to turn off the overhead light, have no phone charger (though I have sneaked one in shhhh) and can’t dry my hair, which is now shaggy style.

Trying to find the positives; I have in fact made a lot of progress weight-wise since last week, which is scary but I feel that the little voice telling me not to eat is receding a bit and so I am hanging on in there working hard on getting better though sometimes I just feel like crying, and others like banging my fists against a door until I can escape.

On the bright side too, as I am no longer part of the ‘eating out’ group, I don’t have to endure the plan of take away McDonalds today! Given a choice, I’d opt for hospital food any day. Instead I had McHospital McCauliflower, McPasta and McIcecream, all while sitting with another patient who is as chatty as a gagged corpse.
Onwards and slightly upwards….

A sequel : The Picnic (a horror story)

I thought I’d provide an update on the picnic and it’s post-mortem. I honestly don’t know right now whether I actually feel worse or better after it, but I think on balance the sense of humour has kicked in and I am able to see the absurdity of the whole thing. 

So five of us plus two staff members sat in a field in a circle and were handed out the allotted food. It was all ok, it was just a picnic after all. The sun was out. Of course it wasn’t that simple, one member of the party ate the bread roll, filling and bag of crisps but flatly (and hysterically) refused to eat the chocolate bar. Of course it was not about the actual chocolate bar which was all of 95 calories but a perceived lack of control or a breaking of internal rules. She was clearly finding the situation incredibly difficult. It turned by degrees into a loud and angry discussion, while passers by looked on in interest and the rest of us sat in uncomfortable silence. I was actually mortified but tried to disassociate myself and pretend I was on a desert island, although I am told that this is not a healthy response. What, I wonder would have been a healthy response to someone screaming about a chocolate biscuit in a public place? I haven’t seen the rules. Maybe I should have shouted ‘just eat the bloody chocolate and let’s move on’ very loudly?

Seriously though, I feel a great amount of compassion for the poor girl, goodness knows I have been there. I just wished everyone would shut up. Oddly, another member of the party made a great show of adding an additional slice of chicken to her sandwich, despite professing to be a vegetarian, adding 2 sachets of mayo and eating an extra cake. Funnily enough, the staff did not berate her for this, though in my view this behaviour is just as disordered as not eating enough.

We decamped back to the unit for the post mortem. As you can probably appreciate spending an hour dissecting a picnic is not on my list of life goals. It took all my strength to follow mutely and not just simply walk away and go home. What followed can only be described as a bun fight, with one patient saying that she thought it incredibly unhelpful to her own recovery when one member of the party refused an item of food and the tearful one responding, increasingly distraught, that this reaction was totally selfish. Meanwhile the smug one made it clear to everyone that she in fact had eaten more than her allotted share. Great, well have a certificate.

It leaves me wondering what the hell I have subscribed to. I fear I am in danger of turning madder by the day. I just want to spend my time with normal people doing normal things and earning a living doing something I am good at. That’s all.

Free Will or Obedience 

So yesterday I learned that in the last 7 days I’ve managed to lose 3 weeks worth of weight gain and thus 3 weeks are added to my recovery time. I am completely baffled as to how this can be the case. Yes I have been some cutting corners with the meal plan here and there, as I have every week, I am after all no saint, but I have been eating at the very least adequately. I can only think it must be down to over-activity, or that the NHS scales were broken. The worst thing by far is that I have not yet been given the opportunity to talk this through properly with any professional and so feel confused and frustrated by the loss of yet another 3 weeks of my life.

I feel increasingly as if I am in a reverse concentration camp where hard labour is forbidden and food is enforced, or perhaps a character in a Kafka novel. I have lost my free will. There is a nightmarish oppressive quality underlying every moment of every day that I am here. It is a setting that straddles a dystopian fantasy and reality. I am hopeless yet full of hope. Recovery is a palace which seems vast and impossible to attain. I am overwhelmed by the sense of impossibility and futility, yet I have an immense yearning and hope. These incompatible sensations all assail me at the same time. It makes me want to run so I can leave it behind.

I need to escape this place for my own sanity yet escape is fraught with danger; I know I need to try and engage with the process for my own good. It doesn’t help that I’ve put myself back by 3 weeks – it obviates the whole reason I am going though the torture, but as Winston Churchill said, if you’re going through hell, keep going.

Today, I had to use every last ounce of determination even to drive to the hospital. Once here, I am yet again overwhelmed by the rigid regulations and lack of freedom. It’s slowly but effectively killing my sense of self. I feel both out of place yet part of a disordered and disjointed community.

I skipped the nutrition group this morning because I felt unable to take more of the constant brainwashing and asked if instead I could have a walk. I was allowed 5 minutes but had to leave my bag and keys behind. Every part of me wanted to rebel and drive away but I didn’t- I walked for 5 minutes and returned to the burrow like a good bunny.

Today we are having a lunch picnic in a local park. Let me make this clear, this is not a special treat. Apparently taking sandwiches already made up is disordered. Normal people make sandwiches in situ. Really? Meal deals from Tesco are clearly only for the eating disordered. This picnic has already been the subject of far too much discussion, both formal and informal. Apparently on a picnic you wouldn’t add margarine to a bread roll so we have to eat them dry. We need to make up for this by the addition of a chocolate bar. This edict necessitated a meeting which lasted a whole hour and we still have both the picnic and the picnic post mortem to look forward to later. How can I have come to this?

I desperately want to recover and I acknowledge I need the help to do so but right now i’m not sure I can take much more of the punishment.

It’s Just a Piece of Toast

Having had three children, held down a demanding professional job and faced many other challenges in life, I would not expect to be floored by a piece of toast, but the fact that I have just goes to demonstrate the sheer power and torture anorexia can wield. If you can even begin to understand the effect this simple piece of toast can have, you may gain a glimpse of quite how fierce and painful this illness can be. Fighting it is so much harder than just giving into it and accepting ill health.
Today I faced a new challenge, I have graduated to the ‘upstairs dining room’ which allows for more freedom and less measuring but brings its own challenges. This morning, rather than making 2 slices of toast from the pre-sliced loaf of bread, we had to cut our own bread. The person who got there first made the usual mess of the loaf. As we all know, it’s a real skill being able to slice a very fresh loaf precisely. Being last to the loaf, I therefore ended up with 2 slices of bread looking like door stops. So much so that they wouldn’t fit into the toaster. I had no option but to cram them in, spread them (too) liberally with peanut butter and then…EAT THEM BOTH. Carb overload. Now this may seem like an amusing story, but believe me, the way I suffered afterwards was not in any way funny. Think the anxiety levels you would have if you were running late for an important job interview, got into your car only to find that it wouldn’t start. Or maybe that call you receive about a family member who has had an accident which starts ‘I don’t want you to panic but…’ then you have some idea of the devastating force of the illness. It’s a panic and torture which is inescapable and rationality plays no part. Yes, it’s just a piece of toast but it has the power to create such a forceful sense of terror and there’s nowhere to run away from it. This is exactly the reason why I so often feel the need to exercise, it’s the only thing which alleviates the pain, which can only be described as a mental version of stubbing your toe, repeatedly, on a concrete step. Ouch.

Running through fields of wheat (anarchist!)

Today’s other challenge was going out for lunch with some of the other patients. This was interestingly, easier than the toast incident, as it was carefully planned and I saw the menu in advance. We all suffered food envy in that everyone admitted to being jealous that other people’s meals looked smaller than theirs. I really hope that fellow diners didn’t overhear our conversation about who had the most chips as they would have thought we’d escaped from the nearest mental institution. Oh wait….we had!  

I am left feeling really quite battered and stressed this evening. I am so lucky that I can come home and have a wonderful and supportive family and friends that understand and are there for me. I try very hard, as I have all my life, not to be hurt by the lack of support from a few key people of whom I still foolishly have high expectations and who I now realise I cannot change. I can only change how I react and it is time that I accept this and move on.

Religious belief and anorexia 

I am fascinated by religion. I find it difficult to comprehend how it makes any sense conceptually (though I can see the benefits of having a direct line to a higher authority who doesn’t create conflict by answering back in any worldly sense). I actively seek conversation with those who make a point of wearing their religion on their sleeve so that I can gain some insight or even an answer to the fundamental question; why do you believe in an abstract theory without hard evidence that it exists and proof that it actually does more good than harm in a global sense?
This is clearly a huge question which can’t be explored in any satisfactory way in a blog post but I have begun to wonder at the connections between mental health, eating disorders in particular, and religion.

1. Reward and Punishment

Eating disorders are inextricably linked with the idea of reward and punishment. Food restriction for me at least is a compensatory behaviour for an over-sensitivity to both. It’s not about the search for the holy grail of thinness but if things go wrong, I can restore my inner balance by simply restricting my food intake. If things are good I can reward myself with a meal. This has clear parallels with religion, or at least with spirituality (being the relationship with a transcendent being beyond and separate to oneself). Religion is after all, is all about heaven and hell – the ultimate reward and punishment. And let’s face it, over-eating deserves divine punishment given that gluttony is named as one of the seven deadly sins. At the root of most religions is the idea of self sacrifice leading to a guaranteed fast track to heaven. At worst and most extreme, this can take the form of suicide bombers or driving lorries along pavements in a perverse attempt obtain salvation, at best it amounts to agreeing to arrange the church flowers because you feel you ought to despite secretly preferring to go shopping instead. Basically, a believer gets something out of religion, why else bother? But nothing comes free; there is always a payback. Failing to comply with the ‘rules’ of a religion instigates a guilt which can only be negative and self destructive.

The central teaching of any religion is that you can be rewarded with more love and happiness in the afterlife if you are compliant with its teachings. If you do bad things you will be punished unless you can show remorse in the form of some sort of physically or mentally harmful penance. This may take the form of walking ten miles with stones in your shoes, deliberate social isolation or, guess what….food restriction.

2. Fasting

Fasting is interestingly an important component to all main religions. The idea being that if you restrict your food intake, whether by the more extreme Ramadan or simply by giving up chocolate (funny how people never give up salad) for Lent, then you are punishing yourself to ‘get closer to God’, which is the ultimate reward. Nearness to the deity is partly achieved by the heightened sense of clarity one gets from lack of food. Again, clear parallels with anorexia, where starvation improves mental functioning short term by creating a ‘high’. This is purely a self-denial, and so how can it fail to to be disordered? If God is benign how could he or she approve or even care if you physically torture yourself by not eating or drinking in daylight hours in intense heat for a whole month? This behaviour is something clearly thought up by humans to self-comfort, the theory being that only those who sacrifice are enlightened and rewarded and the outside world does not appreciate the lifestyle choice they have made. It sustains an illusion of exclusivity and importance which is almost addictive.

There is also a link between certain foods and morality. Why else is ice cream advertised with words such as ‘heavenly’ ‘decadent’ or ‘purity’? Eating thistle smoothies is on the other hand can be seen as a form of self sacrifice to the health god.

3. The all important deity

This is scarily close to the idea of people with an eating disorder being ruled by some type of pseudo-deity (in my case, Dave, but I could easily re-name him God). Dave is oddly a spiritual dimension of an illness almost akin to a cult. Does this mean therefore that religion could be a mental illness?

4. Power and control 

Another important dimension to religion is the pursuit of power. By being involved in a belief system that is in fact out of your control with the ultimate goal of satisfying that all important being which is both part and apart from yourself, then there must be an element of self sacrifice giving you a sense of control over something which is merely an abstract concept. Simply put, by self sacrifice you are gaining a physical manifestation of what was merely conceptual and you therefore are gaining some individual control over what, in fact, does not encompass the individual. Fasting is a form of control, an attempted taking back of power by the individual, which is exactly how anorexia manifests itself.

Like an eating disorder, religion can therefore reduce the sense of self and identity which is subsumed into the all important deity.

5. The delusion

Religious people often say that they will ‘pray for you’. This is not a substitute for actually taking action. Praying can often be a convenient avoidance technique for facing reality. The religious often pass a problem over to a higher authority so they are somehow absolved from responsibility. This does not in fact help the intended recipient, however well meant, unless it is followed by tangible action. Similarly, the sense of control and well-being of having somehow absolved oneself from taking the responsibility of self-love sometimes felt particularly in the early stages of an eating disorder are illusory. It’s a form of self deception either way.

It could be argued that the eating disordered and the religious cannot be directly compared as they have different motivations. Cleary, all religious people do not have a fear of weight gain. Many people with eating disorders also embrace and obtain solace from religion and I totally respect that. However, I feel that in either case this is permitting an idealogical mindset which creates obsession and control whatever it’s root.