4. Be yourself by Alison Friel

It’s okay to be different and it’s even better to be yourself … from a recovering anorexic

Our differences make us who we are. There truly is no ideal anything. But, for a long time I didn’t realise this. When I felt my world was spinning out of control I decided the logical answer was to try and change how I looked because being thinner makes you prettier which makes you happier and everyone wants to be your friend, obviously …

And that is how I came to spend a significant portion of my teenage years and early 20s trying to physically morph myself into something that I wasn’t. I was in a perpetual cycle of starvation, binging, vomiting, normality, over exercising, binging, vomiting – you get the picture.

How and why did it all start? That’s a very good question and one I don’t think I will ever have the answer to. If anything, I was a lucky anorexic – if there can be such a thing – as I come from a loving family, my parents are still happily married and I didn’t want for anything … yet … I still succumbed to the idea that I needed to change how I looked to be happy, to be accepted.

I remember being laughed at because of how I dressed (I had loved my purple leather jacket and cow print Rebook high tops, others did not). I also remember playing British Bulldogs and smashing my tooth in half, lying covered in blood while some so-called friends laughed and walked away. I was given a hurtful nickname based on my looks, and in S1 I entered into an all girls’ school where tight bonds had already been sealed in primary school. I then had the joy of being ostracised by an untrue rumour a few years later. Then came the pressure of exams, the fear of failure, the uncertainty of adulthood. All small, run-of-the-mill things that most people will shrug off but for me they sparked a deep hollow sick-to-your stomach feeling that was anxiety.

Alison at age 16, she thinks

Alison at age 16… she thinks

Couple all that with the fateful day we had swimming with the boys. No classes with the opposite sex then, bam, swimsuit on and stand next to a dude. If it wasn’t mortifying enough someone then made a disparaging, flippant, throw-away comment regarding my figure and that was the moment I felt I needed to take control of something, anything. My heart was racing, my eyes pricked with tears, I felt so sick I didn’t want to eat. And I didn’t. Not for a long time.

I was a rapidly successful anorexic. My weight plummeted in a very short space of time. I had to wear kid’s clothes from Marks and Spencer. I became the girl from the Exorcist – almost literally and figuratively. I was a walking bag of bones but … I thought I was a supermodel (it was the era of Kate Moss, of jutting hip bones, of uber skinny models pushing Cindy Crawford, Helena Christensen, Linda Evangelista off the catwalk). At the same time I had unwittingly made myself more noticeable for all the wrong reasons but I didn’t care. I was totally and utterly consumed by my quest to … I didn’t know what but I figured I’d recognise it when I eventually got there.

I could go on and walk you through every step of my mental illness, which made me feel like there was a devil in my head shouting eat a little less, run a little more, that kept pushing me to my limits. But I won’t. Eating disorders are extremely complex. Everyone’s journey is unique to them. This blog can only give you a superficial glimpse.

So, I will end with my thoughts on what I learnt from my experience (aside from what foods are good to eat but not so good to throw up – bulimia was my second foray into eating disorders):

Alison now, aged 34... I think.

Alison now, aged 34… I think.

1. It has taken me a long time to fully accept you should not change how you look to feel more accepted. We essentially look like we look and we just need to find a healthy way to come to terms with that (and banish bathroom scales).

2. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) actually works. It’s like having one of those microchips you see in the movies implanted in your brain which keeps the anorexic switch safely off.

3. You don’t have to be liked by everyone. Hell, I don’t like everyone so why should they all like me?

4. True, deep in your heart, you can say anything to them (particularly if it’s sarcastic) friends. Hold them tight, even when they are being major pains in the asses. These are the folks who accept you for who you are, warts and all.

5. It takes a heck of a lot of time, determination, will power and dedication to suffer an eating disorder. Skills which I think are finite. You invest so much in being ill you use up your reserves. I’d suggest using them more constructively.

6. A DJ saved my life. Picture Ingliston late 1990s thousands of sweaty bodies whipped into a storm and Carl Cox drops this – http://bit.ly/Ingilston. Yes, a cheesy rip-off of a beautiful song made me realise life really wasn’t that bad. Music still plays a huge part in my life. It’s food for the soul. Que family dance offs (I always win by the way).

7. Parenting today is easier and harder in equal measure than it was pre- Internet. My parents had no support group to turn to, no free access to expert opinion online, no blogs to follow. They had to rely on their friends and their NHS GP and thank goodness they were all brilliant. Today there is more knowledge; more support but there is also a lot of noise to sift through – both for the sufferer and their family. The fear that my children might go through what I did scares me a lot. I follow Janet Lansbury, Steve Biddulph, A Mighty Girl, to name but a few. They help teach me how to be a better parent and remind me that the language we use – and the interaction we have – with our children plays a significant part in shaping their future mental health.

8. I have been blessed with a great family and I now have my own who keep my grounded. Who highlight my flaws and let me try to fix them. Without them, well it’s not worth contemplating. Then there are my parents and my sister. I took them to the depths of hell, and I am truly sorry for that, but bizarrely we crawled out stronger. I now realise my parents are oracles and I am extremely grateful to have them – and my sister, husband, kids, and oodles of lovely in-laws.

Alison is a PR consultant from Falkirk and a part time maniac.  She has been a driving force in encouraging me and others to deliver on this whole 21 blogs thing!

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