Who we are and what makes up the faceted features of our personalities is a complex combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors. Around different people we may act differently, and in those quiet moments of personal reflection sometimes you can end up wondering whether how you’re portraying yourself to others is actually what you want to be known for, or how you want to be remembered.
So in my first blog I want to introduce myself and take you on a (brief) journey that started back when I was 15 years old. When I first met ‘Ana’. A different kind of label, and identity that I carried around with me for 6 destructive years.
Ana promised me my wildest hopes and dreams, whilst in reality giving me a fix of the most addictive drug I’ve ever taken: starvation.
Now, don’t be deterred. This is actually a happy story…I can’t do serious without adding a smile.
My name is Joss and I am a 25-year-old Psychology graduate from The University of Surrey. By nature I am extroverted and bubbly. I enjoy helping others, and also have a love for music, dance and sport. Born and bred in Surrey, I enjoy going for long walks in the countryside, and winding up in a good ol’ English Pub – the ones with the sofas and fire places, accompanied with big fluffy dogs.
For 6 years of my life I was robbed of my freedom to be this person and do these things.
In fact I was the polar opposite. Introverted, gloomy, sullen and depressed. Words that I would never have put in the same sentence with myself in a million years.
“Hi, I’m Joss, and I have Anorexia Nervosa”
I can’t pinpoint the exact time anorexia entered my life. My urge to diet and lose weight started in December 2007, when I was 15. Before then I would’ve described myself as a ‘foodie’ girl – you’d find me by the buffet at a party, and my nicknames often were “pie girl” and “squishy”…you get the jist.
I was a curvy girl. I started puberty earlier then all my friends, but at my ‘largest’ I was a size 10/12, so not ‘big’ at all, in fact about average I’d say.
Like many, after Christmas that year mum and I decided we’d both lose half a stone just to ‘trim down’ and look good for summer.
I had my year 11 prom approaching at the end of the year, and this ideal I wanted to reach, especially if I thought I had any chance of being approached as a potential date for.
For once I wanted to look and feel completely gorgeous and comfortable in my own skin; something up until then I had never truly experienced.
So the New Years resolution began.
Goodbye chocolate, crips and cheese; Hello exercise DVD and thinner thighs.
It started out fine, but cutting out food, and exercising obsessively became an addiction. One I craved. Clothes felt good when they became baggy. I felt in control, more worthy and as if this was my way of ‘perfecting’ myself.
Other things began to change, to be ‘perfected’ – handwriting, school grades, hair was dyed blonde and I stopped wearing my old tom-boyish style clothes.
By my 16th birthday in June I was thinner but still looked healthy. I should’ve stopped and maintained the weight loss, but I just didn’t know how, and by now my mind was filled with rules, ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’, rights and wrongs about my food and body.
I was no longer experiencing my own thoughts. A new “voice” had appeared.
It dictated rules, it piled on guilt, it drove obsessions and reduced my food.
Notebooks filled with calorie values and calculations.
I had no time for friends, family, making relationships.
I worked part time. I measured food. I slept.
And soon that little voice in my head turned on me….
“You may as well not eat. Disappear. No one wants you around”
Breaking the silence…
I am one of three, and my two older brothers, who were both at University at this time, both had major concerns about my weight loss and my new attitude towards food.
When they came home from University they noticed small details like my new fussiness about where we went if we ate out, and ordering low fat alternatives to reduce calories.
I suffered severe anxiety about eating out at restaurants or eating food that others had prepared for me because I hadn’t been in control of how it was made.
The weight plummeted lower and lower, the slippery slope turned into a landslide of weight loss. Although I felt weak and fatigued, I felt empowered and in control at the same time. Anorexia promised me I was safe, and that if got thinner I would be happier. The lifeless, dull and depressed reflection I saw in the mirror wasn’t me. But I didn’t want help, I wanted to be left alone.
It was my mum who demanded I saw the Doctor, by now the family’s concern had grown too great and I was eating minimal amounts a day, hiding food, lying about food I’d eaten and compulsively exercising.
My muscles had wasted away and bones were protruding.
When the Dr weighed me my eyes fixated on the small distance the arrow moved and although I recognised it was low my mind just said, “Disappointing really. Should’ve been lower. You’ve failed as always”.
The numbers had no impact on me, it was just a game, how low could they get?
In September 2008 I was removed from college and placed in a general hospital ward in Surrey for observation due to my pulse being too low.
On one of the days a nurse from the local outpatient eating disorders team came to visit me. With tears in her eyes she watched me lifelessly lay there. She told me how, if my anorexia continued to control me, I wouldn’t be alive much longer: my organs had shrunk and my heart and bones were weak.
Being at such a low weight really impacts your ability to process and respond to information, so I remember her telling me these horrendous facts and them having no effect on me what-so-ever. It was as if I had cotton wool stuffed in my ears and my brain was a bouncing the words back and forth without gathering meaning from them.
On a rational level I knew the seriousness of what she was saying, but mental health problems aren’t rational and however much I wanted it to shock me into eating, it wouldn’t, my anorexia just told me “she’s lying, don’t listen to her”.
“ Fear had the deepest impact on the whole family. I was told your heart could give out at any moment. The pressure on me to make sure you stayed alive was enormous, I even checked you were still breathing at night. I lost my daughter, I had to unpick everything I thought I knew and understood about my lovely daughter. Where was the popular, feisty, funny girl who loved to dance and party? She was now full of suspicion, contempt and anger. How does one enjoy life when the very life of a loved one is threatened, and they are physically wrenched out of your own home and your (seemingly inadequate) care? The sense of failure is great. It doesn’t matter if people say it’s not your fault – you feel a useless mother”.
Cathy Walden 
I never intended to hurt the ones I love the most, and I am deeply sorry for the selfishness of my anorexia
Meal times from hell…
Many people have asked me “surely you were hungry?” and the answer is, no. With anorexia you are completely flooded by fear that you ‘feel full’. Hunger is suppressed to an unrecognisable level, and even if I were able to acknowledge it, eating wasn’t an option, the distress and mental torment I would endure after was not worth eating.
A typical mealtime during this period would be in complete silence, the banter and chatter of previous years vanished. I would sit crying over a small portion of food, my head held in my hands, sometimes I would try and run from the table and often I would refuse to eat at all and glance up to see my mum and dad’s worn out faces – there was nothing they could do but watch their daughter disappear before their eyes.
I’d curl up in a trembling ball on the floor begging them not to make me eat; I’d kick and scream because I was so afraid they’d make me eat.
Endless bargains would be made, such as “you can see the fireworks tonight if you promise to eat your snack”.
I would agree, eat some of it, and either hide the rest in the wrapper and discard of it, or spit the chewed up bar into a tissue.
Any food eaten, well that’d be exercised straight off.
My brother remembered on one occasion when he came home from Uni, entering the dining room to see dad holding his head hung low and mum looking close to tears as I wouldn’t eat my meal because it hadn’t been weighed out precisely.
Joss was no more; instead a preoccupied, and unresponsive gaze took the place of her once enthusiastic glow.
The Hospital Diaries…No.1
Making little progress I was sent home and put on bed rest. The stress and upset my illness was causing my family, along with the continued decrease of my weight meant that by November 2008 I was admitted to a general psychiatric hospital in Winchester. Little did I know this would become my new home for the next 8 months.
I can still remember the terror I felt as we drove up to Winchester on the cold morning with a blanket wrapped around me, my heart pounding and my mind caught in a whirlwind of emotion.
Settling into the hospital regime took a while, and was very hard. I had to follow an eating programme along with other girls who had eating disorders. This was terrifying for me.
I had no control over my food or my weight. I had no studies to distract myself from. No friends and my family were far away.
There were consequences for not eating, not finishing in the allocated time frame. Furthermore, if you didn’t put on weight every week then more food was added to your diet plan.
Plates were scraped clean.
No food was wasted.
Every calorie counted.
When I reached BMI of 16 I was able to join in with the sporting activities and get a 20-minute gym programme which I was allowed to use twice a week. Of course this was monitored and depending on how the weight was progressing these luxuries would be given or taken away.
During this time I made friends with the others on the ward. There were fights and confrontations, but also support and encouragement for facing some fears. I was blessed with some of the best friends I could have asked for, and shared in the recovery journeys of many courageous girls who defeated their illnesses. This was valuable to me as my friends back home found it hard to see me so sad and ill. They distanced themselves not knowing what to do or say, and worried they’d make the situation worse.
At the end of the admission I had reached a healthy weight, but unfortunately I relapsed in the summer. This happened twice more ending up with me having to self-teach A levels from one hospital, and dropping out of University in order to go into another.
Set backs and struggles…
Although there is a false sense of safety and comfort in having an eating disorder I can honestly say I lived in a complete fear, never knowing what the next day would bring.
I spent many nights in floods of tears down the phone to my brother as he desperately tried to comfort me.
I’d ring my parents in begging them to come and take me home.
I wanted nothing more than to wake up and for the nightmare to be over.
Bad habits developed alongside…self-harm, vomiting and one suicide attempt.
Looking back now it just doesn’t seem real.
A little hope goes a million miles…
The last admission was in 2011. It was an adult ward and the most challenging of the three. My weight as at its lowest, and therefore my mind at its worst.
I wouldn’t eat…so I was tubed.
Everyday, slowly pumping calories into me. I would often try and go to the toilet and empty the bag of liquid feed down the loo. The short-term relief seemed more important even though I knew I was only prolonging my stay there in the long term. I was put on a strong anti-psychotic drug that made me constantly drowsy and knocked me out for most days. The ward was dull and there was nothing for inpatients to do, I felt very alone.
The distress of being tube fed was getting me down and I had appealed to my medical team to be taken off the feed, promising them I’d try and eat again. They weren’t buying it.
Each time my request it came back declined.
However, there was one young Dr on my team who after a meeting stayed and sat with me. He stared. Paused, and said,
“I don’t know what it is about you, but I see through your anorexia and I believe that you will do this. If I ask them to take it out, you must eat the exact calories you’re being tube fed and follow the meal plan. No matter how long it takes you to get through those meals. Understand”
Moving forward and facing fears…
The tube was removed.
My anxiety streamed back. But for the last few weeks of being tubed I’d spent endless hours making motivational scrap books and drawings of what I wanted my future to look like.
And now, for the first time in months I had the chance to put that into action. Above all I wanted to show that Dr (who was fairly attractive I’ll have you know…) that he hadn’t misplaced his trust. That I was courageous and strong and would start being productive in my recovery.
There in-front of me on the plate. A meal I hadn’t allowed myself in 5 years, sausages and mash. All the fears surfaced, heart pounded and blood curdled. The fork felt heavy and my head dizzy. I was so fatigued from the medication they’d given me, and my throat was still raw from where the tube had been.
That meal was the first of many I completed. I later discharged myself from the hospital and moved back home, where the next chapter of my life was about to begin.
That Christmas I was in a much better place, not recovered or healthy, but managing to eat more and keeping motivated. I wrote to that doctor thanking him for putting his trust in me and reassuring him that it was not misplaced as I was now well into my recovery.
I never heard back, nor do I know whether he received the letter. But it’s people like him who put their trust because they see the treasure that is buried.
Taking a new perspective…
During my recovery my mum wrote about the positives of our journey;
“I feel we have grown closer as a family and learnt to be more honest with each other. There is always room for improvement in this area, but just being able to express our anger/negative feelings in safety and more honest, constructive ways, is a major step forward.
It’s so lovely to chat to Joss now because I feel I am talking to Joss and not the anorexia – there is a big difference, and I can tell the difference now.
It’s wonderful to see Joss reconnect to her dancing, and her willingness to help others.
It’s great to hear Joss laughing with friends, and I mean really laughing and enjoying herself. You have gained some new friends who are great girls, and you have such a sense of fun, which is returning. To me these are signs of hope.”
The true meaning recovery…
Since then I have achieved so much; I completed my A Levels, got a diploma, went on two retreats; worked with disabled children, and in a school. I had my first proper relationship, worked out in Romania, skydived for charity, and have now graduated from University with a BSc in Psychology.
Recovery wasn’t easy and it’s not a quick fix. I learnt more about myself in those 6 years than most learn in a life time.
There is a lot missing from this account. Many stories too dark, or too personal to share. Other parts you can find elsewhere in the charity, media and self-help blogs.
My recovery involved years of therapy, and even a court case, to deal with the hidden trauma behind the development of my anorexia, and to finally distinguish its flames.
The misconception is that eating disorders are solely about food and weight. They are not [find out more about common myths here]. Food is the symptom not the cause.
The beauty is that now I get to share this with you from a place of health and happiness. I no longer need anorexia as my mask. I am once again the bubbly, happy, extroverted and ambitious young lady I always wanted to be, and was underneath.
Through the work I do now I aim to debunk the myths around mental health, decrease negative stigma and encourage people to look outwards with optimistic eyes in pursuit of their goals.
“For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” – Jeremiah 29: 11-13