Authors: Emma Woolf
I'm conscious, as I write this, of how lucky I've been, relatively speaking. Compared to many, my experience of anorexia has been bearable. From the outside at least I've lived a normal life. My weight was dangerously low for a while but I got through (and I never want to go back there again). Even though anorexia has affected every area of my life for more than ten years, I'm fortunate that it was “late-onset.” It did not rob me of my childhood or
adolescenceâwhatever happens in the future, at least I can say that. I know a girl, Sukey, who developed anorexia and bulimia at the age of eight. She is now twenty-four and in many ways she's still a child. She has never had a period or worn a bra, never had a boyfriend. The fear of puberty so often misattributed to anorexia is, in Sukey's case, very real. For her, any weight gain at all is associated with having a woman's body; she is stuck at the physical stage of around eight years old, with brittle bones and a wizened, old-lady face. She is the saddest person I've ever seen. So I'm aware of how lucky I am: although I've struggled with anorexia since the age of nineteen, at least I was a happy child and teenager; at least I remember all the wild times and the fun stuff, being carefree about food and relationships, getting drunk and eating kebabs and having curves and feeling sexy. At least I haven't always been this neurotic.
So if I was normal and healthy growing up, where did the anorexia come from? Picture an iceberg partially submerged under the sea, half sticking out above the water. Imagine the upper portion is your public persona, the face you show to the world. For that part, I'm fine. Below the surface, though, the underlying half of the iceberg, I'm a total mess. It doesn't have to be an icebergâyou can picture a building with shaky foundations, or a bicycle with loose wheelsâbut you get the general idea. There seems to be nothing solid inside me to hold it all together: in testing times, I fall apart; when something goes wrong, I turn on myself.
When I refer to “foundations” I don't mean childhood: I couldn't have had a more secure start in life. My parents' marriage is solid as a rock, and I've always been close to my family. School days were fine, as was adolescence. There was no specific trauma, no cruelty or catastrophe I can think of that might account for my later struggles.
What makes it harder to explain is that I'm genuinely a confident personâin many ways, I feel good about myself. Early on, my psychiatrist diagnosed me with
anorexia because I don't have the classic “distorted” view common to many anorexics. On the contrary, I'm well-informed about the physical, biological, and cognitive aspects of this condition. I've worked in psychology publishing for the last ten years. I understand the health risks. I see how self-defeating it is.
There's a well-known image of anorexia, a very thin woman looking in a mirror and seeing an obese woman looking back at her. That's not me. I'm thin, and when I look in the mirror, I see a thin woman looking back at me.
So this illness is not straightforward: I can't blame a simple lack of confidence. The top portion of my iceberg is outgoing and lively. For example, I'm fine about public speaking; I've read at weddings, I've given countless work presentationsâafter the initial nerves, I quite enjoy it. I've never felt that fear of “walking into a room,” I'm happy to meet strangers, I don't even mind job interviews. I've traveled alone since I was a teenager, and I'm not fazed by going to the movies on my own. I think family, friends, colleagues would say I'm good company. Like most people I know, I should listen more and talk less, but I'm fun to be withâif not for dinner, then at least for drinking or a party.
It's what's underneath that needs work. Compliments, promotionsâsure they happen; like anyone else, I've had my achievements. But for me success is like water off a duck's back; I somehow can't hold onto the glow. And then as soon as I get a hint of rejection, that's it. I castigate myself for trying, I hate myself for failing. I tell myself how stupid I was ever to have thought I might get anywhere. It's really unpleasant, how instantly I turn on myself, in ridicule and disgust. I replay the attempt or eventâthe relationship that went wrong, a scene at the officeâ
and wonder how I could have been so blind.
Did I not see all along that it wasn't going to work out? Did I honestly think I had a chance at getting that job? Didn't I notice that man didn't want me?
I've never been able to take a positive view of failure. I can't believe in Samuel Beckett's words, “Ever tried, ever failed. No matter. Try again, fail again, fail better” (although that quote is stuck on my kitchen cupboard). I've never personally found much solace in those Pollyanna-platitudes: “It's all good experience” and “You learn from your mistakes.” I struggle to see the positive side. It's not that I want to “win.” Just that I feel so bloody awful about myself when I fail.
Remember that relationship book and film that came out a few years ago,
He's Just Not That Into You
? That title encapsulated everything I'd always suspected about myself, deep down.
I know I'm not the only one. Many confident people are chronically insecure; even high-flyers often say they feel like frauds, that they live in fear of being “found out.” This profound sense of inadequacy is commonâand one's actual worth or talent bears little resemblance to how one feels about oneself. In fact, I think the cleverest people must be pessimistic, depressed, because they are realistic, and they see how the world really is.
It all comes down to temperament, and I think this may be inherited. My mother and I are very similar in this: when we're rejected or ignored for any reason (a polite “no” from a publisher, a party we're not invited to) we immediately assume it's our fault. Our own standards (appearance, thinness) are too high, and we take setbacks or failures as a judgment on ourselves. Is it narcissistic to take life so personally?
Actually, I don't think it's narcissism. I think I just feel things too deeply, or take them too personally. Surely that's insecure rather than narcissistic?
Tom is the absolute opposite: he is constitutionally hopeful. Say he emails an editor pitching an idea for a newspaper article, and doesn't receive a reply for weeks, he'll happily say, “Oh, they're probably on vacation.” I've quizzed him about this many times to try and understand his thought process: does he doubt himself? Does he blame himself for failure? He says that most of the time, it's not failure, just “crap circumstances.” In other words, he doesn't internalize the rejection. When he doesn't receive a reply he genuinely believes that the editor is away or busy. He doesn't rush to the conclusion that his writing is rubbish, or they don't want
And yet personality is never simple. When it comes to me, to my feelings for him, Tom is much less secure. He is convinced that any male acquaintance of mine must be either an ex-boyfriend or a prospective suitor, and at times he has driven us both to despair with his accusations and suspicions. For all my anorexic craziness, this level of jealousy is something I can't relate toâI've never felt it or understood it. If someone wanted to cheat on me, either he would or he wouldn't; but, in either case, what good would imagining it do me? Why would you want to spend your life with one person and be unfaithful? When we discuss it rationally, Tom understands this, but emotions are not always rational, I know. We both have elements of confidence and insecurityâsensitivities, weaknessesâI'm sure that's true of us all. Tom feels secure about work but not about me, as if something deep down refuses to believe in my love. I don't suffer these torments of emotional jealousyâI feel secure in his loveâbut I experience daily doubts in my own abilities and in myself as a person. I'm almost in despair from the moment I send out an idea into the world, and I spend most of my life expecting the next failure.
So I'm confident in some ways and an insecure wreck in others, like lots of people; so what's the big deal? What has any of this
to do with anorexia? I think it's about resilience. When things go wrong, as they always will, for all of us, you need that inner core. You need to believe, fundamentally, that you're OK. You need to have faith in yourself. But I don't. I have no ballast, so whenever life gets tricky or when I fall short, I flounder.
I have thought about this a lot. What it comes down to is a total lack of self-belief.
* * *
Anorexia started as a response to a major breakup. I was nineteen years old, and from that point on I've basically been at war with myself.
If you've been telling yourself for years that (deep down) you're a failure, then rejection, when it comes, isn't that surprising. But there are degrees of hurt. And however painful it is to be rejected for a job, to mess up an exam or fail your driving test, nothing comes close to rejection in love.
It's strange, this one, love and relationships and breakups. I hear people saying it's not personal; you shouldn't take it personally. This seems madness. If it's a serious relationship, how can it be anything but intensely personal? Someone has fallen in love with you, shared their secrets, gotten to know your body and your mind, bathed with you, slept beside you, tasted your skin and sweat and tearsâand then they say, “You're not for me.” When a relationship ends, of course you can't blame anything but yourself.
I've had lots of boyfriends and experienced plenty of endings, both as the dumper and the dumpee. In fact, I was usually the one calling time on relationships, but of course I only ever remember the other ones: I can recall with absolute clarity the occasions when I have been chuckedâthe humiliationâbut my memories
are hazy about all the others. Over the years, whenever I got dumped my mother would say, “It's not you, it's him.” She's right about most things, but she's wrong about that. Of course it's about “you.” It's outright rejection, what could be clearer? The precise meaning of a dumping is surely this: I don't love you. Or, I don't love you
Come on, we all know the truth about love. When you're into someone, you'll do almost anything to be with them, uproot your home, sell your soul, climb mountains . . . When you're not, you just want to get free.
I had been lucky, I suppose, up to the age of nineteen. The odd setback, a failed driving test or two, but nothing to shake my foundations. On a failure-and-rejection scale of one to ten, if the driving tests were a three (I couldn't afford a car back then, and anyway it's impossible to park in London), the breakup I went through was an eleven.
I stop typing for a moment and take a swig of Diet Coke. I don't really want to go back to all this, but I want to be honest about what triggered my anorexia. For most of us there's been someone we'll love forever even though it didn't work out (or precisely because it didn't work out). You know the one who hurt you more than anyone ever did, the one you thought you couldn't live without? For me that person is Laurence.
The fallout from that relationship nearly wrecked my life. That's not a blame thing, it's just the truth.
* * *
As I try to piece together what happened in New York and Oxford, I realize that a failed love affair doesn't seem like a particularly logical reason to stop eating. OK, so my heart was all smashed up, but that happens to most people at some point in their lives.
Starving oneself is sort of an odd response, isn't it? I don't know why anorexia was the way I chose to punish myself, if I in fact chose it at all. But if you asked anyone who was close to me, they would say that after Laurence I was a different person: quieter, thinner obviously, but also withdrawn.
It's a hackneyed phrase but, compared to life before anorexia, I feel like a shadow of my former self. It is obvious to me, and obvious to others, that something in that relationship damaged me. Am I blaming Laurence? No. He was under no obligation to continue our relationship. He didn't know I would go on to develop an eating disorder. And anyway, cause and effect is never that straightforward. Probably the seeds of anorexia were sown much earlier than this, in my childhood or adolescence. So it's worth going back a few years, to explain who I was before anorexia came along.
I was a happy teenager, living in North London, attending the prestigious St. Paul's Girls' School. My big sister, Katie, and my little sister, Alice, attended the same school, and my two brothers, Philip and Tristram, went to St. Paul's Boys' School just across the Thames. The alumni of St. Paul's include John Milton and Samuel Johnson and George Osborne and Imogen Stubbs and Rachel Weisz and Harriet Harman: countless authors and politicians, musicians and actresses. The two schools are notorious for producing high-flying, high-profile, scarily confident young women and men. My A level year contained the following: Michael Howard's daughter, John Major's goddaughter, Charles Darwin's great-granddaughter, and a couple of Lord Sainsbury's nieces. Besides their lofty connections, St. Paul's girls were hilariously rich and spoiled. I remember my best friend's seventeenth birthday: her brand-new black convertible Range Rover was driven into Brook Green as we smoked illicit cigarettes outside the school gates.
Conversely, my family was hilariously poor. It may not sound like itâwhat with the private schoolingâbut my parents really were stony broke. They managed, miraculously, to do things on a shoestring: camping instead of hotels, picnics instead of restaurants, and all our school uniforms were hand-me-downs, altered and spruced up by my mother. And when the ancient Triumph Herald car broke down, again, and we had to be towed home, again, they made it seem like an adventure.