How I recovered from anorexia

Food has always been part of my life

I have always loved food and cooking and I come from a family where food was celebrated. We often had people over for dinner parties and my mum cooked pretty much everything from scratch.

I was interested in doing dietetics in my early teenage years but I got dissuaded from going this way because my maths grades weren’t high enough – in France, where I grew up, the system can be quite rigid. It’s not like you need to use algebra on a daily basis these days… 

Too much and not enough

Those teenage years were quite difficult for me: there were problems at home, I had just moved to secondary school, I was trying to find who I was while also trying to fit in, look cool etc. I had this sense that I wasn’t good enough, my family seem dysfunctional and I felt awkward, too big, not pretty enough.

Basically I was both too much and not enough. I had a friend who was everything I wanted to be: slim, blond with blue eyes, perfect parents, a beautiful house etc. All the boys liked her and I felt I was just tagging along. I now know that my friend had an eating disorder but at the time, I just thought she was perfect.

One day I went shopping with my friends and we all bought the same fashionable skirt. I wore it to school, conscious that perhaps it didn’t suit me as well as the others but still proud to be wearing something fashionable – for once I was flirting with being cool. That day my friends all lined up and one by one they came to tell me that I couldn’t possibly wear this skirt because “I didn’t have the legs for it”. It crushed me.

I confirmed what I had suspected all along: I was disgusting, worthless and unloveable.

I hated my legs for years after that and in all honesty this is still the part of my body that I’m the least confident about.

I decided to become “healthier”

So, I decided to lose a bit of weight by eating a bit less. Then I decided to become “healthier” by becoming vegetarian – clearly, the subtext here was that losing weight would be healthier, which turned out to be untrue. Over the weeks and months, I melted and people congratulated me on my weight loss like my weight had been what was dragging me down all along, even though I was never anywhere near clinically “overweight”. They told me I looked good so I figured that losing a bit more weight would make me look even better and so I did… Those boys who had never noticed my existence were suddenly very interested in getting to know me. I was no longer just “the fat friend of the pretty one”. It felt amazing.

Except that it didn’t last. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when it all went wrong but at some point I lost control. I couldn’t stop restricting and I was petrified of the very thing that had brought me so much joy in the past. I started cooking for myself so that it would be the least calorific possible, I baked lots but I wouldn’t eat any of it. The others could but I couldn’t.

I was tired, cold, hungry, miserable and socially distant. I had to stop dance lessons because I had no strength. The boys didn’t fancy me anymore and the girls were confused by who I had become.

Aside from my mum who tried to intervene, I received no professional help and so it lasted for quite a few years as a result. I just spent my time studying and not eating. I think this lack of help was a reflection both of the time (the late 90s) but also the culture of thinness in France.

I wasn’t ill, I was chic…

I sometimes feel ashamed of admitting I received no help. What will people think? Will they think I can’t possibly be recovered if I haven’t talked it through with a professional?

I think it’s quite rare to recover without help and frankly I wouldn’t recommend it. Clearly it’s possible and I’m not the only one but it could go wrong and it probably will take longer.

How did I recover then?

Out of tiredness and sheer stubbornness I think.

Eventually, I grew tired of it all and I decided enough was enough. I needed to get better, so I did. I didn’t start eating lots but I made tiny little changes (“atomic habits” as some would say). I created my own behavioural experiments: what will happen if I do that? What about this? Little by little I started eating more but it wasn’t really enough for my weight to massively change and that was good because I was still very much attached to the number on the scales and my appearance. This allowed me to relax around food and to see that many of my “rules” were based on nothing but sand.

I moved to London at 19 and it could have broken me but instead it made me. I loved how different everyone looked and also how nobody cared who you were or what you looked like.  The tube became a source of amazement and inspiration: I could see people in larger bodies wearing fashionable clothes and looking sexy. That blew my mind, I grew up thinking that if you’re not thin, you need to cover yourself up and be invisible. I never saw cool clothes in larger sizes before moving to the UK, I always thought that was only reserved for the thin ones.

Being a student in London opened my eyes, I could see there was a world out there that I couldn’t explore if I kept restricting, so I relaxed and tried new foods: biryanis, noodle soups, bagels etc. It also helped that no one really knew me as “the anorexic girl”, so I could reinvent myself and become just Anne, or “French Anne” as people now call me.

Over the years, I regained some weight but it was so gradual that I had plenty of time to get used to it, plus I stopped weighing myself so I wasn’t fixated on the number anymore. I bought new clothes and gave the old ones away. I ate out, laughed, had boyfriends etc. My periods finally came back and I felt elated.

How I recovered from anorexia

I found myself walking amongst nature

I was now working in publishing but I had a sudden quarter life crisis while trekking in the Canadian Rockies. I wanted more from my job than just make money, so I decided to retrain as a nutritionist. I wasn’t interested in weight loss or eating disorders but simply to show people that food is a friend and that it can help us feel better.

I retrained, quit my job and started my family. Starting a family was also something that helped me recover, I’ve always known I wanted children and I also knew that it wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t get better.

After working for a couple of years I realised people who were coming to me all wanted to lose weight, even though they hadn’t originally come to me for weight loss, and even though there was no issue with their weight. I also noticed that many people displayed strange food habits, habits that were very reminiscent of the things I used to do when ill. I realised eating disorders and disordered eating were ubiquitous and so I decided to train further in that field.

I don’t believe in faith, I don’t believe it was my path but I believe the eating disorder strengthened me somehow. It was tough and it had the power to completely destroy me but it didn’t. There was something in me that said no, I’m not going to let you destroy me. I haven’t lived it yet and there is more to me that this illness.

I didn’t talk to any professional along the way but I reflected a hell of a lot and I have had many chats with myself over the years. I learnt to be curious about my emotions and not run away from them. I learnt that I’m both strong and fragile. I learnt to weed out people who are not good for me. I learnt that I’m flawed but so is everyone else and all we can do is our best and apologise when we make mistakes. I learnt that I’m enough, that my legs are fine legs that allow me to do stuff. I learnt that what I look like doesn’t really matter, who am I is what counts. We are all unique and that’s our strength.

You need to want it even if you’re scared

So, yes what saved me was tiredness and stubbornness.

I think that even with the most amazing team behind you, if you haven’t had enough of being ill, you will not be ready to recover.

You need to want to end this more than you want to be thin.

I can promise you that it will be scary and hard but I am yet to come across someone who regrets recovering.