Illustration by Josie Moir

CW: sexual assault, ED

Back in February, I published one of my first instalments on the Oxford Blue – a piece called Big Thing (re-read this for maximum clarity; if you can’t be bothered, the headline is that it’s about being a survivor of sexual violence). That was quite scary for me. Whilst I had talked to a decent number of people in my life about the aforementioned Big Thing, I was conscious that for many, including some who knew me really well, this article would be the first they were hearing of it. I have to imagine that that’s a truly strange experience. Sorry about that.

Now, 8 months later, my mental health landscape has shifted. A long-term-complex relationship with food developed into an eating disorder, and my focus – in therapy, in how I spent my time, in what I had to do and think about — shifted to recovery. (I’m in recovery now, doing ok, working hard). Shoved out of top position, the Big Thing took a bit of a backseat. And reflecting on it now, this was the most genius and insidious move that my anorexia played.

To be clear though, my eating disorder is not an independent entity. A popular recovery technique – which I personally abhor but which I know is very effective for some people – is to give your ED a name, and start to treat it like a person in its own right. As I say above, I know that this really works for some people, and I mean no disrespect if it works for you; everything I say here is a reflection of how I feel and nothing more. But I found this so deeply patronising. To voice a (justified) feeling and then be told “Oh, I see that Hannah’s left the room, this is the anorexia talking” was not only incredibly invalidating and infantilising for me, but also unhelpful. The suggestion that I was being possessed by some kind of malevolent spirit every time I expressed a negative emotion really messed with my sense of reality. I challenge anyone who’s ever been told it’s “not really you” speaking half the time to continue to feel sane. 

Beyond that, the implication that it is possible to separate the person from the eating disorder totally negates and ignores the fact that the crux of the issue is that you cannot. What’s so frightening about eating disorders is that they are not an accessory you can put on and take off, they are a parasite that infiltrates every level of your being. If it were possible to talk to the anorexia on its own, and to talk to a non-ED Hannah on her own, you would have solved half of the problem. And unsurprisingly, it is not that simple.

So when I say above that the sidelining of my trauma was a move played by my eating disorder, I don’t mean it was done without my involvement. I know that ironically, chillingly, the puppet master here was me. To be clear, I am not saying that I deliberately gave myself an eating disorder. That kind of victim-blaming is incredibly dangerous as a rhetoric, not to mention wildly incorrect. What I am saying is that, for me as for a lot of people, the eating disorder appeared as a reaction to a lot else (reference: Big Thing) and, as a frightening consequence, stole focus and time and energy from it. Like a bizarre whack-a-mole, the eating disorder pops up, forces you to turn away from what you were fighting elsewhere, and thus delays any progress you might have made. It’s a distraction. It’s a diversion. It’s a deflection.

And on top of this, somehow it’s been easier. Dealing with sexual trauma feels like suffering alone, in the dark, with no understanding of what’s above and below you. It’s scary and disorientating and seems endless. Although narratives are shifting, the cultural understanding of sexual violence is still very limited and limiting, and doesn’t do nearly enough to encompass the wide range of experiences of survivors. This can be incredibly isolating. 

Sharing this stuff is so hard: on top of the stigma is the simple fact of a lot of people’s discomfort talking about sex at all, let alone sexual violence. And even once you do share it, no one quite knows what to say. Beyond acting as a supportive listener, there just isn’t a whole load you can do to make things better. 

Comparatively, anorexia recovery is more ordered. It can be project managed and broken down into steps and, although it is never linear and it is a massive uphill battle, there is a sense of progress and change, however slow, as time goes on. There is also a lot of information available as to how to recover, and how to support someone else to recover. As opposed to the vast, dark, unfamiliar ocean of dealing with sexual violence, the theory of dealing with an eating disorder is comparatively graspable. The diagnosis is something quite neat that I can offer to people, that they can make some sense of and try to understand. It’s a route in. It is a handhold.

Before I had an anorexia diagnosis, my mental illness was so much harder for the people around me to grasp. I didn’t know how to talk about it in a way that felt right; that felt true to my experience. I didn’t have the words. Sharing it felt immensely personal. The wrong reaction was catastrophic. I felt like I was cutting myself open, and exposing the most vulnerable thing in me. I identify so closely with this trauma; it is a part of me and I feel inextricably connected to it. The eating disorder, on the other hand, feels a lot more external. It feels less intimate, and less idiosyncratic. To me, it feels less taboo. It feels less shameful. 

What I’m untangling at the moment is what this all means. My current understanding is that the eating disorder is a way of indicating towards my trauma whilst also placing a protective barrier around it: it lets people in, but in quite a calculated and ultimately incomplete way. It betrays the presence of suffering, it communicates a need for help, but it also stays at quite a superficial level. As I say, it is a handhold. And as a handhold, it alerts us to the presence of something that needs scaling, and suggests that it won’t be an easy ascent. But the climb has begun, and I for one am really excited about the view from the top.