Here is the full transcript of Catherine Pawley’s TEDx Talk: After Anorexia: Life’s Too Short to Weigh Your Cornflakes at TEDxLeamingtonSpa conference.
Catherine Pawley: I’m Catherine. I’m a chemistry finalist at the University of Warwick, I’m a daughter, a sister, friend, girlfriend, and recovering anorexic.
I want to give you an insight into eating disorders and recovery using my journey, my journey of pain, tears, acceptance, and discovery. Eating disorders do not discriminate: gender, age, sexuality, and race mean nothing. These illnesses are not reserved for troubled teenage girls who want to look like models. They are serious illnesses with devastating consequences. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness.
I suppose the question here is: why? Why do we choose to starve ourselves, make ourselves sick, and exercise to oblivion? Why do we choose to harm ourselves and those around us? The answer is simple: it’s not a choice. Eating disorders are not a choice. They are a coping mechanism, a safety blanket, an identity. They make life simple by giving you a rule book for life. Rules that tell you how to live; what to do, what to say, what to eat.
Rules take away chance and decision, and they take away risk. They give you control. Of course, we all want to feel in control. But often, demons arise: alcoholism, drug abuse, self-harm, eating disorders. All addictions, all seeking control, in a world, full of social constructs set by somebody else.
Seeking escape from the torture they feel in everyday life. Seeking peace from the constant voice in their head telling them they’re not good enough, seeking numbness so that they don’t have to deal with their negative thoughts and emotions.
Eating disorders are not just about food and weight. They are an addiction, they are self-harm. Every eating disorder is different from the way they start and how they present themselves to the rules that govern them and the purpose that they serve. But that’s the common factor; they all serve a purpose.
Five years ago today, it was my 18th birthday. I held all the insecurities that any young woman holds about her appearance, but unlike my peers, I wasn’t excited about turning 18. I didn’t want to go out drinking and partying. I didn’t feel ready to be an adult.
I was stuck on this unstoppable conveyor belt of GCSEs to A-levels, university, and work. It felt like my life was out of my hands, and I didn’t know what I wanted. So, I turned to one thing I knew would make me happy: food. I wanted to eat more.
So I decided to lose weight so I could eat more without feeling guilty about it. Then came my rules: don’t snack in-between meals, don’t eat unless you’re starving, don’t eat more than anyone you’re with. These went unnoticed by those around me, and I tried my hardest to keep it that way, because I was in control.
The plan worked; I didn’t snack in-between meals, I didn’t eat more than anyone I was with, and I didn’t eat unless I was starving. So, I lost weight. But I didn’t eat more as I promised myself.
Time passed, life went on. January exams came along with all the stress. I felt out of control again. So, I made more rules: never finish a plate of food, never eat foods high in fat. Always pick the lowest calorie option.
I was back in control. I felt safe again. But little did I know the rules that gave me safety were slowly killing me. By April 2012, I’d lost around a stone. My ribs began to show, my hip bones protruded, and I was a hanger for my clothes.
I didn’t think that I looked any different, but my family and those around me noticed. My mother dragged me to the doctors. I was so angry. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me; I thought it was perfectly normal to never eat dessert, take cornflakes to the cinema instead of popcorn, and weigh myself at least five times a day. The doctor referred me to a specialist service in Leicester for an assessment.
At the assessment, I was diagnosed with ‘anorexia nervosa’. I ticked all the criteria. One: an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though underweight. Two: a refusal to maintain a body weight, at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height. Three: a disturbance in the way in which one’s body weight or shape is experienced, and an undue influence of this on self-evaluation.
After my diagnosis, it became a lot harder to follow my rules. My family were aware now and plied me with food at any opportunity. So I had to get sneaky. I added more rules to my arsenal: never eat alone, never drink calories, avoid food at all costs. I had to visit the hospital every week to be weighed and see my therapist.
I took great delight in seeing the falling number on the scale every time I stepped on. I was getting sucked in deeper to the anorexic way of thinking. Home life was getting worse as I was being increasingly deceptive. Meal times were horrendous; an internal battle between not eating, and causing yet another argument I knew, as soon as I put my knife and fork together, half of my food untouched, that it would star.t