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
My sister, running upstairs, unable to cope with what I was doing to myself. My mother crying, my father shouting, asking me if I wanted to die. I just sat through it all. It killed me to see what I was doing to my family but I couldn’t stop. I didn’t think that I deserved to stop.
By this time, it was June. Time for my final A-level exams. Somehow, I made it through, determined not to let my 14 years of school go to waste. From the day I finished, I deteriorated rapidly. Each day, eating less and less, becoming more and more deceitful.
Rules increasing day by day, becoming more and more restrictive: never eat more than 500 calories a day never eat anything that you haven’t weighed, never enjoy food. That summer, we had a family holiday abroad planned, but I wasn’t allowed to fly. At home, I couldn’t sleep. My heart rate so low, my body scared I wouldn’t wake up.
My 15-year-old sister had to give me a piggy-back because I couldn’t walk up a hill. I couldn’t think straight. I knew that I couldn’t live like this, but I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t gain weight. Because that would mean losing control.
And that was the strongest rule of all, the one presiding over all the others: never lose control. After one of my weekly appointments, I was admitted, voluntarily, as an inpatient to Leicester Eating Disorders Unit. I was so confused: What had I done? I didn’t want to be there, but I knew that I needed help. I’d spend my nights lying in bed, watching Food Network, gazing at all the beautiful food that I was depriving myself of.
Food One of my favorite things. Of course, I couldn’t admit that, not to anybody. Because anorexics hate food, right? No deep, deep down, most anorexics love food. They’re just depriving themselves of something they love as a punishment.
Over my five-month stay on the anorexia ward, I experienced things that not many 18 year olds would: I heard screams as a girl had a feeding tube reinserted for the fourth time that day; unable to leave my room during ward lock-downs when somebody on section tried to escape. Of course, it wasn’t all like that. I made some amazing friends. For the first time, you’re with people who understand exactly what you’re going through.
We had so many good times: evenings watching movies, doing face masks, laughing, and joking. I felt normal, albeit in an abnormal situation. I progressed through the program, every day challenging the rules I’d made to keep myself safe. For every one I broke, another sprung up. Anorexia is a very competitive illness, and being surrounded by other anorexics gives you ideas.
You pick up their habits and their rules, too. But I did it; I restored my weight. I broke my rules. I ripped up my rule book. Anorexia was a chapter in my life, but it wasn’t the whole book.
I was discharged, went to university after my gap year, and all was good; for about a month. This story isn’t linear, and the journey from anorexia to recovery is rarely linear. I relapsed. My weight deteriorated again, albeit not as fast as the first time as I was eating one or two meals a day. It turns out my rule book was still intact.
Walking to and from lectures became difficult. Five-hour labs were unbearable. I was going in and dealing with dangerous chemicals, having not eaten for almost 24 hours. How I didn’t harm myself or somebody else, I have no idea I struggled through my first year of university, plastering on my fake smile and pretending everything was fine.
I made it though my exams, but then I had to move home. This stabilized my weight loss as I was being made to eat three meals a day, plus a snack, under the watchful eye of my family. Being at home and eating more meant I had to be much, much sneakier again. Crumbling biscuit down my dressing gown sleeves, pretending to have lunch, lying about what I had or hadn’t eaten I became a lying machine.
I hated lying to my family. They knew, though. They knew exactly what I was doing. Even as I deteriorated, I was adamant that I was going back to university. I was not taking another gap year.
I was not giving up .I met my psychiatrist a week before term started. He told me I couldn’t go back. I cried and shouted. I didn’t want to go back into hospital, but it was my only option.
I gave up on going back to university that year and accepted a bed. It took all my strength, but I had just taken the biggest step forward imaginable. This admission was so much harder than the first. I had a new desire to be the ‘perfect anorexic’. This thought kept me prisoner like no other.
It played on all my feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy, fraudulence, and worthlessness. My weight had plummeted to almost half of what it is today, but still, I wouldn’t eat. “Perfect” anorexics do not eat. I sat through meal after meal, nurses willing me to eat something, and I wouldn’t.
My blood sugar crashed. I was so dehydrated, the doctor couldn’t get blood from my veins for tests. It was only on the threat of being ‘sectioned’ that I began to eat again. I began my journey of my recovery for the second time. Yes, I had started eating again, but I was still clinging to my anorexia, clinging to the rules I’d made to keep myself safe. I believed that I was worthless, and that my life wasn’t worth living.
Why would being three stone heavier make my life any better, make my life worth anything? So, I stayed ill. Safe Away from reality, and away from harm. I was numb, and I liked that. It meant I didn’t have to deal with how much of a failure I felt.
Recovery was just too risky. Recovery would mean finally letting go of anorexia; letting go of my rules, letting go of my identity. If I recovered, who would I become? What could I amount to? Recovery isn’t just about wanting it enough: you can want it more than anything in the world. You can have so many reasons to recover, but you just can’t do it. It is the most terrifying concept imaginable.
It means letting go of control and leaving your comfort zone. Of course, we are all guilty of having rules and staying in our comfort zone. Given long enough, we find comfort in our suffering. We stay in the same job we hate. We drag out a dysfunctional relationship.
I starved myself for days on end, understanding the consequences but so afraid to change. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment that it happened, but after countless therapy sessions, a lot of soul searching, and restoring some of my weight, I began to properly engage with my treatment. I began to believe there was a tiny chance my life could be better with recovery. Yes, it would bring scary decisions, but it would also bring a world of opportunity.
It was only then when I believed that the risk was worth it, I believed I had a chance; a chance at university; a chance at love; but most of all, a chance at life.
For me, the path to recovery involved ripping up my rule book. The rule book that governed my every move. The rules that made me feel safe; made me feel in control; that caused my weight to plummet, my hair to fall out, and my bones to thin. The rules that were slowly killing me – I had to break these rules, one by one. It is impossible to recover from anorexia and keep your rules.
You have to leave your comfort zone. You have to rip up your rule book. Anorexia gave me that reality check: I can’t always be comfortable, I can’t always have control, and there is no rule book for life. Recovery has brought me so many things. It has brought me university, it has brought me love, and it has brought me life.
I want to reach out to anyone suffering and say to please accept help. Without the service in Leicester, and the support of my friends and family, I would not be here today. I want you to believe me when I say that you are worth recovery, you are worth a life, and you are good enough.
The one overwhelming thing that recovery has brought me is me. I have got myself back. And, as it turns out, life is way too short to weigh your cornflakes.