By: Heather Birchall
This may not be true of most anorexics, or even a portion, but honestly I can pinpoint the day I became anorexic, and the day I decided ‘enough is enough, now give me a piece of that lemon meringue pie’.
I’d battled the disease for four years but suddenly, like a cat with a ball of yarn, it unravelled itself overnight. I became determined to put on weight until my period started again, and I could look at myself in the mirror without seeing shadows. It took maybe a few months, and when it happened, I went out shopping.
In the 90’s every student in the UK worth their salt shopped at Top Shop. It’s really hard to find clothes that fit when you’re anorexic. I wore kids clothes generally, or tied an unflattering belt around my waist to hold up skirts and jeans. But now everything was snug, and I gave myself a new look – a short skirt with tights, thick black ones in winter, sheer in summer and patterned or multi-coloured for occasions.
This became my outfit of choice at work, hiking up the Lake District hills and through two pregnancies. Even when I moved to California, where active wear is all the rage, I couldn’t shake the look. But, despite all the confidence I’d gained, there was one thing that just kept nagging at me, and it annoyed and frustrated me. I just could not be spontaneous. I’m not talking about booking a last minute flight to Hawaii spontaneous, but rather “do you fancy checking out that new place for lunch now spontaneous.”
Even when I was recovered, and considered my eating disorder to be a thing of the past, at the beginning of each day I decided what I was going to eat, and there wasn’t room for extra helpings.
So, when colleagues asked me out I declined and, as soon as a gaggle of them left, I would take out a forlorn looking sandwich stashed away at the bottom of my bag.
After a while they didn’t ask anymore. Sometimes I would go with them and just buy myself a cup of tea. This honestly seemed feeble to my companion – a bit like pouring a glass of wine in the evening. You need a friend to eat with you, not make a cup of tea last for 40 minutes while they munch on sandwiches and cake.
I’m 40 now, anorexia over 20 years behind me, and it’s only recently that I have been able to take up that lunch offer without any qualms at all. It’s such a relief that I don’t have to plan, and deprive myself of something at the start of the day to make up for that birthday cake that someone wants to share after school pick-up, or that trip to Pinkberry on a whim.
I sometimes wonder though if my future might have been different if I’d accepted those lunch invitations in my twenties and thirties. Would I have progressed in my work faster by discussing things with colleagues at Starbucks? Would I have found out titbits of gossip that made the afternoon pass quicker if only I’d gone on that outing to Pret A Manger?
Maybe I’d have made some closer friends during that time in my life if I’d just had the nerve to go out to a restaurant rather then unwrap the sandwich I prepared each morning. Thankfully there will be enough spontaneous lunches ahead to outweigh the many I turned down. I can happily now raise a glass to spontaneity.
About the Author: Heather Birchall started volunteering with ProjectHEAL in early 2016, and has primarily been responsible for interviewing new volunteers and chapter leaders. Before moving to California and developing a passion for the non-profit sector, Heather was an expert in Victorian painting and photography, and spent eleven years working in curatorial roles at the V&A Museum, Tate Britain, and Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester.