Liz, 42. Eating Disorders
Name: Liz Fraser
Age: As old as I feel. Depends who’s doing the feeling, I guess, but to myself…24. My DNA is dyslexic and seems to think it’s 42.
Occupation: writer, broadcaster, creator of a kick-ass mental health website you might have heard of, called Headcase.
Mood today: It’s 8.34am, and I’m feeling jumpy in my heart, anxious and stressed about the huge list of things I have to do and time disappearing so quickly. I’m also feeling quite pissed off with anyone who isn't performing at 100%. You sure you still want to be talking with me?
Wine, coffee or green smoothie: coffee, then gin, then smoothie. Although, this weekend I decided that alcohol no longer agrees with me at all, so I’m going to give it a rest for a while. I’ll try 24 hours to start with.
3 vices: intolerance; impatience; apparent inability to stick to word-count. Sorry, this is more '60 Days With...' than 60 Seconds. Still, at least I don't have to edit it. Oh, hang on....
3 virtues: I can’t really say, but people say of me that I’m inspirational, kind and always there for others. People talk a lot of shit.
What’s the best thing anyone has ever said to you: Our till is broken, so this coffee’s on us.
If you weren’t running a start-up, what would you be doing? I’d be a travel writer, visiting the most beautiful places in the world and finding all the broken tills. Or I’d be a management consultant. Or a very rich actress. Or I’d own a café in Prague. And Berlin. I have plenty of time for all this, right? I am, after all, only 24.
What’s in your Headcase?
It’s more of a Headhold-all, but the main bits are…mixed-state anxiety and depression, self harm as of last year (started during a total nervous breakdown, itself the result of prolonged psychological and nervous torture due to…Stuff In My Life. I’ve stopped for now, because it’s not fair on the people I live with), frequent suicidal thoughts, irrational terror of abandonment or Bad Things Happening...oh, and I had bulimia nervosa and anorexia for 15 years, from the age of 15-30. DO I WIN A MEDAL FOR HAVING THE MOST THINGS??
When did you first notice things might not be quite…. ‘right’.
As it’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I’ll focus on that bit, or we’ll be here all day.
When I was about 15, I think, but in all the years I’ve been writing and talking about mental health problems I’ve found it’s almost impossible for people to say exactly when it started, or to be accurate about why. It’s far too easy to try and say ‘Oh, it was when my parents divorced’ or ‘It was the pressures at school’ or ‘when I saw Christy Turlington in a copy of Vogue in 1989 I decided I was a cellulite-encrusted whale, so I went and got me some good ol’ anorexia.’
It’s a tad more complicated than that.
And, probably, for many of us it was a character predisposition since we were very young. I have a ludicrously active brain, I’m high-functioning, highly strung and highly annoying. I have always FELT things more than most other people I know – to the point where my thoughts and feeling make my body hurt. And I mean HURT. Then again, who knows. We can search and search for answers.
We moved to Germany when I was 5. Was it that?
Then we moved to France when I was 9. Was it that?
I watched a horror film when I was about 8, about a man being trapped in a phone box and dying in it. Was it that?
My parents openly praise physical fitness and slenderness, and abhor fatness and laziness. Was it THAT?!
No idea. I always think best to move forward, than look back.
I do, however, remember that when my elder brother left home, I felt desperately lonely. Lost, alone and scared, would be the words that spring to mind most.
I think I maybe also became aware of worrying tensions between my parents, and the approaching end of my time at home - in my school, in my ‘safety’, with my routines and systems and everything ‘known’.
Top this with being possibly the least cool kid in school (top marks in every class, leader of the Youth Orchestra, hand-me-down Czechoslovakian tracksuits from my brother, a penchant for setting my Latin homework to music. WHAT’S NOT TO LOVE??) and feeling pretty gawky, geeky and generally shit about every aspect of myself, I decided that losing weight would transform me from social outcast to Überbabe.
Being the genius that I am, I decided to lose weight by eating less and exercising more. I should have written a best-seller called, ‘Yadon’tsay??’
What happened next?
I became a professional calorimeter. This was pre-Internet, remember, so just walking to town and back to stock-pile all the magazines and books containing calorie counters in them, was a job in itself. I could tell you not only the calorie content of an individual grape picked under a full moon in a month that starts with J, but also how many calories it would take to burn this grape, and whether it made any difference to the size of my thighs if the grape was white or red, served cold or at room temperature, picked by a French or Spanish farmer, or dependent on the number of times I chewed it before swallowing. I basically did a mini degree in the physics, chemistry and biology of Getting Thinner. And grapes.
The satisfying thing about losing weight, for someone obsessed with measurable results and getting things right, was being able to chart my progress. I still have the graph. It goes downwards. A lot. There was something very gratifying about seeing the evidence; watching the weight come down. Marking it. Feeling that I’d achieved something. I was getting thinner! I was getting more popular! Or, actually, just thinner. And, ironically, probably less popular as I withdrew ever more.
How did you feel?
Isolated. Insular. Alone. Cold. Desperately unhappy. Detached. Determined. Obsessed…with calories, food, the satisfying, reassuring equation of “food in - exercise done = PROGRESS”.
I also felt controlled and frustrated by being forced to eat food at home. So I started to lie. ‘I’ve already eaten. I’m not hungry. I had a big lunch at school. I’ll be eating later…’
Then I started hiding food. Potato skins are handy blankets to shovel Fat Thigh Rice under. Or I’d hide it in a tissue on my lap. Or just throw my launch away ay school.
How did it develop?
The ‘not eating’ bit got a hold on me very quickly – probably within weeks. I’m a fast learner. Not very useful, in this case.
One Summer holiday we went for a 20-mile walk in the Scottish Highlands, and I remember eating some broccoli for dinner, and worrying that is was too much. I guess that was the first time I really thought…hmmm, maybe this isn’t so OK. Around this stage my mother had started to seem angry and frustrated by this refusal to eat ‘properly’. She was probably desperately frightened and unhappy to see me like that.
One day I had a brainwave; to keep my mother happy I would eat the meals she cooked. To keep myself happy, I would throw up afterwards, and thus not consume the calories.
High-fives hadn’t been introduced to this country yet, but if they had, I’d have given myself three.
And so it started.
Then another time a few days later. Then every day.
And then, eventually, in the year I left school…several times a day.
And not just after meals; I would binge eat to stop feeling anything else, to DO something other than be in a world I found very difficult to handle, and then throw up.
It grew and grew until it was no longer behaviour for a reason, but a full-blown, deadly addiction, just like any other.
Thinking about it, buying the food, eating it, throwing up, tidying up, feeling like shit.
The routines and rituals of an addict.
At this point, like all addictions, my behaviour didn’t even reflect a need or want for the hit any more; I did it to escape reality, to kill time, and because this is just what I did. It was auto-pilot. Total bypass of conscious thought, rationality or a desire to be better.
The addiction won every time.
And like many addictions, every time I did it I felt worse and worse. I swore I would never do it again.
And then I did.
My head hurt, my vision was impaired, I had terrible memory loss, total inability to concentrate, I was exhausted, I missed out an a million opportunities to be with friends, I lost many friendships, I performed terribly at my work, and I was probably really shite to be around.
Did you know what it was, or what to do?
Anorexia was known about, but bulimia wasn’t. I had never heard anyone talk about it. I had never read about it, I think. There was one other girl at school who I know did it, but we didn’t talk about it. Nobody did.
How long did you wait before telling anyone?
Probably about three years. Before this, the only time it cropped up was when my Dad found evidence of it in the toilet, and asked what had happened, and I said I had just been sick because I was ill. We didn’t talk about it again for at least three years – until I was at University and failed all of my exams because I couldn’t see, think, remember anything, or function at all. RESULT. (A very poor result, to be precise.)
Who did you talk to?
I told a couple of friends in my College in Cambridge that I had eating problems, and I told my boyfriend within of days of being together, just so he would know why I didn’t always want to eat as much as everyone else. He was totally cool about it. But I never told anyone the extent.
When I lost the weight and became so skinny you could hide a combine harvester (including a trailer and three cocktail umbrellas) in the hollows at the back of my thighs, it was definitely noticed by those around me that I wasn’t well. I learned years later than my teachers had spoken with my parents about it, in a kind, concerned way. Yet nobody ever asked me, ‘are you OK? Do you want to talk about it?’ I just felt told off, difficult, and a PROBLEM. This made everything worse; I now felt guilty, annoying, irritating, and thus even more driven to eradicate myself and withdraw.
What help did you get?
I went to see the College counsellor, at the request of my tutors. This was a total waste of time, as I didn’t want to be there, and I was totally closed off to the idea of it doing me any good. It was a bit like offering someone a life raft and watching them throw petrol on it.
I’ve also talked with various GPs about it. They offered more counselling. Yay.
I should probably have had CBT. That’s shown to have very high success rates with eating disorders. But I didn’t want it. I didn’t WANT to get better. It was my thing. I was terrified of it being taken away. Then I would have no safety net or structure to my life at all.
How long it it go on for?
I carried on being very ill throughout my first two years of University (my whole life revolved around food, eating, bingeing, hating myself, desperately wanting to LEAVE but having - I thought - no option to.) It was absolute Hell from start to finish. An existence of non-existence – or of trying to remove or distract myself from my existence there as much as possible. In my final year I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and was much better. I got a good 2:1 in the end. Rather chuffed with that, given the circumstances!
I got married after I graduated, had my first baby (now in her first year of University. SHIT, I AM OLD) within a year, and I remember being deliriously happy. I had no food problems at all, I gained weight, and I was just . . . HAPPY.
This continued for a while, but during my 2nd pregnancy the bulimia came back, and after I had the baby I lost a lot of weight very fast. I just wanted to be thin again, to regains some kind of semblance of normality, and of control. Then I was better for a few years again, but again, in my next pregnancy it came back again.
When my third child was about one, I nearly died during a binge.
I felt it. I was passing out. I was going to die right there in my kitchen, and be found dead on the floor surrounded by custard cream wrappers. Nobody want to be found in custard cream wrapper. I went freezing cold. I was hugely conscious of this being the end.
That was the last time I did it.
From that moment, the very idea of it brought back that feeling, and induced a feeling of blind panic, terror and shaking.
As fabulous luck would have it, the end of the bulimia marked the start of the sudden onset of 8 years of panic and anxiety disorder. FUCKSAKE! Still. That has passed now too. Ha. I win, you bastards.
How are you now?
I’m not sure, to be honest. Physically very strong, my running is good, and I eat a healthy diet, though in moderation. But I think about it a lot. I'm very distractible. These days, I would always rather not eat, than eat. I eat only so I don't get too thin, and to keep others happy. For me, these are all little warning signs that I’m maybe not OK, and I'm unhappy on some level, and clinging on to this, for 'safety'.. When I’m NOT thinking about food, weight, size etc, I know I’m in a really happy, safe place. I’ve been totally OK bulimia-wise for over ten years. And I want it to stay that way.
Who helped you the most?
Honestly, this is really hard to answer, as it might hurt those who think they helped me, but I don’t remember feeling that I ever really had the help I needed, in the way I needed it. I have always felt that I’ve dealt with this alone – and not very well. The only times I’ve been better, were when I just happened to be happier.
But certainly, having a loving, caring partner for 23 years, through it all, must have helped me a lot. I am very grateful to him for that. For sticking with me; for never EVER blaming me, or making feel that it was my fault. Just that it was a Thing, and I would get better. I think that takes huge love, and strength.
We are separated now, though remain close, supportive friends, and I do often wonder how much my mental health issues affected our relationship. And indeed my relationship with many people and things in my life. I try to think of ways I might improve on this, if I’m brutally honest with myself about it all.
What worked best for you?
Just being in a happier place, in myself. I was extremely happy when I had my babies, and when I had my dream job in TV and in publishing. Iwas SO happy, the eating stuff vanished. I’m always worse when things are unstable. Totally useless answer, I know, but I think that’s true.
What you would say to anyone who is suffering similar things, or to yourself in that state?
Oh, probably some really crass thing like ’keep going, it will get better.’ But really, it’s that when you are HAPPY, you are most likely to be well. I believe that.
What’s the biggest change in the understanding of mental health you would like to see?
That people start to understand that many mental health problems are due to a deep, deep level of unhappiness, fear, instability and insecurity, and that this can then cause a whole lot of things that then, in themselves, become the problem. Things like OCD, self harm, anorexia, alcoholism etc are often symptoms of deep unease within oneself, and in relation to the world, not due to weakness, or being totally fucking WEIRD or crap.
If you could say anything to your mental health issue, what would it be?
For fuck's sake, SERIOUSLY, are you still here?? There's something called outstaying your welcome, y'know, and you're about 30 years over.
Please fuck off now, and let me have a rest.