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“It’s Not Your Illness..." This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

By , Horsham, United Kingdom
“It’s not your illness; why is it such a big deal?”

But it is – it became my illness. I didn’t starve myself but, after a while, anorexia claimed us all until the whole family was ruled by it and it seemed to be all we were made up of. We weren’t people; we were just slaves in anorexia’s kingdom. Anorexia is good at stealing and at kidnapping and at controlling. It especially likes to slip inside and hold you hostage in your own body while it pulls the strings on which you dance.

My brother was sixteen and he would always be the one who would finish the left-overs and cope with an enormous pizza. I was the one who was vegetarian and picky and gave him left-overs to finish. I think he loved food, once.

Then came the cycle rides – in hindsight I don’t think it began with the cycle rides; it been gradually snowballing for a year – the cycle rides were when I started to notice. He would take his bike out for 80 mile rides with only an apple for fuel and when he wore shorts and a t-shirt I noticed that the veins protruded from his arms and legs like contours on a map. He had crested knees that peaked in blocky triangles when he bent them up and his elbows seemed to have been sharpened. He had routines – he couldn’t eat until he’d been through a process. He couldn’t go out until he’d finished his procedure. Food was a reward; it could only be eaten when paid for in sweat and road miles.
I still didn’t even understand.

I didn’t understand because I knew about anorexia in the way that most people do: it was this vague thing that happened to teenage girls and it was something to do with feeling fat and not eating. I don’t think I had even grasped the fact that boys were not immune. I sort of learnt to see it all as some weird feature of my genius brother’s life rather than the illness that almost claimed his life.

In all truth I don’t really remember when he was diagnosed or how I found out or whether it even hurt me. I think I probably said “Oh” in an empty sort of way and went upstairs because it was sort of impossible to accept and I guess I thought that the thing being labelled wasn’t any worse than the thing itself.

My summer was spent listening to my parents trying to persuade him to eat and losing every time. My summer became some sort of war against my brother even though it wasn’t him we were fighting. I went to see my younger cousins one day and while I was there he got taken into hospital and I ended up staying the night with them. My cousins didn’t understand and they continued to drag me through a game involving galloping around on invisible horses and trying to keep the peace between them. I didn’t want any more responsibility but being with them unavoidably gave it to me. I wanted someone to take control over anorexia the way it had taken control over us.

I expect I did normal summer things. I know I went swimming and pretended to have fun. I also know that I did a lot of dance. It is the anorexia parts that I remember and anorexia had seized most of it. When I was at my grandparents’ house I saw a family photo from the year before and that was when I first realised how overly-skinny he’d become. Obviously I’d noticed him shrinking but it wasn’t until I had the comparison with the happy, healthy brother I’d had before that I realised how he’d become a skeleton.

I remember he only ever looked at the floor, never at me, and he talked in mumbles that I couldn’t hear. We stopped having conversations.
I have this really vivid memory of the night before he got admitted to hospital the second time when my mum was just standing there in the sunset light crying until her mouth was a drawn-back hole and my dad was holding my brother up in the doorway trying to get him to look at her. I was caught in the middle and my dad was yelling because my brother hadn’t eaten anything and he was screaming and trying to collapse on the floor. It was like watching my brother become a toddler. My mum said “I’m not good enough at being a mum – I can’t keep him alive.”
Then I saw him being sucked into an ambulance with a heart rate of 27 beats/minute and I felt both sick and really inappropriately hungry.
He came home a couple of weeks later on a meal plan and put on some weight. Great.
It wasn’t.
Putting on weight scared him and from then on he refused to eat at all because weight meant he had failed the demands that anorexia made of him.

I learnt to shovel down meals so that I could be finished and out of the room before I had to watch him. He would try to dig holes in himself with his fingernails when my parents tried to make him eat and he would clench his hands around his neck like he wanted to break it. Sometimes I went upstairs and literally stuck my face in my beanbag for ages and wondered if my eyes should be leaking. I would try to avoid being around him when he ate and I would get friends to invite me over in the evenings. I sometimes got left there overnight because there just wasn’t time for me at home. It wasn’t that my parents didn’t want me there, I just wasn’t a priority. I wasn’t the one whose life needed saving, I just had to carry on living it.

Then he disappeared for several months into an Adolescent Mental Health Unit.

I did still see him at weekends – we used to play Taylor Swift in the car as we drove over and I can no longer listen to that album without thinking of that – but I didn’t really see him. I saw anorexia; there didn’t seem to be any of him left.

I sent him stupid and pretentious emails which I doubt he ever read. I even hated myself as I read them because I’d tried to be funny and just sounded hollow.

I watched Mean Girls at a friend’s party and one of my friends who knew was explaining it to me and she said: “And then the anorexic girl gets really fat…” and then she broke of and covered her mouth as if she’d sworn in church and spent about half an hour apologising. It wasn’t even much of a big deal that she’d said it but I think I’d stopped being a person to them and had become a porcelain doll or a sympathy case.

People at school would complain that their hair was annoying or that they had a Spanish verb test and I would be sitting their thinking “my brother is killing himself” while they moaned on as if their world was ending. Someone told me that I was having a really lucky year because I got cast in two main roles in dance shows, completely forgetting that that year was the most destructive of my life.

When he came out of hospital with a nasogastric tube still fixed in, everyone told me that they thought he’d moved schools or something. It must have been terrible for him to suddenly have everyone staring at him and being patronisingly sympathetic. In the mental unit, everyone had been the same and then he was plunged back into ordinary teenage life and he was suddenly painfully different.

He gradually got better, after anorexia had swallowed up over a year of our lives, but I don’t think I can ever be the same. He eats now. I don’t know if he loves food, but he eats and we’re trying to move on and never slip back. Anorexia is a voice in his head but it is a voice in a box and the box has a lid on it.

He wrote a letter; it started:
“Dear MABul (This is what he called his anorexia – My Anorexia Bully)
All I can say is thank f*** you’ve left me alone at last.” And I cried for the first time.

Plenty of people don’t know anything about it. They know me as they always knew me and in a way I am glad of it because I am not anything special to them. I just hate the way that so many things are associated with anorexia now. School tries to teach me about dieting in French and about the science of glucose and energy and the dangers of overeating and I sit there screaming silently.

I think the hardest thing about anorexia is the ignorance of others. When I told a friend that my brother was anorexic she turned to me and said “Oh well, at least he’ll get really nice and skinny.” Nothing shows better than this how twisted our culture is – the idea that being anorexic is the better option and, when faced with anorexia or not having a thigh gap, anorexia – the monster – is the lesser-evil.

And this girl still complains to me that her legs are “obese” and that she needs to go on a meat-free diet without knowing that each word terrifies me. I am still terrified of anorexia and of whether my brother will relapse. He’s gone back to cycling and he did 100 miles two days running and I think I’m still paranoid that he is going to be reclaimed. I’m terrified of girls who have stick figures and who go on diets and don’t eat sandwiches at lunch. The sight of collar bones scares me and I can’t really relax until I know that they eat normally. I know it’s stupid because I’m skinny myself and I eat healthily but it’s just another part of anorexia’s scar. I want to protect everyone from it but know I can’t. I don’t know if you ever get over anorexia – it’s a tornado and even once it’s over it takes years and years to rebuild what it destroyed and even longer to “get over it.” Right now we’re all still trapped in the rubble. Buried in piles and piles of s*** but we’ll pull ourselves out piece by piece until there’s enough distance to properly survey the damage. Then I suppose we’ll start rebuilding. And I hate myself because he must hate me for not trusting him and for being so paranoid about his health.

I hate Weight Watcher adverts (which is stupid, I know, because lots of people do have problems with obesity) because I hate the memories of weighing out fractional calories. I hate the way that the world is desperate for perfection. And I hate the way that, for ‘perfection’, it is so desperate to starve itself.

Sometimes I even think I hate my brother, because if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have lived through some sort of hell, but I love him really. Maybe that’s partly why I’m angry; because I care so much. But with hate we only break things and my family needs rebuilding.

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