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What if?

“The drumming. I thought it would stop, but it never does. Never, ever stops.
Inside my head. The drumming, Doctor. The constant drumming. It’s everywhere.”
– The Master, Doctor Who series four, The Sound of Drums

My old boss is a really, really good poker player. He once beat Victoria Coren, who was a European champion. So I never tire of telling people that I once won £4 off him at poker, thereby making me one of the best players in the world.

I usually omit the minor details, namely that a) that was the first time I’d ever played poker, so b) he was helping me and c) he had quite possibly lent me whatever trifling sum I’d bet against him in the first place anyway. Because I am not a risk taker.

I’m one of those people who’d always rather take the small precaution than suffer the potential adverse consequences. And it is this aversion to risk, of course, which drives OCD. Why would you not wash your hands when doing so could avoid an illness? Why would you choose the menu option that could give you food poisoning when you could just choose something else? Why would you use the public bathroom if you can hold on until you get home? Why would you play with an animal if you didn’t have to? And so on, and so on, and so on.

That’s how it starts. Until, 20 years in, you find yourself often up all night, having bath after bath, disinfecting everything in sight, permanently fearful, unable to do the things you enjoy, unable to live anything resembling a normal life and wondering what the point of you is.

Because why wouldn’t you do those things, if you thought they were the only way to protect yourself, and the terror was unbearable otherwise?

That’s how OCD works. But there is an answer to that question, a comeback …

Because I choose my sanity instead.

That’s an idea I find very difficult to entertain.

Formative years dedicated to academic success were great at teaching me to deprioritise my own welfare and feelings in the pursuit of a higher, more important goal than happiness: good grades. No one made me do this: as the smartest child in the class, I just never questioned the need to stay on top by doing my best. My absolute best, at all times, because that was what good children, and good students, did. Everything else – boyfriends, fun, normal formative experiences – fell by the wayside in a quest to Do The Right Thing. I never let myself feel that my own happiness mattered.

OCD thrives in this kind of brain. Your sanity, your wellbeing, your ability to work, to enjoy yourself, to go to bed at a reasonable time – these things do not matter. Or rather, it convinces you that they depend, entirely, on cleanliness – that, unlike everyone else, you cannot live a meaningful life, or experience any sort of happiness, without first upholding these standards.

Work first, and play later, otherwise the whole framework of your life collapses. And if the play never comes anymore,  and your life has collapsed anyway, then so be it; at least you did the right thing.

I have never been like other people. I look like them (or perhaps I don’t), I sound like them (or perhaps I don’t), but I don’t think like them and I am not like them. Because they don’t have the drumming, the eternal drumming inside their heads, the thinking and the noise and the torment that never stops.

The chasm between me, and them, is subtle and narrow but, like a forcefield, I cannot reach across it and I will never be able to.

But what if I copied them, just a tiny little bit, because I’m struggling?

What if I took a chance?

I don’t take chances, but what if I did?

If others can exist at 50 per cent cleanliness, 40 per cent cleanliness, sometimes even less, what if, instead of 100 per cent, I chose 99 per cent?

Would I still be okay?

And would I still be able to live with myself?

The fear has always been that I won’t be able to; that I will be completely unable to cope with the terror, anxiety, guilt and self-hate. And unfortunately, this fear does not come out of nowhere; it has been proven true, time and again, by 20 years of OCD. It is always stronger than me, a master with whom I cannot argue. If I try to fight, I can’t bear the feelings.

But who is this OCD, after all, this unquestionable ruler, this unassailable enslaver, this unimpeachable dictator?

It is me.

It is my own brain, my own head; it is one part of me that subjugates another through fear.

Hard to admit, when you try to treat others with kindness, that you possess this trait, even if you only use it against yourself.

So what if I said no?

What if I decided that I could handle the fear?

And the terror, and the anxiety, and the guilt, and the self-hate?

How can I possibly handle these things? No one can handle these things; they are overwhelming; the idea is impossible.

But what if I could?

What if I insisted?

What if OCD was big, but I was bigger?

What if OCD was strong, but I was stronger?

Yes, what if I – who have kept going with this for 20 years, held down jobs, made friends, loved and been loved, lived a life, all despite the deafening drumming that never stops, not even for a second – was stronger?

What if OCD stared, but I stared back, and did not blink?

What if I said I’ll take the chance – just once or twice?

Not the chances that others take, by any means, because the gulf is unbridgeable and there is no point in trying; but what if I just moved a little closer to how they live?

Because if they are okay on 50 per cent cleanliness, won’t I be okay on 99 per cent?

Everyone around me is encouraging me to take the chance, and they wouldn’t do anything to hurt or endanger me … would they?

But what if they’re wrong, the OCD snaps back. What if they’re all wrong? Because people have hurt you plenty of times, haven’t they, even when they were trying to do the right thing; sometimes *because* they were trying to do the right thing?

So what if everyone else is wrong, and the OCD is right?

What if I take a chance, and something terrible happens? What if I take a chance, and I can’t handle how I feel?

And yet, and yet …

What if taking a chance feels … better?

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It’s not about the weight. It’s all about the clothes

I have not written on here for a long time.

This has not been my intention. I have been busy. It is not a good sign, or a bad sign. It just means that into my post redundancy idleness came journalism, which takes over your life.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the pub quiz with my mum and brother for the first time in ages (we came third), and my mum gave me a bag of clothes.

My mum has not bought me any clothes for almost two decades. These were my clothes, the clothes I had had to discard last autumn, because medication was making me put on weight and they did not fit any more.

I had wanted to throw them away. I was trying to recover from my eating disorder, and I had vowed that I would never be so horribly thin again. But my mum had kept them.

I had missed them. One of my favourite pairs of jeans was in there. Another pair I had never even worn before I grew out of them.

I had had to go and buy quite a few new clothes, as so many of my wardrobe staples were in that bag. I bought half a dozen pairs of jeans in River Island. It was an expensive outlay, just before Christmas – even the assistant looked surprised. With a heavy heart, I had wondered if I would have to do the same thing again, a size bigger, in six months’ time.

I did not. I got used to the medication, as everyone had said I would, although I had not believed them, because one of the brilliant features of an eating disorder is that you believe that science and logic don’t apply to you, and over the next eight months my weight dropped back a bit from its unscientific high.

I know this, only because I go to the doctor’s every three months and they weigh me and check my blood pressure. I have no scales at home anymore. I have not stepped on a scale at home for more than nine months.

I do not miss them.

And this is it, now. This is life on the other side.

There is a whole huge debate about whether it is truly possible to recover from an eating disorder.

Some people say it isn’t. That those issues will always stay with you. Others say that they have completely recovered.

The debate is clouded by two things. First, many eating disorder sufferers do not fully recover. They merely return to a level where they can function. I understand this. It is frightening to let go.

Secondly, our society is so obsessed with food and weight that it is difficult to find many people who have a genuinely healthy relationship with food. A healthy relationship with food isn’t one where you don’t eat carbs or think that sugar or dairy products are the devil or hail quinoa as so much better than everything we’ve eaten in this country for millenia, by the way. It’s one where food doesn’t cause you distress.

So am I recovered?

I don’t know.

I eat plenty of fruit and vegetables but I’m sure my diet leaves much to be desired.

On the other hand …

I have just stopped worrying about it.

When your relationship with food is troubled, you think that that isn’t possible. You think that if you don’t control your diet with an iron fist, your sickening greed will see you swell up like the human equivalent of a blood filled tick.

That idea is so frightening that you pour all your energies into making sure it doesn’t happen. Your self esteem is usually so low that this becomes one of the few things at which you feel you can succeed.

But what actually happened was that when I stopped making food and weight an issue, they stopped being an issue.

For a while, at first, I checked myself with a pair of jeans I had almost grown out of every week. If I could still do them up, I hadn’t put on any weight.

After a couple of months, when it became clear that nothing much was changing, I lost interest in doing this.

Because the thing was … I was happy with what I was eating. Completely happy. I was no longer eating to please anyone else, I was no longer depriving myself, I was no longer craving things I couldn’t have, I was no longer stuffing my face with chocolate every night to bury my pain. I was eating well, and in my book healthily, as to me that means both mentally and physically, and it felt so much more amazing than I could ever have imagined that I cared about my weight less and less.

I found that there was something better than thinness, and that was contentment.

And I also found something else. That I wasn’t gaining weight.

Because when food just becomes something you enjoy, without the moral and emotional connotations that as a society we like to give it, you don’t feel the need to eat hundreds and hundreds of grams of chocolate every night. I no longer do this. I no longer agonise over whether to eat a biscuit. I have relaxed my food rules in a way I never thought possible. I eat what I want.

Your body is cleverer than you think. When I stopped setting my mind and body at war with one another, I found what I wanted to eat and what I needed to eat were along the same lines.

When I was ill, all the time, I wanted to read something which would click with me. Which would give me the courage to get better, knowing it would be all right on the other side.

I want to write that now, for people who are still struggling. I don’t know if I can.

But if I could talk to myself two, three years ago I would say one thing:

It will all be so much more impossibly better than you could ever have imagined.

You think you are different (and yes you are, but only because you’re wearing a fluorescent yellow hoodie). You think you are greedy, uncontrolled, incapable of enjoying a proper relationship with food.

I’m not going to tell you that those things aren’t true. Because right now, they are. You’ve made them that way.

Of course you can’t think about anything, all day, other than eating Dairy Milk, when you’re worrying about food and your weight. Even when you’re going through the motions of eating three meals a day, your problem isn’t solved because you’re still thinking about it.

And the only way that you can make them untrue is to run the risk of the thing you are most afraid of. Let go of the controls, and see what happens.

But, you say, I’m not happy now, but I’ll be so much more unhappy if I’m fat as well as everything else. I’d rather be thin and miserable than fat and miserable … or even fat and happy … because I couldn’t be fat and happy.

The thing you need to know is: it isn’t an either/or. It’s not a case of feeling emotionally better but no longer happy with your body. You can have both.

I can’t promise you that you won’t get fat. But I can tell you that you will feel so much better that the idea of being fat will slowly stop frightening you.

And the less it frightens you, the less it is likely to happen.

Because your eating will stop being a problem once you stop making it a problem. And what you will find is so infinitely superior to what you have now that it is worth running that theoretical risk.

Because you also need to remember a small amount of science. Humans are not designed to be overweight or underweight, to be hungry all the time or to binge. The human body has been honed over millienia and it is a clever thing – it will tell you what it needs.

When I was ill, people used to tell me they envied my thinness. I used to think they also envied my self control.

But looking back, now, I envy my old self nothing. I don’t want her stick-like shape. I don’t want her control and her rules. I don’t want her self hatred.

There is never a moment when I want to go back. That tells me that unequivocally I did the right thing.

And so, back to the clothes.

I could fit into some of them. Just about. My favourite pair of jeans, a FrostFrench pair that I got for £15 at London Fashion Weekend. The purple pair from Asda I had never worn. Some long, darker ones I had got a sample sale and always loved. A white skirt.

Others, several black pairs and an animal print pair (I don’t really know what I was thinking there, actually) had to go to the charity shop. A black skirt that now sits wrongly shouldn’t have stayed, but it did because I’m clever with clothes and I’m going to make it work somehow.

I had expected to feel a whole slew of emotions. Pride in being thin enough to wear them again. Superiority. A sense of achievement.

I was amazed to find I felt none of those things. I felt total indifference to my weight.

Just a characteristic, admittedly shallow, but overwhelming delight at having my clothes back.

I actually didn’t want to fit into all of them. Even though it meant saying goodbye forever to some outfits, it also felt like moving on. Not being that girl anymore. Being bigger (literally) and better than an eating disorder.

I realised that I was more in control, now, than I had ever been when I weighed myself daily and counted every mouthful I ate.

That I was happier than I had ever been when I centred my life around something which I knew everyone else thought they wanted.

That I was healthier, now, than I had ever been when I was slim enough to be a supermodel.

I am not going to be complacent, to say I am recovered. I am in a good place now and I know these things can come back at bad times.

The beauty of recovery, also, is that it never ends. You keep finding new freedoms that you had never dreamed of enjoying. You think you are better, and then you get better still.

But that was the moment, I guess, when I knew that even if I can’t define it myself, full recovery is possible.

A little help from my friends

“Friendship is cheaper than therapy, often deeper. If life’s a game, your friends are your team. Choose them carefully.”

Matthew Johnstone and James Kerr, The Alphabet of the Human Heart

It seems ridiculous that it can be New Year’s Eve again.

My mother used to tell us all the time when we were children that time goes faster when you are older. And it is true that when I was little, everything lasted forever. Now, the days fly and flutter and vanish like butterflies, with everything changing and moving all the time.

Everything changes. And this too shall pass.

In 2012, my friend Miriam sent me a book. That was one of the two phrases in it that I held onto the most (the other is at the top of this page). That this would pass. That things would get better.

This year, they did.

If 2012 was the year of my spectacular downfall – descending into eating disorder hell, messing up at work, trying not to be crushed amid the wreckage of my love life – then 2013 was the year I picked myself and the pieces of my life back up.

New Year’s Eve last year was mundane. I was helping a friend with an essay and so as 2013 dawned I was probably moving commas around (start as you mean to go on, right?).

I felt despairing at the time. But I remember a glimmer of hope, too. The one that, however illogical and unfounded it is – it’s only a change in the date, after all – I always experience at the start of a new year.

I wonder where I’ll be in 365 days’ time, and hope that, somehow, over the year to come, the things that aren’t right will be sorted. I look at the blank days and weeks and months ahead of me, and dream of the good things they could bring.

At first, nothing got better. In fact things got dramatically worse, hitting a nadir during my March holiday in Belgium. I felt utterly tormented, and determined to run away from my current existence before it completely destroyed me.

Fate has a funny way of stepping in. Two months later, I lost my job out of the blue, and the rest is history.

I want to be clear, as ever, that I did love my job and my workplace. But the new start that change offered me, and the amazing new people I have met, completely transformed my mental health and my life.

I have written about this before. As I go into 2014, I am unashamedly in a happy place.

I don’t do resolutions, but here are the ten things I want to take away from a year which, although it began with utter despair, and has been far from universally fluffy even during the good stretch, has brought me happiness.

1. It’s good to talk. In fact, it’s crucial.

I started off this year still thinking that basically, my mental health problems and negative self-image were unique to me.

All my life I have believed that I didn’t like myself because that’s just the way I was born, bla bla bla, and nobody ever did anything terrible to me, bla bla bla, so it must be my fault because everything’s my fault and if I can’t snap out of it then really I have only myself to blame.

Talking about it all has taught me that it’s not just me who struggles with negative feelings. They’re incredibly common. I’d say they’re almost universal, to some degree.

I didn’t think anyone could possibly despise themselves as much as I did. But a lot of people do. Sometimes even more. And always, always, they’re amazing people who have absolutely no reason to hate themselves.

Which got me thinking about my own situation. And helped me realise that my feelings about myself weren’t justified at all – they were as absurd and illogical as theirs.

2. Embrace the weirdness.

I time my meals, cut my food up into tiny little pieces, wash my face after blowing my nose, am chaotically untidy and really don’t see the dirt or mess in my home until it has obscured every available surface.

I’ve spent my life trying to iron out the oddities. But now, I’m up for embracing them. Every single one of them.

Because they’re part of what makes me me.

I am open about my weaknesses, and sometimes people hone in on that and tell me I should try to change. Or sometimes they want me to change because they feel I reflect on them. Or because they think I belong to them.

I have realised that that is about those people, not me. Sometimes they are threatened by me. Or jealous. Or scared. Or embarrassed. Or insecure. Or any one of a whole number of other emotions which belong to them, not me.

I couldn’t be other than I am even if I tried, because I’m just made that way. And this year has proved unequivocally that I can be loved for it.

 3. Cut out the drainers

I was talking to my friend Phil the other day about how people are either drainers or radiators. He’s definitely a radiator – someone whose bright, positive personality always leaves you feeling better about life after you’ve spoken to them.

Some people are drainers. They make you feel bad. Sometimes they’ll just be overtly, relentlessly miserable. Sometimes it’ll be more insidious – they’ll pretend to be your friend, but will suck the life out of you with little comments and put-downs and needles in the back when you’re not watching. Little needles, that you don’t notice until you realise that somewhere along the way, bits of your self-esteem got siphoned off.

You don’t need those people.

If someone makes you feel like you are not good enough for them, then that person is not good enough for you.

In the autumn, I made the decision to delete from my phonebook some people who don’t make me feel good. I thought I’d regret it, miss them, feel guilty.

I’ve not regretted it for a second. I don’t really get a chance to, to be fair, because the last time I had a spare minute was in about 1995 and I seem to spend my entire life these days at a pub quiz. And I don’t feel guilty. I deserved better. The boost to my self-esteem has been immense.

This sounds harsh but it’s something I’d advise anyone to do. If someone is making you feel unworthy, cut them out. They don’t deserve your friendship. Surround yourself with people who do, because …

4. Life is short.

It wasn’t, really, for my Gran, to be fair. 89 is a good innings. And she was, in many ways, ready to go and had been ever since she went into a home.

But sometimes, I regret stuff. I regret that I didn’t see her more. That Ross and Harry and all the others never met her. That Joyce didn’t get to see her again. That, although she knew how much I loved her, and was far too deaf to hear me saying it anyway, I wasn’t able to tell her just one more time.

I acknowledge that this is just me being me. That she and I were close and spent a lot of time together. That there are only so many hours in the day, that I put a lot of effort into all my relationships and that, realistically, I do my best to spend as much time as I can with the people I love.

I knew that her time was up. And yet for me, she could never have lived long enough. She would be so proud of me now, eating better and doing work I love and surrounded by awesome people and truly happy. There are so many things, now, that I wish she could have seen, so many people I wish she could have met, and sometimes that knocks me over.

So, cherish the people you love. Because you will find, in the end, that you can never spend enough time with them.

5. Look after your health

It sounds obvious. But there was a time when I stopped caring what I did to myself because I didn’t believe I was worth it.

Mercifully, the mildness of my eating problems seems to have allowed me to escape without long-term damage. The heart condition I seem to be stuck with isn’t, specialists have told me more than once, linked to my eating disorder. They say I was probably born with it.

If you’re destroying yourself now, you’re doing it because you don’t care. I’ve been there.

But there will be a day when you do care. When you do realize that you deserve to be looked after and when you will wish that you had never hurt yourself.

Even at my lowest, there was always a small part of me that believed I deserved better.  If you’re in the same place I was, then find that part of you and hold onto it. Because you do deserve better – and when the day comes when you can actually believe it, you want to have health alongside your happiness.

6. Throw away the scales

I did this last month. I did it for the wrong reasons: my medication has been making me put on weight, and I could not cope with the damning proof of it every day.

I thought I would not be able to manage without the point of reference that has guided me for my whole adult life. Everything is all right, or bearable at least, as long as the number on the scales is under control.

Except, that reasoning is flawed. Life is not about weight, and you cannot make it about weight even if you try. All you will do is create a monster.

And all I have done by getting rid of the scales is get rid of a monster.

Nothing has changed with their absence. I have not fallen apart. I have not rampaged through the cupboards, pillaging all the chocolate in sight Viking-style. I have not been unable to function.

And no-one has loved me any less. My friend Simon said it would be so. And he has turned out, oddly for someone who doesn’t like marmite, to be right.

I am still struggling greatly with the idea that I’m not as thin as I was, and that tablets are making that hard to control, and the fear of becoming fat is still terrifying.

I do not know what to do about these things. Reassurance from people that ‘it won’t happen’ doesn’t help. I don’t know what would.

But I am grateful to be free of the terror, condemnation and sense of failure that that little red number handed out to me each morning.

Around the time I went onto medication, I started keeping a food diary. I shared it with my mother and a friend.

I learned two things. That I am not an overeater, that is just my perception of myself. And that I actually eat more when I am trying to diet than when I am just eating what I want.

If you’re thinking about throwing away your scales, just do it. They are a false friend just like the people I talked about above and you will feel better without them.

7. Mo’ money, mo’ problems

This isn’t quite true. But losing my job has reminded me that, as long as you can sustain yourself, money doesn’t really matter.

I wasn’t happier when I had a permanent job and could afford things. The things that make me happy – people, love, affection, fun – are all free.

I’m not saying I don’t want a job and a good wage – of course I do. Only that there are other things I have which are ultimately more precious.

The week before I started the work I am doing now, I had £10 in my purse after rent and bills.

Of course, I had nothing to be really frightened about. My family and friends would never see me go without. But it’s a situation that in the past would have completely freaked me out.

Instead, I realised that when you’ve got nothing in material terms, you focus on the other things you do have. I had been given back my mental health and my happiness, and those things are priceless.

8. There is no need to put on a front

Somewhere around the middle of the year, talking about it all stopped being something I just did, to help myself, and became almost a deliberate strategy. I *will* tell it like it is, because so few people do.

It is an oft-criticised approach which loses me Twitter followers by the bucketload (well, it’s either that or my self-obsession) but I couldn’t give a stuff. I am not interested in putting on a front, or in the alleged benefits to be derived from that. I am interested in helping myself and others.

The whole world is faking it, to some degree. Some people are too frightened of their own weaknesses to even acknowledge them. I get that. But I believe that acknowledgement and discussion are the first step to overcoming them.

Sure, there will be some people who think less of me for it, and that is fine. But I’m going to carry on being honest, because if I can say one thing that helps one person then it’s worth it.

9. This too shall pass

You might think you can’t live without someone. But if you try, you will find that you can.

Always.

10. Friendship is everything

I have the best group of friends ever. This is just a fact.

They could not be better, and yet they get better all the time. They genuinely astound me with their awesomeness and hilarity and generosity and delightfulness.

I have met some truly awesome new people this year who have enriched my life even further. They are the icing on a cake that was already incredibly rich and wonderful.

My oft-derided Twittering has not only helped my sanity, but brought me many friends. Some of them I’ve met, some of them I plan to meet next year. In all cases, meeting has been fantastic, but on another level it has felt almost incidental, in the sense that I do not believe you need to necessarily meet someone to be their friend or to know them. I have had wonderful support, kindness, positivity and humour from people I have never met, and it is telling that everyone was pretty much exactly as I had expected them to be.

My friends get me through. I owe them my sanity, such as it is.

If 2014 is as filled with friendship as this year has been, then I know it will be absolutely fantastic.

I said at the start that I look at the year to come and hope my problems will be fixed. For the first time that I can remember, I don’t feel like that about the year to come.

I have plans and ambitions and things to be excited about. But really, I just want more of the same.

Compilations and revelations

“See, Katniss, the way this whole friend thing works, is that you have to tell each other the deep stuff.”
– Peeta Mellark (The Hunger Games)

A friend of mine and I have made compilations of music for each other.

We swap them today.

The premise is ordinary: we both like music, but our collections are probably quite different – he claims not to have listened to any new music since 1992, and he probably thinks I haven’t listened to anything from before then (though he’d be wrong).

I am quite fascinated by the whole thing. I am so excited by what I have to give away, and equally excited by the thought of what I will get in return. It is like Christmas, where you can’t quite work out which side of the present exchange you are looking forward to more.

But it has also made me think. About what music means to me, does to me, brings to me. About what it means to share that, and whether the act of giving someone your favourite music is more than just handing over a collection of songs.

Music is one of the most important things in my life. It is one of the things that has helped to save my sanity and has always brought meaning into my existence.

Like writing, it helps me handle my emotions. But there is a difference. Though sometimes whether I am choosing the words or they are choosing themselves is a grey area, if I don’t like the words I find in front of me, I can move them around or edit them out – I am always ultimately in control.

Music is different. You don’t choose the music that you like. It chooses you.

And it teaches you things about yourself, and then it is up to you to explore what you have found.

I grew up with music, as I imagine most people do. The Beatles and The Stylistics in the car with my mum – my brother, when he was very small, somehow got it into his head that the latter were called The Philistine.

Classical music from my dad, though he would sometimes succumb to a bit of The Who, who remain a band that I love. I have never really got into classical music, I don’t know why. I guess I have never found it very accessible, although there are several pieces – Pachelbel’s Canon among them – whose beauty overpowers me.

My grandad was quite up with new music even in his sixties, and was an avid fan of Boney M (a much underrated band) in the 1980s. My gran hadn’t the faintest idea about pop – the scruffiness of many musicians rendered the genre pretty much out of bounds for her before we had even got to the songs – but she loved hymns and musicals. Sometimes, when I visited her on my own, we would put on her CDs and sing along, both of us, Gran still beautiful-voiced and note-perfect in her eighties.

There was no-one else in the world but us, at those times.

I can remember getting my first cassette holder for Christmas in 1987. It was grey, with diagonal stripes, and had two tapes inside, Bananarama’s Greatest Hits and Kylie Minogue’s Kylie. I was seven, and when you are seven you like the music that the rest of your class likes (although I still rate both those albums). My interest didn’t amount to much more than that, and waned quite a bit around the turn of the decade – maybe I didn’t like rap.

So I can’t remember why, in particular, John and I decided to turn the radio on at my Gran’s one Sunday afternoon in August 1992 and listen to the charts.

But I remember that that was it. We flicked a button and I was catapulted into a lifelong obsession that would seep through my skin and into my veins.

From that day, I have been inseparable from my music.

By that, I don’t mean that I was glued to the charts every week (although I was) or that I watched Top of the Pops and The Chart Show religiously (although I did) or that Smash Hits, Q and the NME had me as fascinated by the ins and outs of popworld drama as the music itself (although they did).

I don’t even mean that I do not have days without music. That radio is my constant companion, and that if I go to your house and you have MTV on then it will be like an altar that I fall in front of and do not leave. That there is always a song in my head. That I sing, constantly and automatically, literally without realising that I am doing it, without intending to make out loud the sounds that are in my head.

I mean something else. I mean that music translates, crystallises and shapes my emotions. I mean that it is part of me, and that it has power over me, and that it is the soundtrack to my life.

Music taps into what I am feeling and twists it up. Some tracks empathise with my sadness. Some blunt it and bring back hope and positivity. Some tracks spit my anger for me. Some amplify my happiness and excitement and energy, taking the highs and running with them until I can hardly sit still.

I am a writer, yet song lyrics often say things I can’t say. Things I didn’t know I felt, about people and emotions and myself and the world, until I hear the words and they are a perfect expression of a thing I didn’t realise was there.

There are songs I would sing along to in an exam hall. Tracks I could dance to in my sleep. Music that worms its way inside me so that when I hear it I am almost literally transported, filled with emotions that have no name and no outlet.

It can soothe bad memories, the past unhappiness softened by the music that I loved at the time. Sometimes it sharpens them. I have gone through periods where I could not listen to certain songs, or even certain bands, because of the people or experiences they made me think of.

Music is not, however, an exception to my backwardness with technology. I do have an ipod, but had barely downloaded anything from iTunes until last Saturday. I had never recorded anything onto a CD. I had thought we would do tapes, until my friend explained to me – and he must remember vinyl well – that people don’t use them anymore.

I still have a fondness for tapes. They are imperfect and handmade and real and raw. I spent my teenage years taping songs off the radio, stopping before the end but not quite before the DJ started speaking; I love my favourite compilation of all, my collection of French and English tunes faithfully recorded off Fun Radio in 1999 when I was in Paris, as much for its brief snatches of spoken French as for its mysteriously beguiling selection of Europop. Sometimes I would forget to stop recording at the end of a track and inadvertently capture the DJs talking for minutes on end. It doesn’t matter, and now I wouldn’t want to erase those unintended glimpses of maybe the happiest time of my life.

Choosing for the compilation has only been hard in the sense that I found it almost impossible to narrow down the music I love. Deciding on a song selection and a careful order, only to find it is a minute too long and you have to excise something, is almost unbearable. More intolerable still is when a day later you hear a genius track that you cannot believe you forgot and have to decide whether to redo the whole thing.

And I am so excited, so excited about sharing it. I am always proud of the music I love, even though I’m aware that most of it wouldn’t make the NME, and completely convinced of the appropriateness of my enthusiasm.

And yet, I feel like I am giving away a little bit of myself.

I am not saying that there is anything wrong with, or alarming about, that. I lay bare pieces of myself on here all the time and they are seen by strangers.

But I had not expected it. And I had not realised, either, that the music might be subtly different for me from now on, now that I have shared it.

And actually, I don’t think I could do this for everyone. Give them my favourite music and tell them why I love it. Somehow it feels more personal than spilling the dark thoughts inside my head on here.

And so I wonder what I will get back in return.

Whether I will get a little bit of someone else. Or whether I won’t – I doubt very much that everyone is as emotionally invested in their music as I am.

Whether it will teach me things about myself. Or whether it won’t. Whether it will be merely a collection of terrible tracks from the 1970s.

I guess I just have to wait and see. But I won’t be writing about it on here.

The final frontier

As regular readers of this column will know, I am on a lot of drugs.

No, not heroin – yet – I’ve never touched recreational drugs and never would. But drugs to calm an overactive thyroid, drugs to calm an overactive heart, and a couple of weeks ago some antibiotics as well. I am rattling like a tube of Smarties.

Predictably, I hate this. I don’t like putting substances in my body (apart from my good friend alcohol) and my body doesn’t like them either. It’s protesting in various ways, including the cruellest one available.

Despite no change in my eating habits, I have piled on half a stone in three weeks.

I have ruled my weight with an iron fist for my whole adult life. And I have suddenly and unaccountably lost control of it.

I have seen numbers on the scale that I have not seen since I was 23. Numbers that seemed huge and, a month ago, unreachable. The leap feels psychologically overwhelming, even if physically it is probably barely significant.

I know, and every single person I have spoken to agrees, that it must be the tablets. There is no other explanation. To gain seven pounds in three weeks through food is virtually impossible – I’d have to have eaten 1,000 extra calories on top of my normal intake, so two extra meals, every day for those three weeks.

Only my doctor seems to disagree, and with breathtaking insensitivity instructed me, despite my still-anorexic BMI, to eat less.

With tiresome predictability, I am, or have been, in relapse.

First I dieted. That didn’t work. And then I found myself back in the diet-binge horror cycle that helped to bring me right to the edge of the abyss seven months ago.

This is not what I fought for.

I did not work hard to beat my eating disorder only to have it come back. I did not get help from my friend, admitting to him that at 32 I did not know how to eat normally, and fight through the fear only to be brought back to this.

I will not be.

Yesterday, on the coach to and from Ostende, Harry and I played I Spy. I’d get halfway through trying to guess some ridiculously obscure object when he’d announce it was two words instead of one, and Joyce would tell him off for changing the rules.

But I think the kid is onto something. That maybe it is time I applied a little of his I Spy thinking to my own life. Look at the rules I have made for myself, the rules which are not working, and change them.

I sound optimistic and lighthearted now – an eating disorder’s just like I Spy, right? – which is not how I feel at all.

I am broken into pieces, devastated, horrified by the weight gain. I am learning to overcome my instinctive self-hatred, and yet there is nothing guaranteed to bring it rushing back better than a few extra pounds. The consequent disordered eating only serves to compound the disgrace.

I am almost overwhelmed by fear that the weight gain will not stop, and that I might end up getting fatter at this rate for the rest of my life – or with even worse intensity if I return to a normal diet.

This *has* to stop. I cannot continue like this; it is exhausting, and demeaning, and somewhere inside I believe I deserve better.

And so I come to the next bit. The bit of recovery I thought I could avoid, for a while at least, and hopefully forever.

Weight gain.

I have not tackled this yet. For merely looking at those words tightens my throat with terror that I cannot articulate.

I did not deal with my weight. I learned to eat properly, to eat two or three meals a day instead of starving and living off chocolate binges. Even though I seem to have relapsed over the last month, I have not gone back to that pattern – I am still eating meals, just failing to keep the sugar and calories down to a level that would lose the weight I’ve gained.

I didn’t actually think weight gain was that important, compared with eating properly and restoring my mental state. I couldn’t actually find much evidence to suggest that there was anything wrong, healthwise, with being moderately underweight, and I like it, so I thought I could stick with it. Or at least put the gains off until I had proved to myself, preferably over a period of years, that eating properly wouldn’t lead to weight gain over time.

I guess I always knew deep down that I would have to deal with it one day. I just didn’t want that day to ever come.

I certainly didn’t think it would be my own body fucking me about that would bring it on. I thought it would be my choice.

I’m not ready. I don’t want to do this.

I want to lose that half a stone by whatever means necessary. But after much agonising, I have decided not to, and here’s why.

1. Fatter might be better

Sorry to break it to everyone, but the mythical promised land where once you’ve stopped worrying about your weight, you can just sit around eating all the pies in the world doesn’t exist. If it did, no-one would ever end up overweight.

It is incredibly hard to find *reliable* scientific information about anything other than the basics of eating disorders, and about weight and metabolism in general. But endless research eventually unearthed some information on set point weight.

I have always thought your weight was entirely within your control. That if you diet enough, you can be as thin as you like, and that when you get to the weight you want, there’s no reason why you should have any trouble maintaining it.

It turns out that I was wrong.

Studies have shown that everyone’s body, irrespective of their height and build, has a weight range that it is meant to be within.

*And if you step outside this range, your body will adjust various processes, including your metabolism, to try to bring you back within it.*

If you are overweight *for your body*, it will speed up your metabolism to try to bring you back down. If you are underweight *for your body* it will slow it down. You will also find you are thinking about food all the time, because your body wants you to eat.

So yes, you can achieve and maintain a weight outside your set range but it will be very hard work.

This is news to me, and apparently to others.

I thought significant metabolic change would have only happened if my weight loss had been drastic, and my undereating severe. And, now I’m eating better, I couldn’t understand why I still have to restrain myself every day from eating truckloads of chocolate.

Turns out I’m engaged in a war with my body I had no idea I was fighting. And that the obsessional thoughts, the desire to binge, the constant battle to maintain my weight are my body’s way of screaming, ‘You’re not meant to weigh this little.’

And if I do put some weight on, the studies suggest, I should find it easier to maintain my new weight – both because my metabolism will be more efficient and because the obsessional thoughts will go.

How exhausting, to be fighting one’s own body all the time. And, presumably, not very good for me in a wider sense – no strain on your body can ever be beneficial.

2. Bones

Being underweight weakens your bones, *even if you are eating healthily*, as they don’t have enough weight to carry. I’m pretty scared that my bones are shot to bits anyway, and the decline is irreversible, but it’d be nice to arrest it.

Again, this information was pretty hard to find.

3. I might look better

This is a difficult one. Because I think I look fine.

And, in this as with everything else, ideally it’s my own judgment I should rely on, not anyone else’s.

Especially as others’ opinions on the matter are so confusing. Men will tell me I need to be fatter. Girls will tell me they envy my figure. Or tell me I’m too thin, but with a heavy tinge of envy to their words despite themselves.

It is all very well telling me to rely on my own judgment, but when it comes to me judging myself, my opinion *can’t* be trusted. Mental illness skews my self-perception, so of course I see a figure that isn’t too thin and could even be trimmed a little. Just as I still, sometimes, see a complete monster in the mirror.

Maybe the men are right, and I’d actually look nicer if my bones weren’t so prominent. I just don’t know with this one, and am going to have to take a gamble on the basis of advice I’ve had from people I trust.

4. I want to fight the culture that says emaciated is attractive

When fashion houses stipulating a minimum BMI of 18.5 for their models is a big deal, studies constantly show that a high proportion of women are unhappy with how they look, women of normal weight are dieting everywhere, magazines are full of diet plans, actress Jennifer Lawrence is called fat and 1.6 million people in this country have an eating disorder, then we have a problem.

And I am not doing my bit to combat it by maintaining an artificially low weight.

If I want to try to help other sufferers, if I want to help my friends build their confidence and self-esteem and accept themselves, if I want to pontificate on Twitter about overcoming eating disorders and beauty coming in all sizes …

… then those words ring hollow if I’m still buying into those ideals myself and making sure I’m the thinnest girl in the room.

Actions have to go with the words if I want to make a real difference.

Which brings me onto 5.

5. It is the final rejection of the eating disorder

When you have an eating disorder, you always want to get better, without actually getting better.

You want rid of the torturous thoughts and behaviours and the starving and the bingeing and the symptoms and the always being cold and the obsessional mindset and the terror, but you don’t actually want to gain any weight.

You want to stay thin, able to fit into the fashion sample sizes and the children’s clothes and never having to worry that you look too fat and arousing envy wherever you go.

But you can’t have both.

You can’t stay at your eating disorder weight and get rid of your eating disorder. You can’t tell yourself you’ve mentally overcome this illness while still bearing its most glaring physical hallmark.

As long as I tell myself that even the minimum acceptable weight on the BMI chart is too fat for me, I am still buying into the eating disorder.

I am still telling myself that something is wrong with me, that no-one is going to look past my imperfect figure to the person beneath, because she’s not worth looking at. That I am so unappealing that I need to make it juttingly obvious to the rest of the world that I have tried really, really hard with the one aspect of my appearance that I can control – my weight.

As my friend Simon put it, gaining weight is the only way that I will realise that no-one else cares what I weigh, and no-one loves me for being thin.

Or as my best friend Kelly put it, perhaps if I stop trying to run from my perceived inadequacies, I might realise they’re not there.

There is one more issue I want to address before I end this post.

When I started to eat properly, in March, I only told one other person. But people so often ask me how they can help that this time, I’m throwing it open to the floor.

Because I reckon changing my eating habits will be a piece of piss compared to actually putting on some weight. I will need all the help in the world with this and here’s how, if you want to, you can give it to me (someone ring the innuendo bell please, thanks).

I am writing this so that I can’t go back. So that, with the eyes of the world, or at least my friends, on me, I can’t renege on the promise I’ve made to myself.

So the biggest single thing you can do is – let me know you’ve read this. This is important to me, so it’s important that those around me know what’s happening and that I have their support. Or, alternatively, if you think I’m a lard-filled munter for whom putting on weight would be disastrous, I’d still like you to tell me if that’s your honest opinion – preferably now rather than twenty stone later.

If you can offer any advice based on your own experiences, that would be great. I’ll be keeping a food diary and am always looking to learn more about what a ‘normal’ diet constitutes and how others manage to eat healthily and happily.

Please think before making negative comments about my appearance. When you do start to gain weight after being very thin, most of it goes round your middle. I don’t need this pointing out to me, thank you. (Yes this has happened.)

Please also think before telling me how much you envy my thinness. I don’t want to hear it. There is more to me than my figure, and if you knew what it has cost me, you wouldn’t envy it at all.

Don’t ever make me feel like I have to eat to please you. Help with meal plans and the food diary if you want but if you don’t want to, don’t comment on how much or how little I’m eating.

That’s all you can really do to help, and it will mean so much. Know what’s going on, offer any insights you can (because I have no idea what it feels like to be inside the head of someone who has a healthy relationship with food) and think before you say something that might damage.

And so here we go.

You would think that I would feel happiness now. Relief at finally giving myself permission to give up the bits of eating disorder that remain. I always thought I would, when the time came.

I don’t feel like that.

I feel utterly terrified. I feel physically sick. I have spent the last few days and nights in tears, trying not to admit to myself the sheer despair I feel knowing that I must give this up. Because if I look at it properly, it will knock me out.

I feel like I’m taking the easy way out, rather than losing that half stone, and that it’s going to backfire horribly with me ending up the size of a house.

Despite everything I have written above, I can’t honestly, in my heart, tell you why I am doing this.

But I am. And when I set my mind to things, I don’t fail. So somebody pass me a pie, and let’s hope it doesn’t choke me.

The good stretch

Baby we’re a little different
There’s no need to be ashamed
You’ve got the light to fight the shadows
So stop hiding it away

– Emeli Sande

 

I was in the pub with my friend and fellow copywriter Sarah, watching Andy Murray win at something or other, and talking about my life, when she said: ‘This is the good stretch.’

My reaction was one of skepticism. I’d been made redundant from my job. My beloved gran was dying in hospital. I was recovering from an eating disorder, with all the misery and difficulty that that entails. And to cap it all, we were watching bloody tennis.

But she was right.

It took a few more weeks for me to see it. For me to realize that the unhappiness which had pervaded every second of my life, waking and sleeping, for almost two years had quietly slipped out of the back door and left me alone.

This is the good stretch.

I never thought it would come.

I’ve said before that my old boss used to call this blog a story of triumph over adversity. And I used to tell him it was just adversity.

But my boss is always right. If you wait long enough, he is always right about everything.

My head has been full of ghosts. Shadows and shapes that whispered and murmured things I could never quite hear. Echoes of words spoken just too late.

Eyes that looked into mine, but looked away before I could stop them. Mirrors that broke my reflection. Hearts in a thousand pieces on the floor, and blood everywhere. A mess, which was all my fault, and which could have been so easily avoided.

If only I had been better.

If only I had been loveable.

Unloveability. Rejection. Inadequacy. Unattractiveness. Unloveability. Stupidity. Rejection. Failure. Unloveability. These emotions were my constant companions, hour by hour, second by second.

It was as if all my undealt-with negative feelings about myself, the ones I thought had eased enough in my twenties for me to live with them, had suddenly exploded in a great big mushroom cloud of worthlessness and despicability.

This has been one of life’s most important lessons, for me. Don’t think you can get away with not dealing with your issues. Because they will come back to bite you one day.

I never, at my lowest point, thought I could feel happy again.

I thought I would spend my life pushing pieces of rejection around my plate. Twisting my tangle of failings over and over in my hands. Cowering in a cage of self-loathing, tears scraped from my face by sticks of spite poked through the bars.

You forget what it is like to be happy. And then you don’t believe that you ever could be, even if you could imagine it, because by definition you can never be happy knowing how terrible you are.

And yet it is mended now.

My life has collapsed a bit in practical terms with the loss of my job, and probably my home, but I am standing stronger than ever.

This is the good stretch.

I’ve seen a gradual improvement in my mental state since I booted out the eating disorder on March 18. It is well known that not eating properly can cause or deepen depression, and I’m sure my already low mental state was worsened by malnutrition.

But I also started to look at my low self-esteem in a different light at that point. To accept that it was a mental illness, just like an eating disorder. And that it didn’t have to be there, and that just like an eating disorder, it could be overcome.

An eating disorder feels so real. You don’t believe that you can cope without it. And yet when you start to overcome it, you expose its lies for what they are.

I wondered if I could do the same with the narrative in my head telling me I was worthless. Recognise it for what it was: a pack of lies, developed by a sensitive disposition in response to formative experiences and never really challenged.

Until now.

Tears spring to my eyes as I think of all the times my amazing friend tried to tell me that I was wonderful. And how I just couldn’t see it. But slowly, slowly, with endless thinking and talking and determination and help from others, my eyes have finally opened up to what he might mean.

I keep especially lovely texts anyway, but in May I decided to write every compliment I received in a notebook, so I could never forget people’s kind words. Why not? I’m great at remembering the hurt and the insults.

It really does help to boost my confidence. If all these great people say all this lovely stuff then I can’t be that bad.

A heart-to-heart with my friend Amy was also a pivotal point. I have genuinely always believed that people’s liking for me comes tinged with pity, until she made me see that that was entirely in my head. When you have spent 32 years thinking your fellow humans see you as inferior, to find that they don’t is nothing short of a revelation.

It sounds absurd now. Who would pity a natural blonde? But when you’ve grown up with negative beliefs about yourself, it doesn’t occur to you to challenge them – because that’s all you know.

So there I was. Eating properly and starting to like myself and learning that I had no reason to feel ashamed of myself anymore –

And then I lost my job.

I didn’t see that one coming. I loved my job, and my job loved me. But it turned out to have been the best thing that could have happened.

It gave me a break.

I didn’t realise I needed one. My job wasn’t stressful and it was great fun; I didn’t want to leave.

But what I didn’t grasp was that sometimes, you need space to heal from things that are nothing to do with work.

With no job, no alarm clock, no deadlines to worry about, nothing and no-one to answer to, I could take the time I needed to just be.

I have spent four and a half months just with myself. Thinking, thinking, thinking. Untangling the mess in my head, bit by bit, and learning what my mind feels like without the clouds of self-hatred which have muddled it all my life.

I have tried new things: pole-dancing (I’m clumsy and hopeless) and volunteering, and I’m back on the cooking and baking wagon. I have met some completely amazing new friends (hello Simon, Alexa, Phil, Sam, Charli, Grant, Crista and ginger Simon) and met some inspirational people [insert shout-out to my dance teacher Lucy here]. I’ve applied for jobs, and been to interviews, and done freelance and temp work, but I’ve also taken it easy.

I’ve needed to.

I’ve taken stock. I’ve looked at all the amazing people around me and realized how lucky I am. How crazy I must be to have these negative thoughts, now that I’ve finally realised that others are thinking only positive things.

Well, not entirely. There are some people I’ve had to dramatically scale down contact with, because they make me feel bad about myself. Constructive criticism’s one thing but put-downs, whether overt or subtle, are another – and I won’t have those people in my life anymore.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about where my negative self-image might have come from and started to work through it, which is both a painful and liberating process. No-one wants to think about such things, but it’s better to unpick the bad feelings and see them for the nonsense they are than to keep them buried.

And bit by bit, the wounds have healed a little more each day.

Until one day in mid-July, when I was freelancing, and trotting out to Sainsbury’s in the late afternoon sun with my personal radio.

Music has always been the thing that gets me through. It intensifies the positive emotions and soothes the negative ones. Every day, when I was miserable, I’d go out for a walk, turn the radio up and try to do some positive self-talk.

I was striding down the main road and saying to myself, it’s bright sunshine, you’re in the fresh air, and you’ve got the radio on – what more do you need to be happy, really? The same thing I’d always say. Trying to make myself believe it.

And I waited for the ‘but …’ to come. And it didn’t.

That massive gap, which love had left, taking any remnants of my self-esteem with it … it wasn’t there anymore.

It suddenly dawned on me that I was happy.

I had everything I wanted. Family, friends, a lovely flat, plenty of fun – okay, no job, but that would come.

I had always had all these things. But the picture had been in black and white until the one thing that had been missing – self-acceptance – brought it finally into colour.

Having spent the past 18 months desperate for proof that I was loveable, it is crazy that now, having finally laid that demon to rest, I almost don’t feel single.

I am. But I have been showered with so much affection that I don’t see how a million boyfriends could beat it. I have people to have endless fun with, and people to look after me, and people who I can help, and people to help me with the practical stuff I’m so hopeless at, and people to boost my confidence, and people to talk about music with, and people to make me laugh, and people to make me feel amazing … people who do everything, ever, that a girl could want, a million times over.

Which probably means I’ll be crazy in love by next week. It has always crept up on me, in the past, when it’s been at the bottom of my list of priorities.

That’s a joke. I won’t be. And really, I don’t care right now. I’m having so much fun, and I have never felt more confident.

Yes, that’s right. These experiences have strengthened me.

I can remember saying to the amazing friend, once, tearfully, “I have to go through this. I have to go through these horrible feelings so I can challenge them and emerge feeling better about myself.”

He agreed. But I didn’t. I was trying to convince myself. Really, I wanted to be one of those people who have no issues. Or who don’t address them and just get on with their lives.

Since then, I’ve realised that the first group don’t exist. And that the second group are probably like I was for most of my twenties – thinking that that’s as good as it gets.

It isn’t.

I am grateful for my experiences. They have taught me to truly appreciate who I am. And there’s one thing I want to say to anyone reading this who’s going through a similar thing:

You can do it too.

I’ve been blocked on Twitter and criticised for saying that in the past. That recovery is within one’s own power. As if I’m therefore implying that people choose to be ill, which of course I’m not. I didn’t choose to be ill, and I understand how difficult and terrifying recovery is.

But it’s possible. If *I* can learn to like myself – and that, really, is at least partly at the root of so many mental health problems, especially eating disorders – so can you.

You always think your own misery is unique. I’m the only one who *really* hates myself. Others claim they do – but they don’t really mean it. They must be able to see how wonderful they are, whereas I’m just a mess.

Wrong. As Sarah said to me that same evening, “You feel like you’re on the outside looking in on everyone else, don’t you? But *everyone* feels like that. *Everyone* is on the outside.”

There’s still a long way for me to go and a lot of work for me to do. But I really, truly want all of you who are still struggling to believe that things can get better. That you can get better.

You deserve that chance. I gave it to myself, and it was the best thing I ever did.

 

All heart

My Twitter friend Nick is a few years older than me. (Not that much older, but I think he remembers the Winter of Discontent.)

He was joking about age on Friday. I was a youngster, he said, whereas he practically needed an oxygen mask to go out.

The joke proved strangely prescient. Except that it was me, not him, who was clawing at her oxygen mask on a hospital trolley 24 hours later, as nurses administered shot after shot of drugs they hoped would slap my wildly misbehaving heart back into shape.

I am 32.

I am 32. A big kid really. Whenever I am with my adopted nan Joyce and her great-grandson Harry, he and I lead each other into mischief and she says it is like having two children around.

I am 32. And I am now on some of the same drugs my dad has been on since he had a heart attack two years ago.

This is the bit anorexia didn’t tell me. I was all up for losing my body fat. But I never expected it to lay my internal organs to waste as well.

You think it won’t happen to you. You see other people taking chances. Becoming iller than you, and then recovering. And you think you’ll be okay.

I knew something was pretty wrong on Thursday, when the 20-minute walk to work left me exhausted and breathless. I walk everywhere, every day; it is unheard of for it to leave me feeling like that.

The walk back was even worse. Five minutes up the hill, I was panting like I’d run a race and couldn’t go any further. I had to divert into the town centre to find somewhere to sit down.

The doctor I saw on Friday listened to my chest, said my pulse was fine and gave me a blood test form. But on Saturday, I woke with crushing chest pains.

I headed to A and E, but really only to put my worried mother’s mind and my own at rest. Probably just severe anaemia, I thought.

But when the nurse did an ECG, my heart rate was not the normal 60 to 80 beats per minute. It was 192.

Suddenly, a wheelchair. Then a trolley. I’m in resus. Don’t let the name scare you, they said. Resus doesn’t mean what you think it does. Though it’s true to say that if you hadn’t come in, you probably would have collapsed.

Five vials of blood from my arm, including one from the inside of my wrist (that hurt). Intravenous drugs to shunt my heart back into rhythm. A single dose. Then a double dose. And then another double dose. I tried so hard, the nurse said, but it didn’t work. An oxygen mask. Just to give you a little extra while we do this. I try to pull it off. You can’t breathe under those things. It floods my body with pain and discomfort.

Drugs by mouth. More drugs. An anti-coagulant injection into my stomach. Because your blood might have clotted, they said, and that could be dangerous. Talk of a defibrillator. Not like on TV, although we will have to sedate you. And you can’t walk to the bathroom on your own. In fact you can’t walk to the bathroom at all.

And we’ll have to keep you in. Maybe for a few days. I cried when they said that. I cannot afford to be in hospital, losing work.

It took more than four hours, with first my reassuring ex by my side, and then my worried mother, before they could bring my pulse rate back to normal. When they said I could go home, I was so tired and full of pain that in the end I wanted to stay in.

And in those four hours, the same question thudded through my mind, as fast and furious as my crazily beating heart.

Did I do this?

We’re not sure, said the nurses and doctors. Could be anything. It’s happened to some of us. Could be an infection, an imbalance in your blood, a hormonal imbalance, anything.

No, said the consultant when she came to see me. No, you didn’t do this. It’s not because you were anorexic. It’s not your fault.

I can remember feeling palpitations and an irregular heartbeat in childhood. I’ve reported them to doctors several times as an adult. I’ve worn a 24-hour heart monitor and had an ECG, but nothing was picked up on those occasions.

So maybe it is congenital.

But anorexia is well known to damage your internal organs. You can only lose so much body fat before your body starts to use muscle. A therapist I saw briefly warned me about heart problems, though she said I probably wasn’t underweight enough to be at risk.

The truth is that nobody knows. And that I will never know.

Mental illness, and the personality traits that allowed it to thrive – perfectionism, insecurity, self-loathing – have done funny things to my age.

In some ways I am younger than 32. Because months at a time have been lost. Countless experiences that should have been amazing, ruined. University was a workathon; it was not until last year that I had an unashamed year of partying and drinking. I didn’t have a boyfriend till I was 24.

(Don’t worry, partying and drinking is still a big part of my life, though I think the taxi incident taught us all that I shouldn’t drink wine.)

And yet there are already various bits of my body that don’t work properly. Bits that I won’t list on here. I wouldn’t fancy my bone density. And now my heart’s added itself to the list.

I have to have more tests. In the meantime, I’ve no energy. Walking is possible, but tiring. I’m on drugs, but I can still feel the palpitations. And now, with every thump I am gripped with fear.

I do not know what damage I have done. Maybe this isn’t my fault. But maybe it is. And if it is, I don’t know whether the damage can be reversed.

I am a recovering anorexic. I am not recovered. I could be eating better. I could be trying actively to put on weight.

Maybe I have been coasting a bit. Or maybe I’m trying as hard as I realistically can. But given that I have landed in resus, it looks like even as hard as I can is not hard enough.

So maybe I need to make sure I’m right on the three meals a day wagon. Not missing meals cos I’ve got up late, or am busy, or working. Not falling off it to still binge sometimes.

Maybe I need to throw the scales away. Or look at them unblinkingly, as they creep up and up towards what would be considered a normal weight, and know that the numbers mean health, and strength, and wellbeing, not failure and loss of self-control.

This is the theory. The theory is always easy and straightforward. The practice is always difficult, unclear and full of fears.

Like this one: that maybe putting on weight won’t do me any good at all. That all that will happen is I’ll add insecurities about my body to my already piled-high plate. I’m too thin, now, to worry about my figure; I’m not keen to have that change.

Or this one: maybe I’ll not be able to stop. End up a fat, shapeless, unattractive lump. I’ve always maintained that I need some leeway, in case I’m ever in a situation where I find myself unavoidably putting on weight (for example, because of medication). If I get up to a normal weight, and there’s no room for manoeuvre, any further gain would tip me over.

Or this one: maybe I’ll get used to eating more. And then, because I like food so much, I’ll be unable to stop. That I’ll let one pound go. And then another pound, and another pound, and another pound, until I’m tumbling headlong down a slippery slope that ends with me being craned out of my own home because I can’t get through the doorway.

That won’t happen, they say. And if you ever did become overweight, you would deal with it. You’ve the self-discipline to sort it. But it won’t happen. Just won’t.

But it might.

I have dieted so many, many times. It was a diet that started all this off. It was hell on earth then. And in 14 years, each time, it got harder.

I do not ever want to have to do it again.

But then I do not want to be crying on a hospital trolley ever again, either. Or too exhausted to walk. Or frightened that I’ll not be able to dance anymore. Or lying in bed, made sleepless by the poundings of a malfunctioning vital organ.

Why are my health and my happiness not easy motivators for me to change my figure? Why do I still want to see if I can get away with it?

Why, faced with the twin terrors of the number on the heart monitor and the number on the scales, am I still so frightened by both?

I want health and happiness. But I also want to be the thinnest girl in the room. Because if I am not, everyone will say, ‘You used to be. What happened?’

And if they do not, then I will say it to myself. Because that’s the kind of person I am.

It is ironic that the health scare has come now. When I am not at rock bottom. When I don’t need the wake-up call to drag me out of the pitch darkness I was stumbling in earlier this year.

I no longer feel that being thin is the only thing I have to offer. I am bowled over by the love and affection that comes my way each day. I no longer think I am nothing, no good to anyone, a burden to everyone who cares about me.

I am on the right road. Making so much progress. Trying so hard. There are achievements all the time. I am going forwards, not backwards.

But this has made me realise how some parts of going forward still leave me paralysed with fear.

How there was one decision: to recover. And that was hard. It is a decision I still make each day, and which is still hard.

And now, or at some point, there will be a second decision: to start allowing myself to put on weight. And I have suddenly realised that that is maybe even harder.

I had not anticipated this. I thought I made my choice on March 18. I did not realise there would be another one.

I am angry at the eating disorder. Angry it landed me in the emergency room. Angry that it took things I didn’t ask it to take. Angry that we made a pact, but that somewhere along the way it slipped in some subtle amendments, and that I, somehow, when I wasn’t really paying attention, said ‘Sure, you know best.’

And I know. I know I want to be well more than I want to be this thin. And that maybe there isn’t an option to choose both.

I am not confused about what I want.

I just do not know how to make it so that it isn’t impossibly hard.

Any thoughts would be much appreciated.