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  • Writer's pictureConnor O'Donoghue

A life less measured

(First published on Medium on 27 November 2022)

Content warning: eating disorders

I weighed myself for the last ever time one Sunday night a few weeks ago. I then popped the bathroom scales that I’d bought in October 2018 into my backpack and went to Sainsbury’s and put the scales in the litter bin outside it.

A few days later, I got off the Tube at West Kensington station and threw my Fitbit into the bin on the platform.

I’m trying my best not to measure my worth in stones and pounds. And I’m trying not to measure my value in steps walked. And it’s an absolute bitch.

I’m on the run from a cult and it’s just impossible to escape its claws.

I’ve been diagnosed with bulimia twice in the eighteen months and I’m trying to escape the cult of disordered eating and body image obsession.

This summer, inspired by two girls I saw on TikTok who walked the entire length of the Victoria Line (one of the shortest lines on the London Underground) in a day, I decided to do the same one Saturday. It was painful and slow and I took a photo of myself at each station on the line and posted the pictures on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The walk was tiring. I weighed myself before and after. Obviously.

The following weekend I walked the Hammersmith and City Line all the way from Barking to Hammersmith. It was a much longer walk than the Victoria line. It was painful. My feet hurt. My face got badly sunburned. It was the bank holiday weekend of the Notting Hill Carnival. I remember it getting to midnight as I passed Paddington and got further west. I remember I was finding it difficult to stay upright after 12 hours of walking and stumbling in the dark on the dual carriageway between Westbourne Park and Royal Oak, as cars sped past me and I felt dizzy and there was broken glass underfoot from the bank holiday revellers and I couldn’t understand why I was doing this walk. But for some entirely irrational reason, I kept on walking for another 3 hours until I got to sit on the ground outside Hammersmith station and cry.

I realised what I was doing a few days later. I wasn’t doing this for me. I was doing this so I could post the photos on social media. I was doing it so I could tell people. I was doing it because I was so mortified by the fact that my body was getting fatter that I was panicking and I really wanted everyone to know that I wasn’t lazy and that I had willpower and I was a strong person and I cared about my body and my health.

I obsess so much about what people are thinking about my body that sometimes I can’t have conversations. I literally cannot have conversations. On a regular basis, I get so lost in my intrusive thoughts, presuming that the person I’m speaking to is thinking about how fat I am, how disgusting I am, how much of a failure I am, how ugly I am, that I can’t hear the actual words they’re saying to me. I presume people who are speaking to me are doing it to be nice to me and they’re just talking to me to fill in the time until they find a thin person to speak to. It could be someone who has proved to me repeatedly that we’re close friends, but I never really trust them not to want to be talking to thin people instead of me.

I know these intrusive thoughts are irrational. I know most people don’t spend that much time thinking about my body. But my thoughts don’t let me accept that.

And so I feel I need to prove that my body is worth something. I feel I have to prove that it has value. And so, even after the pain and awfulness of the Hammersmith and City Line, and my realisation that I wasn’t doing it for me, I walked the Bakerloo Line two weeks later. I’m so desperate for people not to be disgusted by my eating and my body and my laziness.

I’ve been at war with my body and with food since I was about ten years old. The only time in my life since 1996 that I made a conscious decision not to try to lose weight was a few months in 2013. Other than that, I was dieting, sometimes with success — I frequently lost two or three stone — and sometimes failing, but always, always regaining more than I’d lost. I never gave up, always planning the next diet, going to bed night after night for over twenty years promising myself that I’d be “good” the next day.

I’ve had two “truces” with food between 1996 and 2022.

The first was in 2014, when I started a juicing diet. I was on a high when I discovered that I could survive on just juice and no food, and so, I stopped taking juice as well and started living on water, as well as a cube of chicken stock in boiling water every second day. I lost two stone in a few days. I was on a high, but I didn’t manage to keep my anorexia up for more than about ten days.

My second truce with food was in 2018 when I had gastric sleeve surgery. In the aftermath of the surgery, I had one of the most wonderful years of my life. I went from twenty-eight stone nine pounds (401 pounds/182 kilos) to exactly fourteen stone (196 pounds/88 kilos).

The surgery felt like it was the solution to everything. I felt like I couldn’t lose. I felt like I’d taken control of my body for the first time in my life. I felt like I was living the dream that everyone else had been living all along. I felt like a new person.

From the week of the surgery, I started having nightmares about regaining the weight. I would wake up in a blind panic and feel my collarbones to soothe me — they were no longer covered with fat. It had just been a bad dream.

But the days were wonderful. The intrusive thoughts about my body and dieting diminished. My new tiny stomach could fit so little food. And so my obsessing stopped. I didn’t need to plan a diet. I didn’t need to panic about how much I’d eaten, or dream about how little I was going to eat. I would manage three quarters of a pot of yogurt and then feel full and sick and not finish the yogurt. A microwave lasagne for one would last me for four meals. Food just stopped tormenting me. For the first time in my adult life, I ate around other people and didn’t feel ashamed. I was just a person eating with other people.

I had always used food to deal with emotions. After my surgery, I couldn’t do this any more. I remember being upset about something a friend had said to me and all I wanted to do was eat until I was numb and I couldn’t. My new stomach wouldn’t let me. I cried. I shouted alone in my living room. I went for a walk. I went for a run. It didn’t feel the same. I missed my drug of choice.

But most of the time, food was a lot less of an issue than it had been. Until it wasn’t.

My stomach gradually got bigger. About nine months after surgery, I could now eat some more normal meals. I could manage a small bowl of pasta, or a whole bag of crisps. This terrified me. My nightmares got more frequent.

The things I used to find difficult got difficult again. I panicked at the thought of having to decide what to have for breakfast. I cried at the idea of going to a supermarket and doing a weekly shop. I stopped feeling OK about eating around other people.

I was back to bingeing to deal with stress and with emotions. I remember one day forcing down a cheese and ham croissant from Pret on a stressful day at work, even though my stomach was telling me quite clearly that there wasn’t room for it. I felt a pain in my chest, and then the croissant came up again on the street outside work. Wow. I’d never known vomiting to be so easy.

I’d tried to force myself to vomit after eating when I’d been in my early twenties and had always been terrible at it, but this was easy.

At first, it only happened about once a week. I learned which foods would come up easily. The croissant incident was in February 2020. Within a year, I was vomiting on more days than I wasn’t. By the end of 2021, I was vomiting multiple times a day, every day.

Sometimes, I don’t vomit after a binge. Some foods don’t come back up as easily. Instead, they get lodged painfully in my new post-surgery stomach. They trap wind in my chest and make me feel like there’s an anvil pressing into my chest and slowly killing me.

By the end of 2021, I was eating to vomit. I was eating for pain. I was numbing my emotions as I had before my surgery. And in spite of my tiny stomach, my weight was coming back on. Of course it was.

And this terrified me. I didn’t want people to see me. I wanted to hide. I hated the clothes my bigger body fit into.

And my reaction to my growing body was to binge more to deal with the horror of it. I’ve had nights where I’ve woken up choking on my own vomit.

When my GP referred me to the eating disorders service, the vomiting hadn’t started. But it was during covid, so from my referral from the GP to the consultant took 19 months. I presumed that I’d be diagnosed with binge eating disorder, but the psychiatrist had no doubt that it was bulimia. She recommended CBT and I was put on a waiting list for treatment. While on the waiting list, I was allowed to join a support group, of mainly very young and very frail and thin women. I felt entirely out of place with them, although it was incredible how much I found in common with 19-year-old anorexic women. The panic about wearing short sleeves. The sickening feeling of seeing your reflection in the door of a car or a shop window. The spending money on a load of food, only to immediately throw all of that food in the rubbish. These girls understood me.

I had a lot of old debt, some of it from the PhD I had done in Ireland, as well as a £10,000 debt for my weightloss surgery. I was also spending somewhere between £120 and £200 a week on food. Even though I had a good job, I ran into real money problems and had to move out of my nice flat into a crappy little bedsit.

Moving house meant changing my GP, which meant that I lost my place on the waiting list for the South London Eating Disorders service and now I had to wait for a consultation with the West London Eating Disorders service. After a year, I had my initial assessment and another psychiatrist diagnosed me with bulimia and put me on a waiting list for CBT. It’s now been three years and three months since the first referral from my GP to the Eating Disorders Service and that treatment still hasn’t started.

I researched going private and specialist therapy is £200 per session and I don’t have a thousand a month to spare, so while I wait, I’ve been going to a regular £40-a-session therapist who has no eating disorder background and who is an absolute sweetheart. And I’ve been reading DIY CBT books for eating disorders.

And I’ve realised that I need to escape diets. All the experts seem to agree that the restriction, the dieting, the desire to be thin, is what leads to the bingeing. I need to make peace with my body. I need to do some terrifying things like working on observing my thoughts and finding ways to intervene to interrupt thought patterns. I need to learn how to recognise hunger and fullness. I need to learn how to listen to my body. I need to learn how to deal with emotions.

I miss when I thought surgery was the solution. I thought the doctor would give me a new body and that would be that. I’m still grateful for the wonderful year post-surgery.

I’m working on my thoughts and my emotions. I’m working on listening to my body. I’m working on finding new ways to value myself.

I live in a world where everything is measured. You guys, it’s all bullshit. You don’t need five servings of fruit and vegetables a day. You don’t need eight glasses of water. You don’t need to walk 10,000 steps a day. You don’t need eight hours of sleep a night. Every body needs something different.

But the world we live in can’t function with that kind of uncertainty. I work in management and so my entire job is about measuring. How many stars out of five did our customers give us? How far ahead of budget is our income? What percentage of our revenue are our staffing costs? I have key performance indicators (KPIs) that my performance-related pay is decided on. My whole world is measured in numbers.

And as long as my only KPI for myself is how thin I am, I’ll never actually be able to be at peace with my body or with food. And so I have to find new values for myself. My Fitbit used to buzz to tell me when I’d done the 20,000 steps I tried to do every day. Now, my phone buzzes twice a day to ask me how I’m feeling. I used to start every day by weighing myself. Now I start every day by doing some breathing exercises and trying to monitor my thoughts and feelings.

And I can’t measure my breathing and my journaling and my mindfulness and my stretching and it’s a bitch because I want to be able to point to a number and say that number makes me virtuous. But that’s what’s fucked me. I can no longer afford to think that my weighing scales or my jeans size or my step counter is the way to measure how well I’m living my life.

Like someone escaping a cult, I have no moral compass any more. I don’t know what my goal is. I have to come up with a new way of living a “good life”. It’s a scary thing to do when you’re 41, but it’s exciting and I think, for the first time in a long time, I’m moving in the right direction again.


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