LOUISE O'NEILL: The conflation of anorexia with vanity is misguided. Believe me, there is no vanity attached to starving yourself

Deirdre O’Shaughnessy, a co-presenter of Cork’s 96FM programme The Opinion Line, recently interviewed a woman named Sharon whose daughter has been hospitalised with severe anorexia. 

Sharon has been asked if she is prepared for Lauree to die. Lauree is 18 years of age.

Lauree needs help but there is no specialised treatment for eating disorders in Ireland. Not for public patients anyway.

The fact that a teenager is allowed to slowly die because her family cannot afford to pay for private care highlights the appalling inhumanity of a two-tier health system — but it also reveals a great deal about how mental health issues, and eating disorders in particular, are viewed in this country.

There is often an exasperated tone when discussing people suffering with anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorders; a sort of ‘pull yourself together’ approach, which is unhelpful to say the least.

I have been at the receiving end of this flippant attitude when discussing my own history of anorexia and bulimia, and I’ve found the lack of empathy displayed to be quite astonishing.

“Post-modern feminist gobbledygook,” a commentator laughed. 

“Women’s fluffcast.” 

“These are ‘important’ issues for women?”

One man compared an article I wrote — about how anxious I felt at Christmas due to the expectation that one must over-indulge — to something the satirical website Waterford Whispers might dream up.

Up to 200,000 Irish people, men and women, may be affected by eating disorders and 80 people a year will die as a result.

And I am decried as a ‘luvvie’ for wanting to speak out about it?

It’s frustrating but I suppose that it must seem so simple to those who have never struggled with disordered eating.

“Just start eating.” 

“Just stop making yourself vomit after meals.” 

“Just stop over-eating.”

Because eating disorders tend to affect more women — although numbers of male sufferers are increasing exponentially — there is a tendency to trivialise it, to dismiss it as a problem that ‘poor little rich girls’ make up to get attention. 

The British broadcaster Joan Bakewell attributed anorexia to “overindulgence” and “over-introspection”, commenting that “they do not have anorexia in the camps in Syria. 

"I think it’s possible anorexia could be about narcissism.”

The conflation of anorexia with vanity is at best misguided and at worst, dangerous. 

Believe me, there is no vanity attached to starving yourself.

Many people know my story. I have told it so many times. 

My obsession with my weight began early, somewhere between 14 and 15. I began over-exercising, then inducing vomiting after meals. 

My weight began to drop dramatically at 21 and they hospitalised me. 

The nurse checking my belongings, taking away my razor and the tie from my dressing gown, my quick intake of breath at what that meant. 

That first night lying in the over-heated bedroom, listening to my roommate cry herself to sleep. I didn’t know what to say to her. I didn’t know what to do. 

The night nurses came in periodically to shine a torch in my face, to check if I was still alive. (And I wished that I wasn’t. I wished that I would just fall asleep and never wake up.)

At about 5am I went into the bathroom. I stared at my reflection in the mirror and ran a hand through my hair, wincing as another clump of it came away in my fingers, flyaway strands dusting the sink. 

I looked at myself and I thought, ’This isn’t supposed to be your life, Louise.’

I felt like I had lost something in that moment. Something I would never get back.

(Just eat. Just eat. Just eat. Just eat. Just eat. Just eat. Just eat. Just eat.)

Just be normal. Just be like everyone else. Stop making a fuss.

Just. Eat.

(How can I eat when food is poison? When food is corrosive, when I can feel it tearing my insides apart?)

I was lucky. My parents had always paid for my health insurance so I was admitted to a private hospital. 

When we saw what the bill would have been for a three-month stay, my mother’s face whitened.

“What would we have done if my insurance didn’t cover it,” I asked her, and she tried to smile.

“We would have re-mortgaged the house,” she replied. 

“We would have done anything.”

We had a house to remortgage. We had options.

When I was living in New York and had a major relapse, I began to see an astoundingly good therapist and nutritionist specialising in anorexia. 

They were also astoundingly expensive but my ex-boyfriend, desperate to help me, offered to pay. I was lucky once again.

I can now afford to pay for my own therapist and I am aware of how privileged I am to be able to do so. 

And yet, for all the support I’ve had from the people in my life, both financial and emotional, I still struggle. 

I still find food and eating to be a wasteland that I have to navigate, never quite sure of my footing. 

I look at others around me, how they seem to treat food as merely fuel, and I feel a nauseating mixture of wonder, envy, and hopelessness. 

I don’t think it will ever be that easy for me.

Being told that I need to “cop on and think of all the people starving in the world” only adds to the feelings of isolation.

But, I must repeat, I am one of the fortunate ones. I am still alive. I am ‘recovered’ or as recovered as I am able to be right now. 

My parents did not have to watch me waste away in a hospital bed because they could not afford to help me.

But the fact that money is an issue at all when it comes to receiving life-saving medical attention is abhorrent.

Being financially well-off does not make you deserving of better medical care.

It does not mean you somehow deserve to live while less privileged people die. 

Having money does not mean you are a better person. It means that you, by some twist of fate, have been lucky.

“Are you prepared to watch your daughter die?” Sharon was asked in a country that is supposed to be modern, forward thinking, and prepared to protect its most vulnerable.

Was it for this? I ask you.

For this that all that blood was shed?



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