I haven’t tasted chocolate for over ten years and now I’m walking down the street unwrapping a Kit Kat . . .
Remember when Kate Moss said, "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels"? She’s wrong: chocolate does. At the age of thirty-three, after ten years of hiding from the truth, Emma Woolf finally decided it was time to face the biggest challenge of her life. Addicted to hunger, exercise, and control, she was juggling a full-blown eating disorder with a successful career, functioning on an apple a day. Having met the man of her dreams, and wanting a future and a baby together, she decided it was time to stop starving and start living. Honest, hard-hitting, and spoken from the heart, An Apple a Day is a manifesto for the modern generation to stop starving and start living.
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About the Author
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"I've never told anyone this before. I have anorexia. I'm saying this for the first time in my life."
That was a young man, a complete stranger, writing to me. He was responding to my first article in The Times. What he didn't understand was that I was saying it publicly for the first time in my life too.
The column I now write every week had started as a one-off feature — I'd contacted the weekend editor at The Times to pitch the idea and she said yes. It was only after the feature was published and readers got in touch saying they wanted to hear more that we realized the potential for a regular column following my journey to beat anorexia.
It was one thing to make the declaration in the newspaper, quite another to follow through. Soon after that first article was published I had a mini-breakdown. I'm no stranger to depression — when you're severely malnourished, it's perfectly logical to feel low — but this was different. I'd decided to tell the world about my deepest secret. I was ashamed, of course, but I was also scared.
By exposing myself in this way, I was acknowledging that something was very wrong in my life. I had declared my hand and now I'd have to do something about it. "My name is X and I'm an alcoholic" is what they say at AA meetings, right? For my entire adult life I've been pretending I'm fine (I've already eaten, thanks, I'm not hungry ...) but now I was admitting that I wasn't fine at all. And I was doing something I never, ever do: I was asking for help.
What frightens me now is leaving the eating disorder behind. I've been anorexic for more than ten years. It's part of who I am.
* * *
It happened that the weekend my first article appeared in The Times we were abroad. Tom was working on his latest book about high-speed travel and how Europe was opening up to the U.K. We'd spent much of that autumn and winter exploring fascinating European cities: Antwerp, Rotterdam, Girona, Bruges, and this weekend, in mid-November, we were in Lausanne. I hadn't told anyone except my family that I was writing a piece about anorexia, and I welcomed the chance to escape.
I will always remember that trip. We arrived at the Beau Rivage Hotel in Lausanne on Friday evening, weary from our early start and the long train journey. As usual on our weekends away, we lit some candles and shared a bubble bath, winding down gradually. We ordered room service and then watched a couple of episodes of The Wire. With our incessant traveling we'd become hooked on DVD box sets — from Downton Abbey to Mad Men to Shameless; we always had one on the go. This weekend Tom had bought The Wire, a series going back five seasons, which we had both missed the first time around. Even as we watched, episode after convoluted episode, we kept asking each other why The Wire had achieved such status as a cult classic. We both agreed the scripts were hopeless, the acting was patchy (Dominic West's American accent was painful!), and the plot lines were incomprehensible — but we too got addicted nonetheless.
We were staying in the penthouse suite, with panoramic views overlooking Lake Geneva. It had an elegant, high-ceilinged bedroom, a separate living room, and a spacious marble bathroom. After dinner we went down to the lake and wandered along the shore in the darkness. It was a chilly evening, but the air was crisp and the sky was full of stars. On our way back we stopped at the hotel bar for a nightcap — Baileys for me, amaretto for Tom — and went to bed around midnight.
I lay awake, worrying about what I'd done. I remember thinking: The newspaper will be at the printers — It will be in the vans now — What on Earth have I done? — How can I undo this? I felt as though I had planted a bomb and run away. Maybe I could stay in Lausanne, I thought — Graham Greene spent his final years here after all, it can't be such a bad place — hiding away from the shameful confession I'd made. Eating disorders are for teenagers, not adults — what would happen next, would I be expected to start eating? I imagined myself starting to eat and never being able to stop. Around 4 AM, I fell into a restless sleep.
Next morning we got up early. Tom was refreshed from a good night's sleep; I was low but kept it to myself. We went downstairs to the swimming pool and spa, a stunning glass creation overlooking the vast blue lagoon. The pool was empty at that time on a Friday morning, although a couple of Swiss bankers pounded the treadmills in the fitness center. We swam a few lengths and gazed out across the lake; I felt revived and restored by the water. Back upstairs, Tom ordered breakfast while I showered, then we sat on the balcony, sipping coffee in our bathrobes.
The newspaper arrived with the breakfast tray. We turned to the Weekend section — and there I was, in a pale pink cardigan and dark blue skinny jeans, splashed over a double-page spread. The Times's photographer had been to my flat the previous week, a friendly guy who chatted about a photo shoot with George W. Bush in Texas while he snapped away. I hadn't seen the image they were planning to use, nor the final version of my article. Their headline shocked me: Diary of an anorexic, aged 32. My cheeks burned with the shame of the "A" word; was that really me they were talking about? My name stood out in bold: not much room for doubt.
We spread the newspaper on the table between us and read in silence. There it was, anorexia, in black and white for anyone to read. Yes, my aim had been to write an honest article, but I hadn't expected to feel like this. Was I being naive? Confessional journalism was one thing but this was different, like someone getting a-hold of my diary and printing it.
I finished reading it and felt ... OK. A bit raw, but OK. The photograph could have been worse. The headline was awful (that label, "anorexic") but they hadn't messed about with my actual copy. I turned to look at Tom and he had tears rolling down his face. "I'm so proud of you, love." He came around the breakfast table and hugged me.
* * *
Returning to London from that weekend in Lausanne, I was overwhelmed by the response to my original article. I received hundreds of emails — from strangers, friends, old flames. After I got over my initial feelings of shame, I began to see that I wasn't the only one. I already knew that a lot of women felt bad about their bodies. What I didn't realize, until recently, was how bad women felt about their appetites, about being hungry and needing food and the simple act of feeding themselves.
Although anorexia is a predominantly female illness, I began to see how many men are also affected by it. There were emails from husbands, partners, and fathers.
One man wrote:
I have just been discussing your article with my daughter — it's the first time we have ever talked about this. She is eighteen years old and has been anorexic for two years now. She has many of the same thoughts and issues you have expressed, but she seems not to want to change at the moment or accept help.
Another father wrote:
As the father of an anorexic daughter, I read your article with much interest. I also listened to you on Radio 4. Firstly, thank you for being so open and honest about the disease. My daughter has been anorexic for over seven years but is now managing to do a degree at university. I fear that she may never recover or have children, and I wish you and your boyfriend every success. Please keep writing and informing people about how you're coping ... I am sure it will help others who are battling as you are.
A young male sufferer wrote:
This was painful to read because I know how difficult it is to speak about having an illness like anorexia — I've told only one person since my relationship with food broke down and I lost control of my life. Although our stories are totally different, I felt the words you used were the ones I would if I wasn't still so petrified.
These messages provoked different emotions in me; a weird jumble of positives and negatives. I felt awed that my article had encouraged people to talk about anorexia — a father and daughter broaching the subject for the first time, say — but then I felt panicky that I'd uncovered something I wasn't qualified to follow up on. (It reminded me of being a child and throwing an egg out of a very high window, then looking out to see a furious car-driver below.)
I felt responsible. These were real people's lives: young men who'd never spoken about it, children whose parents were sick with worry. To use the word "anorexia," to admit to problems, is important of course, but it opens a can of worms ... My intention had been to document my own experience, and yet people seemed to relate to it. That was a good lesson for me, early on, in the power of the printed word: I've learned to be careful — still honest, I hope, but careful — about what I write.
A woman emailed:
Your story is so similar yet so different to my own ... I am thirty-three years old and my ultimate goal is to have a family. My husband has said very similar things [as] your boyfriend. I came out of rehab a year ago this week with the goal of being at a healthy weight and possibly pregnant by the end of this year. Sadly I am actually now in a worse situation and enough is enough.
A younger woman said:
I'm twenty years old and have been battling with eating disorder (ED) thoughts for as long as I can remember. In March of this year I was finally diagnosed with anorexia and I have been in hospital ever since. I am now a day patient and will be discharged from hospital in two weeks' time. Even now, I am far from recovered. My mind still tortures me for every mouthful I allow myself to eat and I continue to hurt my family and friends by being incapable of letting go of the ED altogether. I feel selfish and weak but am trapped in a vicious circle. I do know, however, that people with EDs are extremely determined and that if we fight we can beat the anorexia. Thank you for your column. I hope people who don't understand the illness will read it. Good luck. Don't give in. You will have the family you want and deserve.
Reading those messages I was reminded of how fortunate I'd been, avoiding hospitals and rehabilitation clinics. Anorexia can get a lot more severe than mine. (Am I a fraud?)
A middle-aged woman emailed:
I read your article and cried. I'm a forty-three-year-old mother of two beautiful girls aged eight and six. Daily I hate myself for being so selfish as to "put anorexia" before everything else but as you know, it is a vicious, horrible disease. I would never have chosen to be ill with anorexia in a million years. However I am now on the very slow path to recovery.
Another woman wrote:
This is like reading my life on a page. The Oxford exams struggled through, the social meals lost, the addiction to starvation persevering all the while ... you're right that every day spent this way is a waste. One day I am scared I will look back and realize that my one and only chance at life has slipped through my fingers. By then it will be too late. I am a stuck record, in the grip of a voice that has become so familiar, I no longer know where it ends and mine begins. Or even if they are different at all. I have got to do the same things as you; your challenge is mine. Impromptueating, not jumping out of bed onto the treadmill, following rules that will help rather than hurt me now. It feels both slightly odd and a comfort to recognize doppelgänger thoughts in another woman. Eating is what it takes, but it's harder than all the other therapies put together. In itself it's the medicine. I'll eat if you can.
That really got me: I'll eat if you can.
A middle-aged female general practitioner wrote:
I wish you all the best. I am impressed you are sticking to this so admirably and I'm trying to be as strong as you are. Your column is taped to my freezer and helps me force open the door, actually remove food, and even eat it! Keep going, we are stronger than this and surely must have so much to gain. I am keeping my fingers crossed for you — and all of us trying.
That amazed me: to think of a GP, a professional working woman, with my column taped to the door of her freezer! One assumes that "grown-ups" with real careers don't get eating disorders, but it's not true.
A psychologist wrote to say:
Your article communicates powerfully the impact of an eating disorder. I wish you all the luck in the world, but if this attempt doesn't work please don't beat yourself up. I do have concerns about this sort of "reality" journalism in terms of the pressure it places on the individual in the public gaze, especially as you've used your true identity. I will follow your online column with great interest.
A lot of support and encouragement, but that psychologist was right — also a lot of pressure.
* * *
After the weekend in Lausanne when it all felt unreal, after the initial euphoria faded, after interviews on Radio 4's Woman's Hour and the BBC World Service, after meetings with publishers — that was when I collapsed. I describe it as a mini-breakdown because that's how it felt. I started crying for the first time in years and couldn't stop. I stayed in my flat for seven days straight. I felt too raw to go outside. I didn't answer the phone or check my emails. I stopped eating — a violent reaction to the decision to give up anorexia — and I stopped sleeping. I took hot baths and read T. S. Eliot (always good in a crisis) and drifted around in tracksuit bottoms — and cried.
It's an amazing thing, to feel the ability to cry returning. That week was bad, but I think those tears were the first step on the road to recovery. With anorexia, you're so frozen and isolated; it's like some kind of locked-in syndrome. You still experience human emotions — regret, envy, despair — but it's all pretty insular, sort of muted. Your body goes into emergency mode: focusing on essentials only, conserving energy, keeping you alive. Just as your periods stop because you can't nurture a baby — your body can't risk getting pregnant — any excess emotions dry up. With so little fuel going in, there's simply nothing to spare.
Growing up, I'd always been extreme — a natural Scorpio. I was "in touch" with my emotions: love and hate, excitement, drama and disaster. As anorexia set in, all that dried up. Those natural ups and downs, female hormones, the premenstrual moods and tears seemed to disappear completely. So when I started crying I was fearful, yes, but it was also a huge release. Finally, I was being honest about this illness I'd been denying for years. Now I was going to have to do something about it.
All those people who wrote to thank me — I should thank them. Despite my mixed emotions, their responses made my selfish desire to get a life seem less selfish. It depersonalized my struggle and gave me a mission. At the heart of anorexia is a belief that you're not really worth a damn. You don't deserve to listen to your body or respond to your hunger: basically, you don't deserve to eat. With all these people reading my story, following my journey and gunning for me, I had a reason to commit to recovery.
Of course, I want to show other sufferers it is possible to get better. The line that really stood out, that I still repeat to myself, was this: I'll eat if you can. That's why people email me every week, because anorexia is lonely and frightening, because you need reassurance every step of the way. I'll eat if you can. That's the promise I made to all those strangers; that's the promise they're making to me.
* * *
As well as for them, I did it for myself, because I was desperate for a solution. Anorexia is an addiction and a compulsion, a brain disorder and a crutch. When I use the word "addiction," I don't use it lightly. In my case, I am addicted to hunger.
I set myself the challenge in public because I didn't know what else to do: I hoped it would succeed where everything else — therapy, drugs, and determination — had failed. The question I had been avoiding for ten years wouldn't go away: how long was I planning to starve myself? I've always prided myself on honesty, clarity of thought and expression, but anorexia involves a remarkable amount of self-deceit. As much as I denied the problem, to others and to myself, I couldn't keep looking the other way. Something had shaken me up: the thought of having a baby maybe, finding myself in my early thirties, or just a longing to take part in life again. I knew that with anorexia I'd stay trapped forever.
And then there was Tom. Even if I didn't believe I could recover from anorexia — even if I didn't want to save myself — I had to think about him now too.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "An Apple a Day"
Copyright © 2012 Emma Woolf.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Fallout 26
Chapter 2 Love at First Sight? 37
Chapter 3 It's a Family Affair 49
Chapter 4 The Personal is Political 60
Chapter 5 Heartbreak and the Seeds of Anorexia 74
Chapter 6 Things Fall Apart 88
Chapter 7 Confessions of a Travel Writer's Girlfriend 116
Chapter 8 Miracle Cures 129
Chapter 9 On the Road 155
Chapter 10 Right Here, Right Now 169
Chapter 11 Just a Tsunami Inside… 183
Chapter 12 An Inconvenient Truth 195
Chapter 13 Thank You 209
Chapter 14 An Ovary Scan and a Moving Van 214
Chapter 15 Healing 227
Chapter 16 As One Door Closes… 240