Something Serious

A submission for the competition centred around John Green's The Fault In Our Stars.

Our main character is the writer of a newspaper column living in London. Known to her readers only as Jane Doe, she offers her views of what it's like being a young woman in modern society - she could be any girl in her twenties, getting along with her life in twenty-first century Britain. Her latest column is a little different. Here she digs up old stories, reveals old scars, opens old wounds, all triggered by a new discovery. It's her most honest, personal column yet, and it's hard to write.
But it's important.

I'd like to state that this is based on a true story.

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1. Something Serious

 

Mike,

I know this is a bit later than you asked for, but I'm afraid I hit a bit of a block with this column. It's been a tricky one. I guess once you've read it you'll understand why. So far I've been calling it 'Something Serious'. Let me know if there are any changes you need.

 

Hello, dear readers.

Okay. My hands are actually shaking a bit, and it’s feeling kind of hard to breathe, because I’m thinking about the stuff that I’m going to talk about in this article. It’s going to require me to delve back into an unhappy time in my life, and actually sitting and typing it out is going to be strange. But recently I saw something that made me really upset. It made me feel upset and angry and scared, and I kind of need to talk about it.

So I don’t know how many people have heard of this, but there are these concepts known as ‘pro-ana’ and ‘pro-mia’. For anyone who doesn’t know, these are shorthand terms for pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia. As in, they’re used to describe people who actively believe in the (quote/unquote) benefits of eating disorders. The other day I somehow stumbled across a pro-ana section of tumblr after following various links from a page dedicated to fiction-writing. And the things I saw there… It’s hard to describe how they made me feel, and to do it properly I have to go back and explain my own experiences with body image issues. I’ve alluded to it before in previous columns, but now I want to actually get it out properly.

When I was twelve I started at a new school, something isn't the norm here in England. I came out of primary school at eleven, went to one secondary school for a year, then transferred to another. And somehow when I got there I found it really hard to feel as though I belonged; this may or may not have been apparent to the people around me, but it certainly felt to me as though I couldn’t quite settle in. Looking back, I still can’t figure out why this was the case – it may have been due to my arriving a year later than everyone else (which of course meant that all the groups/cliques had already been established by the time I got there, something I felt keenly as an adolescent girl), it may have been that the school itself just wasn’t a place that I was suited to, it may have been entirely of my own doing. I don’t know. But for a very long time I didn’t have a defined, concrete group of friends, so I found myself kind of floating around between groups.

The relevant result of this was that during lunchtimes I regularly didn’t have anyone to sit with, and the times when I did I was generally very much at the periphery. Speaking now it actually sounds incredibly dumb. But at the time it was… Searching for the word… Humiliating. So eventually I stopped going to the canteen at lunch. Breaks were spent sitting on top of the lockers in my classroom. Which meant that on school days I didn’t eat lunch. And whilst it started out as a purely practical result of my unwillingness to go to the canteen and sit on my own, eventually it kind of sprouted, almost without my realising, into something bigger.

I noticed after not too long that I was starting to lose weight, and it was as if my mind suddenly fixated on that – I got a kick out of it. It was like, what with being in a place where I felt as though I was just being swept along without anything to ground me, where I felt invisible to a point, I suddenly had something that I could – and here’s that word – control. could decide not to eat and could decide how to deal with it and I could decide. And maybe along the way it might get people to start noticing me.

And so the story goes. I won’t bore you too much with the brunt of the details, because things pretty much went the way they usually do with these issues – I started weighing myself on a regular basis, getting a rush whenever I’d lost weight and feeling panicky and physically sick whenever I’d gained some; I learnt how to lie and how to move food around my plate so it looked as though I’d eaten more than I had; my BMI dropped to about 16 – medically underweight; I became pale and anaemic and susceptible to illness and fatigue.

During this time I believe that I was verging on depression. That’s certainly how it felt. Before I started writing this post I sat down and tried to come up with a word to sum up this period in my life, and the one I came up with was ‘grey’. It’s not as if I was never happy during that time – I was capable of having a good time when I managed to… I guess when I managed to let myself? – but the overriding thoughts when I look back at it all are ones of dullness, tiredness, anxiety, and just kind of wishing that I never had to do anything ever.

And through it all was this awful sense of conflict. I knew that what I was doing was bad for me. I knew that I was hurting myself and making myself ill. And it terrified me that I was doing it so well. There are a few occurrences that stand out most in my mind:

The time I told my mum – we were in the car on the way home, and were nearly there when I said ‘I have something to tell you, and it’s something serious’. So she stopped the car by the side of the road and I told her ‘don’t freak out, but I think I might be showing signs of anorexia’. It was one of the scariest things I think I’ve ever done. I was so, so scared of letting her and my dad down.

The time I heard someone at school talking to a friend about people who didn’t eat enough, and I secretly hoped they were talking about me – ‘…and do you know who else starves herself? *whispers name too low for me to hear*…’

The time I hit seven stone – 98 pounds, pretty much my lowest.

The point in time where I believe I stopped being a danger to myself – I’d fluctuated back and forth between being at healthy and unhealthy weights for about six years, and my parents were always watching me to try and spot the points where I started slipping backwards. This last time we had a horrible fight. There wasn’t really any shouting. It started out as usual, with my parents saying I looked too skinny and was I eating enough at university and how much did I weigh, and me getting defensive and refusing to weigh myself in front of them. Then my mum physically pulled me to the scales in the bathroom and watched as the numbers flickered up. 7 stone 3. 101 pounds. And she didn’t say anything. She just looked at the numbers, then walked out of the bathroom. And I stood there for a moment, then followed her, sat next to her on the sofa, and said I was sorry. Like, not in a long-winded way. All I could get out was literally ‘I’m sorry’. Then I cried and we hugged and we just sat like that for a while.

I used the phrase ‘stopped being a danger to myself’ very deliberately, because I do believe that’s the case, but I don’t believe that I’m in any way over it, and here’s where the stuff about that pro-ana page comes in. Looking through those posts, they’re all girls documenting how much weight they’ve lost, what their new plans are, how many times they’ve thrown up in the last week… And somehow, as if it were someone else doing it, I found myself looking at some of these posts and actually agreeing: a girl asking if anyone wants to be her ‘ana-buddy’ (someone to exchange methods with and get support from/give support to during fasts) – ‘I could do that’; someone saying they’ve had 411 calories today – ‘God, what’s my intake so far?’; someone saying they want a concave stomach and thighs that don’t touch – *crosses legs and folds arms over stomach*. Yesterday I was in too much of a rush leaving the house to have time to grab breakfast, and this morning I was halfway through thinking 'which meal should I skip today?' before I managed to catch myself.

And what I mean by all this is that it still hasn’t left me. I’m stronger now. I’m happier. I have an amazing family and a fantastic set of friends. I’m healthy and fit and doing well. The smart side of me is now dominating, telling me that I want to be healthy and that I don’t need to be afraid of myself anymore, but the wiring in my mind that flinches whenever I stand on the scale and see anything over eight stone is a lot harder to fix than the physical manifestation of weight loss.

In my final comments, I want to say that the thing I just said is really important, for everyone – eating disorders are mental disorders with physical manifestations. I don’t know if I ever actually lost enough weight to be considered clinically anorexic, but my head was in that space; I had the doubt, the insecurity, the self-loathing, the need to control something. I was on my way, and was lucky to be tackled out of it and put back on the right track. But there are people who aren’t so lucky, and it may not even be all that obvious – the internal problems can be taking place and gearing up long before any symptoms that can be seen come to light.

I don't know how many of my readers have come across John Green's writing. There's a line in one of his books stating that pain 'demands to be felt'. And it really does. Fighting this sort of thing is hard. It pushes back. It grabs you by the wrists and the neck and the heart and forces you to embrace it. It stays with you for ages, it takes effort coming from a place that perhaps you didn’t even know you had, and it’s scary and crushing and it makes you feel like you’re being torn up inside. But it can be fought. And to all the girls whose posts I read the other day, I sincerely hope with all my heart that you can find peace with yourselves, wherever that may be.

With love,

Jane Doe.

 

Hope this is okay for you. 1,751 words.

All the best,

Jane.

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