After anorexia: Life’s too short to weigh your cornflakes | Catherine Pawley | TEDxLeamingtonSpa
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After anorexia: Life’s too short to weigh your cornflakes | Catherine Pawley | TEDxLeamingtonSpa

August 15, 2019


Translator: Ellen Maloney
Reviewer: Denise RQ I’m Catherine. I’m a chemistry finalist
at the University of Warwick, I’m a daughter, a sister, friend,
girlfriend, and recovering anorexic. I want to give you an insight
into eating disorders and recovery using my journey, my journey of pain, tears,
acceptance, and discovery. Eating disorders do not discriminate: gender, age, sexuality,
and race mean nothing. These illnesses are not reserved
for troubled teenage girls who want to look like models. They are serious illnesses
with devastating consequences. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate
of any psychiatric illness. I suppose the question here is: why? Why do we choose to starve ourselves, make ourselves sick,
and exercise to oblivion? Why do we choose to harm ourselves
and those around us? The answer is simple: it’s not a choice. Eating disorders are not a choice. They are a coping mechanism,
a safety blanket, an identity. They make life simple
by giving you a rule book for life. Rules that tell you how to live;
what to do, what to say, what to eat. Rules take away chance and decision,
and they take away risk. They give you control. Of course, we all want to feel in control. But often, demons arise: alcoholism, drug abuse,
self-harm, eating disorders. All addictions, all seeking control,
in a world, full of social constructs set by somebody else. Seeking escape from the torture
they feel in everyday life. Seeking peace from
the constant voice in their head telling them they’re not good enough, seeking numbness so that they don’t have to deal
with their negative thoughts and emotions. Eating disorders are not
just about food and weight. They are an addiction, they are self-harm. Every eating disorder is different from the way they start
and how they present themselves to the rules that govern them
and the purpose that they serve. But that’s the common factor;
they all serve a purpose. Five years ago today,
it was my 18th birthday. I held all the insecurities that any young woman holds
about her appearance, but unlike my peers,
I wasn’t excited about turning 18. I didn’t want to go out
drinking and partying. I didn’t feel ready to be an adult. I was stuck on this unstoppable
conveyor belt of GCSEs to A-levels, university, and work. It felt like my life was out of my hands, and I didn’t know what I wanted. So, I turned to one thing
I knew would make me happy: food. I wanted to eat more. So I decided to lose weight so I could eat more
without feeling guilty about it. Then came my rules: don’t snack in-between meals,
don’t eat unless you’re starving, don’t eat more than anyone you’re with. These went unnoticed by those around me, and I tried my hardest
to keep it that way, because I was in control. The plan worked; I didn’t snack in-between meals,
I didn’t eat more than anyone I was with, and I didn’t eat unless I was starving. So, I lost weight. But I didn’t eat more
as I promised myself. Time passed, life went on. January exams came
along with all the stress. I felt out of control again. So, I made more rules: never finish a plate of food,
never eat foods high in fat. Always pick the lowest calorie option. I was back in control. I felt safe again. But little did I know the rules that gave me safety
were slowly killing me. By April 2012, I’d lost around a stone. My ribs began to show,
my hip bones protruded, and I was a hanger for my clothes. I didn’t think
that I looked any different, but my family and those around me noticed. My mother dragged me to the doctors. I was so angry. I didn’t think there was
anything wrong with me; I thought it was perfectly normal
to never eat dessert, take cornflakes to the cinema
instead of popcorn, and weigh myself
at least five times a day. The doctor referred me
to a specialist service in Leicester for an assessment. At the assessment, I was diagnosed
with ‘anorexia nervosa.’ I ticked all the criteria. One: an intense fear
of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though underweight. Two: a refusal to maintain a body weight, at or above a minimally
normal weight for age and height. Three: a disturbance in the way in which
one’s body weight or shape is experienced, and an undue influence
of this on self-evaluation. After my diagnosis, it became
a lot harder to follow my rules. My family were aware now and plied me
with food at any opportunity. So I had to get sneaky. I added more rules to my arsenal: never eat alone,
never drink calories, avoid food at all costs. I had to visit the hospital every week
to be weighed and see my therapist. I took great delight in seeing
the falling number on the scale every time I stepped on. I was getting sucked in deeper
to the anorexic way of thinking. Home life was getting worse
as I was being increasingly deceptive. Meal times were horrendous; an internal battle between not eating,
and causing yet another argument. I knew, as soon as I put
my knife and fork together, half of my food untouched,
that it would start. My sister, running upstairs, unable
to cope with what I was doing to myself. My mother crying, my father shouting,
asking me if I wanted to die. I just sat through it all. It killed me to see what I was doing
to my family but I couldn’t stop. I didn’t think that I deserved to stop. By this time, it was June. Time for my final A-level exams. Somehow, I made it through, determined not to let
my 14 years of school go to waste. From the day I finished,
I deteriorated rapidly. Each day, eating less and less,
becoming more and more deceitful. Rules increasing day by day,
becoming more and more restrictive: never eat more than 500 calories a day. never eat anything
that you haven’t weighed, never enjoy food. That summer, we had
a family holiday abroad planned, but I wasn’t allowed to fly. At home, I couldn’t sleep. My heart rate so low,
my body scared I wouldn’t wake up. My 15-year-old sister
had to give me a piggy-back because I couldn’t walk up a hill. I couldn’t think straight. I knew that I couldn’t live like this,
but I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t gain weight. Because that would mean losing control. And that was the strongest rule of all, the one presiding over
all the others: never lose control. After one of my weekly appointments, I was admitted, voluntarily,
as an inpatient to Leicester Eating Disorders Unit. I was so confused. What had I done? I didn’t want to be there,
but I knew that I needed help. I’d spend my nights lying in bed,
watching Food Network, gazing at all the beautiful food
that I was depriving myself of. Food. One of my favorite things. Of course, I couldn’t admit
that, not to anybody. Because anorexics hate food, right? No. Deep, deep down, most anorexics love food. They’re just depriving themselves
of something they love as a punishment. Over my five-month stay
on the anorexia ward, I experienced things
that not many 18 year olds would: I heard screams as a girl had a feeding tube
reinserted for the fourth time that day; unable to leave my room
during ward lock-downs when somebody on section tried to escape. Of course, it wasn’t all like that. I made some amazing friends. For the first time, you’re with people who understand exactly
what you’re going through. We had so many good times: evenings watching movies,
doing face masks, laughing, and joking. I felt normal, albeit in an abnormal situation. I progressed through the program, every day challenging the rules
I’d made to keep myself safe. For every one I broke, another sprung up. Anorexia is a very competitive illness, and being surrounded
by other anorexics gives you ideas. You pick up their habits
and their rules, too. But I did it; I restored my weight. I broke my rules.
I ripped up my rule book. Anorexia was a chapter in my life,
but it wasn’t the whole book. I was discharged, went
to university after my gap year, and all was good; for about a month. This story isn’t linear, and the journey from anorexia
to recovery is rarely linear. I relapsed. My weight deteriorated again,
albeit not as fast as the first time as I was eating one or two meals a day. It turns out my rule book
was still intact. Walking to and from lectures
became difficult. Five-hour labs were unbearable. I was going in and dealing
with dangerous chemicals, having not eaten for almost 24 hours. How I didn’t harm myself
or somebody else, I have no idea. I struggled through
my first year of university, plastering on my fake smile
and pretending everything was fine. I made it though my exams,
but then I had to move home. This stabilized my weight loss as I was being made to eat
three meals a day, plus a snack, under the watchful eye of my family. Being at home and eating more meant
I had to be much, much sneakier again. Crumbling biscuit down
my dressing gown sleeves, pretending to have lunch,
lying about what I had or hadn’t eaten. I became a lying machine. I hated lying to my family. They knew, though. They knew exactly what I was doing. Even as I deteriorated, I was adamant
that I was going back to university. I was not taking another gap year. I was not giving up. I met my psychiatrist
a week before term started. He told me I couldn’t go back. I cried and shouted. I didn’t want to go back into hospital,
but it was my only option. I gave up on going back to university
that year and accepted a bed. It took all my strength, but I had just taken
the biggest step forward imaginable. This admission was
so much harder than the first. I had a new desire
to be the ‘perfect anorexic.’ This thought kept me
prisoner like no other. It played on all my feelings
of self-doubt, inadequacy, fraudulence, and worthlessness. My weight had plummeted
to almost half of what it is today, but still, I wouldn’t eat. “Perfect” anorexics do not eat. I sat through meal after meal,
nurses willing me to eat something, and I wouldn’t. My blood sugar crashed. I was so dehydrated, the doctor couldn’t get blood
from my veins for tests. It was only on the threat
of being ‘sectioned’ that I began to eat again. I began my journey of my recovery
for the second time. Yes, I had started eating again,
but I was still clinging to my anorexia, clinging to the rules I’d made
to keep myself safe. I believed that I was worthless,
and that my life wasn’t worth living. Why would being three stone heavier
make my life any better, make my life worth anything? So, I stayed ill. Safe. Away from reality, and away from harm. I was numb, and I liked that. It meant I didn’t have to deal
with how much of a failure I felt. Recovery was just too risky. Recovery would mean
finally letting go of anorexia; letting go of my rules,
letting go of my identity. If I recovered, who would I become? What could I amount to? Recovery isn’t just about
wanting it enough: you can want it more
than anything in the world. You can have so many reasons to recover,
but you just can’t do it. It is the most terrifying
concept imaginable. It means letting go of control
and leaving your comfort zone. Of course, we are all guilty
of having rules and staying in our comfort zone. Given long enough,
we find comfort in our suffering. We stay in the same job we hate. We drag out a dysfunctional relationship. I starved myself for days on end, understanding the consequences
but so afraid to change. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment
that it happened, but after countless therapy sessions, a lot of soul searching,
and restoring some of my weight, I began to properly engage
with my treatment. I began to believe there was a tiny chance
my life could be better with recovery. Yes, it would bring scary decisions, but it would also bring
a world of opportunity. It was only then when I believed
that the risk was worth it, I believed I had a chance; a chance at university; a chance at love; but most of all, a chance at life. For me, the path to recovery
involved ripping up my rule book. The rule book that governed my every move. The rules that made me feel safe;
made me feel in control; that caused my weight to plummet,
my hair to fall out, and my bones to thin. The rules that were slowly killing me – I had to break these rules, one by one. It is impossible to recover
from anorexia and keep your rules. You have to leave your comfort zone. You have to rip up your rule book. Anorexia gave me that reality check: I can’t always be comfortable,
I can’t always have control, and there is no rule book for life. Recovery has brought me so many things. It has brought me university,
it has brought me love, and it has brought me life. I want to reach out to anyone suffering
and say to please accept help. Without the service in Leicester,
and the support of my friends and family, I would not be here today. I want you to believe me when I say that you are worth recovery,
you are worth a life, and you are good enough. The one overwhelming thing
that recovery has brought me is me. I have got myself back. And, as it turns out, life is way too short
to weigh your cornflakes. Thank you. (Applause)

Only registered users can comment.

  1. I do not feel alone anymore. This sounds exactly like me. But it is such a great video. Thank you for making me realise the mistakes I’m doing

  2. I used to have anorexia and it escalated much faster than hers did I had already taken advantage of m disorder to try to kill myself after only a month of having it but I ended up recovering from it and the suicide attempt without anyone even knowing what I went through, not even my family. No one expected someone as young as I was (11 almost 12 at the time) to go through that so they never even suspected. It's really scary that I could've died and no one knew about it…

  3. When I was in hospital for anorexia the psychologist got us all together and played this video. That was the first time I heard this but definitely not the last. Thank you

  4. MERCI Catherine. You're a sunshine. You're beautiful. Thanks for your beauty and your strongh : I hope I am going to recovery as you did.

  5. I’m willing to repeat this video for so many times 💕I’m eating disorder patient too. at first I watch tedx just because I’d like to improve my English,luckily I found this video. Her story is look like mine

  6. I felt exactly the same way when in the depths of my depression, it was so hard to find my way out even though I wanted to so much

  7. I'm 32 and a recovered anorexic. I was anorexic from the ages of 15-19. Years I'll never ever get back and sometimes I miss the comfort of anorexia. Life is hard with 3 children. And a husband. But life is way too short to weigh your cornflakes. This was stellar. She's a very intelligent young woman.

  8. I'm in recovery from anorexia and it seems I've done a flip. My depression is still really bad and I still have that negative voice in the back of my mind. I gained the weight back and extra, instead of starving I have been stress eating and not exercising at all. Recovery is a tricky process. I'm working on getting back to my healthy weight and fighting the urge to starve myself back to 95lbs (the doctor says my MINIMUM healthy weight is 125lbs). At my worst I was at serious risk of cardiac failure, I couldn't go up the stairs. Now it's hard to look in the mirror

  9. I know someone who has an eating disorder (since a few months). Should I send this to her or would that be a bad idea?

  10. Anyone else start crying when she said you have to "rip up your rulebook"?

    I'm recently seeing symptoms of anorexic tendencies and I know I have a brewing eating disorder of some sort that is getting worse, and like she said, there's something comforting beneath it all about being in control of food. I hate being hungry at times but being in control of food is one of the few things in my life that I feel like I have control over. I'm a near 6 foot male and I've been eating anywhere from 400-1000 calories per day for the past week and a half depending on how I'm feeling each day. This didn't come out of nowhere though. I've been having eating issues for several weeks that have stemmed through my new diet.

    I'm getting help, but I like being in control.

  11. I love this My therapist showed me this video while I was in a residential for eating disorder recovery and it was very helpful so Thank you for sharing this video

  12. This turned on while I was exercising. I exercise for fun. I naturally only need to eat 1 meal a day.

  13. I actually cried while watching this. It was so close to my situation. I watched this with my boyfriend to explain what my struggles with anorexia were.

  14. BEAUTIFUL !! I remembered everyone in my familiy would role their eyes when they see me having fruit for dinner or yogurth or water with oats instead of what they were having…or at parties I will eat nothing but a bite of cake (that will cost me the breakfast)…surreal, how things like this marks a warning but you and the ones around you ignores it…

  15. The most accurate, relatable description of anorexia I've ever heard. This one really touched me.

  16. This is one of the best Ted talks I've ever seen. I have anxiety and sometimes I worry about eating too much. I wrote the title on my hand so I can always look at it 🙂

  17. i loved this speech but just one slight criticism – describing her “food rules” can be somewhat triggering for those who are still struggling. i understand why she describes her little behaviours to those who don’t understand the illness but for people who have it, they may take it as “advice”

  18. I struggled with anorexia at a peak my freshman year of college. I’m a junior now, and last year I decided it was okay to eat again. Today I got weighed at an appointment. I wanted to die and went straight to the gym and worked so hard I almost fainted multiple times. This TED talk brings me back down to earth and reminds me that healthy is what is beautiful. Screw you, Ana! We are beautiful.

  19. Im confused if she was 18 why did her parents and doctors make her do things she didn't want to. I get why but why did she have to listen

  20. When I was in anorexia recovery, I only decided that I wanted to get better when my doctor told me I might never get my period back. I always wanted to be a mother and that just broke me and I immediately regretted everything

  21. “I became a lying machine. I hated lying to my family.” I felt that. You want to get help, you want to eat, you just hate your body and how it looks. You want to stop, but that voice reminds you that you can’t

  22. "never enjoy food." God, this hit me hard. I'm not even Anorexic, but that is a mentality that I had drilled into my head. I should stop.

  23. Her voice shows the weakness she has about this topic and still it draws me in. She's weak yet powerful. Shes such a beautiful woman with a beautiful message to tell. She knows how to put in words how anorexics feel. This is powerful.

  24. Thank you for sharing your truth, Catherine. I’d been in a constant state of flux for years with my anorexia, and my rule book consumed my life for about 9 years. I alienated those who were trying to help me and I kept trying to push my limits and rules even further than they already were, until it all finally sat with me a few years ago. Since then, it still is a part of my life, but doesn’t run my life. I don’t have to exercise every day any more, I don’t count calories and portions… I still have a ways to go, but hearing stories such as yours inspires me to stay strong on this journey. ❤️

  25. Wow this was an absolutely amazing insightful speech! I dont understand the taking cornflakes to the movie thing though? That's pretty weird. Popcorn and cornflakes are both made from corn and I would say are pretty equal with calories. Popcorn is actually known for being a low calorie tasty snack.

  26. I was suffering from the
    loss of appetite since 4-5 years. I took so many allopathic treatments, but no
    permanent cure was there but one day I was searching from something on the
    internet and saw Planet Ayurveda and ordered medicine online for Anorexia
    nervosa. Now I am 80% improved have gained weight also.

  27. I was anorexic when I was a teen. Her story made me cry and I also appreciate to my mom who always supported me.

  28. “ never eat more than 500 calories.” That strikes a chord. I allowed myself 800… on good days. I was blind to the fact that it was an eating disorder because “ I was eating!” … the saddest part were the compliments I got from everyone. 5’6. 103 pounds. “ You look soooo great! “ We need to inform people that if someone looks too skinny… they most likely have an eating disorder. Don’t encourage it. Thanks.

  29. This hit me so hard since I'm admitted for the 13th time ….. "life is way too short" damn she is so right! Why is it so hard though?

  30. The control we crave is control of ourselves which we can have through our choice of food, or rather avoidance of it

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