When I began thinking about what I wanted to explore in this blog-post, two lines from 'The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock', one of my favourite poems by T. S. Eliot, came drifting into my head. Here's the first:
'Then how should I begin?'
And here's the second:
'Do I dare to eat a peach?'
These are simple, perhaps even quite comical, questions, but the first felt rather apt as I set about thinking and writing, and both bristle with meaning for me when I think about my ongoing journey through recovery from an eating disorder.
So how should I begin?
I had one certainty - I knew I wanted to explore the circumstances that led to my disordered eating, in the hope that they might resonate with others who are suffering too. But this is a mammoth task to ask of myself. There are many complex circumstances, as there are for anybody who has experienced disordered eating. So, I decided to choose just one of what professionals might term 'the precipitating factors' that led to my illness, and my choice was gender identity.
Here's the thing: I am a non-binary person.
To save you a cheeky Google, my definition is as follows: we think about gender in binary terms. Put simply, this means that we tend to think people are either 'male' or 'female', and that these are fixed, objective categories, each connoting a variety of traits, actions and behaviours that are either 'masculine' or 'feminine', but rarely, if ever, both. A non-binary person does not identify solely with one or the other, but instead has a more fluid understanding of their gender, expressing traits and identifying with both 'masculine' and 'feminine' things. There is much more to be said about this, so if you were in fact thinking about having a cheeky Google, please do so.
In the meantime, let's rewind to the mid-nineties.
Everyone was wearing stonewashed jeans for some reason, Ross and Rachel were on a break, Northern Irish politicians were starting to talk to each other again, and S Club 7 was just a twinkle in Simon Fuller's eye. I, meanwhile, was in primary school, wandering around in a little world of my own. I liked to draw, I liked to read, and I preferred my own company above that of anyone else. I also liked playing with dolls, wearing my mum's shoes, and playing 'teachers' (I was usually female in this game and, side-note, I also had a zero--tolerance policy when my long-suffering little brother failed to hand in his homework). These were things that felt natural and comfortable for me to do, so imagine the increasing dysphoric horror I felt as I began to realise that these were things that were entirely divergent from what was expected of me as a little boy.
Significantly, I was also the tallest in my class and this would frequently illicit a number of stock remarks, often from strangers, about my body and the expectations that it signified: "Aren't you a big boy!" "What sports do you play, big man?" "Bet you're popular with the girls!" In hindsight, the idea that I was ever remotely interested in romancing any girls or playing any sort of sport is, frankly, hilarious, but my frame and shape did seem to attract attention, and it didn't feel good. My body became a locus for comments and conversations that served only to make me feel alienated within it, and so a clear disjunction between my mind and the body I inhabited steadily began to materialise. I felt that I was shameful, inadequate, wrong and deviant, and these evil thoughts weaved their way malignantly into my core. That I grew up in Northern Ireland is probably a factor that shouldn't be overlooked, I think, and especially when some of the people we've elected to govern us believe that people like me shouldn't give blood, shouldn't get married, shouldn't adopt children, and, actually, shouldn't exist at all.
'I'm wrong', I thought, 'this body is wrong, this mind is wrong. I am wrong.'
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I've been profoundly self-conscious ever since. I was at war with my body throughout my adolescence, and then, after many years of fighting, starvation was the ally who came to my rescue. Throughout my recovery, I've come to understand that starving myself served a number of purposes. I didn't want to be a tall, well-built 'man.' Instead, I yearned to become as small and thin as possible; I wanted to shrink, to take up as little space as possible, to become invisible, to stop existing. I knew that people assumed and expected certain things about my character and identity based upon how I looked, and these assumptions and expectations were almost always completely alien to me. The disjunction between my mind and my body grew ever more vast.
Starvation was also a form of self-flagellation: I wanted punish myself for being 'wrong' by denying myself one of the most fundamental things needed for survival. Like many people who struggle with anorexia, my body soon began to use bingeing, a natural neurobiological mechanism, in order to fight for survival. Paradoxically, whilst bingeing probably kept me alive, it also made life increasingly difficult and seemed further proof that my body was determined to betray me.
And so I had entered the devastating binge/purge cycle.
Even so, the acts of bingeing and purging served their purpose too. During a binge I felt numb; it was a trance-like period of respite from my constant obsessive thoughts about food, and the screaming cacophony of voices in my head that told me I was weak, worthless, and didn't deserve to exist. Then came the purge which, similar to starvation, allowed me to punish myself. Through inflicting this hideous violence upon myself, I was expelling the 'evil' food inside of me along with all of the stresses, anxieties and 'evil' thoughts in my head. 'I need to do this,' I thought, 'this is what I deserve.' To be very frank, I also knew that purging could be fatal, and I would even go so far as to say that for me, at least, it became a sort of parasuicide.
So far, so cheery.
The old, but very important, adage used by eating disorder therapists the world over is that recovery is a journey and not a destination. I don't consider myself to be 'recovered' by any stretch of the imagination. I still binge and purge. I still obsess about my body shape. Food still dominates my thoughts. But the crucial thing is that all of these thoughts and behaviours have decreased in frequency and intensity, and little by little I'm gaining insight into and understanding of both myself and my eating disorder, and my gender identity lies at the heart of the matter. The truth is that I'll always have this body: I'll always be above average height, I'll always have broad shoulders, and well-meaning strangers in the pub will probably always ask me if I play rugby. I'll also always have this mind: I'll always like wearing make-up, I'll always like wearing heels (Mum has a killer collection but, sadly, none fit me anymore), and I'll always identify with and prefer many things that society deems 'feminine' rather than 'masculine'.
So, recovery, for me, involves a great deal of reconciliation between my body and my mind.. To achieve this, I believe that I must be aggressively and unapologetically authentic. I must do what feels right for me. If that means taking half an hour each morning to put make-up on, then that's what I'll do. If that means resisting the urge to police my gestures and behaviour in order to appear less effeminate, then that's what I'll do. If that means shopping in the women's section of clothes shops without feeling compelled to invent a cover story if anybody asks what I'm doing there ('I'm shopping for my gran... She can't leave the house but she loves sequin crop-tops...'), then that's what I'll do. And if that means giving myself permission to go to the barbers to be groomed once a week and resist the thought that I'm taking up too much time, then that's what I'll do. It's not easy, but this is the only body I'll ever have, and I'm determined to curate it as I wish and treat it well, even if it means that at times I am uncomfortable, anxious or frightened. But it just so happens that being uncomfortable, anxious or frightened is actually what elicits change for the better.
My eating disorder was the best and worst thing that ever happened to me. It landed me in hospital. It made me drop out of uni. It caused me to lose touch with friends. But it needed to happen and I needed to learn from it, and while I don't see the years I've spent being extremely unwell as 'wasted', I do sometimes feel angry about it, and that anger is good because it fills me with a determination to ensure that I don't spend another moment not being myself, because I am allowed to exist, just as I am, and if you're suffering, then I want you to know that you are too, because history is rarely on the side of the person who oppresses.
So, do I dare to eat a peach?
Yes, actually, and I'll savour every mouthful.