Anorexia: self-harm or self-protection?

Some people say anorexia is a form of self-harm, and I suppose in a way, that’s true. I starve myself because I don’t think I deserve to eat, because I don’t believe I am worthy of food. It is a way to punish myself, to berate myself for not being good enough or clever enough or kind enough. If something goes wrong, if I make a mistake, if I lash out or snap at someone, if I get into a disagreement with someone I love; my first thought is restriction. The urge to starve my body becomes overwhelming and the desire to avoid food at all costs feels insurmountable. I want to hurt myself, and my weapon of choice is deprivation.

Because hunger hurts: it messes with your brain and your emotions and your body. Your mind becomes obsessed with food like a sick game designed to taunt you: not only can you not eat, but you have to be completely preoccupied by the thought of food; you have to scroll through those Instagram accounts and flick through recipe books and fantasise over all the mouth-watering meals you would eat if you could (although, of course, you absolutely cannot.) Your emotional balance goes utterly out of whack as your brain enters starvation mode and hormone levels are disrupted. You feel manic energy and restlessness followed by a nauseating drop into mental exhaustion. You cry, for no reason (aside for the fact you’re starving, obviously.) Or maybe you feel infuriatingly angry and irritable, unbearably anxious, afraid and vulnerable, or perhaps just totally, utterly depressed. Whichever path the brain takes, you can guarantee that the emotional effects of under-eating will be tumultuous. And finally, unsurprisingly, dangerously, starvation hurts your body. Deprivation causes malnourishment and malnourishment causes exhaustion, energy-depletion, weakness and frailty. It causes a cold like nothing you have felt before, a cold that penetrates your bones, that not even the warmest hot water bottle or biggest cup of tea can alleviate. I could list the innumerable physical side effects of starvation but the short story is, they are brutal and painful and miserable, and every single one of them really, really hurts.

So, it’s easy to see why anorexia is often classified as a type of self harm, because it does, undeniably, cause dangerous and damaging harm. But there is another side, another interpretation that can be used to explain anorexia, to explain why even at the lowest of the lows sufferers adamantly refuse help and vehemently deny their need for recovery. Because anorexia serves a purpose – why else would anyone subject themselves to these agonies? Anorexia acts as anaesthesia. It may hurt, but it also numbs. The feeling of hunger can be so forceful, and have such strong effects on the brain and body, that any and every other feeling – fear, loneliness, worry, depression, heartbreak – are nulled. Life becomes so consumed by food that there is simply no room for anything else. The brain, in its caveman-style starvation mode, becomes so overwhelmingly concerned with finding food and preserving the major organs until food is found that it doesn’t bother with emotion. It doesn’t feel emotion: it doesn’t feel anything beyond hunger. And for someone with an anorexic personality, with traits of super-sensitivity and extremes of emotion and overbearing perfectionism and self-criticism, this numbness feels like bliss.

I suppose anorexia can be seen as a kind of wicked cocktail, a perfect blend of self-hurt and self-preservation. And to sufferers, this cocktail becomes so addictive that choosing recovery can feel counterintuitive. It can feel wrong because almost unknowingly, starvation has become the norm. And anorexia is desperate to keep you there, trapped in its life-threatening clutches where it pretends to kill all life’s problems with one stone, manipulating you into believing that this existence is preferable and another life – a better life – is unachievable. But anorexia is the biggest problem of all. You might need more than one stone. You might need a rock or even a boulder, and you’re bound to need an army of warriors on your side. But however daunting, however frightening, however wrong it may feel, you can beat anorexia, because you don’t need it at all. And one day, you’ll look back and you’ll wonder why you ever doubted your resilience in the first place.