Life & Culture

A toxic affliction

Last year, teenager Hannah Sugars developed anorexia. This is her heartfelt message to others at danger of falling under its powerful spell


Knife and fork tied with measuring tape, concept of strict food restrictions

It is beyond my comprehension that our society is continually glamorising eating disorders, that so many still hold the belief that skinny is synonymous with healthy.

I was diagnosed with anorexia in March 2020, but my disordered thinking had begun many months before that. At that time I was knee deep in GCSE revision with the promise of a rewarding summer ahead — only for everything to go into stasis overnight. I had no purpose, and no goals —  I’d lost control of my life, and I sought it elsewhere.

In losing over a quarter of my body weight, in depriving myself of nourishment and fuel, I did what may well have been irredeemable damage to my body. Perfectionism is a slippery slope; to be brutally candid, the best anorexic is the dead anorexic. It took the prospect of spending  the Christmas period and my birthday in hospital to open my eyes to my self-inflicted tragedy.

In seeking control over one area of my life, I lost control of all areas of my life. In losing weight, I lost the ability to feel contentment and compassion. Maintaining relationships and the numb indifference that accompanies starvation are simply incompatible; human interaction was far beyond my capabilities. A malnourished brain meant that I was invariably detached and distant, all-consumed by a constant state of heightened anxiety. I was ‘dead behind the eyes’, present in the flesh but my soul was an absentee.  I was devoid of personality and zest for life, suffering  unceasing exhaustion.

The disorder dictated my every move, manipulated me into believing what upon reflection I now perceive as absurdities, encouraged compulsions and still to date consistently attempts to thwart my recovery through subliminal pervasion, convincing me of untruths. Absorbed by the disordered corruption of my belief system, I was simply incapable of day-to-day functioning. Disordered compulsions and a fulfilling existence are mutually exclusive, I now see.

That toxic relief derived from touching my skeleton, confirmation of the body’s rapid deterioration and my perceived ‘success’, is what would inevitably have driven me to the grave.  Harsh, admittedly. But if you only knew just how much more accompanies significant loss of weight, if you could only so much as comprehend the severity of the reality that is living with an eating disorder, the prospect of losing weight and obtaining alleged ‘control’ would no longer be so seductive.

Sure, you lose body fat. But have you not considered that accepting and embracing your skin is far less painful than battling the regulatory mechanisms that kick in when you’re underweight for your body? Perpetual coldness, the gnawing of uncompromising physical and mental hunger, strained and underperforming vital organs, disruption of healthy hair growth, hormonal imbalance, unabating emotional distress and reactivity, to name a few. Battling with authenticity is soul-depleting and unfulfilling.

Engaging in disordered compulsions is conducive to further practice of behaviours, despite what your illness — in the guise of a friend— has you believe. Engage once and the disorder will invariably endeavour to deprive you of more. The bliss derived from engaging is but a temporary and fleeting state. ‘Lose one more kilogram and you’ll be content. Okay, great, now one more!’ You will never appease your illness. As far as your disorder is concerned, you will never be ‘sick enough’ to justify recovery. Answer? Don’t engage. Destroy the thoughts, not your body. The only chance one has at reclaiming a life of fulfilment and joy is through refusal to continue to serve the bully that is anorexia.

While recovery is imperfect and non-linear and by no means a quick and easy fix, rendering it somewhat unappealing at first, your recovery-oriented pain has an expiry date.  The pain that accompanies sustaining an eating disorder, however, does not. The pain endured defying eating disorder compulsions is far more worthwhile for the eventual outcome achieved. I was helped by CAMHS (the child and adolescent mental health service), which  showed me a way out, promised me light at the end of the tunnel. They opened my eyes to all else that I was deprived of, to the life I could live. A life of freedom, no longer dictated by an illness. I realised just how deserving I was of this life. I realised that I would by no means treat anyone else in this disgraceful manner. Why should I be any different? I acknowledged just how hurt I’d be to hear that somebody else had endured what I had, that somebody else had been doing this same damage to their body.

In providing my body with adequate nourishment, in trusting in the process and in the loved ones who have my best interests at heart, I have at last begun to appreciate  again the beauty in life. In gaining weight, I have gained life. While the disorder will inevitability fixate on the fat gain, I know that with increased body fat I have gained sanity and self, muscle and strength, the ability to engage in conversation and to maintain focus, increased body warmth and improved internal workings…  and there is yet more to come.

I am by no means where I need to be to live a fulfilling life but I am well on the way. I wake up every day and in remembering all that adequate nourishment will provide me with and all the reasons I have to live, I commit to recovery all over again. I will invariably endeavour to challenge my internal dialogue. I  refuse to be dominated by my illness. No façade necessary,  real smiles, real laughs… I am beating this eating disorder, one bite at a time.

My Jewish life has changed because of my illness. Family and food oriented religious festivals and Friday night traditions engendered feelings of detachment. Childhood excitement about Friday night dinner and festivals dissipated. I was overburdened with anxiety, solely and excessively concerned with minimising my intake. I lacked the mental space to engage with my family in any capacity.

Meal times were especially difficult. I could no longer partake in festivals, nor in Friday night dinners, for both are heavily centred on food. I was overwhelmed with options, which I had neglected to incorporate into my diet, for fear of what they’d do to my body. I feared being surrounded by this food at meal times, for I didn’t think I deserved it or was worthy. I was overly conscious to avoid any temptation and so was highly secretive and secluded.

On Rosh Hashanah last year, we were invited for lunch with family. At this stage, I was meticulously weighing and measuring inadequate quantities of my own food.

The highly pedantic character I had assumed could have guaranteed herself an A* in all she had read, but what I had neglected to consider was that much of what I was reading was myths. My sole reason for neglecting religious tradition was formed on weak foundation. What was once a celebration of the new year became a terrifying prospect.

I was consumed by fears of questions and criticisms, of being offered food, of accidentally getting food mixed up with those around me, of being monitored or closely observed and of being out of control of my own portion size.

For my health, I now have to opt out of religious fasts such as Yom Kippur and festivals where we cut out food groups, like Pesach.

Watching my family observe these traditions and being unable to partake opened my eyes to just how important it is to maintain health to ensure I can regard religion in the same way; I do believe that occasions where there was opportunity to opt out of eating facilitated the presence of my eating disorder. I could easily justify eating inadequate amounts!

Restricting furthers the eating disorder mentality where excuses can be made and validated. It becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between the anorexic voice and the dedication to a religious practice.

Living with an eating disorder isn’t glamorous, or a state to ever strive for or envy.  Attaining the perceived ‘healthy’ ideal came at the cost of a year’s freedom. I deserve better. As do you.

Take care of yourselves, please.

Hannah Sugars is an A-level student


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