The Student Of Life

Sarah Illingworth’s currently studying for her Masters in Poverty & Development at Manchester University but she’s also a student of life. Curious and well-travelled, Sarah has interviewed some fascinating people like Yoko OnoCyndi Lauper, Moby and Lady Gaga. You can find them on her blog.

In May 2014 she set up Impolitikal a digital only platform full of insightful articles with a social or political focus across diversity, equality, change, freedom, conflict – because, as Sarah says, “It’s easy to soapbox, it’s harder to listen.” She has a big heart and brain, plus she writes for the Huffington Post and this is where I found her story about her eating disorder.

Sarah was not bulimic, she battled anorexia and she survived.  And that is pretty fucking awesome. There are many similarities in her story to those on this site: the battle to control food, exercise, the punishment, the fight, and the terrible sense of being alone with a demon. Bulimia and anorexia are like two ugly sisters, working hard and often together, to cause misery in others and I’m excited to meet more and more courageous woman kicking that pimp called Shame in the shins.

Here is Sarah’s story, please read it, share it and you’ll find some questions with her below.


I let anorexia rule my world for about eight years. For me, it ended up being more about anxiety, and a way of dealing with it, than anything else, and it’s been amazing to not have either dictate my behavior for a while now. I think many of us struggle with similar things, so I wrote this in case it’s of help to those who do. And hopefully to shed a little light on eating and anxiety disorders for those who don’t have a personal experience of them.

Anorexia is addiction. It’s habit, it’s your body actually adapting to the new rules you’ve set for it, and it’s fear — absolute terror sometimes — at the thought of letting it go. It’s a structure to live your life around, a token sense of movement when you feel stuck in other ways. It is about how you look — social and self-pressure, insecurity — to a point. Then it morphs into something else altogether, something incredibly obsessive and controlling and hard to shake.

For me it became about desperately trying to find equilibrium. I was set on the belief that if I did things just so I could secure some sort of peace and everything would be okay. But the lie of anorexia is that it isn’t keeping you in balance, it’s helping you manage, at best. It’s the thing you think is holding you together, when in reality it’s causing you to fall apart.

I shrunk emotionally as well as physically. Being cautious with my eating became about trying to maintain a clear head so I could just navigate each moment. Every little choice, not just the ones about food, took on a massive importance, making decisions almost impossible to make some days. I’d freeze up trying to decide which way to walk down the street, or which banana to choose at the supermarket. Each day I’d wake up hoping desperately it would be a good one, that if I played my cards right I could avoid anxiety and the tangents it took me on.

Star jumps in toilet cubicles, gashing my foot on an escalator trying to run back up it because I “should’ve” taken the stairs. Walking for hours because I rushed a bite of food then second-guessed it, or because I was meeting friends for dinner and just wanted to have a normal time. It’s hard to own up to this stuff, but I want to make the point that having an eating disorder isn’t some sort of win. It’s isolating, exhausting — they screw you physically and emotionally, and they siphon the joy out of life. And the joy out of the people closest to you. They suck.

It took me a long time to accept that I couldn’t get better on my own, and by the time I did my anxiety was through the roof. It was emotional, but also a logical, physiological outcome of running my body on empty. I didn’t get my period for eight years — my estrogen levels dropped to that of pre-adolescence — and I don’t know if or how that’s affected my fertility. I developed osteopenia (bone density loss) in my hips, and a good chunk of my hair fell out.

I felt so ashamed anorexia was even an issue for me — I had no real reason not to be healthy and good in the world — but the penny eventually dropped that beating up on myself for having the disorder was preventing me from addressing it. However, asking for help (from my dad, who helped me afford to see doctors and a therapist) also required admitting that all the energy I’d so diligently poured into this thing was a waste. There was a lot of grief around acknowledging it really was time lost, and I might not get to remedy the things I messed up along the way.

It wasn’t the only thing I had to let go of; there were a few other pillars of identity that I’d become reliant on to define who I was. I found it really painful to shed these skins, so to speak, but when you’ve done it with one thing you realize how freeing it is to just give up and let go. We can spend way too long hemmed in by walls we don’t know can be broken down. It’s only been through crashing through one, and then another, and another that I understood it was possible for me to do so.

Anorexia and anxiety are behind me for the most part, but now and then I do slide into restriction or weird habits. I eat really slowly because my guts are messed up from not eating properly for so long, and social situations can still be a bit stressful because of that. It took me ages to re-learn how to eat, and there’s still a patch of hair missing at the back of my head that didn’t grow back when the rest did. But my mind is clear and my bones are strong. If anxiety kicks in, I no longer lose days to that shit.

Life used to be really scary to me, and never being able to relax into a moment makes being able to take each as they come now so much sweeter. Every little thing feels like a big adventure, and I’ve gotten to have some pretty proper adventures too — armed with a sense of humor and the ability to roll with the punches.

There’s no way this could have happened without the help of my family and buddies. They’ve shown me so much love and collectively bought me the time I needed to pull myself together. I know I’m really lucky, and that there are many who with even a little of the support I’ve had might also be able to find their way to good.

Life is hard enough, and sometimes the kindest thing we can offer each other, and ourselves, is grace. It can feel like that costs us a lot, but it can also make a huge difference to the person we shoulder the cost for. Sometimes just accepting someone as they are, and helping them anyway, is all it takes.


We asked Sarah some questions.

How did you feel before putting that story up on the Huffington Post?

I’d been trying to write it for a while for Impolitikal then it came together really early one morning. Because I’d been working on it for a while it felt good to get it done, and I think that distracted from the fact it was actually quite a full on thing to be sharing with people. It was also about 6am by the time I finished and I was tired so I just shared it and felt pleased. I was really surprised at the response. From a mix of people, which was really cool because I wanted to tell it in a way people who didn’t have an eating disorder could also relate to – guys and girls. I think eating disorders often get shrugged off as being about girls being insecure and trying to lose weight, which they are, but they’re also a way of coping with stuff like anxiety and depression, and I think that’s something a lot of people can identify with. Anyway, after that a friend suggested I send it to the HP, so I cut it down and they published it, which also got a big response. It kind of blew me away actually.

What age did you get over anorexia?

I was 27 when I went to see doctors, and it took another couple of years from then before my weight stabilised and I felt like I could claim to be through it. Honestly though, people say you never fully get over eating disorders, and though I’d like to believe otherwise they are sneaky things. It’s important to call yourself out if you slide back into old habits. Mostly I don’t think about it – which is the best! – but I’m a slow eater already, and if I’ve got a lot going on I find I get super slow, have moments of freezing up when I try to make a meal, stuff like that. Just confused. It’s not something that takes over, but it can be upsetting, and just frustrating when old ticks kick in unexpectedly. The difference is, now I know to take a minute, not be too hard on myself, and then move on. Anxiety was all-encompassing for me for a period of time, and I am so glad it’s not like that anymore, but it does come up for me relatively often to a lesser degree. I’m just way better at curbing it now. Which is a huge relief, because it can make you rationalise the weirdest of behaviours.

Thanks for starring on FABIK – anything else to say?

I really don’t think categorisations matter when it comes to eating disorders – at least, as far as being able to relate to a person’s story goes. I think confusion around food manifests for different people in different ways, and that a big part of the issue is, as you describe it, the chaotic way Western culture tends to deal with food and appearance. On the one hand we’re encouraged to think we have no limits, on the other we have basic, obvious physical limits. I think this contradiction is one of the simplest reasons eating disorders happen, and addiction generally, but it isn’t talked about a lot. Making peace with having limits – which actually doesn’t have to be a suffocating thing. The saddest bit is that eating stuff usually kicks in when you’re young, because that’s when you’re working out how you’re supposed to be in the world – and stuff that kicks in when you’re young can hang around for a long time. When you’re a kid you might not be in a position to understand that a lot of the pressure you feel to look and eat a certain way is cultural, and quite often bullshit. Eat because you’re hungry, stop when you’re full and be active. Both under and overeating will make you feel like crap. Enjoy food. It’s a gift.

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