There was a gaggle of us. The anorexics. Tanya of the pink towelling dressing gown and soulful eyes. Nicky, with whom I shared a room and who wrote out the full lyrics of LL Cool J’s I Need Love in rounded cursive. Anna, who smilingly refused even water and was moved on to the hospital to be fed through a tube.
Beautiful, pallid Donna, with her enthusiastically over-plucked eyebrows. And Laura, an older girl to whom I remain eternally grateful. She had almost reached her target healthy weight and that was pivotal in my own eventual decision to start eating.
Our location was Larkby, an adolescent in-patient mental health centre in a converted Victorian house in Exeter, 100 miles from my home in Cornwall. I’d been sent there in the early summer of 1994, weighing just 5 st 7 lb, after my parents realised I wasn’t going to be able to recover from the anorexia that was threatening to destroy me.
Sometimes I wonder what happened to those girls, with whom I shared those heady, painful months.
Rebecca Ley (pictured) who spent time at Larkby, an adolescent in-patient mental health centre in 1994, reflects on how her attitude towards her body changed
We were confined to bedrest, like Victorian consumptives, unless we gained 2 lb every four days. The girls introduced me to Nirvana, tweezers, and downing pints of water before a weigh-in. It was the first time I’d ever been away from home. It was pre-internet, so we couldn’t stay in touch once we left. I wonder if they have gone on to live normal lives. But the odds aren’t necessarily good.
Anorexia is the most deadly psychiatric disorder. And of those who seemingly recover, many relapse or lead lives permanently truncated by the illness.
Some research suggests that only 21 per cent achieve permanent remission. But a full recovery is possible — I’m living proof.
At 41, I’m a married mother of three children — Isobel, nine, Felix, six, and four-year-old Sebastian.
I’ve spent the past 20 years working as a journalist, at one point travelling internationally for stories but more recently writing from my kitchen table around the school run.
My hands are often to be found grating cheese for pasta, buttering bread, snapping apart broccoli florets, stirring beans.
Occasionally — absentmindedly eating a cold fish finger left over from my children’s tea — I’m brought up short by a memory from the past and I realise how lucky I was to escape.
There was a point where I assumed I would never have a normal adult existence. How could I? I couldn’t even lick a stamp because of the potential calories.
Weighing just 5 st 7 lb, Rebecca (pictured) said she felt cold all the time and could walk only very slowly as she battled anorexia
I believed that the floating smell of frying doughnuts would make me fat. Touching food was impossible.
I was cold all the time and could walk only very slowly. All I could think about, on a sickening loop, was eating. My imagination was clouded with phantom burgers, ice cream sundaes, chocolate brownies.
It’s a myth that anorexics don’t like food, one of the many unhelpful misunderstandings. If you’re starving, food is the first thing you think about when you wake up and the last when you go to sleep.
It crowds out all other concerns. Which is kind of the point and why starving becomes so addictive. It’s a mental cosh.
But if you go outside the boundaries you have set for yourself, the interior torment is excruciating.
I couldn’t even lick a stamp because of potential calories
That extra bite of a banana will stay with you for hours, days. Once you are in that place of extreme rigidity, the actual chemistry of your brain changes, making the prison even harder to escape from.
Larkby was crucial to my recovery. Shortly after being admitted — and spending a stint on bedrest — I decided to start eating. Being sent away brought me up short to the reality of what I was doing. If I missed more school, it was likely I was going to have to repeat a year.
And I had the shining example of Laura, who was shortly going to be discharged.
So I got with the programme of three meals a day and regular snacks. I can still taste the milkshake clag of the Fortisip high-calorie drinks. There was individual and group therapy, all of us sitting on bean bags in a stuffy room.
Rebecca who weighed 8st when she left Larkby, said love for her husband Andrew, now 43, made her love her own body. Pictured: Rebecca and her husband on their wedding day
After four months, I was discharged as well — just in time for Year 11 — and my target weight on leaving Larkby was 8 st. But although I was ostensibly out of the danger zone, it was only the first step. Shaking the lingering hangover of body dysmorphia and inflexibility around eating was to take the best part of a decade.
What finally changed it for me was meeting my husband, Andrew, now 43, also a journalist. Love for him made me love my own body, for the first time. It set me free.
He was — and remains — kind and straightforward. An optimist who always sees the good in everything, he doesn’t dwell on things. It would never occur to him to conduct an inner narrative of shame. He likes himself — a radical notion to me at the time.
And he was relentlessly lovely about my body.
‘You’re so lucky to have such a great figure,’ he used to say to me, casually. No big deal. I couldn’t believe that his perception could be so wildly different from my own.
At first, I didn’t believe him. But after a while, I realised that he truly meant it. I started to relax and my view of myself shifted.
He was even complimentary about the stretch marks on my hips — got when I gained weight after being so thin — telling me that he liked them. I still think he might have been lying about that, but it did the trick, deflating my endless self-criticism.
Rebecca said her urge to become thin crept up on her, recalling that she began dumping her packed lunch at the age of 14. Pictured: Rebecca and Andrew with their children
His affection and good nature taught me so much about being kind to myself.
I hadn’t set out to become anorexic. I was a perfectly average size. But the urge to be thinner crept up on me. At 14, I started dumping my packed lunch in the bin in the girls’ toilets, declining chocolate, taking every opportunity to exercise.
In one PE class in the hall of my windblown Cornish comprehensive, a skipping rope had to be practically wrestled away from me by a concerned teacher after I started obsessively skipping.
I was already very thin by that point, but hid it well by wearing baggy clothes. For Christmas in 1993, when I was 14, my mum gave me a new outfit — a green polo-neck and a long skirt. I had no choice but to try it on and my parents realised how emaciated I had become.
Now a mother myself, I realise how terrifying this must have been for them. But as a confused teenager, it had started to feel like the one thing that was really mine, that I could control. Such a cliche. I had always been extremely conscientious and I was conscientious about this too, whittling myself away.
I remember my dad, a proud Cornishman who ran a garage and was used to fixing things, sobbing at the kitchen table because he couldn’t comprehend what I was doing to myself. My mum cried too when I arrived at Larkby and wouldn’t initially eat. As a GP, she knew that the next step was hospitalisation.
Rebecca (pictured, as a child) said foods including chips, chocolate and crisps remained off-limits when she recovered
She appreciated how thin the line was between normality and chronic mental illness, that if I didn’t pull myself out of it quickly, I was facing a lifetime of difference.
And yet, even after starting to eat, it took so long to find true ease in myself.
Five years later, I went to university in London. On the face of it I’d recovered, but my days were hungry. I would suck boiled-sweet lollipops in lectures to quell the ache for food. I restricted myself to eating only certain things at certain times. I never ate the cooked breakfast put on at weekends in my hall of residence. Certain foods (chips, chocolate, crisps) were always off-limits. For lunch, I had a sandwich and an apple. Every single day.
Deviating from this script made me deeply uneasy, triggering the internal itch. I didn’t have periods and food preoccupied me, crowding out other concerns. I always walked instead of taking public transport, telling myself it was to save money.
At that point, I still couldn’t imagine ever getting married or having children, carefree holidays or eating what I wanted. Grown-up life terrified me. Even touching food still unsettled me, as if calories could soak in through the pores of my skin.
I was still thin, by any measure, but my body dysmorphia wouldn’t let me see it. I couldn’t wear skirts or skinny jeans or shorts for fear of inflicting my excessive flesh upon the world.
Rebecca who had a role assisting the food editor of a national newspaper, said she never wanted to attend lunch events in smart restaurants. Pictured: Rebecca and her husband
I had a close friend who I lived with in my second year. I would model what I ate on what she ate, because I still had no clue what was normal. I dread to think how that must have been for her, but she never mentioned it, kindly just letting me copy her meals.
Looking back, I wish I could take that teenager by the scrawny shoulders and tell her it was going to be all right. That one day she would sit on a beach in a bikini eating peanuts and drinking beer, sand sticking to her thighs, with a lovely man who thought she was special.
That she would unselfconsciously wolf down Weetabix and sliced banana at 3am, after hours of breastfeeding her newborn in the night, wear dresses, relish a bowl of chips, order exactly what she felt like in a restaurant. That there would come a point when her appetites were no longer frightening.
By the time I met Andrew, I was working in my first job, ironically assisting the food editor of a national newspaper. I was on the road to recovery and a perfectly normal weight. But I was still very rigid about meals.
My new role involved lots of invitations to lunch events in smart restaurants, but I never wanted to go. All I ever wanted for lunch was a sandwich and an apple because then I knew where I stood.
In my head, my body was still an unwieldy and rebellious thing that needed to be suppressed. But then I met Andrew. Someone I respected and found attractive, who couldn’t fathom why I wouldn’t like myself.
Rebecca said eating disorders are narcissistic and angry illnesses. Pictured: Rebecca as a child, with her sisters Ruth and Ellie
It helped that he was extremely unfaddy about food. He thinks a ham sandwich is a nutritionally complete meal, questions the benefits of organic food and loves nothing more than a cheeky Haribo Tangfastic.
His attitudes have done me the world of good. As far as Andrew is concerned, food isn’t a big deal. Enjoy it — definitely — but don’t think about it too much. It was a revolutionary approach and, combined with his consistent affection towards my poor beleaguered body, it did wonders in defusing the dysmorphia.
Motherhood thrice over only compounded the change. Yes, I was in awe of what my body could do, especially since I missed my periods for several years and so thought my fertility might be affected, but I was also so exhausted most of the time that my relentless navel-gazing had to come to an end.
Eating disorders are narcissistic and angry illnesses. Most days now, I don’t even consider my thighs and it remains a blessed relief. I’m 5 ft 6 in, but I don’t know what my weight is because I don’t weigh myself, but I’m probably around 9½ st.
After three pregnancies, my body has changed — and will doubtless change further as I progress into my 40s — but I appreciate it more than ever.
Sometimes, I think what happened has given me a more balanced approach than many other women I know. Hard-won knowledge keeps me away from exclusion diets, bathroom scales, diet drinks, juice cleanses. Deprivation is never the solution. You only heal once you learn to like yourself.
Rebecca (pictured) revealed she explores issues of deprivation in her novel, For When I’m Gone, which is published in September
I wanted to explore these issues in my novel, For When I’m Gone, which is published in September.
My main protagonist, Sylvia, has terminal breast cancer and she writes a guide for her husband, Paul, to help him cope after her death. It’s a sad premise, but the book is really about the redeeming power of love.
Sylvia has been dogged by disordered eating in her life, but she recovered by being with Paul and through motherhood, finding a mental freedom that was hitherto unimaginable for her.
When you’re young, you tend to think your suffering is unique. But since I’ve been able to talk about my own past, I’ve met so many other women who have suffered from eating disorders, too.
What will I tell my daughter when she’s older? I don’t have a conscious policy, but obviously I know the signs to look out for. I would never talk about dieting in front of her or comment on people’s bodies: luckily, she’s a completely different personality to me as a child, very sporty and active.
I still think about Tanya and Nicky and Anna and Donna and Laura, wondering about the women they’ve become. I hope they found their own paths to freedom, perhaps by falling in love with people who loved them inside and out.
For When I’m Gone by Rebecca Ley is published by Orion Fiction in hardback, eBook and audio, out on September 3.