I weighed five and a half stone at my worst, but I beat anorexia at university
Alice Cachia nearly had to drop out of uni because she was so ill
Most people learn how to eat before they start walking: I learnt to eat when I was 21.
Last year, I wrote about my anorexia. I was hospitalised aged 12, had multiple relapses over the years, received outpatient care, and nearly had to drop out of uni because I was so poorly.
I weighed five and a half stone in my second year of uni and I didn’t know how to keep myself alive, let alone study for my degree. This is how I got better.
After my article was published, I received hundreds of messages from people all over the world thanking me for my story. I felt guilty, as if I didn’t deserve their kind words about how “inspirational” I was. I was contacted by sufferers, both male and female, as well as caregivers, parents, partners, and it really reiterated that anorexia doesn’t just affect one person – it destroys everyone connected with them, too. I’ve not done anything special at all, in fact I’ve done a lot of bad things because of anorexia, but if I can help one person to get help, then I’ll write about it.
It’s Eating Disorders Awareness week this week and just over a year ago I didn’t know if I’d even be alive any more. But, here I am, in the final push of my third year before I graduate in July. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I think I had to be anorexic at uni. I had to fight it by myself so that I could beat it forever. And I think, fingers crossed, that I have. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I felt pathetic having to go through the guilt of eating a sandwich instead of a Ryvita. But I came out the other side, and it’s a much better view.
I have good weeks and bad weeks, and when my anxiety manifests itself it does so largely through food: food will literally be on my mind 24/7. I don’t mean in an “oh, what’s for dinner” kind of way. I mean I genuinely cannot focus on anything else apart from what I need to eat right this second. Even if I don’t “look” anorexic, I can assure you, the thought process never really leaves you fully.
I remember when my psychiatrist sent me a letter and said that because my weight had returned to a more “normal” BMI, I was no longer clinically classed as “anorexic” but as having EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified). I felt really angry at first – anorexia was my thing, and I could do it better than anyone, and I didn’t want that title taken away from me. Luckily though, I was at a point where I realised that it wasn’t me speaking, but the eating disorder.
When I started eating again I had no concept of how to eat and portion control – I’d consume either nothing or everything. I was wasting so much money on food and it felt like a dirty secret that I was binging. I would wake up at 2am and go downstairs and eat cornflakes with golden syrup and dates and chocolate buttons on: I was uncontrollable and hated myself. One day I’d just have a banana and then the other I’d eat Tesco out of stock. I had to learn how to do basic things like boil an egg because I had no concept of how long it would take.
I still hate looking at calories and often if I’m in a restaurant which has calories on its menu I have to get whoever I’m with to read me the options so I don’t look at what’s “in” them. Only recently have I started allowing myself to eat what I want at restaurants rather than going for the lower calorie version. I don’t have to plan where I’m going to go to eat based on their nutritional information they provide online, and that’s a really lovely feeling.
When I would go out drinking with friends, it became a running joke about what I’d eat when I came back drunk. I would become almost primal, shoving anything and everything I could into me. The next day I’d be racked with guilt, disgusted with myself. There are things though that I still can’t eat because of my association with them when I was ill. I can’t eat porridge, yoghurts, and I even struggle with ham because I used to make sure I trimmed every inch of fat off it before I even put it anywhere near my mouth.
When I’d started re-eating, I put the weight back on pretty quickly because of how much I was binging. I was so miserable still and I hated how I was looking like the “old” me again. I don’t know why, but I still keep all the photos of me when I was unwell on my phone. It isn’t to motivate me to lose weight at all, but more to remind me of how far I’ve come.
Looking at those photos, I remember how sad I was. I didn’t have fun, and I literally wanted to die. All I did was cry. Every smile is weak, my eyes look lifeless, and I used to dream of not waking up. I had to have an ambulance called to me once because my heart rate was so low at home and the operator thought I was having a heart attack.
Every so often I still have to message people and ask if what I’ve had to eat is “okay”. I’m always texting my housemate and “checking” that the extra slice of cake I had as a treat is allowable. Even when it was pancake day I messaged her and ask if it was normal to not have dinner and just have pancakes instead. It makes me feel silly but it also clears my mind having someone else’s confirmation that the food I am eating is okay, that food is not my enemy.
I think because anorexia is such a deceptive, secretive disease, it really helps when I counteract it by talking about it. I’m not proud of being anorexic at all, but I know it’ll always be part of me so I might as well try and deal with it proactively rather than hiding away.
Fast forward a year of therapy, weekly blood tests and ECG scans, and I’m really getting there. It took me around 10 months before I recognised hunger and fullness again. How did other people know that they didn’t need that last mouthful of dinner? It still blows my mind when people can say no to a chocolate biscuit – is it because you don’t fancy it or because you’re being good?
When I went on holiday with my friends, I really did turn a corner. I haven’t binged for almost six months now since the day we flew, and I saw that it was okay to have two scoops of ice cream rather than just one. I was beginning to understand that I could treat myself and eat in moderation.
Before, I would restrict my diet, then binge on a “day off”, before telling myself that the next day was a new day and I could start again. I used to chart the days I would be able to not binge, and for months it would never be more than three or four. I was stuck in a cycle of self-hatred, guilt, and restriction. Don’t get me wrong, now I can have a pig-out and eat junk all day, but I know that that’s my choice to do so, and that it’s okay to relax a little and enjoy myself. I have control of the situation. Food does not own me.
The hardest bit of getting better was learning how to love myself. I think a huge aspect of that came with me joining the gym. It made me realise that I could exercise to get strong and fit while eating a balanced diet. I still eat chocolate and cakes and crisps and stuff, but I also drink smoothies, have healthy dinners, and am a sucker for anything Instagram-worthy. I can now run 5k in 19:40, when before I had carpet burns on my back from where I was doing sit ups.
When I get stressed or go to new places, my eating gets worse. If I’m about to go back to uni or go home for a long period of time, I find myself fully absorbed on what I’m going to be eating. I still haven’t weighed myself since I began to get better, and I don’t think I ever will again. All I’ll do is become fixated on a number and hate myself if I begin to put weight on.
I’m never going to be stick thin – and for the first time ever, I’m okay with that.
So many people have messaged me saying they have experienced aspects of an eating disorder but that it’s not as bad as mine, and I hate it when that happens. Your problems matter, and everything is relative: eating disorders are so destructive and self-loathing, and if you are suffering, then it’s as equal as mine. You shouldn’t downplay eating issues because that’s exactly what the disorder thrives from.
I didn’t wake up one morning and suddenly learn to eat again. It was an exhausting, frustrating, fluctuating process of one step forward, two steps back. When I reflect on it, though, I can see how much I’ve outrun anorexia. Maybe it might catch up with me every now and then, but if it does, I’ll punch it the hell away from me – and you should too, because happiness tastes far more delicious than being five and a half stone.