The old man was talking to us – my cousins, my sister and I, as we passed him on Bournemouth Beach, cigarettes in hands, on our way to The Dolphin for a pint of Guinness. It was 1989, I was 16 years old and I had just left school. We were on holiday with my grandmother. Life was rich and full of promise, and we were – in our own eyes – immortal. All teenagers are immortal.
But even as I laughed the old man’s statement off, I knew that it would stay with me for the rest of my life. And it has.
At the age of 16 I already had one toe in the deadly whirlpool that would become my eating disorder and suck me down, down into the depths. My parents are divorced and my mother wasn’t home very often, so there was almost never anybody around to ensure that I had a meal. If I could get away with it I would go hungry, preferring to sit in my bedroom with a 2 litre bottle of Strongbow listening to rock music. Oddly the cider often made me crave cheese, so that was pretty much all I ate – except at weekends when Mum made sure to be around to give me a fried breakfast on Saturday and a roast dinner on Sunday.
I had always been skinny, so nobody noticed as the weight began to come off. Nobody seemed to notice the sandwiches in the bin with just one bite taken out of each one, or the ever-increasing amount of food left on my plate when I claimed to be full. I wasn’t full; I felt like a greedy fat pig and wanted to go and buy some cider so that I could pee some of the weight off. Maybe, if I was lucky, the cider would help me poop my food out faster than usual too – it was, I suppose, my laxative of choice.
And so it began; my dangerous relationship with food and alcohol. I didn’t think it really mattered; I was young and fit and healthy – and I could stand to lose another 7lbs… or maybe a little bit more. “You’ve got a real muffin top today; hit the pub so you don’t feel hungry. Drink until you throw up all of that nasty food you ate yesterday – that sachet of fragranced rice was definitely one snack too many. Goodness your face is so fat this morning; you shouldn’t have eaten those three chips with your mouthful of fish last night for dinner.” On and on, the same old song.
I realise now, of course, that I have been using alcohol in the same way that others use laxatives and fingers down the throat. You can abuse a substance without being addicted to it, and with no intention of abusing it. And by the time you realise this has happened it is years later and the damage is already done.
Essentially you wake up one morning and realise that you have been intentionally self-harming for all those years. For me, today has been That Morning. The Epiphany. The solid, inarguable fact that I Need Help.
It was a simple blood test result, to check my GGT levels, which should be no higher than about 40 in a healthy female. Six months ago, when my doctor offered to refer me on to the local eating disorder team it topped 200 and that was bad enough. I promised to cut down on the alcohol and I managed to do so, even though I was losing the blanket that I hid behind to avoid food. I still couldn’t eat though, and mostly filled up with water. I began taking handfuls of salt to make myself sick. I was, by now, on very dangerous territory.
Today my GGT levels were at 460, in spite of everything I’ve done to bring them back down. I drink smaller glasses of wine and a lot less of it than I used to; I drink water rather than tea. I am not an alcoholic, do not binge drink and do not drink spirits. I am, however, eating disordered, and my choice of laxative/control over hunger was, unfortunately, alcohol.
The twenty years of horror, self-loathing and self-abuse has taken its toll. It caught up with me while I did absolutely nothing to prevent or reverse this result.
“You’ll be sorry”.
Those words echo back down through the years and drill into my brain. But somehow, even though I can still see that old man’s cheery smile and the laughter lines around his bright brown eyes, I’m not laughing.
I’m not laughing at all.