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I have scars all over my arms. In the past, when I couldn’t stop the darkness any other way, I used pain to block out the thoughts. Pain caused through burns.

It’s a messy and inconvenient way to manage feelings, and I really don’t recommend it. Some of you might understand this in some way; others of you will be utterly repulsed. And I get that.

But this isn’t about the whys, it’s about the consequences – rivers of raw red and silvery white turning my arms into an ugly advertisement of distress.

I’m a little bit proud to say I’ve got these self-destructive urges under control. I think the temptation and danger will always be there but, for now, I’ve put it to sleep.

Today, I took the next step and learnt how to apply camouflage creams, so that the damage I’ve done won’t be so obvious. The creams can’t take away the raised areas of scarring, and it doesn’t stand up to close examination, but it does hide the worst. On a summer’s day, if my sleeve fell back, it wouldn’t attract attention. No one would stare and visibly revise their opinion of me.

And this is enough. I know I can’t turn back the clock. I’m not sure I’d want to. I just want to pass for normal and not wear the label ‘broken’.


All change?

Every time I go to see the food psych I have a knot in my stomach.

Partly this is about going back to the Eating Disorders Unit. It rakes up a range of emotions – fear, shame, embarrassment and so much more. And there’s a rush of sensory stuff, too, particularly the smell of the place – an evocative mix of school dinners and antiseptic.

But mainly it’s about the meeting itself. The conversation.

The things we talk about help give context to what’s going on in my head. They shape how I react and what I do. They change how I live.

There is something about a conversation with the food psych that clarifies and explains chaos.

Today we talked about motivation, or the lack of it. How I only respond to deadlines. How if there’s no reason to get out of bed, I don’t get out of bed. How I’m so much better, so much better, but I feel dead inside. Disconnected.

I’m trying hard to do all the right things. I pretty much manage my meal plan five days out of seven. It slips and I let it slip when I just can’t face any more food, but I pull it round because the lure of emptiness increases as the time goes on – and that’s dangerous. I do my best to do what’s expected of me in terms of parenting and work. I try to reawaken lost parts of me; I try to read, and keep in touch with people. I try to notice the tiny sparkly things.

It’s not making a difference.

Talking to the food psych holds things up to the light and brings some sort of sense. I don’t get this from anyone else.

But the food psych is retiring in May. Change is coming. I need to talk to him about what I’d hope for from the eating disorders service in the future. It may be time to walk away. Right now, I just don’t know.

Same old, same old.

I’ve been out of hospital for coming up to five weeks now and all I can say is “same old, same old”.

I have no inner spark to ignite feeling. I’m still a ghost and fading fast.

I didn’t want to say it, but I had a smidge of the dreaded ‘H’ word – hope. I thought it would take time. But I invested a little faith in professional judgement and I waited.

And waited.

Part of me is still waiting; but only part.

I’ve started back at work on a phased return. Three mornings in, and it’s going okay. Everyone’s welcoming and it seems I haven’t forgotten what to do. It’s still bloody freezing in there though, and I did think I’d feel it less, having put on weight.

I’m largely managing my meal plan and coping with the push-push-pushing of my dietician to widen what I eat. Although I’ve asked for a break for a couple of weeks because I was beginning to drown. I’ve lost my record of not missing a meal and eating enough is getting harder. It’s probably all in my head, (like most things are), but I quite often feel sick before eating and crippled by stomach pains after eating. God bless hot water bottles. But what I’m managing is not good enough.

I’m surviving in this alien body. I’m sitting with the disgust, but it’s not fading, just festering like a canker.

I see my girls when it suits their dad – usually when he’s going out. I’m not for one moment complaining: I’ll take any time I can get. My girls are the only thing that spark any emotion, make me wish things had been different – could be different. When they call my house home my heart sings a little. But then they have to go, and my house stops being a home.

My cats have stopped ignoring me. They’ve even started showing me approval and affection, so I’m once more covered in cat hair. They are often my only company and I value their attention. And sometimes they’re the only things that get me going on the little jobs that make this house their home.

With Herculean effort I’ve read a few books and folded some cranes to make mobiles as gifts, but my default is to sit, somewhat absent, staring at the tv.

The ‘H’ word was very much linked to the trauma work that’s coming up in therapy, when I’ve shown I’m ready. So I am resisting waves of desire to self harm and I’ve been open about the resurgence of the need to carry round enough pills to kill an elephant. I need to put my safety blankets down and keep a steady weight. And I’m doing that, too.

But, overall, nothing is changing. And the closer we get to the festive season, the harder it gets. Every year the fog of despair starts earlier and ends later; last year it didn’t end at all.

I never expected to be the poster girl for recovery, but I let myself wonder if there was more than this. My mistake.

Keeping busy.

So I’ve been back in the world for nearly two weeks now and it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. 

The world includes housework and food shopping and putting the bins out. Plus frequently emptying the litter tray full of stinky offerings. It’s all mundane, but it has to be done and it sucks up energy that seems to be in short supply. 

When people ask me how I’m doing I say I’m “keeping busy”, and that’s turning out to require a massive effort. I’m not starting my phased return to work until the first full week of November, so all I have to do right now is get up each day and eat the appropriate meal at the appropriate time – but it’s draining. 

I’m tired. You name it; I’m tired of it. But I can’t say that because I’m out of hospital and this is a New Start. I’m supposed to have Turned My Life Around. Well all that turning, and fake-it-until-you-make-it turning, is tiring.

It’s taken me over a week just to put everything away that I brought back from the ward – including finding new homes for my 700 origami cranes. And that’s before I start any official Keeping Busy activities. You know, the things that are Relaxing and Creative and will Reconnect Me To My Surroundings. 

So I’ve gone hell for leather for making a Halloween tree (and if you don’t know what one of those is, you will in a year or two). And getting as much Winterval gift shopping done as possible, before the misery I see on every face as the commercial pressure ratchets up pushes me down that dark, dark hole again. I’ve definitely got my money’s worth out of Prime. 

I’ve done all the appointmenting, too, with my care coordinator, GP, therapist and dietician. I’ve seen the food psych. I’ve answered the questions and I’m trying to hide the lack of purpose. But I’ve not missed a meal, I’m taking all the right drugs at the right time, and I don’t have any fresh wounds, so that has to count for something. 

But the effort of keeping busy. Of reading a book. Or doing something creative. Of going out for a walk, or doing anything sociable. The effort that takes is beyond me most of the time. And I don’t know how or when or if that is ever going to change. 

I haven’t even folded a crane. Sad times. 


On Tuesday, everything changes again as I leave the EDU and go home, hopefully for good. 

I’m inhabiting a weird no-man’s land at the moment, with one foot in the EDU (and a lot of control still held there), and the other out and about with all the responsibility for food that entails. (I am aware that sentence makes it sound as though only one of my legs goes out, but you get my point.) 

They call it graduated discharge. I call it a special type of hell that involves pushing boundaries way beyond your comfort zone and relearning independence – but a new independence that has to built up from scratch. It’s not just a case of going home and doing the same old things; it requires demolishing all your old ways of living, and starting again. A form of rebirth. 

I don’t belong in either world anymore. I still question whether I belong in the world, full stop. 

When I’m away from the unit I miss out on groups and the nuances of community life. I miss the cloistered nature of existence, where I simply have to fill my time and manage my thoughts in between mealtimes. 

When I’m at home I feel like an alien staying in a place I like – but don’t belong. I imagine it’s a bit like staying in a good airbnb. But all ties I felt to home have been severed and I don’t know yet if I can form new ones. It doesn’t feel safe at home for a variety of reasons, but I have to deal with that. 

I have to deal with a whole new life. 

Yes, there’ll be people to talk to. Advice available. Strategies offered, and that old favourite of ‘giving it time’. 

But really it’ll be me, alone, with food and the tricky bits of living. Can’t say I’m looking forward to it. But then, I’m not known for my optimism. 

Ward life: part three.

Now Damon Albarn and the rest of the group are walking around, singing their little hearts out, and it’s making me think about therapeutic groups here. And the fact that they can degenerate into a blur. 
See what I did there? 

What you need to understand about groups here is that they are designed to fill time. It’s not a therapeutic programme as such. This EDU is a place designed for re-feeding people who can’t think straight due to malnutrition. It’s not really the right time for psychological input but, at the same time, you don’t want to leave people high and dry while they go through massive stress and change. 

I believe there’s a role for some therapy during the re-feeding process – to explain what’s going on in your head and to give a taste of what’s available when you get to the point of being able to engage in therapy. 

Instead, we have a round of discussion-based groups and activities to break up the eating and sitting. I don’t find them massively helpful, but I am a picky bugger and I am used to ‘proper’ one-to-one therapy.

Anyway, here’s a taste of our week…

Monday kicks off with community meeting, where we air grievances and talk through housekeeping details like the fact the showers are not working properly AGAIN. It’s pretty pointless, because nothing ever changes. And it can get heated because the powers that be thought it was a smart idea to do it shortly after we’ve all been weighed and are as tense as hell.

Then, in the afternoon, we have a discussion group with the food psych (MY food psych). It’s our only contact with him all week apart from ward round on a Tuesday. I think it’s an opportunity for him to take the temperature of the ward, to feed (ha ha) into his ward round deliberations. He says it’s a chance for us to discuss issues that have cropped up for people during the week. We have a tin that we can put anonymous questions and issues into. I like this group. It’s thought provoking and has often revolved around issues I want to talk through, because I like to use this resource and come up with questions. 

Tuesday is ward round day – and I mean day. It takes from 10am to often gone 6pm for the food psych and a member of the senior nursing team to review each patient. We have creative group in the morning, where you can do anything you fancy, just all together in the art room. I usually write or fold cranes. 

Later, at four, we have menu group, where we all fill in our menu choices for two weeks ahead. I find this easy and just tick options, and hand it in. Others agonise over choices for EVER. Even though, over the week, the calorie content of the menu works out the same. 

Wednesday is dreaded therapeutic writing group all morning (with a break for snack). I think you all know my opinions on that by now, so we’ll move on to goal setting, later at four. Here, we fill in a sheet that looks at what’s gone well and not so well over the week, and we set ourselves goals for the next week. We share what we’ve written, and give each other feedback. I find this accountability helpful, and always look back at the previous week’s sheet to see what’s changed and how I’ve done in achieving my goals. 

Thursday is a bit of Russian roulette: sometimes there’s nutrition group, sometimes there isn’t. At the moment we’re between dieticians, so the head of dietetics for the Trust is covering and, when he can’t make it, the OT is supposed to cover – but she’s as flakey as dandruff, so we never know. Nutrition group can be thought provoking and I generally find it useful – as long as it’s not derailed into lengthy and circular discussions about what’s on the snack list. 

In the afternoon we have a group with the other consultant here at the EDU. She mainly looks after the community side of the programme but, once a week she comes to talk to us. The group is about connections, and involves us preparing things in advance to share, and then the consultant and a psychologist turn their chairs towards each other and ‘reflect’ out loud on what they’ve heard. It’s weird and freaky to hear yourself discussed in the third person WHEN YOU’RE SITTING IN THE ROOM. But it can be interesting, and it’s not one I try and duck out of. 

Friday kicks off with emotional regulation group, when various psychologists take it in turns to run a small block of sessions. So it’s variable. I’m really interested in finding out and discussing strategies for during and after crisis; less than wild about smelling things and exploring ways to use senses to ground yourself. 

Friday afternoon and all weekend are free from groups. Although over the weekend we often have access to the art room to do things like tie dye and papier-mâché, which help to pass the time if you’re not going out or having visitors. 

In between all these groups there’s obviously all the structured eating, as well as one-to-one key work sessions with your key worker team, where you work on individual issues. Plus there are all the “can we have a brief chat?” conversations that can come out of the blue. Normally when you’ve just got into something else. And you can always seek out a member of staff to talk to – if you can find one you feel able to confide in. 

So, who’s up for a group to discuss how we feel about groups? 

Ward life: part two.

Now I’m imagining Damon Albarn strolling down the corridor singing “ward life”. I need to get a grip on this. 

Maybe corridor thoughts lead onto the place you have the most control over – your room. 

How quickly you settle in depends on how fast you accept the likely length of your stay. If you’re kicking and screaming all the way, you might reject bringing in anything that will make it feel home-like. You’ll stick to the thin blue hospital blankets and scratchy sheets and towels provided. You’ll rebel against even putting anything on your white board, because you’re not staying…

The more realistic realise they’lll be there a while. The average stay now is eight weeks, and that’s a long time to feel like you’re inhabiting a cross between a prison cell and eighties’ student accommodation. 

I see my room as my sanctuary. I can close the door and – visual checks through the window aside – I can be alone in a space I’ve made as relaxing as possible. 

I bring my own bedding – pillows, duvet, linen – the lot. I bring a cushion to use in the obs room. A blanket to cover the hospital plastic chair. I fill the room with flowers, to take away the hospital smell, and I find a way to personalise the walls. Fairy lights everywhere fulfil the duel purpose of not having to sleep in the dark and avoiding the torch in the eyes during night checks. Plus, who doesn’t love fairy lights? This time I chose to fill the room with cranes, too – partly as a distraction for my hands, and partly because no one else had done it. (It’s now the current craze and it’s driving me bonkers.)

Sometimes, you have to share your room at all times, if you’re on one-to-one obs. I came to the ward from an acute psychiatric one and I was clearly an unknown quantity. I couldn’t provide any assurances about managing my own safety and one of the first things I did was try to discharge myself (they’d lifted my section on transfer between hospitals). I wasn’t rational. I was permanently on the look out for ways to harm myself. And this got me a shiny new section and one-to-one supervision. Never being alone was hard – as was having a series of unknown black men snore in the corner of my room, keeping me awake. 

I did my best to get off one-to-one as fast as possible. I wanted my small piece of space back to myself. I needed my sanctuary. I needed control over some small part of my chaotic life. 

Your room is where you receive visitors, too. You want it to look good, because it’s a reflection (illusionary) of how well you’re doing. It normalises the weirdness for people of visiting you on a locked ward. I mean, you must be okay if you’ve got flowers and a well-made bed, right? 

Your room gives you room for change.