Ward life: part one.

Now I’m humming Blur’s Parklife. Anyway, It’s occurred to me that 13 weeks after admission I haven’t really shared any details about day-to-day life in an eating disorders unit. To me, now, it’s become the norm, but to people outside this bizarre world it’s a strange and unknown tiny universe. 
So how does it all work? 

To start with, you have to understand that an eating disorder is a manifestation of control. Control over something that you can dictate, as a stand in for all the elements of life you can’t. (Yes, it can be much more complex than that, but I’d put a need for control somewhere in the mix for everyone.) 

So, it stands to reason that an eating disorders unit is all about taking away that control over food and eating. It basically takes away responsibility, and then gradually gives it back to you again as you learn new habits and are ready to control the need to control. 

So we live according to a rigid timetable of eating and snacks, activities and drugs. Resting and therapeutic conversations. You name it: there’s a rule about it. 

You get used to the system. You get used to asking for the most basic of things (“Can I stand up to fetch so-and-so?”). You learn how to live within the confines of this relatively small, ten-bed ward, cheek by jowl with other people with food difficulties. And you just have to hope you won’t go completely batty in the process. 

Let’s start with eating. When you arrive, you generally spend your first week on half portions. Because I hadn’t eaten solid food for so long (errrrrmm, all of 2017), I came in on what was my regular diet of fortisips and milky drinks, and had one-to-one meal times to build up to eating regular food again. 

The day here is ruled by the eating timetable. Breakfast: 8.30am. Snack: 11am. Lunch: 1pm. Snack: 3.30pm. Dinner: 6pm. Snack: 8..30pm. And after every main meal we are supervised in sitting down in the obs/TV room for an hour; half an hour after each snack. That’s four and a half hours of sitting down a day, in a small room packed with emotion, conforming to rules about how you sit. 

Here’s a taste of the rigidity. 

Preparation for breakfast starts at 8.15am. You weigh out your chosen cereal, making sure the staff member has seen the scales are at zero. You choose a jug and make sure staff have seen it’s clean and dry (I hold mine upside down over my head to make a point), so nothing can dilute the milk. You measure your milk out and get it checked. You pour a glass of fruit juice up to the approved level. If you’re on a larger meal plan, there are more rules about toast and spreads; it goes on and on. We start at 8.30am regardless of whether everyone’s ready or not, and when you’ve finished, you show a staff member your empty bowl and glass and your finishing time is written down. Your obs hour starts from then. 

Here’s my place at the table. I’ve tried to find things to anchor me to a reason to eat: photos of family and happier times, mint to act as a grounding scent, Play-doh and a tangle toy to fiddle with to stop me scratching my skin off when I feel as if I’m crawling with calories. And the day’s tongue-in-cheek motivator card (self help without the self helpiness). No, I never thought I’d be a decorated place setting person either. All I can say in my defence is that I am so desperate I will try anything.

The atmosphere in the dying room is always charged with tension. When you’re finished, but the 35 mins allowed for breakfast isn’t over, you have to sit with the horror of what you’ve done. Or, in my case, smell fresh mint, fiddle with a tangle toy and fold paper cranes – trying to let the waves of horror and guilt wash over me.

If you hesitate in your eating or become visibly distressed, then a staff member will come over to ask you what’s wrong (the whole world is caving in over a spoonful of Bran Flakes, for example), and will quietly offer reassurance, encouragement and tissues. Apart from mopping up tears, you’re not allowed tissues or paper towels at the table to prevent eating disorder behaviours. So it’s just tough if you’ve got sticky fingers. 

If, when the meal time has finished – but you haven’t – everyone else leaves the room and a member staff will encourage you to have fortisips to replace the nutrition you’ve missed out on. Often this means having more calories than you would have had if you’d finished the meal. And this can feel punishing. 

We do this time after time, day after day, week after week, month after month. 

You gradually conquer one fear, and it might be replaced by a new one. Or you might move on to the next in the long line of issues and barriers you’ve built up around food. There’s always something. It’s never ‘okay’. 

Monday is the worst day of the week, because it starts with weighing: it’s our own version of Sunday night fear, dreading what the scales will say. The expectation is a weight gain of one kilogram a week, which creates a Catch 22 situation: if you’ve gained a kilo or more you have to sit with all the feelings that brings, but if you’ve gained less than a kilo you’re facing a meal plan increase in the Tuesday ward round.  

Weighing starts around 7.30am in pyjamas, and you have to have been to the toilet. The kitchen is locked at midnight – but that wouldn’t deter anyone seriously determined to water load. We gather, silent and anxious, in the obs room and wait as the agonisingly slow moments pass until a staff member sticks their head round the door and calls the first person through. The numbers on the scale set the tone for the day and follow you like a cloud, obscuring all thought and conversation. 

There are tears. Shouting. Painful silence. Other forms of comfort and control – some harmful, but necessary. Or so it seems at the time. Monday breakfast is incredibly hard and struggles with eating are definitely more intense all day. 

Mondays, bloody Mondays. 

Just think what’s to come in the rest of the week…



We’re all alone, no matter where we are. In a bustling street or as the only person in the largest of rooms. We are alone. 

Alone and loneliness don’t necessarily go hand in hand. I’ve always found that sometimes home is a sanctuary where I relish being alone. I can take off the mask; stop spinning; be still. And, sometimes, home is one of the loneliest places I know. 

But whichever way the coin spins, home always feels like home. I feel I belong. I feel (relatively) safe. 

I’ve been home on leave from the unit a couple of times now, and home doesn’t feel like home. It’s as though I’m visiting somewhere I used to live a long, long time ago. It’s familiar, but in a distant and unconnected way. I don’t belong there anymore. That Friday was my farewell to living there and, it seems, there’s no going back. 

And yet I don’t belong here, either. This was only ever a temporary place of safety – a place to re-evaluate and regain my balance on the tightrope we all live on. 

I am officially on graduated discharge now (horrible term: makes me shudder. ‘Discharge’… ewww). This means I am heavily encouraged to submit a timetable of leave each week, spending increasing amounts of time at home. I’m on week one of three. I’m supposed to go home for good on Tuesday 10 October. 

But I don’t have a home. 

I have a bricks and mortar structure to put all my things in, a place to sleep and sit by a fire of an evening. It has all mod cons (some of which could do with being updated). But it’s not my home. 

With my new and shiny communication skills I’ve talked about this with several professionals and the answers are making me want to grind my teeth with frustration. “It’s natural”, they say. “Lots of people feel like this”, they say. “Just give it time”, they say. 

I don’t feel safe in this ghost house. The cats ignoring me doesn’t help. I don’t remember how it should smell. I’m disconnected from all memories – good and bad. And, on top of all this, home has become a place where I eat. And not just on a one-off basis, but monotonously and regularly. I have to do the thing that makes me feel most unsafe in a place that feels unwelcoming and alien. 

This is really going to be fun. 

So far, I’ve had to pay a price in pain for the ability to eat what I should at home. This isn’t a great way of coping and is bringing its own difficulties. 

Tomorrow is my first night at home. I’ve tried to make some changes to reclaim a bit of ownership back. A new mattress topper. New pillows. New bedding ( that hasn’t arrived yet). I’m planning on painting my minuscule hallway on Saturday as distraction, in two cheerful shades of grey. I’ll be able to make a decent gin. And there’s always diazepam.

I don’t want to go. 

I have to go. 

And, I guess, we’ll just have to see what happens. 

I really sodding hate change. 

Animal instincts.

Every week we take part in a therapeutic writing group – which is a bit like a year five writing exercise. And then we all share what we’ve written and comment on each other’s work. 

I stopped following the prompts weeks ago and just used the time to write my own stuff and, for a while was asked not to share what I wrote, but to take it to a one-to-one session instead, because it was all getting a bit dark and twisty. 

Anyway, this week a friend of mine challenged me to follow the prompts and to do a deadpan, to the letter, version. 

I failed miserably. In fact I started a general revolt that meant we skipped the ‘warm up’ part of the exercise altogether. 
So I thought I’d share the pain of therapeutic writing group with you. Here’s the task that we – a group of adults – were set:

And here’s what I came up with. I’m proud that there are at least a few animal-related mentions…


It starts as a kernel of a canker that burrows deep into your unconscious. And there it grows, drawing strength from circumstances. 

Small and dark, and yet vast as the cosmos, with the power of a thousand armies. It’s a leech that infiltrates your brain; changing your chemistry; changing the routing of your synapses. Changing you. 

It can sleep for years before rousing, flexing its muscles and then go dormant again. Or it can rampage around your head constantly to dominate your attention. It doesn’t like being alone.  

As it grows, it becomes harder and harder to manage and, through desperation, you might try turning to experts who will suggest training strategies. But, like a puppy left to run wild for too long, it never comes to heel. 

It delights in the unexpected. In spreading its talons across your senses when you are unprepared and are at your most vulnerable. It traps you under layers of apathy, repulsion and self hatred. It binds your mind so tightly with despair that you cannot think. 

But at the same time, it thrives on secrecy. It’s a sleeping enemy that wants to live in the shadows, so it often allows enough masking and functionality to hide its existence. 

When it’s ready, it wants to eat you from the inside and then leave a crumpled husk in a heap at the foot of a long drop.

This thing cannot be tamed. And perhaps it shouldn’t be named. 

You have to learn to die on the inside and live on the outside. You have to hold on as long as you can, until it’s time to let go. 

Fall gracefully when your time comes, and hope you’ll be remembered for your deeds of atonement. 


Lots of other people wrote about dead pets and I cried a lot. But when I read mine there were just dust balls of silence. 

I’m going back to keeping things to myself. 

Willo the Wisp.

The heat of the day had died away and I was taking my thirty minutes of accompanied leave with a human member of staff. It was a chance to escape the ward and the fences and sit on a bench like a normal person, taking the air, and only talking when I wanted to. 

My chosen bench faced a willow tree I’ve seen transform over the years. From full mature growth, then pruned back to ugly stumps, before watching then regrow into vigorous fronds of above-ground seaweed. 

Sitting on the bench, we were competing in making up ridiculous metaphors about how the tree could symbolise life, mental health and mental health in life. It was fun. Relaxing. 

But thirty minutes of freedom a day passes pretty quickly and soon it was time to plod back, reluctantly, to the ward. 

Just before we turned off the road to take the path to the unit I stopped, as though I’d stepped in glue. I couldn’t go back to the small rooms filled to bursting with negative emotions and pain the size of a galaxy. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. 

But even in my stubborn upset, I knew that my burly male companion would make sure I went back. And I knew that running wasn’t an option (partly due to an elbow version of a Vulcan death grip). And I knew that running wouldn’t solve anything anyway. 

Holy shit, Batman. Maybe I have learnt something. 

Instead of legging it, I did quiet sobbing and my escort did light, comforting chat while we slowly walked the last few steps to the door. 

It was all a bit tense, so he made a joke: something about it being easy to waft a willow the wisp in through the door, even if they didn’t want to go. It was a reference to the willow tree and it was a throwaway remark. It meant nothing. 

But my head exploded with memory and feelings from over 37 years ago. I felt as I’d felt. I saw what had been. I was back there in the thick of it. 

In case you don’t know your early eighties children’s TV, Willo the Wisp was a cartoon about life in a forest full of sprite-like creatures and a baddie TV set on legs called Evil Edna. Anyway, this blog’s not about the plot – it’s about the theme tune. 

It was my magic tune. I believed the hummed melody would keep me safe from the perils of the dark, going up to an ill-lit landing or when I woke terrified in the small hours. 

It was my protection against fear and things that go bump in the night. But on the building’s doorstep, I remembered how I’d learnt that my magic tune didn’t have the powers of protection I’d needed. That nothing I’d tried had protected me. I could hum my heart out, but it couldn’t stop the bad things that broke me at the age of six. Broke me in ways that can never be fixed. 

Through the emotion, I remember not being able to stand up. I remember vast, shuddering (extremely snotty) sobbing that seemed to come from my stomach. I remember lying on the floor, repeating that the magic hadn’t worked. I couldn’t see the present; only the past. 

Hello memories, it’s been a long time. 

I thought I’d buried you so deeply you’d suffocate under the weight of everything that came after. But here you are again. Getting stronger. Elbowing your way out. Shouting for attention. 

Well that little girl didn’t deserve you. And I don’t deserve your shit now. So, when I’ve lulled the urge to die back to sleep, I’m going to tackle you and kick your arse. Because enough is enough. 

You’ve been warned. 

Tasting reinvention.

I’m still grieving over saying goodbye to my clothes that have been old and trusted friends for many years. 

I’ve folded up and stroked the garments I’m too afraid will be tight, or worse, impossible to get in to. I’ve buried my face in their familiar smell and cradled them close like you would a much loved child. And then I’ve sent them away, like evacuees, to sit in a dark corner of my wardrobe at home until they can return or settle in new surroundings. 

But you’ve heard all this before. And, although it’s a conversation I have in my head on a permanent loop, I won’t inflict a recap on you. 

I’ve moved on, I think. A little, anyway. I’m feeling for a fresh form of disguise that can contain all the shame at allowing the body to grow larger – to take up more space in the world. 

It’s only a medium-term solution, because I have no concept of a long-term future. In fact, claiming it’s a medium-term solution may be an overreach. But it’s more than just wearing the largest jumper I can find. And I’ll take that for now. 

Item eleventy billion on the list of reasons why anorexia is a bitch is that weight goes back on unevenly so, right now, I look like I’m five months pregnant. 

I know there’s some sciencey bit about protecting the vital organs, the core of the body. But, frankly, I’m not interested in understanding: experiencing is more than enough to cope with. 

I feel conspicuous. I feel everyone’s eyes are drawn to my bloated stomach. I feel alien. I feel out of place in this palace of more visible bones and suffering. 

And then there’s the water retention. No one talks about that; how your confused body doesn’t know what the hell is going on, and you end up with legs the size of tree trunks and slippers as your only choice of footwear.

How do you dress a misshapen blob, a caricature of a person? How do you pass for normal when you’re not? 

My answer comes in experimentation. In piles of parcels containing different styles of clothing in a range of sizes. My answer relies on dredging up the courage to try on clothes without looking at the labels, and trying not to cry as a stranger looks back at me from the mirror. My answer is to clutch at the last little sparks of strength to start to create a new persona. 

The hospice charity shop will do well out of my pain. And, right now, I’m not running from the emotions, which has to be a start. 

Wearing grief. 

I am grieving for lost friends. 

We were extremely close – even intimate. We spent so much time together, through the good times and the bad. We held each other and, at times of stress, we reached out to each other. We communicated without words: our language was one of touch and feel and vision; knowing when to stay close, and when to give each other space. 

Together, we were strong and outwardly confident. We knew the inner truth was different, but we conspired to hide this secret from the world. 

And now they’re gone. 

I’m grieving for my beloved clothes that are too small for my life as it is now. It feels like another part of me has died. I carry on breathing in and out; I have the technical definition of life, but they don’t. Like conjoined twins, where one exists only because of the other, we’ve been separated. And now they’re mere piles of cloth, lying prone on the floor, a skin shed and left behind. 

I hold them in my arms and tell them how sorry I am, that I didn’t mean to end their existence. That I love them and I miss them and I’ll never forget the life we shared. 

I remember how they shielded me from all the unspeakable empty times when I was a ghost of a human, but they stepped in to provide a disguise and buffer between me and the questions with no answers. 

I stroke them and I apologise for the betrayal. For allowing the body to push them beyond their capabilities. I thank them for trying to carry on being my support when I started to turn my back on them and walk away. I hold them tight and wish we could go back to the way things were before. 

To you, the outsider, they are just pieces of cloth. A frankly strange combination of materials that you might put on without a second thought. 

But I know their value; they’ve been my disguise, my refuge, my identity. My personality to a certain extent. 

I have abandoned them. They’re dead to me and yet they are part of my past that I desperately want back. 

They won’t get a funeral or a wake of any sort. They won’t get a memorial. 

They will never be forgotten. Never. But their life is over and I’m deeply sad about that. 

Goodbye, my friends. 

Saying the unsayable.

After forty one years I wrote down the words I’d never ever meant to say – even to myself. 

I wrote a story about a little girl in a way that strangely reminds me of The Tiger Who Came To Tea. A story about how a seemingly ordinary life took an extraordinary turn. A tale where a little girl just accepted strange events because, to a child, so much doesn’t make sense, and they just do it because it’s what the grown up says.

I wasn’t supposed to be writing about this. It was therapeutic writing group and the plan was to create a personal crest to symbolise what was important in my life. I went with my first instinct to say ‘fuck that for a game of cards, I’m not in primary school anymore’. But I’d also been waiting for a structured time to sit down, face the paper – and the past. I’d been trying to put past events back in their box, but failing, badly. 

It doesn’t matter what I wrote. What I want to puzzle out is how it feels to tell the secret you were programmed never to tell. The guilt. The hot, hot shame. And the fear. 

I think you get used to living with fear. You accommodate it; even bargain with it. If I hum that particular song the dark won’t hurt me. If I don’t step on the cracks in the pavement then it might not catch up with me. If I divide all the words I see on the teleprompter in my head into equal groups of letter while holding a conversation, then the fear is held at bay. It goes on and on. You follow the rituals. And you must always do what you’re told.

But then you wake the fear, in my case, accidentally. Poke it with a stick. Bring it out into the open. Look it in the face – and it transforms into a choking beast that wants to smother you. All the promised repercussions take on a life of their own. It becomes a reality that follows you; you know it’s there, and if you could spin round fast enough, you’d be able to see it. But no one else can see the fear. They just see how you react to it. Which makes you mad. And definitely makes you look mad. 

I’m so afraid at night. I sleep with fairy lights on and the door open so no one can lock me in. I sleep lightly and go from doze to total alert in a nanosecond. I don’t feel safe at all at the moment. And when we only have bank staff on at night I am afraid to sleep. I do sleep, but I fight it all the way. 

But fear doesn’t hang around alone. It brings its friends: guilt, shame, self-disgust, and a desire to put an end to everything. 

I started out with something else to say, but that can wait. 

All I want to say right now is that whoever tells you to feel the fear and do it anyway hasn’t grown up with fear as a constant companion. They need a sharp poke in the eye and to shut the fuck up.