Anorexia - The Hunger Heroin

How should we understand this devastating illness and how can we best try and treat it?

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Before I start I’d like to make it clear that I am neither a health professional nor eating disorder ‘expert’. I am however someone who has suffered with anorexia for more years than I care to remember and continue to swab the battle scars from time to time even now I’m in my 40’s. Tragically I am now also the parent of an anorexic child, though thankfully he has made a good recovery to date. So my experience whilst not professional, is vast and more pertinently, personal and honest.

Finding an effective lasting treatment for anorexia is complex and unreliable. There are so many variables – we are all unique after all so needs will be diverse and personal. Professionals, doctors and specialists do a fantastic job. Without them my son’s illness would have been much worse and lasted a lot longer, so for the care he received I will be forever grateful. But how much can someone really be a specialist without having experienced it themselves? How can they understand and therefore effectively treat the impregnable bond the sufferer will have with their illness - a bond that at times will be loathed and despised - at others adored and cherished beyond all else. Not school or family or friends or partners or children or work –but IT. How can something so seemingly irrational, destructive and damaging be truly understood? Why is it revered and protected above all else by the sufferer?

Because it - the anorexia fills a void. Because it, the illness, puts a plaster over a great big enormous fractured weeping chasm of self-doubt in the sufferer’s psyche. A wound that seeps insecurity and self-loathing, that screams we’re not good enough, that tells us we don’t belong. All wounds of any significance need treatment and medicating, without so they will worsen causing lasting damage and potential death. So is true with mental wounds. But where are the bandages that we can wrap around our hurting souls? Where is the soothing balm we can apply to our damaged minds? We reach for what medicine we have to hand. For some people that’s drugs for others its alcohol. For some it’s food in vast quantities, for others it’s starvation.

Of course calling it starvation is far too simplistic. Anorexics don’t set out to starve themselves to death, though ultimately that would be the outcome if left to fester. They use it to control the world around them, to control their bodies, to control others and to control their feelings. It’s a crutch, it’s an addiction, it’s a class A drug, and that’s the way it needs to be understood. Denying oneself food for long periods of time, ignoring hunger and deliberately refusing sustenance to the point of collapse and organ failure seems completely absurd to most. Why in God’s name would anyone want to do that to themselves? But taking a drug that gives you a ‘high’, makes you buzz, removes you from reality, protects you from hurt and gives you an enormous sense of self-worth? Well at least that has some reason and logic behind it.

And that is what anorexia is. It’s a state of euphoria, it’s an accomplishment. It gives the sufferer something to be good at, proud of. ‘Look how strong I am, look how good I am at this’. It’s an addictive endorphin fuelled high and one most sufferers will not relinquish readily. Why would you when it makes you feel so damned good?

So maybe this is how a treatment and care program should be approached. Not just by health professionals but family and friends of sufferers too. Yes it’s an eating disorder but it’s also an addiction, a safety net, an impenetrable wall of safety, a best friend. Eating and gaining weight is of course vital to recovery, but they are only small parts of that process. If we wish to find a lasting effective treatment for this hugely destructive illness then understanding what it is the sufferer is giving up is paramount to that. Acknowledging the sacrifices they are making by letting go of their ‘best friend’ - their drug of choice, and then allowing them to mourn for that loss is a necessary and cathartic part of that. Then, as with any bereavement, when the time is right, when tears have been shed, anger has been worked through and sadness has been soothed and comforted, help them learn how to fill that void, that chasm of insecurity and loneliness that letting go of their friend has left.

Help them make new friends with positive, life enriching people, activities and experiences. To build their self-worth on tangible relationships, achievements and accomplishments; help them to accept that none of us are perfect, we all have insecurities and that we all fail and that no amount of self-medicating will ever change that.

Maybe then the sufferer can truly lay their devastating addiction to rest and for good. After all saying goodbye to your best friend is hard. I still miss mine.

Susannah Hebden


Person centred/existential counsellor, stylist, mum of two, adoptee