Unicorn Syndrome: A phenomenon often seen in people with anorexia who feel that they are the exception to the rules and consequences of the illness. They believe that although other people need food, and that other people get sick, and that other people die, that it won’t happen to them.
I learnt something about myself this week.
I am not a unicorn. I am a horse dressed up with a cardboard cone on my head and glitter in my hair, but when you strip all that away I too, am just a horse.
I am going to be brutally honest in this post so I am putting a content warning here, because it’s not going to be easy reading.
I have lived with eating disorders my entire life, and although restrictive anorexia has been the overwhelming poison of my choice over that time, I have also swung between bulimia and purging disorder, having short bursts of binging and purging, and engaging in several compensatory behaviours including excessive exercise, laxative and diuretic use and the consumption of diet supplements.
I was around 12 when I first starting showing signs of an eating disorder, and 13 when it became diagnosable. I was still a child, with many more years of growing to do. I had the heart, bones and reproductive system of a child. Yet remarkably, my body fought and fought and fought. Despite years of malnourishment, my periods always returned. I’ve never broken a bone. My bloods have always righted themselves, and I continued to grow at the rate I was supposed to.
For many people, particularly those without eating disorders, that would be considered a positive. I’m sure there are many of you who will be reading this thinking about how lucky I was – and I was. But the problem with anorexia is that it doesn’t interpret these facts as luck, it interprets them as immunity.
I am not lucky. I am a unicorn.
So with time, as I got older and experienced relapse after relapse, my behaviour got a little more reckless. My symptoms got a little more dangerous. The calorie restriction is one thing, and is obviously incredibly dangerous. But the more compensatory behaviours you stack up on the buckaroo of anorexia, the more likely you are to get thrown.
The problem is, I didn’t get thrown. I took laxatives, I purged, I took diet pills I bought off the internet. I exercised, I took diuretics, I waterloaded with litres and litres of fluid. And still, nothing.
That confirmed it. I must be a unicorn.
So I took more laxatives, I took more diet pills, I drank more water. I ate less and less and less. I took random, no longer prescribed antipsychotics in weird concoctions that I knew would cause me to feel nauseous and vomit, preventing me from feeling hungry or digesting what I ate.
Since my relapse earlier on this year, I have been fairly open with people around me (as much as anorexia has allowed). I have been honest about the fact that this feels like the worst things have ever been, though as is very common with anorexia, my thoughts about recovery fluctuated.
I sought help and I desperately wanted to get better, but the idea of not having anorexia and of having to put the work in to get to that place made me feel ambivalent about recovery at times. I’m incredibly grateful to be getting treatment, but I’ll be honest, I was scared.
Despite knowing I was on the ‘urgent’ waiting list, I still expected that to be a number of weeks. In my head I had assigned myself an arbitrary target of the end of the year, despite only being given the guideline of ‘a minimum of a month’. Why I allocated this time frame I don’t know; perhaps it felt far enough away that I still had enough time with anorexia, but close enough that I had hope for change.
Anyway, I got a call this week telling me treatment would start in five days. My initial reaction was relief. That was Cara’s reaction. Then anorexia’s response of pure panic swept in and knocked me sideways. I had set myself a weight target in my head which I was very close to, and thought that if I hit it I can then happily start recovery. I’m not stupid, I know that target would move the second I reached it. But it doesn’t matter how logical my brain is, anorexia’s logic is stronger. All I could think is “how can I reach that weight by Monday?”
So I cut back a lot of calories and I did every compensatory behaviour I could think of, to extremes that my body finally couldn’t tolerate anymore. After years and years of feeling invincible, I found out I’m not. And I found out the hard way.
Never in my life has it occurred to me that I could be the 1 in 5. That I could be one of those sad statistics, one of the many who lose their lives in the pursuit of becoming the very best at being anorexic. Never did that occur to me, until I sat in the hospital in a wheelchair, covered in my own bile from vomiting over and over again despite having a chronically empty stomach. Never did I think it would be me, until I felt like my heart was going to explode and I couldn’t catch my breath for long enough to tell people I thought I was dying.
The professionals you come into contact with in these situations can completely make or break the experience, and I can’t fault a single one. Not one doctor or nurse made me feel stupid, and I was treated with nothing but dignity. But the real take home for me from this experience is that I never want to see people look at me with such pity again. Anorexia has tricked me over and over again into thinking that people comment on my size and weight with admiration, and I finally saw through that. It’s like someone took my disordered glasses off and those looks will stay with me forever. No one was admiring my discipline or feeling jealous of my BMI. They were sad. They were sad that at almost 30 years old I was sat on an IV, possibly infertile, wearing leggings that hung off my body and shoes filled with vomit.
So this is it. I don’t expect this determination to be static – recovery is torturous and awful and so, so difficult. I still have anorexia after all, and by it’s very nature it doesn’t want me to recover. But for the first time in my entire life, I feel like I am stronger than it. This incident was terrifying, for me and for everyone around me, but I am not going to let it be in vain. That fear is going to be channeled into every bite I eat, every kg I gain, every time I force myself to tolerate that feeling of fullness that makes me want to pull my skin off.
Every cloud has a silver lining, and I am taking this to be mine. I am not a unicorn, but nobody is. There will be some of you reading this, I’ve no doubt, who will have the same thoughts I’ve had before. You will still think that despite this happening to me, you remain the exception. If this story makes even one person question that, even for a second, then I am glad that I shared it.
None of us are unicorns, and never again will I allow anorexia to trick me into thinking I am.
Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to start climbing, and I’ve well and truly done that.