The question I was asked most often whilst working on Lighter Than My Shadow was, ‘Is it cathartic?’ Usually with the assumption that it was, and that was why I was doing it. It’s true that it feels important to get the story ‘out’, but out in the world, not out of me. It’s one of my biggest worries that people will see the book only as an act of catharsis.

That said, I’d be lying if I told you there wasn’t catharsis in the first draft. There was the messy, stream of consciousness getting-it-all-out. But after that, I had to try and put the emotions I was stirring up to one side. I had to make objective* decisions.: whittling down the story to what was essential. What, frankly, was actually interesting.

What I’m trying to say is that working on the book was not therapeutic, and I didn’t expect it to be. Oftentimes I was voluntarily reliving trauma that no longer affected my daily life. If it was catharsis I was looking for, I would have given up when it got hard. If it was catharsis I was looking for, I would have filed it all away in a box when I’d finished, or burned it, or something to that effect. I certainly wouldn’t want to publish it, and I doubt anyone would want to read it either.

So what was I looking for? I’ve written a lot this week about all my lofty reasons for creating Lighter Than My Shadow: breaking the silence, challenging stigma, maybe, possibly helping people. What I haven’t said anything about is this: I wanted to tell a good story. I also just wanted to write a book.

*I had supreme editorial assistance.


I was sexually abused

There are some things it’s just never the right time to talk about.

There have been times I’ve tried, and I find myself unable to open my mouth and speak the words. I am afraid of what people might think. I am afraid of what people might say, or not say. Moreover, I’m afraid of putting people in a position where they don’t know what to say or not say. I have been afraid that naming it makes it real, and perhaps if I don’t talk about it I can pretend it didn’t happen. There have been times when just saying the words would trigger a flashback, and it would feel like it was happening all over again. By comparison, talking about anorexia is as easy as telling you what I did at the weekend.

The story of my recovery from eating disorders is impossible to tell without including the abuse (though I did briefly consider that as an option). They are inextricably tangled up together. It’s always felt important, if not vital, to communicate how my vulnerability in early recovery was preyed upon and taken advantage of. What else can I do to try and prevent the same happening to someone else?

Somehow drawing a figure on a page and putting the words in her mouth gives a degree of separation that makes naming it easier. Not comfortable: I don’t think it will ever be comfortable. But easier.


It's Complicated

Despite my experience of mental illness colouring the majority of my life, I can be remarkably inarticulate when I try to talk about it. I’ve always felt frustrated at not having the words to explain what I went through, or to express the complexities of the recovery process. And I’m not speaking grandly about trying to educate the public here: I struggle even talking to my friends. This is such a huge part of who I am, I’ve always felt that I’m not fully myself around people who don’t know about my ‘stuff’.

When I first tried to explain anorexia to my family, I painted a picture (quite how it took me a further 6 years to realise I should make a graphic novel, I don’t know). My family and I used the painting to communicate, because usually I would clam up and find myself unable to speak at all in a hospital or doctor’s surgery. Sadly the original painting has been lost – perhaps ceremonially burned, I don’t remember. I would have loved to include it in the book. The moment, however, of finding pictures more adequate to express how I was feeling, remains a significant part of the story.

Sneak peek from page 161

Sneak peek from page 161.

From that first painting it took me 12 years and I don’t want to talk about how much drawing, but now there will be a less ham-fisted telling of the story that I am (mostly) satisfied with.



Things like this happen. It doesn’t upset me any more: I’m fortunate enough to be in a space where I can take the remark in the spirit in which it’s intended. The person means I look well. It is supposed to be a compliment. 

What bothers me more about this incident, though, is the idea that one can look anorexic. While it’s true that eating disorders can and do affect physical appearance, weight is not always the best indicator of whether or not someone is sick. During some of the hardest parts of my illness, I was dismissed by doctors because I looked ‘alright’.

Whenever I’m confronted with stigma or misunderstanding about eating disorders, I try to remember there was a time when I held the same misconceptions.

I used to think that eating disorders were a choice. I used to think that anorexics were vain teenage girls not eating because they wanted to look like supermodels. I thought they should stop being stupid and just snap the heck out of it.  Until anorexia was the diagnosis given to me, and someone asked, “Why don’t you just eat?”

My lack of understanding meant that recovery was a steep learning curve. I fully expected that everything would return to ‘normal’ once I reached a healthy weight. I gave myself a very, very hard time when it didn’t.

There are so many misconceptions about eating disorders, and what generally appears in the media doesn’t help. You could be forgiven for thinking that the only eating disorder is anorexia, and that anorexia only affects white teenage girls. That the condition is only serious or life-threatening when someone is at a dangerously low weight. That’s it’s all about appearance and wanting to be thin.

I wonder, if I hadn’t had such preconceived notions about anorexia being a stupid illness, might I have approached recovery differently? Might I have been kinder to myself? Would it have been helpful if I’d been prepared for the deep psychological work it would take to get better, and known that ‘normal’ would never mean the same as it had before?

These days, I try not to get angry when someone asks a poorly worded question, or makes the assumptions I used to make. It reminds me why I wanted to write a book, and that talking about my illness honestly and openly is important. The more we talk about things, hopefully the less people will mistake these complex mental illnesses for vanity and stupidity, in others or in themselves.


I talk a lot about how creating Lighter Than My Shadow was hard, probably harder than anything I’ve ever done including recovering from an eating disorder. I’ve often been asked (and often wondered myself), why do it then? Why put myself through reliving so much that I had happily left in the past? There were times it felt like perhaps the worst decision I’d ever made.

So I gave a great deal of thought to why. Not only so I could explain my motivation to other people, but so that when I was feeling as though dredging up the past was an awful waste of time, and worrying whether anyone ever want to read it, I could remind myself. This is why.


Weird Eating

My eating disorder made me a liar. Everyone knows how it goes: “Oh, you’re not having lunch?” “No, I ate earlier.” Clearly you didn’t. Or perhaps you did, but you didn’t want people to see what you ate, or how you ate it. The rules and rituals I needed to follow to allow myself to eat were elaborate and, quite frankly, embarrassing. I didn’t want people to watch me, worry about me, whisper about me.

Later, when it wasn’t anorexia but binge-eating, I felt even more ashamed of my behaviour. I ate in secret, usually at night. I avoided visiting the same grocery shops because I was afraid the staff were analysing my purchases. I stole food.

All in all, my eating disordered behaviour disgusted me. The more disgusted I felt, the more I hated myself. The more I hated myself, the more I needed to do something – anything – to make myself feel better. Like restricting my food…

It wasn’t until I started talking about it that I managed to start breaking that cycle. But admitting you are struggling, even to someone you know will be supportive, is so difficult. To me it felt like admitting weakness and vulnerability meant I was a failure. I didn’t want to be someone who needed help.

This was one of the first reasons I wanted to write a book. Even when you’ve broken that silence, in recovery from an eating disorder you can feel so alone. Reading books was the first thing that helped me realise that I wasn’t the only one, that what I was facing was an illness, not some kind of personal failure. Even if there are hundreds of books out there already, another can’t be a bad thing. The more stories of eating disorders that are told, the more people will be aware, empathetic, understanding. Perhaps it might help someone feel less afraid, or less ashamed than I did of asking for help.