HOW TO DRAW AN EATING DISORDER

I finally, formally decided to start working on my (then untitled) book in 2009 as a college project. I wanted to find a way to commit myself to getting past the false starts, and aimed to produce something representative of my big idea that I could show to potential publishers.

Every time I’d started the project, I started differently. I used a different medium, represented the illness in a different way. I’d made ‘finished’ artwork in coloured pencil, gouache, ink, acrylic, pencil – each time certain that this was what the book would look like. When I started working on the project for real, I needed to commit to a consistent approach. Wisely, my tutors at college counselled me to let my choice of medium be guided by the content of the story.

I returned to the idea that the eating disorder was a monster, as I’d painted to try to explain it to my family when I was unwell. The original painting – now lost – showed a big green scaly dragon-thing exploding out of my head. I knew I wanted something a little bit more subtle…

LTMS sketches 1

Very quickly, the ‘monster’ became some kind of shadow, much more abstract in form, capturing more of what living with an eating disorder had felt like.

LTMS sketches 2

I also tried interpreting the feeling in colour using paint and mixed-media collage and, though I wasn’t satisfied with the outcome it really helped process my ideas. By trying this out, I knew I wanted something that was more visually simple and muted in colour. I went back to sketching, and the next thing that appeared on my paper was this:

LTMS sketch 3

After I’d drawn this image, I couldn’t stop looking at it. I knew it was right.

I scanned the image and manipulated it in photoshop, trying various approaches to colour and texture. In the end I grabbed a random scrap of grey collage paper lying about on my desk and dropped that in as a background. I really liked the effect, especially when I added a little semi-opaque white to define the figure. The only problem was the pesky piece of grey paper had a big crease down the middle …

…and so happened a very happy accident:

LTMS first image

The crease became a horizon line, and later on my panel borders, and this image became the first in the book.

WHY III: GENERAL HAM-FISTEDNESS

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.

WHY II: STIGMA & MISUNDERSTANDING

Awkward

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.