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.


Lighter Than My Shadow was going to be a prose book.

I’d always enjoyed illustration, and indeed always wanted to be an illustrator. But I was one of those people who thought that books with pictures were for children, or perhaps for those who weren’t able to read ‘proper’ books (you can imagine what I thought about comics).

Until I stumbled upon the book that changed everything.

The Red Tree

The Red Tree by Shaun Tan is a picture book, but in its few short pages of sparse text and deeply allegorical images, it resonated more with my experience of mental illness than any prose book ever had. I’d never seen pictures so eloquent, nor found so few words to be so profound. There was something about the combination, the two working together…

I felt like I’d struck the most unique and exciting idea anyone had ever had, and a whole world had opened up to me. Books with pictures tackling serious subjects: imagine that! I enthusiastically told my friends that this book idea I’d been harping on about for years was going to have pictures, and be unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.


…and so I read my first comic in 2005.

From there it was only a short step to discover a whole world of people telling serious stories with pictures. With every new book I read I was filled simultaneously with inspiration, and with crushing despair that I could never live up to the quality of storytelling these artists were achieving.

And yet, there were hundreds of books about eating disorders. If I was going to bother telling another story about anorexia, I wanted to do so in a way that might bring something different to the conversation. Though I lacked confidence in my skills as an illustrator, I was pretty sure I was a better artist than I was a writer.

The change was like flicking a switch. Once I discovered graphic novels existed, I knew that was how I needed to tell my story.