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Two Sisters Have A Conversation About Anorexia

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Photographed by Alexandra Gavrillet.
Ladybeard magazine is a UK print magazine that takes the form of a glossy magazine, but revolutionises the content, working in themed issues to open up old topics to vital new perspectives. Their latest edition, the 'Mind Issue' looks at the blurred spaces between the conventional ideas of 'mad' and 'sane', and in doing so, touches on a range of mental health issues. They are celebrating the launch of the issue on the 12th November in London (tickets here). The below article, from the Mind Issue, has been reprinted with permission of Ladybeard magazine, Copyright © 2016 . All rights reserved.

Cassy and Anya are sisters in their early twenties. Anya is younger; there are two years between them. When Cassy was 11 she developed anorexia; at 13 she was admitted to hospital where she spent five months as an inpatient, and a further eight years as an outpatient. Cassy has now recovered, but she has been left with lasting physical damage. At one point it was doubtful that she would be able to have children.

While the sisters are best friends, they rarely talk about the years that Cassy was ill. What follows is a conversation about anorexia, and what it has meant for their relationship.

Cassy: When I was at my most anorexic, what was it like being my sister?

Anya: When we were children I looked up to you so much – I would watch you and copy what you did when I needed guidance. When you became ill, you weren’t a normal big sister anymore. What I found hardest was that I had to do everything first – I couldn’t ask you the standard younger sister questions about boys and periods so I went through that alone. And then I would feel guilty because of that – I remember hiding my first period from you.

If I’m being completely honest I didn’t see you as a sister when you were at your worst. I felt like I didn’t even really know you anymore. The anorexia had taken over to the extent that it was impossible to even have a conversation with you – nothing interested you. I remember coming to visit you in hospital – I must have been about 11 – and feeling so excited because I had all these things to tell you, but you literally ignored me. After that I thought: ‘Fuck you, that’s the last time I come and visit’. And it was.

But what did you think of me? You never talk about it, and I’ve always wondered what memories you have of that time.

I remember thinking I really wanted to be like you, because you actually had a life and in my eyes you were normal. I wanted to be around you because you were fun and funny, whereas for me, everything was pretty depressing and dark. But I can’t remember much about you as a person. It’s really sad actually; my mind was so consumed by the anorexia I wasn’t interested in anyone or anything else. I don’t think I ever asked you anything about yourself or your life during that time – I was so focused on myself. Even though I remember loving you so much, that love was the extent of our relationship. I didn’t feel guilty then, but looking back I was really selfish towards you. We’re close now but we really missed out on being sisters through those teenage years.

Mum and Dad split up just before you got ill so when you became anorexic that was all anyone focused on. I was left alone with the anger and frustration about their divorce. Because of what had happened to you, I felt like I had to be the strong one.

I also remember feeling that when I tried to help you, I was always getting it wrong. Like when you first went into hospital I made you a card and got the whole school to sign it, not realising it was something you wanted to keep private.

You once said that your own insecurities about your body are related to growing up around a sister who was fixated by being thin. I think about that all the time – I feel so guilty.

Weirdly, every time I got hungry I would eat way more than I needed because I was terrified about becoming ‘anorexic’. It was something I feared. But I suppose your fixation with not eating and being so thin did make me feel uncomfortable. I thought that you felt disgusted by me – by the fact that I was eating, and by my ‘normal’ body.

But that was the anorexia, not me. At the time, were you able to see the illness as something separate from me?

I must have realised that you were suffering from an illness, because I never felt like it was your fault. What annoys me is that it’s you who can’t separate the anorexia from an understanding of yourself – not me. You don’t acknowledge it as a mental illness – you don’t even talk about it. I think that’s because you’re scared of it coming back, but it won’t always be a part of you.

I think I feel that it will always be there inside of me and I’m really afraid of that. I don’t talk about it because I’m scared of unlocking that part of myself again. I’ve had to work so hard to get away from it and I’ve been so frightened of people seeing me as nothing more than my illness that I’ve tried to completely cut the memory of it out of my life. I suppose I’m just trying to forget it and hope that the people who know me will forget it too. I’m scared you will never forget though, and that you’ll always hold it against me. When I recovered, I felt like you might almost feel resentful of me. You’d had to endure the illness for so many years and then all of a sudden I was better and getting on with things. Did you feel angry with me?

No, I felt happy to have you back. Somehow the memory of you in that ill state disappeared when I saw you well again. You feel too much guilt about it all, and to be honest, life’s too short. It’s only been two years since you got better – maybe when you get more distance from the anorexia, you’ll be able to look back and re-examine it properly. To be honest, I think the same rings true for me.

When did you start to feel like we were sisters again?

When we started going out and having fun together. I remember looking at you and thinking how different you were: not quiet and ill, but confident and having a good time. I was really shocked, but so happy to finally have my sister back. Ultimately, I think we’ve come back from it with a really strong relationship. I always felt we were just as much friends as we were sisters. We have so much in common and that’s what I hated about the anorexia because it stripped all that away. I love having you there again to laugh at things that no one else really finds funny. But most importantly, now you’re well again, I have that person back who I can tell anything to – who will be there for me no matter what.
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