Me: Obviously the main point of this conversation is to talk about eating disorders and the fact that you’ve suffered from one. People often throw around terms like bulimia and anorexia, often without any meaning or understanding, but what does an eating disorder mean to you.
Clara: To me, it would mean being in a trap. Feeling like you can’t live a normal life anymore. Not only destroying your life but the lives around you. I think that pretty much encompasses everything that it does to you. It’s not just about what may be the symptoms are. Like having a low mood or symptoms of weight loss. Like that’s not what having an eating disorder is.
In terms of the physical things that people get fixated on. What’s actually going on the inside is actually what’s relevant here.
C; Yeah exactly, living with an eating disorder is not suffering from weight loss. Living with an eating disorder is not having a low mood. Living with an eating disorder is feeling like you are completely trapped inside your own mind and feeling like your life is destroyed.
Me: I sort of started a bit early there, but with all of that being taken on board anyway. Where you are now. Just give an introduction to who you are and where you are now.
C; My name is Clara Mackey, I’m 29 I live in Norwich from Ireland originally. I’ve got two daughters who are 2 and 6. I recently found out that I enjoy lifting weights. It wasn’t anything I ever had an interest in until recently for some mad reason I tried it and suddenly realised that my body could be powerful or that I held this strength inside me that I didn’t know was there.
And obviously, you’re my sister…
C; And I am Aidan’s sister 😊 … older, but not bigger!
Starting from the beginning, because I know from a psychologist’s standpoint, they would always want to know about someone’s upbringing and stuff like that which might be relevant.
Although we are brother and sister and we shared a home for a good few years, there’s still an awful lot of stuff that happened before I was born. So maybe just talk a bit about where you were brought up and so on.
C; Well, I was born in America, our parents were living there at the time and we had moved from Texas to Chicago and we always kept I touch with our family, and I used to always stay in touch with my Irish roots so it was no surprise when we moved back to Ireland when I was 7. I had started school in America and then obviously continued back in Ireland. I never found anything stressful or anything with that upbringing I was a completely happy, nurtured child. We moved a few times in Ireland. But looking from the outside looking in from a psychologist’s point of view there was no external factors that turned me internally into, you know startle me at the start and built up. I was always happy and secure and felt loved.
So, was there any transitionary period into schools in Ireland that felt different at all … or was it basically pretty smooth sailing?
C; Yeah so from what I can remember, it was really smooth. I have a very distant memory of being excited and a novelty of being excited, of being home from America and having a slightly American twang in my voice and other kids enjoying the novelty too. I wasn’t ostracised or anything I made friends very easily. I don’t recall any part of it being stressful at all. Obviously, in Ireland in school you had to learn Irish and I was still young enough to do that and take on the subject and things like that and so yeah, I made friends easily and there wasn’t really a massive transition phase once I was home
Like at that age, between the ages of 7 and up until the end of primary school and being 12 was there any sort of negative body image or any sort of strange link between you and food or anything around that area?
C; Yeah I remember as a child we went to America and came home for the summer, our sister, Sarah and I. We flew by ourselves to Ireland and Sarah went to stay with our Granny and Grandad and I went to stay with our aunty and uncle. From what I recall and I don’t know if I knew it at the age I was at or if I just reflected on it more at the age of 10 or 11ish, I’m very unsure but I still to this day do believe that my family sent my sister to my granny and grandad because they spoiled us more and I knew that I was a chubby child and I knew that my mother was not comfortable with me being fed all the treats all the time and she knew that would happen. And that sounds awful to say out loud (she giggles) that my mother like ‘psycho weirdo’ would separate us like but it really didn’t feel like anything massive at the time so I’m not 100pc where the notion came from, but I would still believe to this day that that’s why, because I was the chubby child and my mother didn’t want me having sweets all the time (giggles again).
So it’s a bit of an awkward one because if that was the case then there’s the case where its like ‘mum was looking out for me’ but then there the question as to whether any of that was the case at all (we giggle). But at the time what did you think was the reason that you had to go and stay with aunty and uncle? Maybe because you were closer to your cousins as well?
C; No, maybe it was just that they couldn’t handle the both of us, I don’t really know why, and I don’t really think I over-think it at the time. I’ve got no idea why one of us was sent to stay with one side and one the other. I know we still met and did things together, but I really couldn’t tell you. And I’ve never said it to her, I’ve never turned to my mother and said “oh, why did you separate us!?” because bizarrely enough I couldn’t imagine if I was to send my two girls away that why wouldn’t they just stay in their aunty and uncles or just stay with their granny and grandad, so I don’t know ha-ha I guess in my own head I just labelled it as giggling ‘I was the fat kid.
Me; do you think that thought came on in the later years, like 12-13?
C: That what I’m saying, I mean … I don’t know if the notion grew in my head., by looking at photos and thinking in my head, ‘gosh, actually yeah. My sister was always slim, and I was always chubby. Did I suddenly start to reflect on that at the age of 10/11/12 looking at photo albums or was it later I actually couldn’t answer that question? But I think a lot of it is reflection and thoughts of being a chubby child and memories of being on the estate with my friends and my mum giving me 20p to go to the shop, whereas my friends might be allowed a pound. You know? (giggling) Trying to get some control but you need to do that as a parent, I mean would limit my child’s sugar intake or things like that.
Me. Do you think there is a reason why you would reflect on things like that or in that sort of frame? There was obviously some sort of body issue at play here, do you recall being at 13ish in secondary school having more of those sort of feelings or thoughts?
C: Well, yeah sure I mean I think that possibly. and I don’t want to stereotype girls particular but when they hit puberty you become aware of bodies, of other girls of the way that you are different. And people always said that as a child, I just still had my puppy fat and oh once you kind of got a bit older you know, it would just kind of fall off… but it didn’t (she giggles) it just didn’t … really happen… and yeah, I guess I was aware that looking at other girls, I was ‘bigger’ than other girls in my class. There were other girls, that were a similar size you know, and bigger girls and you would have, a bit of bullying that was going on and I guess I was aware that I was lucky that I did have a group of friends, but I was still aware of the fact that I was possibly a similar size and I was conscious of it like ‘would that happen to me’. And yeah, eventually there was the odd comment that was mentioned about me, about my size and weight and things like that and then I think that’s when it really started to get …
It started to snowball?
C: Yeah, it started to get the clocks ticking I suppose.
So there wasn’t really a trigger event or moment?
C; Yeah, I think it’s when I got involved with a boy and you know we had these teenage crushes and everything you feel seems so huge at the time and everything seems so exaggerated when you’re a teenager. And I think that one of the main things that he would say about me like an ongoing negative thing was that I was fat. And there weren’t any other negative things like oh I don’t like your hair or if you were ginger and you got teased, it was always that one thing and I thought oh well maybe if I change that, then he’ll like me. So yeah, I guess, I think there came a point where I just wanted the recognition or acceptance from him, I guess. And if he thought that it was just that, that was the problem, well I guess il change that. And I didn’t know at that point the outcome, I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be, I didn’t know that if I acted on the notion of losing a bit of weight, I didn’t know where I was going to end up, that it was going to become the problem that it became.
So was there something that you did that made this an ‘eating disorder’ in your mind? Was there something that you recall that made this what it tuned out to be?
C; A trigger. Yeah, I, started reading Jacqueline Wilson books and you know they were about teenage things like boys and first kisses and stealing lip balm from a shop and these things. One of them was called Girls Under Pressure and it was about a girl who had an eating disorder. And I remember reading another book from the library called Hits Diary or something and it was bizarre, and I remember mum being a bit weird about it too. But back to that other Jacqueline Wilson book, that was about a girl with an eating disorder and I was about 12 when I read it and obviously, I had already started some notion in my mind about wanting to change shape and stuff.
I remember one evening I was in the living room and I had just eaten a bowl of cereal and toast or whatever, my dad had gone to bed, my mum wasn’t home from work yet and you know it was a normal thing to do in the evening have a piece of toast or whatever chill out and watch telly. And I suddenly just got the idea and I thought “hmm could I do that?” which was make myself sick cause I had read it in the book and I was about 12 it didn’t seem hard and, so I tried it and I thought “oh, that wasn’t bad that wasn’t hard, and look, that food had gone. I don’t have to feel bad for the fact that I ate it” So yeah I think obviously, that was a massive turning point. If I had tried it and it was a horrific experience or something, then maybe I would have walked away at that moment but no I just remember thinking “oh that wasn’t bad”.
So, it was one of those ideas that was there, it was quite rare at the beginning, it was like having a tool I have in the bag, should I need it. and I didn’t really, much at the start it was just there. And as I slightly cut down and started to speak to myself it was like “could I just go without lunch to school?” and then I got through that and that wasn’t so bad and then I got addicted to that feeling of reward of “oh you only had this and you only had that”, and it just keeps going and going.
Me; And as that was going on, was there any improvement in how your boyfriend viewed you or how anyone viewed you or any of that?
C; No. No, not really to be honest. No.
- I went on to ask Clara about when people noticed that something was going on. I remember that my first memory of something not being quite right was on a family skiing holiday in Slovakia –
I know you collapsed at one point and everyone was worried. I don’t think I knew at the time that I linked anything but retrospectively it’s from that point on that I think of you being unwell.”
Clara: 6 months or so passed before we went to Slovakia for Christmas and those habits were ingrained. I wasn’t really bulimic at that point, but I was avoiding food mostly. I knew that living in a full house with all of my family around I couldn’t avoid food, so I had to make myself sick. That was when I collapsed on the slopes. That wasn’t as bad as I when I was a hot bath spa with my mum and I collapsed there too. We came home to have another Christmas dinner with our grandparents because we were away. I had lost weight and Sarah noticed it I think. So, when I finished dinner with everyone I went to the bathroom to get sick and Sarah twigged it. I just went to my room as normal and Sarah went into the living room and told mum – who was just being a good host and laughing and making sure everyone was ok for drinks and that – Sarah said: “Mum, Clara just ate dinner and went to the bathroom”. My mum passed it off a couple of times before it clicked.
Mum confronted me – I denied it obviously – but she was pretty sure by then – the signs were already there and pointing at it. I was depressed, I would go to my room and close the curtains and listen to Pink Floyd and all of that for a while now. My mum asked me was I making myself sick.
Instead of this being an intervention – it went completely the other way – I was completely defiant – because I was too far into it at that point – I was too scared to change too scared to try to get better.
And that point that changed things, it was the point when I just put my hands up and said fuck you, you know now, I didn’t have to hide it, it was like it was too late for me to stop and I didn’t have to hide it anymore. And I think things really began to spiral out of control from that point on.
That year that followed my behaviour became more and more out of control, things became way more serious. My relationship with my mum and dad became very difficult. Lots of fighting lots of trying so hard to help and being g so helpless. Trips to doctors and I remember my weight wasn’t quite low enough and I remember being weighed by this doctor who was kind of on another planet and didn’t realise the extent of what was going on. You know being weighed and being told oh she’s not anorexic. My number on the scales didn’t tick that box yet. Whereas my behaviour was killing me. So my mother was looking into other ways of being helped and trying different counselors, I was going to like talking therapy and that wasn’t really going anywhere… Well, I don’t really think I had any intention of getting any better. I wasn’t going to let anyone stop me.
“Hello it’s me Dolcie!” We were interrupted by my niece!
Yeah and in that year I think I had the most dramatic weight loss and things like that and things really began to pick up the pace. And I think that fact that I could defy my family in some ways fueled the fire of this beast in my mind.. it was like an extra power. Before I was just controlling myself I just had power over me whereas once my family knew it was like… I don’t like talking in the 3rd person, like some weird psychotic thing but it was as if this gremlin was like “I’m going to destroy everything around you too” it was like taking over my life wasn’t good enough, like well, I’m just going to ruin everyone’s life now. It’s more fuel for the fire. I literally just had that feeling where you’re so sad that your hurting everybody but at the same time you’re just ruthless. You just have this power as well that’s telling you that you don’t care you’ve got to do it. There are people who go through life and have that inside them and it’s…
(Interrupted by Dolcie again)
My weakest moments were probably my strongest moments because it was moments of clarity because I would have been told by my head that I was weak if I didn’t continue. If you stop now you’ll get fat again. That fear was stronger.
At this point, boys in school didn’t matter anymore. It was just me and the power that this had over me. At this poin, I wouldn’t even have a diet coke I though the labels were lying to me. It couldn’t possibly have one calorie it must be a lie. What if the factory put the wrong label on it, like if I had the one with normal coke in it then I’d suddenly be fat. I thought that toothpaste had calories, chewing gum, everything. I used to put an Oxo cube in a whole liter or two of hot water and used to drink it as a meal. Apart from that, I would have like a cup of tea. I was at the point where 10 calories were 10 too many. I was 10 out of my comfort zone.
Me: Worrying about 10 calories explains to me the scenes I witnessed when you were getting treatment in England and there was a group of girls being sat down in front of a ham sandwich and being forced to just take a bite. There was screaming and crying and I had never seen anything like it, it was crazy.
C. Well, you missed the fact that I was in the hospital in Ireland for nearly a year. So that happened first. That happened like a day or two after my 16th birthday I think. We were attending an outpatient clinic and they told mum I was too much of a liability to have just even there for an hour or two. I was in too bad if physical condition. I was meant to have one carton of this thing I was made to drink as nourishment for the day or something just to keep me alive basically. I had hypoglycemia (low blood sugars) and I could have slipped into a coma. My mum or dad would slip into bed to sleep beside me in fear, every night they were expecting the worst. At this point, I was running away from home and vomiting.
I’d have this pent-up hunger and this absolute starvation and restriction would get to me. I would leave the house in the middle of the night and I would vomit in the field across from our house or anywhere to get rid of it because I didn’t want to be stopped. I was afraid if I went to the bathroom at home someone was going to wake up and stop me. I couldn’t risk it. If I was going to eat then it had to come out. So obviously I was in a bad way and I was brought to the hospital and had blood tests and stuff and I was told well, you’re not going anywhere, you’re not going home. And iIwas put in Crumlin Hospital. And I was put on a drip and I remember i kicked doctors and stuff because I knew this drip was making me fat with all these calories and stuff. But eventually, that was it, I didn’t leave in 9 and half months.
As I said I was on a gastrointestinal tube. Every step I took I had someone with me. I had a dietician, I had nurses with me morning, noon and night to like bring me breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I don’t even know how at this point I managed to deceive people and still find ways to avoid food, to still have control. I know one thing I used to do., We had these youngish nurses and they had to sit in the room and not sort of qualified doctors, just to supervise and I just managed to distract them for a second.
My breakfast used to always come in a bowl and a white plastic cup full of milk that wasn’t see through. And I would distract my nurse with whatever girly charms I had her not knowing I’ve got Gollum inside me and they would walk back out the door for a moment and that was it milk down the toilet and water instead. And they just didn’t even realise, I was still able to reduce my intake so that I still wasn’t putting on weight. And they would weigh me. The nurse would walk back out of my room and into the corridor to talk to the other nurses, in that time I could drink 2-4l of water before I was weighed. And they would weigh me and it would look like I hadn’t lost weight.
Eventually, they pulled me up on it. I still got thinner but I had this distended stomach full of water, even when you are that thin and you drink that amount of water your stomach will still come out. They call it water loading, I didn’t even know, it’s amazing that many people did it and we managed to come up with these ideas.
I didn’t know anyone else who did that, I hadn’t read before that that was a good idea and we all dreamed up the same coping mechanisms… It’s mad. I had scans done on my heart and they said it was half its original size. My body had no fuel so it started to eat my muscles, obviously, your heart is a muscle and they had me on a heart rate monitor and iIwas on 42 beats per minute, my heart just wasn’t able to pump blood around my body. I don’t know if it was then, or retrospectively but I did have a massive amount of guilt because I knew you weren’t enjoying yourself, you weren’t very old. I knew you had an awareness and I knew that I was taking away your childhood in some ways. I knew that you weren’t seeing so much of your parents at the time because mum and dad were like a tag team, one would come in and one would go home. But obviously, I was too far gone to take it properly on board.