Monday, 27 August 2012

Becoming a "swan", but at some cost???

The therapist I saw in early 1976, aged 17, was under the impression that I was too self-focused and needed taking out of myself. Being with people less fortunate than (relatively affluent, middle-class) me might make me snap out of this introspection. So she suggested I join the local PHAB group.

As the name suggests, PHAB - Physically Handicapped Able Bodied - was a group where people with physical disabilities met with people without (mainly young people, like a kind of youth club), did activities together and had fun. They met in a large community hall every Friday evening.

The woman in charge of the local PHAB group had been pre-warned about my (what I now gather were probably mental health) problems. Knowing I played the guitar she suggested I teach it to some of the girls in wheelchairs. In theory, great. In practice, a complete disaster. Or at least that's how it was for the first 5 or 6 meetings.

My dad would drop me off at the centre and I'd flee across the room heading for the ladies toilets (bathroom) where I'd stay until it was time for him to come and collect me 2 hours later. I did this week after week, terrified of facing that crowded room of people in the same way I couldn't face people at school.

The woman in charge tried to entice me out. Initially she'd coax me out of the toilets (bathroom) into her office where she'd talk to me and try to calm me down. Gradually she drip-fed me (what we would call "exposure therapy" these days): 10 minutes in the main room, maybe playing boardgames with some people, then back into the safety of her office for a quiet chat. A few more minutes with the others, maybe teaching the girls guitar, then I could retreat back again. I wasn't allowed to retreat back to her room until I'd done the allotted 10, 15 minute and eventually 60 minute stint.

Initially it was almost physically painful - the fear of being in the big room with all these strangers was so intense. But gradually I became acclimatised to it. And gradually I became one of the crowd, openly accepted by everyone and feeling part of the friendly PHAB "family".

Not everyone without physical disabilities was "normal"; looking back there were quite a few with mental health issues or one kind or another. But what everyone had in common was that they were really, really nice people. And incredibly genuine.

So what has this got to do with disordered eating?

That spring of 1976 was a gradual turning point for me. I became used to being with people, making friends and having fun. I realised that people didn't have to be scary at all - and, most importantly, I was accepted at face value. There was none of the keeping me at arm's length which there was at school.

Somehow I got in with the best crowd of all - the crowd that used to meet on the back table by the door - a fabulous group of people who would become long-term friends. Some were disabled, some had other problems and issues, some had no obvious problems at all. But we got on like a house on fire. Incredibly I was volunteered for the PHAB committee, in charge of publicity. Amongst other things I ended up helping to organise a sponsored knit and was rewarded with a kiss on the cheek from Jimmy Saville who presented the prizes!

As I got popular, I also began to lose weight. To be honest some of it was the fact that there were so many good things going on there was no need to comfort eat. But I was also enjoying the new, slimmer me I was seeing. Newly slim and with a new haircut and clothes - and newly confident - I felt like a completely new person. Every evening after tea I'd skip dessert and take myself off on a long cycle ride up and down the hills of the local countryside. I counted calories religiously (no more than 1000 a day) and devised low calorie ways to satisfy my insatiable desire to eat (for example a favourite of mine back then - whipped eggwhite, whizzed up blackberries and low calorie sweetener - made a virtually no-cal dessert).

I went from a large size 14 down to a 12, 10, 8... One day I found I could fit into kids' clothes quite well and was over the moon. I also used to revel in the way the weight loss resulted in a smaller bust size and eventually scarcely any bust at all. Remember how I hated those boobs? I stopped wearing a bra because I didn't need to. I cut my hair short and was even mistaken for a boy on a few occasions which both scared and thrilled me.

That July I went on a course at the local university - an exchange with French students who were partnered with selected sixth formers from all over the city. This group of French and English kids spent two weeks having the most fantastic time in what was turning out to be the long hot, dry summer of 1976.

There were a few other girls from my sixth form, too - girls I'd never had any contact with before and who, because I'd hidden myself away for so long and looked so different, actually thought I was a new girl at school!

We became close friends. And these new close friends made friends with my PHAB circle. It was brilliant!

And meanwhile I continued to slim down, seeing my new slim body as the reason for this phenomenal change. If I ever got fat again, then - ping! - I'd be jet-propelled back to the land of the lonely and ignored. Which is almost a carbon-copy of how Ben felt about his (fleshier and lonely) primary school years compared to the way the first four years at secondary school transformed him into a popular, athletic swan.

More to come, when I get around to it...

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