Young Readers’ Edition: Anorexia is about more than just the food

15-year-old anorexia sufferer Rachel Clifton reveals the truth about her condition.

Everyone has choices in life. Turn left at the lights or turn right? A change of direction can change your life – but how would you know what the impact of one decision could be? How it could quickly spiral out of control? How it could fast become no longer an active choice but something you have to do?

It makes your mother cry and feel extreme anger. “How could you do this to yourself?” she rages. “That’s not nice.”

No, it isn’t nice at all, you say. But I’m not nice. My life is not nice. Nothing is nice.

This is my way of trying to stay calm and in control of myself: trying to punish myself for my flaws. I don’t want to be human anymore. I want to be some sort of immortal, immune from pain and hating myself. I see no other option.

It isn’t attention-seeking. It isn’t fake. It is a cry for help when no one is listening, a hand in the darkness begging “Please, don’t let me go.” It’s that awful feeling when, at the end of the day, it seems like all you have is yourself. But you hate yourself. So what then?

It isn’t about the food either, or how much exercise you do, or how much you weigh, or even how you look. You cry when you look in a mirror but it isn’t just because you’re “fat”, it’s because an image of yourself is being presented and you can’t bear who you are.

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So what is it about? It’s about a lifetime of never feeling worth anything. I have always felt lonely. I’m aware that sounds pathetic and stupid, but it is so painful to feel unloved.

No matter how much you hurt yourself and scar your body, or shut yourself away from the world and the things you used to enjoy (because “you don’t deserve it”), at some level you believe that you belong like this. And you’re too deep into the labyrinth to escape now.

You never imagined your life could be like this. You want to pinch yourself and wake up, as if it were all a sick fantasy. But you can’t run away. You’re 15 and on section three of the Mental Health Act. Detained far from those you love. Detached from reality.

Back when I was younger and innocent of the world’s cruelty, I was horrifically bullied. I started to believe what they said about me: “You’re ugly,” “you’re a freak,” “you have big ears.” Looking back, it seems trivial and if it happened now perhaps I’d cope better on the surface.

I was just eight at the time. I didn’t tell anyone. I couldn’t. I was so used to being strong and coping alone, while my parents were too busy with their own lives to notice I was upset.

I began to disappear. I started to restrict my eating as it was a way of punishing myself. I thought I could make people like me and my body seemed like a place to start. People tell me I was never overweight but “big-boned” and a little chubby. They said it was puppy fat, but I was eight, not five, and quite tall. I thought that I was too big. I felt uncomfortable in myself and deeply ashamed, and this was my way of trying to make those horrible feelings go away.

I took it too far. My parents didn’t notice until it was painfully obvious, then I denied everything. I didn’t realise what I was doing until it was too late. My dad took a picture of me in my underwear, ribs sticking out, to try to shock me into realising what I was doing, but I thought that I was being entered for a child-model contest.

I remember looking at the picture and thinking I was still too big. I was nine or 10 and this was just before I was diagnosed with pre-anorexia (as anorexia is an illness that traditionally starts during or after puberty). That I actually had a problem only clicked on a holiday in Israel when they caught me hiding food. I remember walking along the Tel Aviv seafront with my family, crying my eyes out and promising to get better. If only it were that simple.

My illness has evolved over time. Initially the anorexia was a cover-up for my depression and the underlying issues, and then it morphed into something all-consuming that almost killed me a few times. But the reasons why I struggle are not the societal stereotypes of wanting to be “skinny” and “perfect” – no, I do it to punish myself and kill myself slowly.

On my darkest days, I want to die, because I have been stuck in this hole for so long, with no experience of normal life.

Have my issues strengthened me? I may be bitter and hardened, but this has made me who I am. I hope there is more to me than just my struggles, though. I hope to find out who I am.

Even when I’ve given up on myself, my family still come to see me. When they get frustrated, it’s only because they can’t bear to see me like this. Still they have some hope – my mother calls it the “candle burning faintly” – that one day I will recover.

I hope one day I will just wake up free. But that’s unrealistic. I have mental illnesses and they do not just go away in a blink of an eye. One day I will heal, though, and live the life I have dreamed of: as a psychologist or a writer. Travelling the world. Being able to smile a true smile.

I know that only you can free yourself and save your soul. There is nothing more beautiful than a real smile that has struggled through tears.

For more information about coping with mental illness, visit