What my eating disorder has taught me about my desire to feel special



“Anorexia had been my default setting for so long; I couldn’t imagine people paying attention to me for any other reason. It made me special, and therefore worthy.”

Content warning: This article discusses things that may be triggering for those who have experienced eating disorders  

One of my earliest memories of feeling special was when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I was sitting at the dining room table in my mum’s house, my mum next to me and my dad opposite me. This may not sound particularly unusual, but bear in mind that my parents had been divorced for about six or seven years at this point, so seeing them under the same roof, let alone at the same table, was definitely out of the ordinary.

And it was me who had brought them together, at least for this moment. The catalyst for this intervention was that I had refused, or at least stubbornly resisted, eating for the past few weeks. It had gotten to the point where neither of them knew what to do anymore.

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Earlier that day, I had been with my dad and my brother and sister at Queenscliff. It had been a hot day. We had gone to the speciality ice-cream shop, a former favourite pastime of mine. But instead of indulging in a waffle cone with lemon gelato, as I may have done a mere few months earlier, I had sat outside on a cold metal chair and cried while my siblings and Dad ate their cones in silence.

My mum and dad were both at their wit’s end. And so, for a while, they became not Mum and Dad (separate, individual) but Parents (collective, unified). We did family therapy, which implied we were still a unit, woven together through blood and law.

With their love and supervision, I got better. But I still remember the feeling of power I had at the table that day; despite my physical frailty – or rather, because of it – I had brought my parents back together. How special that had made me feel.

Over the next several years, there were bouts of wellness and relapse. Periods of life that weren’t stained by my eating disorder. But from age 18 onwards, things got worse. It happened gradually, so gradually I could almost convince myself I was fine. I hadn’t lost that much weight. My blood pressure wasn’t that low. My bones weren’t that brittle.

Things came to a head a few months ago, when I finally admitted to myself that I needed more help. I scheduled an inpatient admission. In a way, this felt like the ultimate achievement, a badge of honour. Confirmation of my specialness. I was so special I needed to take six weeks out of my life to stay in a hospital with round-the-clock supervision.

When you’re in hospital, people care about you. They send you flowers; they check in on you; they call. I won’t deny feeling a twisted sense of pride as I went through the underwhelmingly dry formalities of admission: confirmation of name, birthday and address. Nominating next of kin. Signing agreements – financial, information sharing, hospital standards.

Despite the tedium of such tasks, I relished in them, because once they were done, I would be not only surrendering myself, but my loyal, steadfast friend, the one who had me feel so very special all these years; anorexia.

Since that day at the dining room table, and perhaps even prior to that, I believed that my eating disorder was what made me special. It made me worthy of attention, care and love. There was an unhealthy part of me that secretly loved the moment when I confessed my story to friends or partners. I would watch as their faces contorted from expressions of anticipation to empathy to care. I watched as my specialness was reflected in the sadness in their eyes.

Being admitted to a ward of eating disordered patients was brutal not only because I was forced to eat regularly and adequately, but because I was smacked in the face by the reality that my eating disorder did not make me special. I was surrounded by others just like me. Sure, we existed along a continuum, but I was no longer unique.

At this point, I had a choice: I could steadfastly continue with my eating disorder until I existed at the extreme end of the continuum, being the most sick, and therefore the most special. Or, I could surrender, concede that my eating disorder did not make me special and, most importantly, I had never needed my eating disorder, or anything else, to render me so.

It was a terrifying reality to confront. I felt myself scrambling for other ways I could be special, to compensate for an apparent lack somewhere within myself. I contemplated finishing my law degree and becoming a super successful lawyer at a top tier firm. I thought about using my energy and weight restoration to become super fit or strong. I thought about getting tattoos or piercings to physically mark me as unique.

I realised each of these things were not motivated by true desire, but a desire to compensate for the gaping hole of specialness that I felt would be left when I no longer had my eating disorder. I believed I would have to find another way to be worthy of attention, to metaphorically raise my hand and make people see me. Anorexia had been my default setting for so long; I couldn’t imagine people paying attention to me for any other reason. It made me special, and therefore worthy.

I am aware that this may sound narcissistic. It’s not. It’s very much a symptom of an eating disorder. It becomes such a part of your identity that you forget who you really are. It becomes your default setting, and you can’t imagine people paying attention to you for any other reason. If you have an eating disorder long enough, many of your relationships will come to be coloured by it in some way.

“How are you going?” is no longer a nondescript or vague greeting from a friend, but a loaded question: have you been eating, taking your medication, seeing your GP, losing weight, gaining weight, exercising, binging, purging? Comments on your appearance aren’t throwaway remarks but landmines that lodge themselves in your mind and explode periodically: do I look different? Do my clothes fit differently? Are my cheeks fuller? No relationship or interaction is immune.

I am discharging from the hospital this week. And if there is one thing I will take away, it’s that it is part of the human condition to want to be special. Not necessarily in the narcissistic, centre-of-attention, all-eyes-on-me sense, but in the very basic sense that we all want to be loved, nurtured, cared for, attended to. It’s part of the human condition, just as much as feeling hungry or tired or thirsty.

And by virtue of its universality, it’s something we are all deserving of. We are all deserving of love, care, affection, attention. You don’t need to do anything (or be anything, or buy anything) to be special or worthy. We are so, simply by the fact of our existence. It shouldn’t take an inpatient psychiatric admission to realize this; we should all be able to move through life with the knowledge that we are worthy, simply because we are.

When I leave the hospital, I will take with me the friendships I have made, the meal plan I have been prescribed, and most importantly, the knowledge that I am worthy, deserving and special – not because of the shape of my body, or the colour of my hair, or the symmetry of my face. But because I am. I simply am. And you are, too.

If you’re struggling with body image issues or eating disorders, you can call the Butterfly National Helpline at 1800 33 4673 for free and confidential support, or email or chat to them online here.

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