The day I chose to live, not die

The day I chose to live, not die: Severely anorexic and hospitalised, Hadley Freeman witnessed a fellow patient’s hysterical screaming fit at the butter on her toast. ‘This will be me one day’, she realised – and she began to eat…

  • Hadley Freedman’s book details restrictive, ‘crazily narrow existence’ of anorexia
  • READ MORE: I battled eating disorders in secret for nine years



by Hadley Freeman (Fourth Estate £16.99, 288pp)

Where’s my little girl who used to run through the house singing songs?’ Hadley Freeman’s distraught mother asked in 1992, desperately worried that her 14-year-old daughter had stopped eating and was rapidly losing weight.

‘She’s gone,’ Hadley snarled back.

Hadley Freedman’s book details restrictive, ‘crazily narrow existence’ of anorexia. ‘Anorexia is a bomb inside us, waiting for the right time,’ she writes

Indeed she had. That joyful, popular schoolgirl had turned into an unreach-able, self-starving, friendless, obsessive skeleton, doing 1,000 star jumps and sit‑ups a day in her bedroom.

‘I made the house shake down to its foundations with star jumps, literalising the metaphor of what I was doing to my family,’ she writes, in her devastatingly honest and vivid memoir of anorexia.

She would be hospitalised nine times over a three-year period, for a total of two and a half years, gaining weight and shedding it again in a vicious cycle of self-punishment.

Her tumble into the disease was instant and all-consuming. One casual comment by a slim girl at her school — ‘I wish I was normal like you’ (which Hadley interpreted as ‘you’re fat’) — was the trigger. ‘A black tunnel yawned open inside me and I tumbled down it,’ she writes.

She emphasises that the girl’s comment was the trigger, not the cause. ‘Anorexia is a bomb inside us, waiting for the right time,’ she writes. As a ‘good girl’, with perfectionist tendencies, she was ripe for it to strike.

Of the common theory that anorexics ‘want to look like models’, Freeman insists that’s not true. It’s not about wanting to look like Kate Moss — ‘unless Kate Moss was a bleeding, balding, twitching, furry mess’. (By ‘furry’, she’s referring to the downy hair that sprouts over an anorexic’s face and arms; the body desperately trying to protect itself.)

Far from wanting to look like models, anorexics ‘want to look ill’.

As a fully recovered anorexic myself (hospitalised for a month aged 17 in 1979), I was taken back to that crazily narrow existence in which life is simplified down to one simple rule: Don’t eat. It seems so logical while you’re doing it. Freeman puts her finger on the subconscious urge: ‘Anorexia remains the most effective means I ever found to shrink the world.’

To read this book is to bang your head against a brick wall, as Hadley (pictured) gains weight in hospital and loses it again at home — multiple times

Terrified of growing up and all the sweating, swelling and menstruating that goes with it, anorexics hide from the world and cling to childhood. But in the process, they turn into what look like wizened, shrivelled old women.

I urge any anorexic, or parent of an anorexic, to read this book as, harrowing though it is, it charts a way out of the horror. The author is now a happily partnered mother of three, and a renowned author and journalist (her previous book, House Of Glass, about what happened to her Jewish family during World War II, is superb). And she eats. So, somehow, she snapped out of it. But how?

The journey was agonisingly long, and full of backward steps. To read this book is to bang your head against a brick wall, as Hadley gains weight in hospital and loses it again at home — multiple times.

‘The mental problem grows deeper roots in hospital,’ she writes. ‘It’s like repainting the house without dealing with the structural rot.’

Those roots grow in the soil of hospital camaraderie with fellow anorexic patients, all competing and obsessing about who’s going to get the dreaded ‘corner slice’ of pie at lunchtime — the anorexic’s chief nightmare being the thought of eating more than the others in the room.

Iron willpower, secretiveness and stubbornness make anorexics almost impossible to help. And Freeman was determined that no one was going to outsmart her at this game. And certainly not her kind, worried mother.

Freeman’s first psychiatrist, whom she calls ‘Dr R’, actually made things worse. Arrogant and uncaring, he drove off for his weekends after a cursory visit to the ward on Friday afternoons, and was later struck off the medical register because of a secretive relationship with a patient.

Freeman vowed to shed all the weight she’d gained during her first hospital stay ‘as a special f*** you to Dr R’. And she did.

The author is now a happily partnered mother of three, and a renowned author and journalist. Her previous book, House Of Glass, detailed what happened to her Jewish family during World War II

Back to her bedroom she went, back to the self-starving and obsessive exercising, and back to hospital for another month or sometimes four.

Of all the hospitals she stayed in, the worst was the one she nicknames ‘Bedlam’. Its anorexic ward was a bullying place where a Miss Trunchbull-style nurse held patients down to force-feed them with food and high-calorie milkshakes. In spite of such hellishness, hospitalisation became strangely addictive, as it absolved her of responsibility for the calorie intake. Freeman admits that she ‘probably would have continued to sleepwalk for the rest of my life had I not inadvertently shaken myself awake’.

It was in Bedlam that she had her epiphany. A fellow patient, a chronic anorexic aged 32, was hysterical one morning, screaming, kicking and punching, because there was a tiny bit more butter on her toast than on anyone else’s.

‘I will not be having temper tantrums over toast when I’m 32,’ Freeman thought. ‘Look at those 30 and 40-year-olds, crying over mashed potato, hiding bags of regurgitated food under their beds, sneaking in star jumps in the shower. Look at them, because unless you finally do something, this will be you.’ And, she writes, ‘something started to shift’.

She got a new psychiatrist, a brilliant woman whom she names ‘JF’, who could and did outsmart her. JF’s masterstroke was to tell her that if she lost one single kilo back at home, she would have to have a nurse living with her, supervising every meal.

‘This was the final punch I needed,’ Freeman writes. From that moment on she started maintaining her weight.

But she was by no means cured. Passing A-levels and getting into Oxford, she still lived an obsessively strict existence, eating exactly the same food alone in her bedroom every day, so terrified of taking in a single extra calorie that she became an obsessive hand-washer, knuckles raw and bleeding from soap.

One day, her mother put some tomatoes on the kitchen surface where a loaf of bread had just been, thus ‘contaminating’ the tomatoes with a possible fraction of a breadcrumb calorie. Freeman ran up to her bedroom and shrieked with rage into her pillow. This is a stark example of how the madness can persist in a ‘functioning anorexic’.

For years afterwards, even as a successful young journalist, Freeman binged alone on boiled vegetables, making herself ‘nine months pregnant with broccoli’. In her 20s, she became addicted to cocaine for a decade, ‘a calorie-free way to get out of my head’. She finally came to her senses when she realised that ‘only I could do it. Only I could get out’.

It was becoming genuinely pregnant — not with broccoli but with twin boys — in her 30s, that made her properly, baguette-devouringly hungry. ‘I had outgrown that scratchy-self-made jumper of self-defeating self-destruction,’ she writes.

The book’s final scene in a Greek restaurant, where Freeman sits with her third child, a little girl, and they tuck into pitta bread and hummus, is delicious. The desire to be skeletal had at last been outweighed (literally) by the desire to be normal.

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