Gillian Harvey: My battle with the ED mindset

Read the latest column from freelance writer, author and mum-of-five Gillian Harvey.

When I was 16, I had a brief battle with anorexia. Luckily, I recovered – mainly through grim determination and with the help of a friend. But my body confidence has always been “off.” My perception of what I see in the mirror and – crucially – how much it ‘matters’ has mellowed slightly with age and motherhood, but it’s always ‘there.’

Eating disorders are able to shape-shift and creep up on you when you’re least expecting it. In my 20s, I exercised myself to the point of exhaustion. I have an on-off battle with bulimia. Most of the time, these days I’m winning when it comes to actually giving in to my more negative urges.

But the ED mindset is harder to shift. It’s a combination of perfectionism and some sort of self-hatred. It rears up when I’m doing well, and undercuts my confidence. It means that my successes can feel a bit ‘meh’ and that my perceived failures loom larger in my mind.

A case in point: yesterday I finished the first draft of my third book. It’s funny. It’s different. It’s 70,000 hard-won words long. I felt briefly euphoric.

This morning, when I stepped on the scales, I’d put on a kilo.

Somehow, in my mind, this makes me a failure.

I have insight into my negative self-perception. I know to ignore the little voice that tells me I’ll never be good enough. I know that 1 kilo is actually nothing and that I’m healthy and it’s important to set a good example to my kids by not giving in.

It’s just easy to know things; it’s another thing to feel them in your gut.

These days, it’s often not about weight. It’s about not being ‘good enough’ in other ways. Sure, I published a book this year – but has it done well enough? Yes, there was a pandemic on and the bookshops were closed, but surely if it was good enough things would have gone better? Or yes, my kids are happy and healthy, but do I spend enough time with them? Do we read enough together? Should I be doing more?

If I spend several hours working, would they have been better spent on the children? If I spend several hours doing things for the family, am I neglecting my work?

Luckily, not everyone suffers from the extremes of an ‘ED mindset’ but most of us would probably admit to suffering some form of self-doubt. We all have days where we don’t feel quite as good as our exterior suggests. We are all – as the saying goes – fighting our own battles.

And I suppose, one of the reasons I’m writing this is because this column’s title is ‘Having it All.’ It’s a tongue-in-cheek title based on the fact that from the outside, some people may think this is the case.

And I am incredibly lucky in so many ways.

But everything I have achieved has been a battle – with myself, with circumstances and with those voices that tell me I’m not good enough.

They’re here today, but I’m going to ignore them. Drink my tea, switch on my laptop. Edit my third novel and do my very best to feel proud.

Gillian Harvey is a writer and mum-of-five. Her debut novel Everything is Fine is out now.