Anorexia and Money: Recovery meant I had to look at that relationship too! 9


What on earth has Anorexia got to do with money?

More than you think. At least in my case. And, according to the comments and emails I get, I am not alone in having a very whacked relationship with money when I had an eating disorder.

 

Starting at the beginning: Pre-Anorexia

Before I had Anorexia at 17, I would say that I had a relatively normal relationship with money as a child and a teenager. There was never enough of it and I liked to spend it. I had a part-time job from the age of 12 so that I could help pay for my pony and I have never not been employed since then. I worked in the local pub at the weekends — something I considered a pain in the arse, but loved having my own money to spend — and my relationship with work was nothing more than a means to getting money that I could then spend.

What did I spend my money on? My pony. I earned 21 pounds a week at the local pub and his livery was $40 a month plus then feed and farrier bills. Then, when I was older and started earning more, I spent whatever was leftover on clothes, chocolate, music, going to the cinema, going out with friends, alcohol … pretty normal stuff.

 

Anorexia

The summer that I had onset Anorexia was also the summer I went a little overboard by working all hours of the day. I was out of college and had the time to do so. I took a riding job at a local stables during the day and I worked in the pub every evening. I started working more and more as:

  1. I told myself I need to save to go to university in the fall. Seems reasonable enough, right?
  2. It kept me busy — and now I can see this as a symptom of not wanting the time to eat.
  3. It kept me moving — again, another symptom. My jobs were both “on your feet” jobs and that suited my emerging eating disorder.

When I got to university, my Anorexia took a stronger hold. I also worked 20-30 hours a week the whole time I was at uni at a restaurant. Great, I paid all my uni fees myself and came out of uni four years later with a healthier bank account than when I went in. Except, I was also emaciated, and suffering from an intense and entrenched eating disorder.

 

Spending money

I can pinpoint the first time that spending money elicited a stress reaction in me similar to the one I would feel when trying to eat food to a couple of weeks before I went away to uni. It was a friends birthday and I should have bought her a present. I used to love buying people presents. This time, it stressed me. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to spend the money. In the end, I didn’t buy her a present and I skipped out on her birthday party to avoid the entire scenario. That was the start of it.

I didn’t buy anyone a present for a long time after that. I also didn’t buy clothes, food, university supplies, toiletries. have my hair cut, or go out with friends. The only thing that I spent money on the whole time at uni was my rent and train fees.

How did I manage that? I didn’t go out. I worked in restaurants and if I did eat it would be free food from there. I would usually ask for a salad in a take-out box and take it away with me after my shift. I would also binge eat on the pastries and desserts when I reached the binge eating stage of my eating disorder. I lived in uni digs the first year, so no household items to purchase. Then, when I lived with flatmates later, I opted out of the shared food shopping and just contributed toilet rolls to the household. I took these toilet rolls from the public loos at university. Hate to admit that, but I did not buy them. How fucked up is that? I couldn’t even buy something as cheap as toilet rolls?

Sounds crazy, but if you look at the logic from my point of view, it makes perfect sense. Buying a 50p toilet roll causes me a lot of stress. They are sitting there in piles on the top of the pubic toilets in the university buildings. The most reasonable action to elevate stress and fulfill my flatmate duty is to take a couple toilet rolls a week from some of the hundreds available in university public loos.

Honestly, working all the time it was really easy not to spend money. Especially working in a restaurant. Food and shelter were covered between my work and my flat. Clothes I had enough of from before uni to keep me going, plus with the help from a couple of fashion-conscious younger sisters who always were throwing out really rather nice clothes and tended to give them all to me. I must have bought some things in this time, but it would have been the minimal I needed to survive and nothing more. Plus, whenever I did buy anything it was a huge source of stress — I’m talking full blown fight-or-flight reaction, sweaty palms, fast breath, feeling sick and anxious.

Of course at the time I didn’t even know I had an eating disorder. And even now I don’t think that many people put difficulty to spend money down was a symptom of an eating disorder.

 

After Uni

Of course, after uni I had to start spending money on household items and food for the house as I bought my own flat. Incidentally, large-scale purchases — like buying a fucking flat! — were no problem at all. I have no idea why that is. It was really the day-to-day purchases that I simply found almost impossible to do. Reaching into my wallet and paying for something with cash or card was beyond-comprehension stressful. I could not buy you a drink in the pub, but ask me to loan you a couple thousand pounds and I could do that no problem. I’ve still not worked out why this was, but I’ll think on it some more and see if I can because there has to be something in that relating to brain-stem spending as opposed to prefrontal cortex spending.

But anyway, buying milk … toilet roll … a vacuum cleaner of my own. Now that was painful. For years I didn’t have my own vacuum cleaner but would drive to my parents house and borrow theirs. I would also try and remember to go and pee in a public toilet to avoid using my own toilet roll!

I wish I was making that up. I’m not. The local gym was a five minute walk from my flat, and I would often walk there to go to the toilet rather than use a couple sheets of my own toilet roll. If that is not mental illness then I don’t know what is!

And food shopping? I bought my own food, but would loiter in Tescos at around 6:30pm so that when they started marking food down that was about to go past the sell-by-date I could buy it half price. If I needed to wait in the store 2 hours in order to save 20p on a bag of carrots, I would.

 

Spending money in recovery

I didn’t address this to very late in my recovery — simply because I didn’t see it as a behavior that could be tied to my eating disorder. I mean, why would I?

Plus, just like being skinny, there is so much social praise associated by being a good saver. I had a lot of money saved in bank accounts.

My wonderful husband was a huge part in this. He encouraged me to spend money on myself, Okay, he more than “encouraged” me. He literally gave me spending minimums to hit. True story.

I found spending money very stressful at first, but because I was so well weight restored it was easier as my eating disorder got weaker. But still, I think without my hubby I would still be as tight as I was then as I really needed that positive reinforcement from him in order for me to begin to enjoy spending again.

 

Spending money now

Erm … I love it.

Let’s leave it at that.

I am going to write more on this topic, as I think it is important in terms of adults in recovery. But going to leave it here for this post and see what responses I get from other sufferers and those of you who care for sufferers. I really welcome your opinions and own stories.

 

You can read the follow up to this post here

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About Tabitha Farrar

I work as Head of Marketing for a software startup in Boulder. As a recovered Anorexia sufferer, I advocate for proper understanding of eating disorders in my spare time. On that note, I wrote a book about my own journey into eating again called Love Fat.


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9 thoughts on “Anorexia and Money: Recovery meant I had to look at that relationship too!

  • Rachael

    Hi Tabitha,
    It’s funny, my experience with money during my illness was the exact opposite.
    My husband and I have always been hard workers, and Michael in particular, was always the saver! On the other hand, I enjoyed buying clothes and gifts for others. I could save if I put my mind to it, but once my ED was in full flight, I spent money like it was going out of fashion.
    In the early years of our marriage, Michael and I worked so much, we never had time for social gatherings. At one stage I had 3 jobs. I was losing weight and needed to purchase new clothes. As I got more and more sick, spending money on clothes was empowering to the anorexia. If I needed to go down a size, it was a victory to the illness and it made me feel good.
    The spending did not stop at clothing. I was also spending a lot on groceries, ironically enough, food I would not eat. It felt good to be surrounded by food, yet have the will power not to touch it. I would bake, buy lollies and cakes for my family and work colleagues, but would never eat the food myself.
    My spending on clothes was so bad that I would literally spend my entire wage each fortnight on things I may only wear once, then give away. Or buy beautiful dresses that I never got to wear because I never went anywhere to wear them.
    My marriage suffered terribly due to my spending. However, if I had have been like your were with money, I may not have sought help. I would probably still be very ill or fallen victim to anorexia’s deadly nature.
    I hate to say it, but if my illness had not affected the finances I share with Michael, he may not have been so adamant to have me recover. It was as though my spending was a cry for help. Help I am so fortunate to now be receiving.

  • Julia Smith

    Thank you for being honest and sharing this. I have never heard of anyone admitting to “money hoarding” before. I did / do a similar thing. I was saving up as much as possible because i thought i was going to die, and wanted there to do something to show for me having ever existed. I wanted people to be proud of all the money i had managed to save up whilst on benefits. I got into a whole load of legal problems from doing this and was nearly prosecuted for benefit fraud. So in the end my act of trying to “do good” had very negative consequences for me.

  • Helen

    Wow, Tabitha – this is me through and through…
    Pre illness I was good at saving but not afraid of spending either, then as the illness gets more acute I always notice that the issues around saving and not spending also get much much worse.
    At first I thought that I was just taking after my much loved Grandad – always putting on another jumper rather than turn the heating on and liking to scrimp and save, but I do now realise that actually it is a powerful part of the illness. Spending money causes so much stress. The supermarket savings and reduced items are also a huge one for me – I very rarely now buy anything that has not been marked down in the supermarket! If I do buy something for myself -clothes or similar then I usually feel incredibly guilty about it afterwards and just end up returning it to the shop with a great sense of relief.
    I always thought that it would be best to have savings as my health is so uncertain and not sure when I will need them but now I can see that this is all just powerful thoughts that keep the illness entrenched.
    It is fascinating what you describe though about spending on large items…. I agree that spending out on a much bigger item (such as house) causes less stress than spending a few pounds on some much needed loo rolls!! Speaking of loo rolls – I recently needed to buy some more and it took a good couple of weeks of trawling supermarkets for the best price on the rolls I wanted before I bit the bullet and decided I had found the best deal – feeling proud of myself for having saved those pennies… The amount of mental and physical effort though in doing so was very likely not worth the pennies of savings!
    Thank you for your article – I hope it helps others without this illness understand that for those of us with this disease the impact is much more far reaching than just food / exercise / weight and other areas of life need help and support to return to normality too!

    • Tabitha Farrar Post author

      Right, and you make a good point about thinking you were taking after your Grandad showing that this is another ED thing that can so often be written off as an eccentric or even beneficial personality trait.

  • Elizabeth Weiss

    This is amazing. I never linked my “stinginess” and stress around spending even small amounts of money (and like you big purchases were somehow not as stressful as a cup of coffee is). I will have to think on this, thank you for sharing your views on the link. Kind of amazing to think they might go hand in hand.

    • Tabitha Farrar Post author

      Seems there is some kind of relationship between ED and money for everyone with an ED – some mild, some crazy!

      I want to explore why bigger purchases are easier for some of us. I feel like there is a clue in there to the parts of the brain ED affects.