Hiraeth. A beautiful Welsh word which doesn’t translate succinctly into English. I came across it when I was living in Swansea for a few years, and the first translation I heard was “Homesickness. But it only applies to Welsh people.” Oh, ok. I’m English, so I made do with bog-standard “I feel homesick” when I missed London.
When I started to recover from anorexia six years ago, the focus was on looking forwards, not backwards. Just think how nice it will be to socialise with friends again, to temper that irritating, exhausting perfectionism, to not feel obliged to work from stupid o’clock until stupid o’clock every day, to not go to bed each night and wake up each morning with a gnawing emptiness in my stomach and a physical hunger that took over every waking thought I had. Wouldn’t it be amazing to be normal, whatever the hell normal is?
So, fast forward through twenty months of eating disorder focused treatment at a hospital (mainly CBT, but also a year of seeing a dietician) and there I was – in strong recovery, more receptive to helpful criticism as well as compliments, enjoying my new optimism, and weight-restored. Although “restored” suggests a return to something.
I had been underweight from the age of 13 to the age of 32, and becoming a healthy weight for a thirty-something woman wasn’t so much restoration as revelation. I was becoming a healthy adult, a woman, for the first time in my life. It was fucking terrifying. But it was also kind of ok. It wasn’t the disaster I imagined.
I reached my minimum acceptable weight in the winter of 2010-2011 and I was grateful for the winter as it meant I could hide in my old sportswear, a few skirts and dresses that used to be too big for me, woolly tights, big jumpers and hoodies, and not face up to my need for clothes in a bigger size. After a conversation with a friend (“That’s not like you,” she said when I told her what I was wearing every day), I thought fuck it, I’m just going to get this over with. I went to my local Topshop and once I’d picked up the first hanger in size scary, it was easier to pick up the next and the next. I tried the clothes on and I didn’t look horrendous as I’d expected. I looked ok. I took the clothes to the counter and braced myself…but there was nothing. No flinching, no fleeting “OMG you’re that size” glance at me, nothing. I walked out of the shop, amazed: the sky hadn’t fallen down.
So everything was peachy, and I could rationalise away the things that weren’t – the people who didn’t like the fact I’d recovered, well, that was their problem. The company I worked for that couldn’t find me alternative work, well, I wanted to change careers and become a therapist anyway, so maybe it was just as well.
Those people who were uncomfortable with my recovering – most of them came around eventually. And I stopped bothering with the ones who didn’t. I did train to become a therapist – hardly a smooth journey, but I’ve made it to the last term of the last year of the degree, so I must be doing something right.
But where does hiraeth fit into all this?
I’ve been writing about my recovery for my dissertation, and I was surprised when I started to feel something close to homesickness for my illness. This wasn’t right – I was recovered, I was training to be a therapist, so surely I wouldn’t feel anything towards my anorexia other than blind hatred? Was I looking back through rose-tinted glasses, remembering only the good stuff (the control, the tiny clothes, the feeling that one thing in my life was perfect, the strong sense of identity that anorexia gave me)? Was I feeling so homesick for that sickness that I was willing to travel back there, on a one-way ticket to Fuckeverythingup?
Since I moved back to London, I’ve heard other definitions of hiraeth. Some describe it as sadness, longing or grief for somewhere that can’t be returned to, or that maybe never really existed. That’s kind of where I’m at. I know I can’t go back there, not after all that hard work I did to extricate myself from the vice-like grip of a two-decade eating disorder. But I’m not going to admonish myself for looking back with bittersweet tenderness sometimes.
I hope this rings true for some of you who have recovered or are in recovery (however you choose to word where you are in your own journey). I hope those of you who are currently ill and want to recover will take some comfort from this: recovery isn’t awful, it’s not impossible, and it’s not perfect.
And if you’re someone who works with people with eating disorders, I hope you can see that to talk about recovery in terms of a perfect future that’s all rainbows and unicorns, that can be just as unhelpful to patients as the twisted black-and-white thinking of their eating disorders. There’s so much focus on symptoms and BMI and food in eating disorder treatment – i.e. numbers and detailed lists, which is exactly what we’re told to stop obsessing about. It’s necessary; of course it is, to stop our illness from killing us. But it’s not the full story. Some of us need to know that when the time’s right, we can grieve. We can talk honestly about the sadness, regrets, confusion about leaving that part of us, that relationship, that sickness in the past. Our feelings shouldn’t become another dirty little secret we have to keep to ourselves, because – well, we know how that story goes.