Stand Tall Little Girl – Facing Up To Anorexia by Hope Virgo, is her personal journey of suffering from a life-threatening eating disorder, to not just recovery, but using her story to help others and inspire hope, through talks in hospitals, schools and businesses.
(NB – as a fellow Hope myself, that will be the only intentional play on her name used in this article!)
“How can you be truly happy when you’ve got so used to pretending to be happy?” – Hope Virgo
Hope is someone who truly understands her illness, recognising that anorexia came to her under the guise of friendship, understanding, and protection from the world.
The matter-of-fact style she writes in lends itself to highlight the true destruction an eating disorder can have on your life and those around you. Contributions from Hope’s Mum gave this insight. She describes the “double stigma” of having a child suffering from a mental health illness, being that you blame yourself and you feel everyone else is blaming you. I thought it was a brave and commendable move to include her Mum’s point of view.
This is a very real, no-frills account of Hope’s personal journey.
It is brutally honest, the language is simple and to the point. She shares helpful insights, such as the time during her treatment at a Mental Health Hospital, when she relied on ‘motivation cards’ that detailed her reasons for wanting to get better, “I want to have children; I want to get married; I want my life back” were Hope’s motivations. She carried these around in her back pocket and called upon them as a reminder when she needed. Hope also used journalling. She dedicated an entire chapter to this in “My Diary of Life in a Mental Health Hospital.” I want to share the following entry…
2 January 2008
I have taken huge steps in weight gain and I’m doing well, but I feel so bloated and ugly. And there is still such a long way to go. Caroline still says I look dreadfully underweight (is that a good thing or a bad thing?) At least I’m getting better at talking about things. Someone new came into the unit today – her BMI is around 15. It’s funny; when I was that thin I never thought I looked that bad but if she does, I must have done too.
It is such a short, pragmatic passage but it’s littered with insights into Hope’s conflict about her recovery and it saddened me. On the one hand, she’s feeling positive about her recovery yet on the other, she still attaches her sense of self to her weight. It’s a prevalent conflict in any recovery where you are starting to take steps in the right direction, you intellectually understand what you need to do to get better but the unwell voice hasn’t been weeded out and uprooted.
The idea of leading a double life comes up many times as Hope recounts the strategies she developed to hide her illness.
Extraordinary lengths like emptying cans of protein shakes and refilling them with water and putting weights in her pockets when she was being weighed. Eating disorders require a cloak of deception to thrive and realising this can be key to getting better. Having never suffered from an eating disorder, I have the privilege of not knowing what this feels like, however, there are elements I can relate to, particularly with dealing with my anxiety. The commonality seems to be that there are moments of wellness and that is you, your truth, but as with many mental health issues, they adopt a voice of their own, and it can be loud and scarily believable.
Stand Tall Little Girl is not a guide to recovery as such but could provide the motivation to get better, finding comfort in recognising similarities and help sufferers feel less alone.
“Anorexia is normally such a secretive thing and, for some, it is a sign of inexpressible sadness” – Hope Virgo
As I read Stand Tall Little Girl, there were many moments I felt as though I was witnessing someone who was standing in the middle of a bridge. On one side there was an old destructive way of life and the other side was wellness and recovery. Countless pivotal moments where she could turn back to her old life, or keep walking to the other side. Hope didn’t always want to keep moving forward and the reality is in any recovery, motivation will lapse. However, once she started taking steps towards recovery, she slowly untangled herself from the illness.
Hope is an incredibly brave woman and is proof the answer is always to choose recovery and to keep moving towards the other side of the bridge.