Evanna Lynch: I never planned for anorexia to be my thing

The Irish actor, best known for the Harry Potter movies, on the early stages of an eating disorder

Evanna Lynch: her new book is The Opposite of Butterfly Hunting: The Tragedy and The Glory of Growing Up – A Memoir. Photograph: Hachette

Evanna Lynch: her new book is The Opposite of Butterfly Hunting: The Tragedy and The Glory of Growing Up – A Memoir. Photograph: Hachette

 

Anorexic, my sister had said. The word hadn’t stopped ringing in my head since she said it. When I first heard about anorexia, I never planned for it to become my thing. I didn’t connect to it or dwell on it or decide to try it out for a while. All I’d known was that I was empty, unremarkable, unexceptional at everything, and that it would be hard to find love, friends, work, a place in the world at all, if I didn’t find something by which to define myself – and then I’d found it.

I think to me, being unremarkable was the same thing as being unlovable, and if I didn’t have love, I wouldn’t want to live, and if I didn’t want to live, I’d eventually die. And I really wanted to find a way to fight that urge to die.

People see eating disorders as slow self-destruction, but the intention is quite the opposite. It’s a stab at life, at asserting oneself. It’s a fierce, war-like struggle to battle all the voices – internal and external – telling you you’d be better off dead. I hadn’t planned for this to be my path, was shocked to hear that dangerous, spiky word affixed to me by my sister but okay, now I’d found it, and here we were, and I didn’t know how – nor did I care – to find a way out of it.

Aren’t I simply asking to be left alone? Isn’t it my life, my unfortunate body? They have their own lives and bodies, and I have never tried to interfere with those

“You’re a horrible, selfish person!” my sister Emily screams at me, her cheeks red, her eyes blazing and filling with tears. She is blocking my exit to the front door, instructed by Mum to make sure I don’t go out for a cycle while she makes a quick trip to the shops.

Mum has started actively banning me from exercising, asserting that I’m too thin and it’s dangerous for someone that weak to go out on a bike on narrow country roads. Weak! On the contrary, her regime has provoked a fierce, rebellious streak in me, a surge of energy that I channel into openly resisting and defying her demands. I don’t feel pity for the cute little cakes she tries to guilt me into eating any more, or for the mask of anxiety and fear she seems to never take off around me. I feel contempt for her interference, for her pathetic displays of weakness, weeping on the phone to her friends or appealing to my sisters for help in handling me. I scoff at Emily’s responsible-older-child act.

“This has nothing to do with you,” I spit back at her. “You don’t tell me what to do! I’ll just go out the window!” I grin, dashing through the door to the sitting room and fumbling with the catch on the window.

“I hate you!” Emily screams, pursuing me. “The only person you care about is yourself!”

“I just want to be left ALONE! ” I roar, forcing Emily to step back, my temper snapping, my heart thumping, as I try to smother something raw and tender below all that red-hot anger. I cannot understand what they’re all talking about with their melodramatic assertions that I’m “dangerously thin”, that I’m risking my life with my diet, when right now I’ve never felt more energised, more driven and even though sometimes the hunger pangs cause spells of lethargy and I can’t ever seem to get warm any more, no matter how many cardigans I pile on, right now I feel like I could fight anyone off with my bare hands.

Too thin. It feels like they are mocking me when they say these things, pantomiming some other sick, vulnerable girl’s life, someone who is actually close to death and in need of medical attention, when behind closed doors they are throwing back their heads and laughing at this elaborate ploy to drag me back down into being my fat, useless old self. I just can’t see myself in the things they say about me, refuse to indulge this ridiculous atmosphere of danger and urgency they’ve concocted around me, when right now I feel vibrant with health and more purposeful than I ever have before. From the corner of my eye, I see Mum’s car pulling into the driveway.

“You’re ruining Mam and Dad’s lives!” Emily throws at me, sniffling, before she turns on her heel and runs off to get Mum’s help. I don’t waste a moment, bolting out the window, racing to the garage, wrenching out my bike and making straight for the road, not looking back. Tears are streaming down my cheeks now, and I tilt my head to hide my face as cars pass, trying to look like a normal, happy person on a bicycle, not a hysterical, anorexic nutcase.

Our dog Lucky has joined me on the road, prancing along beside my bike, tail waving frantically, tongue lolling happily, the sole supporter and ally of my outdoor sports career. Watching this happy, buoyant presence calms and soothes me. Animals. They are so simple, so nice. They don’t care if you eat breakfast or not, if you gain five pounds or lose 15; they don’t even care if you eat other animals. And they won’t abandon you when you’re being a selfish, ruthless, conniving bitch, ruining the lives of everyone who loves you. They’ll just continue lolloping along, asking for nothing more than your presence and kindness, a few squeezes of affection.

Ruining Mam and Dad’s lives.” Emily’s words echo in my mind as I pedal further and further away from them. It’s true: I am. Consuming their happiness, throwing out their food, absorbing all their thoughts and peace and hard-earned comfort.

Or – my mind fights back angrily against this blanket, unfair accusation –are they just overreacting? Am I really asking for that much? To have the freedom to look after myself, to go for a cycle, to eat what I want, to sort out my own life? Aren’t I simply asking to be left alone? Isn’t it my life, my unfortunate body? They have their own lives and bodies, and I have never tried to interfere with those.

An hour later, I wheel my bike back into the garage and then slip quietly through the back door and into the utility room. I can see my sisters working studiously in the kitchen, the surface of the table entirely covered by the contents of their schoolbags: thick, dog-eared textbooks, calculators, dictionaries, copybooks, Shakespearean texts. Perfect children hunched over complex words and numbers, their faces masks of concentration. I try to slip by unnoticed, but Mairéad glances up, her expression hardening when our eyes meet, and then returns to her geography homework. Emily refuses to look at me, but I see her anger in her reddened cheeks, her furious concentration on her calculator. Anger and disdain radiate from both sisters.

“Hi,” Mum says just as I reach the door to the living room. She is distant with me, sad, though offers a weak smile as she rinses some vegetables by the sink.

“Hi,” I answer stiffly, unsmiling, then hurry to my room.

All I want is to quietly withdraw from life – which is too difficult, too painful, too much for me to get a handle on – and all I am asking is that they leave me to it, to the safe, comfortable anaesthetising routine I’ve developed that feels much easier than living fully

My sisters’ fury is weighing on me. They seem to really hate me most days, and though I maintain a needle-pointed focus on my goals, let nothing and nobody deter or distract me from my daily routine, the atmosphere of collective vitriol they create still seeps in through the cracks of my armoured defences and hurts the vulnerable softness underneath.

Selfish, that is their primary complaint. That I don’t care about the family or the stress I’ve brought into their lives, or the aura of fear and anxiety that hangs about my parents all day, every day. I am a spoiled, self-centred brat, as far as they are concerned. And while, in some ways, they are right about that – I don’t have the space in my mind or my day to sit and think about other people or what they need, and this is an entirely selfish, isolated way to live – in another way, I’m not asking for anything at all, and isn’t that the opposite of selfish?

I don’t want people’s food or attention or sympathy or help. I don’t expect people to like or love me, and I don’t waste my time looking for it. If they could only feel all the self-loathing coursing through me, the visceral self-disgust, the ardent wish to be rescued from the unrelentingly awful reality of being in this body, maybe they’d be selfish too. All I want is to quietly withdraw from life – which is too difficult, too painful, too much for me to get a handle on – and all I am asking is that they leave me to it, to the safe, comfortable anaesthetising routine I’ve developed that feels much easier than living fully. Is it so selfish to self-preserve?

I put my sisters’ scowling faces out of my mind as I nestle into a corner of my bed, and crack open Goblet of Fire for the third time that year. My Harry Potter books are the only things that stop my mind obsessively running through the calorie count of foods I’ve eaten that day or devising clever methods of avoiding eating certain meals at friends’ parties. The magical world is the single place I can go where I’m not confronted by images of glamorously wasted young women, girls as skinny and malnourished as I am, but who have made a career out of it.

The books give me a break from the atmosphere of tension and unrest that pervades any time I enter a room. Nothing else seems to still the relentless whirring of my mind in the same way Harry Potter does. And where my art, my friends, my dreams have faded and fallen out of my life, somehow Harry Potter remains. I read them over and over during this period, picking up Philosopher’s Stone to start the series all over again as soon as I have finished the last page of Goblet of Fire.

Mum tries to diversify my reading materials every now and then, bringing home books with brightly patterned covers and cheesy titles like Nobody’s Perfect or Love Yourself First!, written by “girls with similar problems”, but she ceases these efforts when I start citing the calorie-burning tips and extreme crash diets I’ve picked up from these memoirs.

Half an hour into the second task of the Triwizard tournament, I hear a soft knock on my bedroom door and permit Mum to come in. I don’t lower the book as she perches at the foot of my bed and looks at me.

“How’s your book?” she asks, her voice soft and tentative. “Great,” I reply.

“You must have read it 10 times by now,” she says, conversationally.

“Almost,” I tell her, lowering the book. “I think it ‘s more like eight.” She nods and smiles, amused. “Well, you’ll be more than ready for the fifth one to come out then.” It’s the winter of 2002, and the next book in the series is due to be published on June 21st, 2003. I’d reserved a copy in Eason’s, our local bookshop, the day after it had been announced.

“Yes, I’m going to be the first person in line to get it this summer,” I tell her happily. Something about what I’ve said seems to bother her, though, and I watch her relaxed smile become corrupted by that familiar grimace of anxiety.

“Will you have something to eat?” she asks.

“No, thank you,” I tell her, returning to my book.

“Just a small bowl of cereal?” she says, a note of pleading in her voice.

“I’m not hungry,” I answer firmly.

“Nothing?”

I am so tired of this game, the constant bargaining, the seemingly hourly negotiations to eat or not to eat. I just want to retire from eating, be done with the whole messy, unpalatable affair. Why do people have to eat so often, upwards of three, four, five times a day? Do they have nothing more interesting to do? Do people eat to live or live to eat?

“I’ll have an apple,” I tell her, grudgingly.

For a moment, it looks as though she’s about to start ranting hysterically, or worse, to wilt and do that unbearable broken-parent act, but then she seems to swallow her emotions, nodding agreeably and telling me she’ll be back in a moment. She returns five minutes later, places a small bowl on my bedside table and bids me goodnight. I continue reading for another few minutes, stubbornly ignoring the bowl, until eventually my curiosity, more than the aching hunger that I’ve grown used to, which feels more like a companion, a tangible affirmation of self-worth than an inconvenience, urges me to reach for it.

My mother’s love is still trying to get through the cracks of the fortress I’d built against it

I stare down at the little bowl in my hands: white, with dainty blue and red flowers decorating the edges. She has peeled a perfect Golden Delicious, sliced it thinly and then arranged the pieces in a small flower shape, the slices overlapping each other like petals.

I’d taken away her favourite love language, banished all the cakes and biscuits, the Penguin bars and Jaffa cakes, the little jam tart treats she’d sneak into our lunchboxes as a surprise. No sugar, no butter, no light and fluffy thickly iced buns. I’d denied anything she made with her hands, with thought and love, and allowed only cold, hard flavourless whole foods from the ground to pass my lips.

I had barricaded myself away from love, stripping away life’s most simple, frivolous pleasures one by one, until my world was completely boarded up from the affections of others, impenetrable and unforthcoming.

I’d told everyone to leave me alone, to stop trying to help, that I didn’t need them or ask them to care about me. I’d told them to go about their lives and forget I was there. I’d denied and refused my mother’s love for months, coldly pushing it back towards her across the table. I had tried to get rid of it so it would be easier and less complicated to continue my efforts to slowly, peacefully shrink. And yet here it still was, bare, simple, stripped of its frills but neatly arranged in the shape of a yellow flower made of carefully sliced apple pieces, my mother’s love still trying to get through the cracks of the fortress I’d built against it.

This is an edited extract from The Opposite of Butterfly Hunting: The Tragedy and Glory of Growing Up by Evanna Lynch (Headline, £14.99), out now

If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article you can seek help from Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, at 01 2107906 or
bodywhys.ie