Following the recent launch of her first-ever book, ‘Cycling Proficiency: The Road to Recovery’, Britain Uncovered had the chance to speak with author, Alice Lushington, about many of the issues covered in this tell-all publication. We’re discussing Alice’s battles with eating disorders, the ways in which cycling helped inspire her recovery, why baring all in public helped her to accept her body, and lots more!
Britain Uncovered: Hi Alice! We’re really looking forward to talking through some of the experiences that have led up to the arrival of your brand-new book, and it will be great hearing about how it all came together! To start with, can we ask what prompted you to go ahead with this project , and what type of content can people expect from this new book of yours?
Alice: Hello! And thank you with all my smiling heart for your support and interest. I’ve needed every last ounce of encouragement to get this far and so your enthusiasm goes thoroughly appreciated.
The book went from a vague idea to an absolute plan after a rather startling event. It happened one afternoon last year as I was sitting in the university library, one month on from my cycling adventure, trying to write my dissertation. Suddenly, I felt a rush: not of inspiration, but of blood! My period had come back after five years of amenorrhea and I ran home in a crying state of euphoria.
In that iconic moment, realising how powerful my four-month journey had been and how much it had helped me find my pedalling feet, I knew I had a message to share. And not only did I fix my broken ovaries, but I came back from my escapade an inch and a half taller! Which is amazing considering I hadn’t grown a millimetre since 2015. So it was this event that filled me with the courage and gratitude to go through with it.
As for content, you can expect 4,482 pedalling miles of wilful ridiculousness, insatiable enthusiasm, surprising occurrences and above all: raw honesty. Essentially, all my secrets are in there.
Britain Uncovered: Going back to some of your early experiences, we’re aware that you previously spent time in hospital with anorexia – and you’ve been quite candid in discussing the loneliness and misery of having an eating disorder, in addition to the physical pain that comes with it. Could you perhaps share with us some details of your early body image struggles that led up to this disorder and the challenges it presented?
Alice: Physical pain is right. Back at my lowest weight, even the simplest things like sitting down or walking up the stairs came with raw agony. And you are so spot on: loneliness and anorexia go hand in hand. It gets to the point where (like a true masochist) you begin to enjoy the gnawing ache of loneliness. Ironically, it begins to keep you company.
Funnily enough, my own body image struggles came long after the eating disorder had settled in, and I’m sure this is the way it often goes with anorexia. Anorexia in my case, as with many others, was a terrible accident.
I never really struggled with my body – not until I was well into the thick woods of my disorder. Before then, you’d never have met such an enthusiastic eater: I used to eat spaghetti for breakfast, douse everything in cheese and blow all my pocket money on Super Noodles and Pop-Tarts! People would be so impressed by the vast quantities I could stash away and I was always secretly delighted with comments such as, “How do you eat so much”, “You’re so slim, where do you put it”, and “My goodness, did you really eat all that”? But this is so, so common with anorexia. It’s the foodies that get it. Trust me.
So I never minded my body then, just as I never minded it when I started to bloom into a woman. Actually, I loved getting breasts because, for a time, I was worried they wouldn’t arrive. However, when something dark shadowed my brain (something I still don’t yet understand), I found anorexia as a coping mechanism. Weirdly, I think anorexia saved my life. And then nearly took it.
This idea that eating disorders are increasing in the Western world because of ‘a pressure to be thin’ is, in my opinion, simply not true. In the very same way we have higher rates of suicide and depression in the Western world, eating disorders are more prevalent here because of the disconnect and loneliness our societies cultivate. Just as an animal in distress will start to pick itself to bits, we humans do the same.
Having said that, my own body image struggles did inevitably come later on, but by then it was too late: my whole world had turned into an upside-down churning misery of numbers, punishment and self-shrinking, and I had been admitted to hospital. It was only then, during day one in ‘the unit’, that the need to be small suddenly became the biggest thing in my life: my indenting and reason. This made the weight gain agonising, particularly because it wasn’t my choice.
That’s the most painful thing – being forced to change your own body against your will, to swell into a body that you feel is not your own. Well, that’s how I felt at the time, but looking back I am so grateful for all I was forced to do and for the doctors and HCAs who helped save my life. A life I am so thoroughly in love with now.
Britain Uncovered: Without giving too much away – as I’m sure this is covered in great detail in the book – how do you now reflect on this difficult period? Are you able to view the difficulties you went through from a different perspective, and what have you learned about yourself in the time since you left the hospital?
Alice: Oh gosh, the gift of hindsight is so wonderfully strange. I look back now with all flavours of emotion: guilt, sadness, humour, gratitude. The only thing I don’t feel is regret. Not for one single bloody, sweaty, tearful day of it. Because for all the pain, my struggles have sculpted me a really wonderful life.
As you mentioned, I can reflect from a different perspective now and think, “God, did I really do that?” or “How on earth did I survive that?”, but that has taken a hell of a while. And still my perspective changes every year as my mental health takes twists and turns, for better or worse. Sometimes the eating disorder gets a little close again (this was definitely the case in lockdown), and in the same way you couldn’t read a newspaper if it was right in your face, for a time I lost the clarity of perspective. This can be dangerous. But I’m lucky enough to have already practiced recovery and so I have an inventory to draw upon to keep myself steady and prevent a full-on relapse.
Today though, as I stare up at the ceiling and cast my mind back, I think of this time with sadness twisted up with joy: the highs and lows I shared with my gorgeous fellow inmates, who are now beautiful women, some with babies.
Perhaps the most poignant thing I’ve learned about myself throughout all of this is that I’m actually quite tough – tougher than I’ve let myself be. People may think of anorexics as weak, pale, lifeless ghosts. This is in part true, but anorexics (recovered or not) are also some of the strongest-willed people you might meet. Of course, to go against every hungry fibre in your body takes enormous will. Will best spent on other things like art, music, writing, running, dancing, singing and recovery itself.
Britain Uncovered: Having suffered with this disorder, are you keen to use your experiences to help others? How do you think you might be able to help/support people suffering from eating disorders, and what advice might you offer to someone struggling with such issues at present?
Alice: More than anything! And this is why I’ve been so honest in this book. Humiliatingly so. Perhaps by bearing my soul with such graphic truth, I might just reach someone who needs to know they’re not alone and that you can be really, really ill and still bounce back. If my book was to resonate with someone as poorly and lonely as I was, I would honestly feel my life was complete. Gosh, I get emotional just thinking about the possibility of it.
As for advice to others struggling, this is something I really want to stress: that if you are struggling with an eating disorder, though I know it is torture, please know that there is a truly stunning silver lining. Recovery will show this to you in surprising ways and if you push on through you will come out of the dark with a life even more flavourful than before your disorder. And it isn’t just post-recovery that will bring you this: along the way there will be lots of sparkling moments. Hold onto these, fluff them up, polish them, treasure them. Recovery is beautiful.
In the meantime, to anyone going (or wanting to go) through recovery I would suggest finding something other than your disorder to pour your soul into. It might be painting, walking, writing, travelling, dogs, poetry, love, charity, dance, languages, collecting pebbles: whatever it may be, implement that into your recovery plan and make it as important as the eating itself. Taking the creative route to recovery makes a lot of sense to me because we are not robots, and (excusing the pun) one size does not fit all in recovery. Rebuild your body and rebuild your soul. Your life will yield incredible things.
Also, one more message to anyone in or moving towards recovery: do not be disheartened if it doesn’t seem perfect. Bloating, gas, night-sweats, curious and contradicting bowel movements, bingeing, emotional volatility and fatigue might be a part of recovery. And this is okay, this is good. Your body is responding! Trust the process and you will blossom in unbelievable ways. Remember this: recovery is a privilege. A long, gruelling, treacherous privilege.
Oh! One more thing. Here is my email address if anyone wanted to get in touch and have access to my understanding ears: email@example.com. You can also find me on Instagram at @alicelushington.
Britain Uncovered: Is body image, in general, something that we as a society are too fixated on, and should we instead be focusing on loving our bodies and praising them for all the positive things they do for us? And if so, would this help avoid eating disorders in so many people and encourage healthier and more positive mindsets?
Alice: As a society, I do think we put too much of the wrong kind of emphasis on body image. There is nothing wrong with admiring a face glowing with kindness, or a body sculpted by dance, or interesting patterns and birthmarks on someone’s skin. This, I think, is the key: celebrating, not idolising.
The time of epitomising one body type is long outdated. Instead, perhaps we should celebrate the differences between our bodies, as well as (like you brilliantly put it) the positive things they do for us. Birth, marathons, painting, dance: aren’t these more impressive than lazy pouting and bored eyes?
To avoid eating disorders, nothing will work better than making society happier in general. It’s like a friend once said to me, “Have a strong mind and your body will follow.” I think there’s a lot of truth in that. And to have strong minds, we need to pay attention to our basic needs of fresh air, health, community and purpose.
Britain Uncovered: In our interview with eating disorder educator, Esme Michaela, she mentioned that she “still struggles with fighting against her disordered thoughts and behaviours” and stated that you can never truly conquer the disorder for good. Do you feel the same way, and how do you keep on track and focused on your recovery?
Alice: Firstly, kudos to Esme for putting her story out there – eating disorders can be isolating and it is a humbling relief for someone like me to have access to a courageous story such as hers.
However, I would have to respectfully disagree with her comment about never truly conquering the disorder. I believe, I know, that no matter how entrenched in their disorder a person might be, they can conquer it for good. This has to come from a decision to let it go; a decision I will admit I’ve not 100% committed to. To this day, there a few microscopic aspects of my illness I cling to and I know this is through choice and that one day I will fully let go, but not just yet (I think I’ll need another bike ride for that).
Eating disorders are addictions and just as any alcoholic has a chance of full recovery, so does every anorexic, bulimic, binge eater. The only complication is that you cannot go tee-total from food or exercise, and thus recovery has to be a little more creative. But with enough determination and practice, 100% recovery awaits.
As for my own recovery, the biggest thing for me was finding a purpose. For me, this started in hospital, where my fellow inmates and I all knitted. It gave us all something to create that had nothing to do with to our illnesses, and that process of slowly binding together a wonky scarf that my Granny had said ‘wasn’t her colour’ gave me a reason and a purpose. As the energy and strength returned, I found more purpose in painting, drawing, writing, then eventually sea swimming (especially in winter!) and cycling.
When I set off on my cycling journey, my sense of purpose was at an all-time high and I had never felt more recovered in my life. It gave me a sense of belonging, like I was snuggling into the me-shaped hole in the world. We all have one and I am finding mine more and more as I cycle, draw, paint and write my way through life. One day, hopefully, in following these purposes I will be able finally let go of the last tiny residual of my disorder. I’m literally 95% there.
Britain Uncovered: As you mentioned, you also discovered a love for cycling during this difficult time – how did this come about, and would you say that cycling has played a significant part in your recovery? Is the exercise and physical activity a good way of staying focused, healthy and motivated?
Alice: Yes! Without a shadow’s shadow of a doubt, my recovery was pedal-powered. As soon as I was well enough to do so, getting about on my bike gave me a sense of freedom and adventure. During my disorder, exercise was all about punishment, so it was a real game-changer for me to find a new perspective.
These days, cycling is not just a recovery thing but a way of getting from A to B, a means for making money (I work for Deliveroo), and a means for release. Also, if I am cycling, I have to eat well to keep cycling. This simple fact keeps me healthy.
Britain Uncovered: Cycling also led to your participation in a naked bike ride event a few years back, in which you were able to raise funds for Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity. What was it about this event that appealed or made you want to be involved, and can you describe your experience on the day?
Alice: It all happened because of Frank Skinner. He was on the telly (on the BBC programme Room 101) talking about how he’d witnessed a herd of naked cyclists plunging through London, and that a guy to his side had called the cyclists ‘weirdos’. Frank said you’re either with the naked cyclists, or you’re that guy on the sidelines calling them ‘weirdos’. I knew in that instant I was on the side of the cyclist, so it was decided. Mum nearly fainted when I told her.
The build-up was definitely nerve-racking! But with the momentum of hundreds of encouraging gestures and all those pounds I was raising to help others, I had plenty of strength to go ahead. It felt right, I was free and healthy and damn ready to celebrate.
The day itself was one of the best days of my life. It seems like yesterday I was stood there, surrounded by pink bodies, quivering in my dress. But after yelling “I’m gunna do it!” and whipping off that dress in one swooping motion, everything was brilliant. It was an iconic moment in my life, for sure.
Britain Uncovered: Did being naked in a public setting help you to embrace and accept your body, and has taking part helped with your self-acceptance or improved your body confidence at all? What were some of the most beneficial elements of taking part, and is it an experience you would recommend to others?
Alice: Being naked in the most public of public places was the ultimate way of accepting my body. You know, I’d never questioned whether it at all helped improve my body confidence, but I guess maybe it did. It certainly made me accept myself as I am, and as I will be as my body changes.
So yes, it was great! However, the toxicity I’ve experienced since the ride – in the form of online messages, photos and threats – has been a little overwhelming. But this is just the result of cameras being in the wrong hands on the day, so I don’t feel resentful. Even though the threats still filter into my inbox every now and then, I wouldn’t ever take back the day of the WNBR. It signified my freedom and no amount of threatening venom can take that away. However, I would warn other girls to only take part if you’re okay with the possibility of being targeted like I was.
Britain Uncovered: Shortly after the ride, you picked up your bike and went on your travels across Europe – documenting your experiences in your journal and through your own artwork as you went around! What were some of the highlights of your travels, and how have you encapsulated the entire experience in your brand-new book?
Alice: It’s difficult to sum up the highlights because every single day of my travels was rich with weird and wonderful happenings (even the lowlights came with their own highlights).
From the extremes of mountains and romance, to the very simple things like when that little Spanish girl gave me a pot of lip balm (she was worried about my busted lip), there are honestly too many poignant moments to chose from. Pedalling up the Alps was poignant, sleeping al fresco on the sand at night in Italy was brilliant, going to an Italian wedding party was wild, jumping over a fire in France was exhilarating, skinny-dipping among the Spanish mountains was beautiful. And as for the people I happened across, goodness: there are so many characters to blame for the the pieces of my soul now scattered about Europe.
As for encapsulating the experience, I’ve poured my wee heart out into Cycling Proficiency: The Road to Recovery, leaving no raw, gory, humiliating detail out – there are literally blood, sweat and tears among those pages. Coming to writing it, it was amazing how vividly the memories flashed in my head, and how acutely I could remember every single day. But I suppose when you travel, the days become whole sagas.
I have also illustrated each of the 27 chapters because drawing and painting are my absolute loves in life (hopefully one day a source of income too) and also, there were so many beautiful pictures to draw from. I literally couldn’t help myself! Besides, drawing is in itself another language, so I reckoned this might give the book an extra dimension. Each original illustration is for sale too, and the money will go toward my next adventure. The front cover is designed from a painting and is also for sale.
Britain Uncovered: You’ve been on quite the journey – both figuratively and literally! How do all of the above experiences come together in the book, and what else can people expect to hear about your personal journey over the years? Was it therapeutic to write, and does it tie up loose ends and offer a fresh slate going forwards?
Alice: I had no idea until I’d gotten my first draft under my belt how important this book has been for my soul. A soul, it turns out, that is still fractured and in need of vast doses of hindsight. Writing and illustrating the book has been incredibly hard work (I can’t remember the last time I got out of bed after 6.30am!) but ultimately so, so worth it because it gave me the chance of release, of cracking open all that I’d kept secret. In re-pedalling my journey through words and drawings, I’ve been able to really appreciate how poignantly those four months served me. But I think I’m not yet done. There is more to unwind, more to discover, more to heal from. So I’m planning my next jaunt, soon as Covid should allow it.
Writing and illustrating Cycling Proficiency was therapeutic, but also incredibly tough. I really had to harness every ounce of courage to crack open quite a dark and private world. I could’ve written all things croissants, mountains, adventures and joy, but this wouldn’t have told the whole story. Deciding to basically humiliate myself by telling the true version of events, including the memories and flashbacks that surfaced during my travels was really, really exposing: like baring a raw wound so it can finally heal.