Words by Bee (she/her), 23 ACT
The piece ‘The Neverland of Illness’ contains themes about mental health, eating disorders and anorexia which may be difficult to read or triggering to some readers. Readers in need can seek support from the following services.
I was eight the first time I visited Neverland.
I remember running around the garden, my favourite plushie on my shoulders and my little tummy full of lunch. I was pretending to be a horse, with Stripey as my knight. At least, that’s what I told my parents.
The day I first visited Neverland was also the day I first learnt to lie.
My tummy was a little too full of lunch, pressing against the waistband of my pants in ways I didn’t, and still don’t, like. My entire body felt bloated, from my arms to my face. I remember vividly the hatred I felt towards myself for eating so much. If I ran enough, I could make up for it and the discomfort would be gone.
Even then, I had a feeling what I was doing wasn’t okay. But I lied anyway. I continued running around the garden because what else was I supposed to do? My body felt wrong, and I just wanted to fix it.
“All children, except one, grow up.” For my parents, that child was me. For many years, I was a welcome visitor of Neverland — time and growth halted by disordered eating habits. I kept my chair tucked into the table, always twenty centimetres away, and refused to eat more rice than my seven-year-old brother. I ignored concerns about my diet and growth. The chimes of Tinkerbell’s approval were all I ever wanted to hear.
I used it to drown out the noise. When the world was too much, Peter would fly to my window and whisper Neverland held the answer, Neverland could fix everything.
When I was told I wasn’t pretty, smart, and just not enough, I hid in the constancy and steadiness of Neverland.
When I was afraid and desperate for escape, Neverland became more than a refuge. Neverland became a home, Peter welcoming me with open arms.
But Peter and Neverland have rules. Divide lunches in half and weigh yourself four times a day. I got smaller and stayed small. And in turn, I received praise, admiration, and even love. Somehow, in weighing less, I felt I’d finally be enough.
But I was always enough. I didn’t have to shrink my body for love or punish myself when I didn’t receive it. But knowing these things now doesn’t make it any easier to escape Neverland’s clutches. I fought for years but, like crocodile teeth sunk deep into barely-there flesh, Neverland tears me apart.
At twenty-one, I thought I’d die in Neverland. To be honest, some days I still do.
I’m twenty-two now and still held captive by an illness I thought I’d one day outgrow. But that’s the thing about Neverland, you never grow, and I’m stuck in the body and mind of my teenage self.
No one told me how dangerous Neverland could be.
No one told me to watch out for scales and calorie-counting apps instead of pirates.
No one told me that fairies could come as numbers that really shouldn’t mean anything and pretty pictures of sickly thin legs.
Instead of a soft tick-tock coming from the belly of a crocodile, I hear a voice telling me I should be smaller, I should eat less. Everything will be better if I’m smaller. I’m not worthy of love unless I’m smaller, smaller, smaller…
I’ve watched my friends and family grow outside of Neverland, their bodies softening and curving, and I have never once thought they were anything less than enough, anything less than deserving of love. I want to be like Wendy and tell Peter that I couldn’t help it. I grew up long ago.
But to do that, I must leave Neverland. The Neverland that, for many years, gave me a home and stole its way into my identity, eating me from the inside to keep me there. The Neverland that tells me, every day, I am all you have, all you will ever be.
I want to be happy with the way my flesh softens, with feeling full, with eating what I want and not what I think I need. I want to buy pretty clothes and love how I look in the mirror. I want to take pictures with my friends and not cry for days after. I want it all and yet my mind rebels, screaming at me when my thighs touch or when my fingers can’t circle my arms.
It should be easy, shouldn’t it? I want these things. So much. I’m surrounded by love and support and people who want me to grow. And yet every day, Peter gets louder and harder to ignore.
I’m twenty-two and I’m afraid of Hook and his pirates. I’m afraid of breakfast, bread, ice-cream, and rice. But most of all, I’m afraid I’ll never leave Neverland.