When Caroline Horton first developed anorexia, she didn’t feel comfortable talking about her experience. But after giving a talk at her old school, she learned many students had questions about eating disorders and decided to create a play, Mess, to help share her experience.

The play, which recently debuted in Calgary, has helped Horton start a broader conversation about eating disorders.

Horton grew up in Lichfield, England, but it wasn’t until she attended Cambridge University as an English Literature major that anorexia began taking over her life. At Cambridge, Horton struggled to control her relationship with food and began binging and restricting, making her feel isolated.

“It was like an addiction. I felt like this is mine, and I don’t want anyone to interfere, I don’t want anyone to take away my behaviors,” Horton says.

Although it was difficult, her friends and family eventually persuaded her to see a doctor. Unfortunately, the doctor Horton saw lacked knowledge about eating disorders and told her that ‘her symptoms would pass.’

This discouraging experience made Horton question if there was anything wrong with her at all.

“I found it really hard to then go back and try again with a different one because it’s very demoralizing and I felt very silly.”

Soon after, Horton was hospitalized for anorexia.

She spent six months working to get better before she was healthy enough to return to her regular life.

In 2005 Horton received a message from her old head teacher asking if she would speak to students on awards day about her transition from Cambridge University to a prestigious Paris drama school, Ecole Philippe Gaulier.

Horton agreed and initially, had no plans of speaking about her struggle with anorexia. But during her talk she decided it was important to mention her experience. Horton wanted the students to know that although her life is good, she lives with an eating disorder every day.

“I think if I’d been a student at that point, I’d have been really comforted to just hear that and kind of relate to someone,” she says.

After the speaking event, Horton was shocked to find that people wanted to speak to her about her eating disorder. She stayed at the school for almost four hours talking to students and answering questions.

“It was that particular event that made me go, ‘I wonder if I can try and make a show with that spirit of opening this up and that focuses on the relationship between the people around the sufferer, and the sufferers experience,’” Horton says.

She thought about the idea for a while, but it was only after writing her first play, You’re Not Like The Other Girls Chrissy, based on her late grandmother’s Second World War letters, that Horton felt she was ready to create a play reflecting her experience with anorexia.

“I got a little team together [including] experts from the Institute of Psychiatry and the Maudsley Hospital in London and we did a week together just to see where we might go with it.”

Horton’s idea took off and after years of preparation, her play, Mess, premiered in 2012 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to critical acclaim.

In Mess, Horton plays a character named Josephine who struggles with anorexia. In the show, Josephine and her friends Boris and Sistahl create a play that tackles the challenges someone struggling with an eating disorder faces and the relationships they have with the people around them.

Horton takes down her parasol to symbolize her recovery from anorexia in Mess. Photo courtesy of Vertigo Theatre.

Although the play is based off her own battles, Horton wanted to be sure that a range of people would enjoy it. Mess aims to shed light on a sensitive subject in a comedic way that everyone can appreciate without feeling uncomfortable.

Horton is currently an associate artist at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company and BBC Birmingham’s first writer in residence. She believes it was vital to inject humor into Mess so someone like her dad, “for whom this stuff was so frightening and confusing and alien, could come and see and get a bit of understanding.”

“The Q and A’s and panel discussions and workshops we’ve had around it have hopefully, in a small way, helped open the conversation up a bit more,” Horton adds.

To further the conversation, Horton tries to partner Mess with eating disorder associations or support networks in the cities she travels to. In Calgary, Mess partnered with the Eating Disorder Support Network of Alberta (EDSNA) during Eating Disorder Awareness Week from Feb. 1-7.

This was the first year Eating Disorder Awareness Week had been proclaimed by the City of Calgary and EDSNA’s goal was to get people involved and support people living with eating disorders.

“It’s just bringing together all of these volunteers, with all of their different ideas and all of their backgrounds to generate awareness about eating disorders,” says Dr. Angela Grace, a volunteer with EDSNA and practicing psychologist.

EDSNA is hoping Mess and other events during Eating Disorder Awareness Week will help decrease stigma and myths surrounding eating disorders. Dr. Grace says many people think only super thin teenage girls suffer from anorexia, when in reality, eating disorders affect “people of all ages, all cultures, and all genders.”

Horton wears one of the medals she gives herself when she loses weight. This is just the beginning of her journey to recovery in Mess. Photo courtesy of Vertigo Theatre.

Horton says partnering with organizations such as EDSNA helps people feel less isolated and provides individuals with a safe space to talk about eating disorders. She also thinks it’s important to start conversations with youth and often performs for school groups to encourage healthy body images.

Cindy Mintz, a member of the audience at Mess, brought her two pre-teen daughters to the play for this very reason.

“I think that’s it’s a really tough thing when you’re young—to filter from the magazines and the media messages that you get about what the ideal body type is,” she says.

Mintz mentions she hopes Mess will help her daughters become informed about eating disorders and encourage them to be accepting of all people, no matter what they’re dealing with. Horton believes Mess educates audience members and encourages them to be understanding of people suffering with eating disorders.

Horton also uses Mess to enlighten viewers about how challenging it can be to overcome an eating disorder. She says that although she has improved and become healthier, she still battles with binge eating. For this reason, Mess doesn’t have a real ending. Horton wanted to reflect that while it is possible to recover, eating disorders don’t always fully go away.

“I get better all the time and it’s something I actively work at. It’s a conscious decision every day to stay well and to do the things that keep me well,” Horton mentions.

Horton is proud Mess has helped increase conversations about eating disorders and hopes it can continue to educate viewers. She’s grateful her play has provided her with the opportunity to bring people together.

“[Eating disorders] can feel overwhelming and in a way, there’s nothing that us as individuals can do and yet every little small act feels like it does something.”

gdirks@cjournal.ca  hpayne@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Nina Grossman and can be reached at ngrossman@cjournal.ca