So, I’ve toyed with the idea of writing more publicly for a while now, I’d discussed it with friends but quite frankly never had the metaphorical balls to do it but after a few recent discussions and some gentle persuasion, here I am.
I’m a bit apprehensive about posting some of the things I intend wax on about. I’ve never made it quite so public, yet I should probably practice what I preach and I’m a firm believer that talking, sharing and shedding light on mental health issues is important.
It is National Eating Disorders Awareness week and I felt this the opportune time to publish my first post. I intend to do a series on general issues relating to eating disorders, recovery and the importance of self-love; even if only one person reads it!
I think awareness, understanding, open discussion and early intervention are key and crucial to those who experience an eating disorder and for those who can offer support, be that healthcare workers or friends and family. I think as a society we’ve become more open and understanding of mental health issues in general, particularly depression. Although I don’t doubt there is still a lot more to be done. However, in my eyes, there is still a huge stigma and misunderstanding attached to eating disorders. This leads not only to the sufferer feeling shame and further hiding it, but it hinders intervention at a medical and mental health level. Chances are you know someone who has or is currently suffering from an eating disorder. An estimated 725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder.
Although I’ve recently shared openly and briefly my own history with this I’ve never really explained my story quite so publicly that highlights quite clearly the failures of poor intervention. I can’t stress enough how important that is early on.
The development of eating disorders is complex, both biological and social factors play a part and sufferers will have their own unique stories. For me personally for as long as I can remember I have had issues with my body. One of my earliest memories at five was saying I looked fat in my school uniform. I was a shy kid very early on, reflective and self-conscious, I found eye contact difficult. Throughout my childhood and teenage years’ events and personal issues would all play a part in compounding that warped idea I had about my body but it wasn’t until my 16th birthday when it really began to severely impact my eating.
My body issues were complex but I had always compared myself to friends and images around me. I danced and believed I looked fat in my leotards, I looked at my friends and would tear myself apart because I wasn’t as skinny as them. A month before my sixteenth birthday I made my first restrictive move, I became vegetarian. Then a couple of months later I decided the only way to lose weight was to just ‘stop eating for a while’. I had no idea when I decided this that after a couple of months I would be in so deep that I would still be grappling with it daily ten years later.
So for almost two years I lived off a diet of 2 slices of tiger bread a day, Diet Coke and polo mints (the humour is not lost on me that the fact I decided to live off tiger bread makes it apparent I was most definitely a middle class anorexic). Along with this I exercised excessively and often in secret, I punished my body like this for nearly two years. I was probably eating 400 or less calories a day. I became very very good at hiding the fact I wasn’t eating, I was manipulative and defensive. This is perhaps why my mum, who did an exceptional job of raising a squad of us on her own, perhaps didn’t realise the full extent of what was going on. I dropped about two stone in the first 3/4 months, but it was about 16 months later I knew I needed to tell my mum I hadn’t had my period in over a year. I was so underweight and I had lost it so rapidly that I developed Amenorrhea. It also transpired I was severely anaemic; I didn’t know at the time this was the reason I had to wear huge jackets in the height of summer and struggled to stay awake in classes at school. Anyway, revealing this to my mum, combined with the fact I was wearing clothes that could fit an 11 to 12-year-old, I was immediately taken to the doctors.
I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for the NHS and its workers and think it needs to be protected at every cost, but this is where I believe it failed me and countless others who have eating disorders. I was weighed, I was quizzed, I was prodded with needles. It was determined I was clinically underweight and had a host of medical issues as a result. Although I still wouldn’t admit it, my doctor knew I wasn’t eating. I was referred to a dietician. I refused to go. It was never followed up. I was referred to a gynaecologist at the hospital about my periods and monitored at the hospital for my anaemia. I asked of the doctor at the time what was the impact of me not getting a period? He told me I might not be able to have children. I said ‘is that all’.
At no point was I referred to a mental health specialist.
It is this failure that ill equipped me to deal with my eating disorder at its root levels psychologically. The doctors were attacking the physical issues, yet these were the impact, not the cause. So when I physically put weight back on, started menstruating again and my iron levels increased, I physically on paper and in person looked ok. Yet the root issues were still there and at about 20 years old I developed bulimia. This lasted in a major way, almost daily, for seven years. Many bulimics are normal weight. It is not as glaringly obvious as the perceived versions of a small waif like creature. I hid my bulimia from everyone. During this time, I lived at home, on my own, with a flatmate and a long term boyfriend. No one knew, including my flatmate of two years, and my ex, who I even hid it from in the first three months of living together.
Myth no.1 – Those suffering through an eating disorder are attention seeking. They are not, it is hid and denied at every turn.
Bulimia wrecks your body from the inside out and it can be so easily hidden because many who suffer do not look emaciated, this is one part that makes it dangerous. When I was anorexic it was clearly visible, with my bulimia not at all. People with eating disorders are not seeking attention. They are often hidden and denied for long periods of time. When this happens for that person, like me, it becomes the learned behaviour. That is incredibly difficult to break. It becomes the norm not the abnormal.
Secrecy is dangerous. I didn’t talk to anyone about the internal war I was waging with my mind and body daily for those seven years.
I finally managed to gain some control over it three years ago and only opened up to my friends and family about my bulimia about a year and a half ago. However, had I been referred way back when I was 17 to a mental health professional I can’t help but believe my outcome could of been very different to what I’ve experienced the past ten years. Intervention is key, treating the psychological reasons is key, talking about it is key. Not all eating disorders follow the same blueprint and without the proper understanding and treatment they will linger.
You don’t have to weigh a certain amount to need help. You don’t have to look a certain way to need help. You don’t have to be a teenager to need help. You don’t have to be a girl to need help and you don’t have to be a certain ethnicity.
Myth no. 2 – Eating disorders are just a phase that some teenage girls go through. They are not.
Eating disorders are not a choice or a phase and if they are treated as such recovery will prove very difficult. Don’t assume because your friend or loved one isn’t wasting away there isn’t an issue. Don’t assume because they ‘look’ like they have ‘got better’ they have. The physical effects of eating disorders are only one part. Sufferers need to learn behaviours to deal with their thoughts and actions. They need to learn that they are enough.
Recovery is possible, it’s not easy but fighting for it is worth it; but stigmas need to be tackled and sufferers need to have access to appropriate services.
For Eating Disorders Awareness Week Beat are trying to raise awareness of the fact that sufferers face barriers to treatment: poor understanding of early signs and symptoms, misconceptions among medical professionals and limited funding for treatment. GPs have a traditional role as the gatekeeper for specialist services, and the part they play in identifying eating disorders is incredibly important. This is the link to the petition asking the Scottish Parliament to do this.
If you have put up with my word vomit (no pun intended) to reach this far. I’d really appreciate if you could sign the petition