*Please read this post, even if you don’t think it is relevant to you, you may be able to help a loved one who is suffering*
I felt compelled to write this piece, after hearing in the local news about a young woman who died of a heart attack as a complication of her anorexia. It made me think about my own life and about how different things could have turned out. Her illness spiralled out of control during a particularly stressful time in her life, which mimics my experiences with eating disorders. There is still a lot of misinformation and a lack of understanding, and empathy with regards to people suffering with eating disorders. There isn’t the help and support that is needed. The NHS is severely underfunded and as a result people are not getting the help they desperately need, and in the worst cases this leads to avoidable deaths. Hopefully by sharing my story I can help raise awareness of this isolating and debilitating mental illness. The following is dedicated to the beautiful Averil Hart.
I’ve always had an unhealthy relationship with food and the perception of my body. In my late teens and early 20s I was a compulsive overeater, and in my mid 30s I developed Anorexia. At my largest I weighed 18 stone and my smallest 6st. What I know now is that is was just a manifestation of my anxiety and depression. It was never about the number on the scales or my appearance. I hated the way I looked at 6st just as much as I did at 18st, and that self loathing was part of the problem.
When I was a compulsive overeater, everything revolved around food. When I was anxious, I ate to try and ‘force down’ those feelings. When I was depressed, I ate to cheer myself up and I even rewarded myself with food when I felt I’d accomplished something. Food was like a best friend.
Unfortunately my health suffered, I had chronic back pain caused by the extra weight I was carrying and at 24 I made the decision to lose weight. Like with everything I do, I went completely overboard and lost 9 stone very rapidly. Food went from being my friend and comfort to being the enemy. It was at this time that I read a statistic that has stuck with me ever since. ‘95% of people that lose weight put it back on, and more’ This scared the hell out of me and my new obsession became finding a way to be part of the 5%.
Fast forward to my mid 30s and a highly stressful period in my life led me to start ‘controlling’ and restricting my food intake. My anorexia was never about losing weight, it was just an attempt to regain some semblance of control. By the time I realised I had a problem, I had got to the stage where I was mentally unable to eat. My Ed brain wouldn’t allow me to eat, even though my rational brain knew that I would die if I didn’t. It felt like I was physically unable to put food in my mouth.
My weight got so low my periods stopped, I stopped sweating, I had constant palpitations and my body didn’t function normally. I was wearing children’s clothes and my bones protruded to an extent where sitting and laying down were extremely painful. But still I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t see a correlation between me starving myself and the drastic deteriorating in my physical and mental health. There is nothing rational about anorexia.
The amount of self loathing and self doubt I experienced at this time was far worse than anything I’d experienced throughout my life. I hated my body, I hated myself for letting anorexia take control, I felt like a failure, I felt useless and worthless. How could a strong and independent woman allow this to happen? Anorexia fed my anxiety to the point where I was scared of everything. It’s hard to explain the intensity of these feelings but it was all consuming and all I could think about 24/7. I lost touch of reality and lived in my own obscure Ed world.
Through a lot of hard work, I managed to recover from anorexia but what people need to realise is, it’s a mental illness not a physical one. People don’t starve themselves just to look good in clothes. Forcing sufferers to eat doesn’t work either, they just introduce purging, or laxatives or start exercising excessively. You need to confront the fear that is driving the obsession to starve, and find coping mechanisms that don’t involve such destructive behaviours. I didn’t get any help from medical professionals, I was just told ‘you have to eat’ but I did get a lot of support from my husband, family and close friends.
The key to my recovery was reassessing my attitude towards food. After years of being called fat and greedy, I saw food as the enemy – Eating=Bad. I now see food as medicine. It gives me energy, it helps my body repair and heal itself, it provides me with the essential vitamins and minerals for my body and mind to function. Re-educating myself about the function of food is what turned things around for me. The healing process, which is ongoing, has involved me spending time focusing on my mental health, to find healthier coping mechanisms and find ways to boost my self esteem and self worth. I’m not saying it was easy and I had to do a lot of work to try to tackle the negative thoughts that were triggering my destructive behaviours, but it can be done, you can beat this.
I’m pleased to say I’m now at a healthy weight and I have been for 3 years. Although I still have some anorexic thoughts, I remind myself daily how ill I was a few years ago and how far I’ve come. I have to be very aware of my relationship with food and my body. It’s very easy for destructive behaviours to ease their way back into your life, especially during stressful periods. I’ve accepted that anxiety and depression will always be part of my life but I am learning more productive ways of coping with them. I am still unable to eat high calorie foods, I get panicky just thinking about it, but I’m a healthy weight and I eat a balanced diet. I’m not sure if I will ever be able to say I’m completely ‘over’ anorexia, but for now, I am winning the battle.
If anyone is reading this and is going through the same, I would be happy to chat in private. Please know you are not alone and you are strong enough to beat it.
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