Why I’m trying to be more open about my eating disorder
‘Anorexic’ and ‘skinny’ are not interchangeable terms
Monday 22nd February marks the beginning of Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2016, and for this reason I’ve decided to share my story.
I’d always had trouble finishing everything that was on my plate. Eating was just a chore and a distraction from the things I really wanted to do with my time. I’d often be found sitting stubbornly at the dinner table, doggedly refusing to eat the last few pieces of food that would grant me freedom. It wasn’t necessarily that I was a picky eater, I was lucky enough to have pretty open minded parents who sought to instill the same philosophy into me from an early age regarding food: try everything.
The trouble was I never had the biggest appetite, so I was quite petite as a child, and often treated like a fragile doll by my school friends and family members, small and delicate. “Get some skin on your bones! You skinny Minnie! You eat like a bird!”
Apart from that, I never really worried about my body too much, and in fact had quite a sweet tooth. It was only when I began the tail-end of secondary school after moving school from Brussels to Manchester that my insecurities started to kick in, something that’s pretty common for a 14-16 year old.
I picked up some of my worst habits in year 11, by which point I purposely tried avoiding social situations that involved food. I’d make myself very specific meals for lunch that didn’t consist of very much, but had just enough to not cause anyone to worry.
I’d binge on junk food and throw it all back up before my mum got home. I’d make up elaborate lies regarding how much I’d eaten by dressing plates with crumbs for her to see in the kitchen. I was a walking contradiction – I both wanted help, but would vehemently refuse it were any questions to arise. I felt both trapped and attacked, at the mercy of the scales I’d weigh myself on every morning. The result would determine my mood for the day, and how much I felt the need to restrict.
Fast forward and I’d finished my first year at university. By this point I’d opened up more about the troubles I’d had with food, but had gotten by without getting any proper help or counselling. I’d brought my scales with me to uni, anticipating time I’d spend alone counting calories and feeling bad about myself.
Luckily for me, I had the best bunch of flatmates anyone could ask for. My preoccupations with eating and calories took a back seat after all the changes and new experiences that came my way. I was still conscious of my weight, but it only really caused me anxiety when it came up, which it rarely did.
When summer came along and everyone had gone home, I had no one else to think about but myself. I followed a monotonous routine of commuting to and from work every other day which grinded me down mentally.As a result, I slowly started to slip back into old habits again. The only things that kept me going were my obligations at work and the concern expressed by my boyfriend over Skype conversations. I didn’t want to worry him and burden him with my problems generally, let alone from a distance. More than anything, I just didn’t want to let anyone down.
Eventually I started feeling the physical side-effects: chest pains and palpitations, breathlessness, feeling faint and lethargic. The fear they stirred up in me was enough to make me book a doctor’s appointment soon enough, having experienced them before I knew things weren’t good. I spoke to various different people, and following a weigh in at the GP surgery, an urgent referral was made to have me admitted to Warneford hospital’s specialist eating disorder clinic.
Getting help was something I’d evaded for so long on the principle that I wasn’t sick enough or skinny enough to deserve it. There were plenty of people worse off than me, and if I’d managed to sail through it the way I had for the past four years, why should I confront it now? As far as I was concerned at the time, I wasn’t even at what I perceived to be my “worst”, so the assessment felt wholly unnecessary.
The advice I was being given sounded ridiculously simple. It felt so patronizing, yet I continued to stubbornly prioritise my comfort and self-esteem over my health, indulging in my bad habits for as long as I could. I wasn’t used to eating meals anymore, and my stomach would get bloated and distended after being used to so little for so long. I eventually grew tired of keeping on top of my food diaries, so I quit seeing my dietitian, pinning my hopes on the therapy I’d potentially be able to get in the new year.
Luckily, the wait paid off. As soon as 2015 had begun, I decided to turn a new leaf and fully invest myself in my treatment. I saw my therapist weekly, with appointments becoming more and more spread out the more I progressed. I learnt a lot about myself, and how determined I could be. I worked through my food restriction and avoidance, body-checking, obsessive weighing, anxiety and low-self esteem. I took up pole dancing and before I knew it I was competing. While throwing myself in the deep end sometimes proved problematic, it forced me to face my problems head on.
I now feel better equipped to deal with potential relapses and triggers. I’ve realised I’ll never be perfectly happy with everything about myself, but that’s okay.
You can’t tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them. While some anorexics do become emaciated, this is not always the case. Similarly, naturally slim people are not automatically anorexic. Anorexic is not and should never be used as an interchangeable term for skinny.
The sooner someone gets the help they need, the more likely they are to make a full recovery. A report in 2015 found that 725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, with 11 per cent of that figure being male. Eating disorders do not discriminate, with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder being the most commonly debilitating.
Now is as good a time as any to open up about mental health issues, eating disorders included. Admitting you’re struggling, or have struggled doesn’t make you weak, it’s a ripple of positive change. We need to stamp out the stigma attached to mental health, and acknowledge it with as much importance as physical health.
To learn more about, or even find advice on how to help friends or loved ones who may be struggling with similar problems, visit Beat, where you can also donate to, or get involved with Eating Disorder Awareness Week.