Content warning: depression, eating disorders, self-harm
In the spirit of Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2019, I’m going to share my story with you. Only by sharing stories and talking about eating disorders and mental health in general can we break down the stigma and shame that surrounds them.
I’m not sure how I feel about awareness days and weeks; for sufferers (or those recovered), they can feel like an unwanted assault of triggering content and/or a sense of pressure they should be doing more. My doubts notwithstanding, I currently feel like sharing. I hope it helps people learn more about something they otherwise wouldn’t have, and anyone struggling behind closed doors can learn that they are not alone and that it can get better. It doesn’t always, but it can. And holding onto that hope, no matter how small or seemingly impossible, was one of the things that got me through.
About a year and a half ago, I was deep in the throes of an eating disorder. Over the course of 6 months, I lost about 20% of my body weight when I wasn’t particularly heavy to start with. At the time, I felt like this wasn’t enough and all I could think about was how I could lose the next kilo.
It started with what I recognised to be depression. I had felt this way many times before and it had crept up on me as it usually did. It was feelings of apathy, emptiness, loneliness and somehow numbness, misery and deep despair all at once. I was plagued with thoughts and images about taking my own life or harming myself, and I also started to self-harm again for the first time in a long time. I sought medical help pretty quickly, having recognised what I was feeling and the behaviour it had driven me to. Depression was an old beast that I had faced and conquered before, and despite feeling overwhelmed by it, I knew that with help it would pass. I started seeing a psychologist once a week and we started working on the depression together.
This time, however, was different. I had developed a new and aggressive desire to physically shrink and take up as little space in the world as possible. With this new form of self-hatred came a new form of self-punishment: food (or lack thereof). I couldn’t eat anything besides fruit and vegetables. Anything else I ate I would make myself vomit up shortly afterwards. I exercised constantly, at one point running 13 miles “because I felt like it” (when in reality I just couldn’t stay still because I wanted to burn as many calories as possible). I was constantly hungry but unable to keep anything substantial down. I knew what I was doing was not ‘normal’ behaviour, but I couldn’t stop. I was stuck in a cycle. The shame I felt not being able to eat, the most basic thing that humans do to survive, was like no shame I had ever felt before.
When I first saw the GP, I didn’t look outwardly ill and the shame meant I was hiding my behaviour in any way possible so it went unnoticed. Contrary to popular and some medical belief, people with eating disorders can still be a “healthy” weight on the BMI scale and look fine on the outside. An eating disorder is more to do with your relationship with food than it is with your appearance. When untreated, the effects sometimes (but not always) become visible and urgent treatment can be required to prevent further physical and emotional decline.
Concerned friends and family gently pointed out that I was losing weight and that I wasn’t eating much but I would always find an excuse and brush them off. At one point I genuinely did have food poisoning and the fact I was secretly happy about the weight falling off me makes my skin crawl when I think back to it today.
There is a certain irony that at my lightest and most skeletal when my body so closely resembled that of a runway model, I was stuck in a cycle of eating an entire 100g bar of white chocolate (or pretty much any other high-calorie food) and vomiting it all up again almost immediately. The cravings to do this were stronger than any impulse I have ever had before. There is nothing less elegant or glamorous than retching over the toilet whilst simultaneously crying about how tragic you are, how much your stomach hurts, and having your housemates overhear you and then stage a very awkward intervention. Nobody ever mentions either, that throwing up after every meal can burst the capillaries around your eyes and leave you with bruising that makes you look like you’ve been roughhoused in the face. Another fun thing that can happen is that your bladder and kidneys stop working properly, your electrolyte balance completely torpedos and you start needing to pee constantly, especially at night. Not only do you get woken up all the time, but sleep pretty much stops happening anyway as your body wants you to find nourishment more than it wants you to sleep. I was a scrawny zombie panda with all the pre-requisites for organ failure.
At some point, my psychologist called out my increasingly disordered attitudes towards food, my shrinking physique and malnourished complexion. I think her words were “if you don’t start eating, I’m going to have to send you somewhere for treatment because the depression won’t be your biggest problem anymore”. The threat of being referred to an eating disorder unit lit a fire under me to try and get better. I felt desperately trapped in a cycle of starving, bingeing, purging (making myself sick), repeat. I wanted out, but I couldn’t possibly imagine how that could ever happen.
I couldn’t escape the reality of my situation anymore and was soon diagnosed with anorexia (and later bulimia). I thought it was the first time in my life I’d ever struggled with food, but I later realised that my childhood and adolescent years had been marked by a disordered relationship with food, from only eating completely plain food as a child to binge eating constantly at university.
I was intrigued and disturbed in equal measure by the changes I saw in my physical and mental state. When I looked in the mirror, I saw a much larger version of myself staring back at me than anyone else did. I’d read about body dysmorphia in biology textbooks at school but had never understood what it felt like. (It really is a thing, and it feels dreadful). The part of me that finds mental health interesting was fascinated, but the rest of me was terrified. Would I ever be able to eat normally again? Would my obsessive thoughts about food ever stop? Would I ever look in the mirror and actually see my real body? Would I ever be able to go to a restaurant and not obsess over where the toilet is and how soon I can go and be sick in it? Recovery meant facing up to the demons causing my depression (they turned out to be BPD, more on that another time), and I was scared.
After accepting I had anorexia, I slowly stopped deteriorating and things started to improve. I was given a strict meal plan (3 meals and 3 snacks a day) and had to keep a food diary. These were a crutch intended to help me learn how to eat intuitively again, because all my disordered behaviours had destroyed my ability to identify hunger and eat a sensible amount in response. My body had to learn that it would be fed consistently, regularly and in a healthy amount. I had to learn that as my body got used to metabolising food properly I would put on weight and that it would go against the principles of my disorder. As I slowly started to put weight back on, I started to respond better to therapy and the hopelessness started to lift. Through recovery, I learned how to properly nourish my body after intense exercise and turned running from self-punishment to self-reward. It was a journey of fits and starts, small triumphs and disasters, and lots of moments where I wanted to give up and go back to the ‘safety’ of the certainty that the anorexia offered. I tried coming off the meal plan too quickly and slipped back into old habits so had to take a few steps back. But eventually the anorexia subsided and I found myself able to eat intuitively again, less preoccupied with the size of my body and able to let the thoughts drift past me rather than take up all the space in my head. It took 6 months on a meal plan every day to get there. My metabolism has finally recovered and I can actually enjoy meals with friends and family.
What my friends (my housemates in particular) put up with in that year was extraordinary. Their patience and kindness when I had none for myself kept me going when life felt too difficult. Their support when I routinely succumbed to my eating disorder and ability to stay resilient themselves when they had their own things to worry about was inspiring. If it weren’t for their support, understanding, compassion and stubborn insistence that I do right by myself to recover by eating properly, I am sure the story would have ended differently. To live with someone intent on starving themselves is no easy thing, and they are wonderful for sticking by me through all of it without a word of complaint.
I never imagined I’d be well enough now to write about it, but here I am. Despite being in the best headspace I have ever been in, my relationship with food is the first thing to be threatened if I am stressed or anxious. The experiences I have had will never leave me and I carry a burden with me wherever food is concerned. I know now, though, that I have people I can talk to openly about it, and things that help me feel better if I am struggling. I have developed a language with my loved ones that helps me communicate that I’m struggling without having to say it. For example, when I’m having a body dysmorphic day, it’s easier to tell my boyfriend that I feel like a blimp than it is to say my recently conquered eating disorder is rearing its ugly head. Here’s a blimp, note the size of it:
I haven’t really mentioned social media or the media’s representation of women at all; it didn’t play a huge part in my anorexia although I know it has done for others. For me, the abundance of incredibly thin models all over the internet validated my eating disorder but didn’t fuel it. It’s not the same for everyone, and it’s a good time to mention that my experience is just mine; every individual goes through something unique and I can’t speak for everyone with the same diagnosis.
To summarise, here are some things that I learned:
- The body does some spooky things when it is malnourished, and it ruins your metabolism
- The mind can’t make much progress when you’re not feeding the body
- When you restrict your calorie intake and don’t get the energy you need, your body will try to keep you alive by inducing the strongest urges to binge and eat everything in sight.
- Eating disorders are not a weight disorder, they are a mind disorder. People can have an eating disorder without being underweight. Some medical professionals also make this mistake.
- There is a lot of stigma and misinformation out there
- It can get better with the right support
- Everyone has a slightly different experience even though they might share a diagnosis.
- Recovery involves falling over a lot. It gets really rough at times. But you are strong enough to get up.
- Love is powerful. The people who care will stick around.
If you are struggling with or supporting someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, here are some places you can go to for help: