8 – 14 May 2017 is Mental Health Awareness Week – 7 days – 7 blogs -7 Mental Health topics

Today – Eating Disorders

What is it like to live with an Eating Disorder? I have no personal experience of this, and so hand this blog over to two very brave ladies who are happy to share their experiences anonymously to help raise awareness –

First, a now married Mum of two looks back on her teenage years –

My battle with food started when I was about 14. My mum had suffered with chronic depression for years. One of the symptoms of this was that she comfort ate and across the course of my childhood she had gradually gained weight. At her worst, she was a size 34 and classed as morbidly obese by medics who had told her she would die if she continued to eat as she was. This terrified me and I remember watching her eat during family mealtimes, being in a constant state of panic, just waiting for her to have a cardiac arrest at the table.

I think that’s where my negative relationship with food started. I was a vulnerable girl, I’d been severely affected by my mum’s mental health and initially I think I just developed a fear of food as I associated eating with dying. I used to feel sick at the mere sight of food, my meals got smaller and smaller and I lost weight quickly. The more mum ate, the less I was able to stomach. I’d always been very tall and very slim but quickly became quite skeletal.

People started noticing, the girls at school who had barely noticed me before were all commenting on how thin I’d got, they weren’t necessarily saying it as a compliment, but I’d never been in the popular crowd, didn’t have a big circle of friends, so just having people notice me became addictive! I also think I was desperate for my parents to notice me. Mum was so unwell, I felt like I didn’t exist a lot of the time, her illness made me feel worthless, like I didn’t matter and when she started to show concern, we started to argue over me starving myself – that too became addictive. She noticed me, she cared and I mattered for those momentary clashes.

For me, not eating was also about having some control. I had no control over any other aspect of my life; with food I had a choice! If I didn’t want to eat, no one could make me. I knew I was painfully thin, my ribs and pelvic bones jutted out, I was pale, spotty, and gaunt but it was never about what I looked like, I didn’t care what I looked like, it was all about control!

Starting college saved my life. At school I never excelled at anything, home life was horrific and I was so very lost but I started college and things quickly changed. I excelled educationally, which gave me a confidence boost but I was also finally noticed for something other than my weight. My tutors raved about my assignments, my varied work placements showed me there was more to life than home and new friends gave me a social life and confidence I never knew existed. Gradually, with that new focus, I started to gain weight, starving myself didn’t seem necessary anymore.

I will always be thin, I will always struggle when watching people over eat. An all you can eat buffet is literally my worst nightmare but I now know that there are better ways to manage stressful situations. Counselling to help me come to terms with mum’s problems really helped me overcome mine. When I’m fed up or angry, I can now stuff down junk food with the rest of them but during times of extreme stress, I think my food issues will always be there but that’s ok, because I know what my triggers are and don’t allow myself to get into bad habits for more than a few days.

I don’t think you’re ever truly free from an eating disorder, like any mental health condition, it leaves a scar, not like a visible tattoo that everyone can see but a hidden wound that never quite fades.

This experience shows the importance of being able to access the right help –

I was 14 when I first stopped eating. At that point I didn’t know it had a name and there were other people who did it too.  Felt very alone and did everything I could to hide it. I told friends I wasn’t hungry or that I’d just eaten a huge dinner if we went anywhere there was food, and I told adults I’d eat while I was out so it was fairly easy to hide in the beginning. If I had no choice but to eat then I took laxatives to get rid of the full feeling as soon as I could.

By the time I was 15 I weighed less than 6 stone and people started to notice how lethargic I always was, I wore baggy clothes to hide my thin body. I didn’t have any type of body dysmorphia as people often assume, I knew I wasn’t overweight, I knew I looked thin … it was more of a self-hatred of myself, I felt unlovable and unworthy and I guess it was a type of punishment to myself. I also self-harmed and I think this was just another way of harming myself and maybe in a strange way I was trying to prevent growing up as I was terrified of the thought of being an adult. I still denied there was any issues and made a point of eating in front of people occasionally and then taking laxatives more.

It was when I started fainting regularly and I was forced to see health professionals who realised I was starving myself that I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and finally I was admitted to a psychiatric ward to get the help I needed. Recovery was very long and difficult but I was very lucky to get access to talking therapies to deal with the underlying problems I had and by 16 I was eating a balanced diet, I was a healthy weight for the first time in over 2 years, my periods had resumed, and I finally began to feel some sort of self-worth.

I still have some problems with stress fractures, bowel problems and circulatory problems, but other than that I consider myself lucky to have recovered so well. I wish people would know that anorexia is not always about thinking you are overweight, for me and many others there are underlying mental health problems that lead to anorexia, often it’s about control. Teenagers have very little control of their lives and for me, food was the one thing I could control for myself. The root cause needs to be addressed to aid recovery and to prevent relapse.

My enormous thanks and love to both ladies who have been so brave to share their experiences with me to help raise awareness. I hope that in some small way that by speaking out and finding your voice, that a little of the pressure has been relieved. You are so much stronger than your demons.

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