What better way to begin my series of blog posts to depict my mental health story, than at the beginning – my experience of an eating disorder. My struggles with bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa are perhaps those of which I have documented most, but hopefully that will not keep this post from being insightful as I attempt to be more honest and open about my struggles than I ever have been before.
Those who have known me since I was very young will know that even growing up, I was always on the lighter side, a “skinny minny” as everybody called me, or my infamous nickname “toothpick girl”. This was no doubt due to being an overly-active, overly-adventurous child but in the mix there was always the presence of nitty-bitty eating behaviours. Whether it was being forced to sit at the table for hours on end in a high chair as I refused to finish my evening meal or hiding the many foods I didn’t like inside my mashed potato, these behaviours were innocent. Who would know that only a few years later during the transition from primary to secondary school, these behaviours would become so dangerous and consume me like a fire, burning through my small but healthy body and fundamentally my personality too.
Whilst my friends went through puberty on a normal, gradual timescale across a few years, mine occurred practically overnight. From the straight -up-and-down bony frame I had always known, curves rapidly housed themselves on my body with this expeditious development bringing stretch marks and self consciousness. The final straw came when a figure in my life with whom my relationship had always been rocky, picked up on this sudden weight gain and development of a womanly figure – the first time I was ever called “fat”. As a naive and deeply sensitive twelve year old, these comments were taken to heart and from that day I believed that the only way I would achieve the love I so desperately longed for would be to lose weight. That my curves were wrong, and therefore they had to go. Fast.
I began cutting out meals, breakfast first. I had never been a breakfast lover anyway, so it wasn’t picked up upon when I cut it out altogether. Lunches came next. From around half way through year 7, never again did I step foot in the school canteen. Again, nobody realised. Being school dinners, there were never any uneaten packed lunches to take home to ring any alarm bells with my family and excuses around other twelve year old school friends were easy to construct. So long as I continued to have my evening meal at home, nobody was the wiser.
A key characteristic of eating disorders is that one’s perception of perfection is never acquired with every goal and every target met only producing an even more unrealistic and unhealthier target and this characteristic was present from very early on in my disorder. Soon, eating only one meal a day was not restrictive enough so I decided I had to go one step further. I knew that I could not get away with cutting out my evening meal too so figured my only other option was to rid myself of the calories I had just consumed – cue the first time I made myself sick. Funnily enough, it happened to be the same day I convinced my parents to allow me to convert to a vegetarian diet. I hold onto the fact that this was a moral decision and one of which has lasted me to this day, however looking back I can now see that this initial decision was probably more heavily influenced by my disordered thinking patterns than I knew so at the time. A hasty decision thrown at my mum did not provide her much time to compensate the usual family meal for me and my convincing lies of “not being that hungry anyway” meant that for “one night only”, I got away with eating only pitta bread with salad for dinner as I could no longer consume the meatballs served with them. Quickly devouring as little as I could get away with, I escaped up to the bathroom for a “much needed, relaxing bath”. Whilst the taps ran loudly, I purged for the first time. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.
From that day onwards, purging my evening meal became a constant. I would spend hours googling ways to make myself sick in silence so that nobody would know, or how to ensure I was clearing as much food from my stomach as possible. I found this entire online community providing eachother with purging tips which I utilised to the best of my ability, getting “better and better” until eventually I was able to empty my entire stomach by simply moving certain stomach muscles. Thinking back now how at the time I saw nothing wrong with such encouragement makes me feel deeply embarassed and sick to the pit of my stomach (no pun intended). Still, it did not stop there as soon purging was also not enough. Next came laxative abuse.
After maybe two awful years of restriction, purging and laxatives, I finally broke down and admitted to my mum and stepdad of the behaviours I had been acting out. Horrified, they vowed to support me and have ever since. Nevertheless, things got much worse before they got any better.
Not long after my confession, our family moved home to a different county. This became our new start, my start to get better and eat normally, beginning with a trip to our local GP and a referral to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service where on assessment I was diagnosed with bulimia nervosa with anorexic cognition. Before this referral, I had no concept of BMI or specific weight, I had only ever focused on what I looked like in the mirror. But to a psychiatrist and dietician, my weight became their biggest focus and eventually mine too. Instead of working with the professionals, I worked against them. I manipulated my psychiatrist into removing one extra thing from my meal plan on every appointment, a meal plan of which I still didn’t abide to anyway, and left my mum feeling more distraught and more helpless every other week. My unwell brain didn’t see the hurt I was causing at the time though, instead all it could see was the new obsession with losing that extra lb which happened within a very small timeframe as by this point I was eating smaller meals than my youngest brother.
School became involved in my care as I was no longer trusted to eat my meals without supervision and I became too underweight to be allowed to participate in sport. Before long I spent the majority of my school day being encouraged to complete breakfast, a morning snack and a lunch although looking back now I can see these were merely snacks, let alone meals. Breakast, for example, consisted of half a slice of dry toast, a herbal tea and a piece of fruit yet the level of distress this caused was unbearable. I am eternally grateful for the support my school provided as they went way above any expectations but I only wish I’d accepted this help at the time. Instead I continued to abuse this support, hiding the little amount of food I was expected to have when one wasn’t looking or outright refusing altogether. Most snidely, I learned to spend a long time cutting up food and rearranging it on my plate to make it appear as though I’d eaten when really I hadn’t taken a bite. My eating disorder “rules” became increasingly irrational and the list of foods I categorised as fears became longer than the list of those which were safe – chocolate, white bread, butter, milk, white pasta, rice, the forbidden list was endless. It was at this point that I developed an unhealthy obsession with exercise. The little amount of the school day which wasn’t spent in meal supervision, I would leave the school grounds and spend it walking non stop for as long as I could with breaks in between to visit the local Boots to weigh myself and calculate my BMI using their healthy weight machines as my own personal scales had been long confiscated from home. 9 times out of 10, these walks would turn into a session of binging and purging.
By May 2013 at the age of 16 and at a critically low weight, my diagnosis was officially changed to anorexia nervosa of the binge/purge subtype. Eating around 200 calories in “normal” meal food but binging and purging on thousands of calories of chocolate and carbs up to eight times a day, I was dropping weight quickly and was beyond exhausted all the time. The excessive walks spread into the evening too. My parents showed deepening concern but without me willing to make change, there was very little they could do.
In June 2013, only a month later, I was admitted to a psychiatric unit for a variety of reasons, one of these being the inability for me to recover from my anorexia at home. Within hospital, I was pushed beyond despair to tackle the abundance of rules my eating disorder had created. No eating with fingers, no tearing food, no exercising at the table, no wiping of food into tissues, no access to the bathroom for an hour after meals, no walking up and downstairs, supervision for an hour after meals to ensure that not a single movement was made (even as little as an itch on the leg), set meal plans which were not to be manipulated and times within which they must be completed if you were to avoid meal replacement drinks or ultimately an NG tube if you refused for long enough.
After 4 years of disordered eating, hospital treatment was both torture and a relief to finally have some control taken from me. My brain allowed me to eat because I was no longer making the decision to do so, instead staff were forcing it upon me. The six months spent in hospital on a strict meal plan were far from easy, but they were life saving.
Since being discharged from inpatient care three years ago, the journey to recovery from my eating disorder has not been easy. I think it is generally expected that once a healthy weight is reached, the victim of the eating disorder is recovered when in reality it is the opposite. Personally, I found being weight restored the most mentally challenging part of my journey. The eating disorder thoughts still remain but they are no longer expressed by your body, you feel physically uncomfortable in your own skin and you feel as though you have failed. You no longer look like the frail, sensitive person which you still are on the inside. Most importantly, this weight gain is not permanent because recovery is never a linear process. It’s peaks and troughs and plateaus, it’s feeling recovered and then sudden relapses, it’s gaining weight and then it’s losing all over again. When I have previously posted of my eating disorder story, I guess it’s fair to say that it’s deceiving. I always post a “before” and “after” photo but never speak of the frequent relapses in between. Most notably, these relapses include the winter of 2014 following a hospital admission for surgery and winter 2015 whilst at university.
Despite these relapses, for the first time in 8/9 years, I finally feel I am able to say that I am 90% recovered from my eating disorder and I will never look back. Sure, I have thoughts of how much better things were when I was thin and how great it was to be so underweight that you are pretty much free of emotional pain because your body doesn’t even have the energy to feel. But I think that’s just a part of me now. The difference is I have these thoughts, I go to bed and I wake up giving recovery another chance because the thing is, recovery isn’t one choice, it’s making that choice every single day. It’s having the odd negative thought but making that choice not to act and realising that a bad day in recovery is 100000 times better than a good day in relapse.
Recovering from your eating disorder opens up so many new avenues. It gives you the ability to return to society in food related situations, it’s going for meals with your friends to celebrate birthdays, it’s drinking alcohol at your prom, it’s wearing the clothes you want to wear and not the clothes your disorder always told you were most appropriate for your body frame, it’s attending the formal dinners which are such a massive aspect of my university life, it’s allowing yourself to enjoy junk food in front of the television with your baby brother, it’s discovering a love of the so many foods you have deprived your body of, it’s coming to the realisation that food is to be enjoyed, not feared because your body cannot survive without it. It’s accepting that the only food that should be cried over is the beauty of your cake on your wedding day or the ice cream you dropped as a child. It’s realising that there is more to life than food, but that cannot be accessed without nourishing and gentle treatment of your body.
But most of all, it’s choosing to live, not just to survive.
For more information on eating disorders and how they can be treated, please visit the following pages from Mind’s website:
By sponsoring me for my skydive on the 16th July 2016, you are donating to Mind and thus allowing Mind to support people like me who have been the victim of an eating disorder whether that’s through providing information, continuous campaining to raise awareness or offering help and advice through their Mind InfoLine.
Thank you for reading x x x