I had as traditional an upbringing you could hope for; a big family, tight knit and very loving. We would eat dinner as a family every evening at the same time and we would wait for every one to sit down before starting. We would talk and discuss things over food, something that I don’t think is done or appreciated enough.
As a child I was driven and extremely determined and passionate. If anyone tried to get me to do something I did not like, that was another matter! I was sociable, never short of friends and was always out the house and busy. I never had any issues with food, in fact, I ate a huge amount and never seemed to be full; friends and family would comment “where do you put it all”. My relationship with food was extremely healthy.
I remember bizarre little moments from the age of 15 or 16 when naturally your body begins to change and become curvier (for women). I was suddenly acutely aware that my protruding hipbones were no longer sticking out, this was one of my first obsessive notions although I thought nothing of it at the time. Gradually, I changed from a little girl who loved her food to a teenager who was highly aware of expectations of how I wanted my body to look, constantly comparing myself to other girls/women, things then started to play on my mind…
The weight loss and health damage happened astonishingly quickly. Within five months I had developed from an already slender girl to basically skeletal. What began as ‘I’m going to eat more healthily’ morphed into ‘I’m going to skip dinner tonight, so I can have my flat tummy and hipbones.’ I am now aware that it was much more complicated than that but the reality then was simple. By doing the odd meal skip here and there, I noticed my weight drop a little and it was this that I grew addicted to. I became obsessive and I was attached to the feeling of stepping on the scales and seeing my weight had dropped. Soon enough, my clothes were baggy, body gaunt and I had no energy left. I became an expert at weight-loss and nothing and no-one could distract me from it.
The day became a routine of measuring every last morsel and weighing myself after consuming anything, even a glass of water. There is no rationalising with yourself when you are in the darkest moment of this mental illness. I was in control and I was so dedicated to being as thin as I could that I did not care to acknowledge the damage I was doing to my health or to my family and friends who were terrified yet helpless to stop the damage I was visibly subjecting myself to.
My eating disorder made me lie, it made me selfish and it made me no fun to be around; my sociable personality dropped as fast as the weight. I was tired, permanently cold, my periods were ‘a thing of the past’ and remember being so weak I would just lie there for hours unable to do anything too strenuous; it was mentally and physically exhausting. There was nothing glamorous about the illness.
I was extremely lucky that I had a number of close friends who spotted the signs. We were all very weight conscious but I would tell them I was fine and there was nothing to worry about ‘I was happy, I felt and looked the best I ever had’ I couldn’t see the problem that they could. At times I even felt that they were jealous that I was managing to control of my weight when few people had the willpower to do so. I genuinely felt that if people tried to talk about an ‘eating disorder’ (which I was still in denial I had) I saw it as attempted ‘sabotage’. My eating disorder twisted rationality in my head and turned me into an obsessive, single-minded person to whom nothing else mattered.
When the weight loss became apparent I vividly remember other girls react with judgement and negativity, it’s something that stuck in my mind and still saddens me to this day. There was often no sympathy, empathy or encouraging words. I experienced looks of disgust, shock or ignorant people telling me to “eat something” or that my “legs look ready to snap.” From both men and women, boys and girls. People would stare and for some reason I went from being someone so ferociously proud of how thin I had managed to get and how great I “felt”to covering up in baggy clothes. Eating disorders confuse things, one moment I was proud of myself for reaching a weight suitable for a 9 year old and then the next I wanted to cover up because I was aware of how I was being perceived. It was these conflicting internal/external views that made my body image along with my mental and physical battle all the more distressing.
I was officially diagnosed by my GP when I was 17 and it took over a month and almost a stone later to get an appointment with the adolescent eating disorder unit despite being told I was at severe risk of numerous complications and health concerns, some of which were life threatening. They are inundated with cases and backlogged where mental disorders and eating disorders in particular are lacking the resources they truly need.
The problem was not accepting I had an eating disorder, it was letting go of control of the situation. I knew there was a serious problem at hand but not even the stark facts were enough to change what had become a lifestyle. It took me three months of seeing professionals to begin to properly commit to the “programme”. I had to come to terms with the fact that this was not a sustainable life choice plus trying to prioritise my long term health as well as my immediate support network around me.
It took approximately three months to stop lying and start following the eating plans and methods in progress. I got to a point where although I didn’t feel comfortable and happy with my body image, I was scared at what I had put my body through and I felt an over whelming sense of guilt. I hated seeing the scales and to feel control slipping away but it was almost a sense of liberation, I had to eat to live so coping became a necessity. I felt relieved to put health first for the first time in a long time and to improve the wellbeing of my family. I have younger siblings who witnessed me at my worst; I wanted to be a positive influence and a person people wanted to be around again. Not a lot of people realise that an eating disorder is an all-encompassing mental health disorder and that it is a constant battle not only for the person suffering, but for the family and friends who are integral parts to the diagnosis and recovery process.
It’s not an overnight recovery process, it’s about learning to manage it and realising your body is vulnerable and your mental health is delicate. I now admire the female form and realise the expectations placed on women by ourselves and external pressures are unrealistic and unhealthy. This is nothing new and I am not saying that with support and positivity eating disorders will be cured but I for one could have done with a little guidance to support and look after myself better in the earlier days.
My outlook on life changed. Now, I work in events in London and I consider myself very lucky. I have a fabulous set of friends and amazing family. I have invested that once scarily detrimental drive into other aspects of life such as my career, desire to travel and being generally as healthy as possible (both mentally and physically). I cook and I enjoy the social side of food again. I regained my love for new recipes and baking.
I don’t think anyone is ever 100% happy with their body 100% of the time, but for now, I’m content. I’m comfortable and that’s good enough for me. I strive to be healthy in mind more than anything but for now I’d say I’m a pretty “normal” 24 year old. The fear no longer grips me and I can see the big picture.
Everyone is different shapes and sizes and as cliché as it is, embrace that. There is no use in comparing yourself to others, be you and be proud of you. Be the healthiest and happiest person you can be, don’t put your health at risk as you have so much to look forward to that you don’t think about yet. Teenage years should be as carefree as possible, it’s difficult to achieve that now as we’re in such a high pressured society, but be you. My biggest mistake was comparing myself to others and setting unrealistic expectations for myself; I overlooked what I did have going for me.
To anyone currently going through this, you are absolutely not alone. The stigma of mental illness and eating disorders is changing and it is something that you can overcome.
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