Hi I’m Nayena, a young champion for Time To Change. I love writing, art, and music. Nothing makes me happier than good vegan food. My friends say I’m a calm, witty, and positive person. I’ve also been diagnosed with depression and anorexia. For too long, I’ve been terrified of speaking out about my mental health. But here I am, telling my story.
What’s changed? Mostly, I have accepted myself. I’m not ashamed of my depression, nor my anorexia. I refuse to feel shame for something that has sculpted my life, widened my horizons, and shown me to be stronger than I ever thought possible. Yes, mental illness is awful, but it has made me the person I am today - I have met so many incredible people and I have discovered a passion for mental health activism that has opened so many doors for me.
Mental illness does not discriminate. It can affect anyone, whether you’re a person of colour or white or gay or trans or male or female.
You were likely surprised by my diagnosis of anorexia, due to the very specific picture of the disorder portrayed in media. Unlike the image of anorexia so often represented, I am a person of colour. Unlike the image of anorexia so often represented, I don’t look emaciated. Unlike the image of anorexia so often represented, I never did. But I had my struggle, and it was made unnecessarily harder by people who were too blinded by their own ideas of anorexia to fight for me. Friends, family, therapists: none of them took me seriously until it was very nearly too late.
My disordered eating started when I was 13, as a way of coping with a world that I felt I didn’t belong in. It worsened for two years before someone reached out to me. Those were the most isolating and exhausting two years of my life.
At first, I convinced myself my fear of food was nothing to worry about, purely because of the internalised stigma I had surrounding eating disorders. I thought eating disorders couldn’t happen to people like me, much less deserve help when they were suffered by people like me. When I thought of anorexia, I thought of young, white, skinny teenage girls who took a diet too far and landed themselves in hospital. While that may be one story, it is one of millions. And somewhere in the millions of stories is mine.
When I became ill with anorexia, I was not trying out a diet. I did not make a decision one day to just ‘stop eating’. I didn’t ever go to hospital. When I became ill with anorexia, it was a way of coping. I was extremely depressed, although didn’t know this at the time. My home life was unstable, and I clung to this illness with all I had. I did all I could to ensure my family didn’t notice, and although my school friends noticed, they said nothing. They were too blinded by their own idea of what an eating disorder looked like, and dismissed mine for a long time. After a year or so I realised I had a problem, but still didn’t believe I was sick enough to seek help.
The reason no-one noticed my eating disorder is that to the outside world, I just looked ‘healthy’.
I was praised by my friends for my willpower to exercise every day without fail and never touch junk food. I looked a healthy weight, was technically a ‘healthy weight’ (whatever that means), and yet I would faint whilst working out and fall over if I stood up too quickly. I looked healthy and yet I was a shell of a person, whose life revolved around calorie counting and obsessively exercising. I have vivid memories of my legs shaking as I walked into the exam hall to do my GCSEs - not because I was anxious, but because every step further took energy my body no longer had. All I could think about was food. At my lowest, I was suicidal, self-harming, spending weeks in bed. It was a time of my life that is so odd to think about because I was not myself at all. The memories are so vivid but they don’t feel like they are my own. I was really, very lost. What has stuck with me, this entire time, is this feeling of invalidity. This feeling of not being ‘sick enough’.
After years of struggling, in early 2018 I finally decided I was sick of being sick. I decided I would give recovery my best shot and see where it took me. Where it has taken me has been incredible. I would love to tell you that I woke up the next morning and did yoga and everything’s been fine since, but that is not the reality of recovery. I live with my depression every day and my eating disorder is still always there. I am a firm believer that things don’t just get better, but that you get better at dealing with them. I am infinitely stronger than I believed myself to be a few years ago. I have grown so much, I have learnt so much, I have laughed so much. Recovery for me is still struggling sometimes but knowing that I can pick myself back up again the next morning.
My message for Eating Disorders Awareness Week is that you are ‘sick enough’, the moment you do not feel 100%. There is no measure that can determine whether you need help; only you know how you feel and what would help you. And sometimes, you don’t even know what would help. But acknowledging and expressing how you feel is invaluable.
What did help, for me? A combination of things: therapy, medication, writing, music. And also friends, family, cats. Somedays what has helped most is a friend calling me up and asking if I want to go for coffee and have a chat. Somedays it’s been a family member cooking for me when I couldn’t myself.
Mental illness is complex but supporting someone with it doesn’t have to be. Just make sure you look after yourself first, because you cannot pour from an empty glass.
What I can’t emphasise enough is that there is no standard of sickness for you to deserve help. You deserve help when you doubt you need it. Also, your worst days in recovery will still be better than your best days in your illness. Talking helps. People are far more understanding than you think they’ll be, because there really is no shame in whatever you’re going through. All you need to do is give yourself and those around you a chance.