What's the first thing that comes to mind when you hear 'anorexia'? Does it conjure up a vain teenage girl, drawn by models in glossy magazines? Or celebrities bragging about their latest lettuce based detox diet? It saddens and frustrates me that myths still exist around eating disorders that really trivialise it. That's why I wanted to write this blog – to help tackle some of this stigma and make people aware of how serious it is.
I first developed anorexia when I was at university. I became disenchanted by the stories I had heard about university being "the best times of people's lives". Although I did enjoy some parts of university life, I found it very stressful adjusting to so many changes – a new living environment, new relationships, new responsibilities from being independent, new learning styles, career pressures. In particular, I struggled with finding my identity and making new friends as I was painfully shy.
Following rules, counting calories and the thrill of that ever diminishing number on the scales soothed and protected me from the confusion, worthlessness and loneliness I really felt. Being able to survive on so little satisfied me in a world where we are expected to function with a robot-like efficiency.
However, this grew into a dangerous obsession. In an anorexic mind-set, you are never thin enough – you can always go that little bit further – which fuels the critical voices telling you that you are not good enough, not smart enough, not talented enough, not outgoing enough, not good enough of a friend, girlfriend, daughter, student. There is no ideal weight – so you continuously feel the need to punish yourself, as you are still a million miles away from perfect and don't deserve anything.
Disbelief paralysed my body when my nurse told me I had to go to hospital. Being treated in hospital for almost a year was one of the most difficult periods of my life. I could no longer control the one thing that gave me a sense of control. I spent my 21st birthday in hospital, while my university peers were finishing their final year, ready to embrace the real world. Seeing patients in their 30s, 40s, 50s, including men and even a 60 year old lady, many of whom were relapsing, was really saddening.
Exploring my childhood and thorny issues of how I got ill in the first place made me squirm a lot. A really hard part of recovery was people assuming that I was fine when the physical symptoms disappeared. Anorexia is at its root a mental illness and the mental side takes much longer to recover from. What weighed even more heavily than the food was the guilt I felt from admitting all the lies I had told and seeing the hurt that had been caused. Eventually I accepted the fact that anorexia, like other mental illnesses, is not a choice – just in the same way that people don't choose to break their leg.
My experience has taught me the importance of perseverance, a strong support network and to appreciate the value of both good mental and physical health. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to receive the help that I needed from my family, boyfriend, close friends, health professionals, tutor and colleagues to enable me to recover, graduate and start work. I know others that haven't been as lucky. Anorexia is poisonous; the longer you leave it, the more it infects your life and becomes a default coping mechanism. Did you know that anorexia has the highest death rate of any psychological disorder? This is due to the increased risk of suicide and life-threatening physical effects from a weaker immune system, reduced cognitive ability, low bone density and loss in fertility.
Even if you don't know anyone who is suffering directly, your attitude towards eating disorders can help encourage someone who is to come forward and seek help, or make the road to recovery just that little bit easier, or even better, to help prevent the illness from developing in the first place. For example, being sensitive around your use of language, challenging assumptions and taking into account the fact that some colleagues may feel anxious around food. And never underestimate the power of the little things. Smiling, being friendly and inclusive to colleagues, saying thank you for a good piece of work and genuinely asking how people are can make a huge difference.