Before we begin
This post marks Eating Disorder Awareness Week and, as such, it’s necessarily about eating disorders. It discusses my own experience of living with, and recovering from, an eating disorder. It also touches upon self-harm and the diet industry.
If you are recovering from an eating disorder, or are vulnerable to disordered eating you may prefer to sit this one out. No worries – I’ll see you in the next post xx
Oh – and it’s also a very LONG post. So now you’re armed with all of the facts, let us begin.
I lived with an eating disorder from my teens until my mid-twenties and those years were, without any shadow of a doubt, the darkest I have lived through. It started, as I suppose these things often do, innocently enough: I was a teenager, I was growing and I didn’t like it. So I went on a diet.
Of course, now I know that it was a little more complicated than that. Thousands upon thousands of people go on diets every year and for most of them it doesn’t end in the horror and chaos that I brought to bear upon myself. For me, there were other factors in the mix. I was unhappy, I was angry, I felt I had no control. I was also quiet, conscientious and prone to perfectionism. Add to that the tendency to obsess and, well, safe to say, I was the perfect eating disorder storm.
It didn’t happen over night – it crept up on me, slowly but surely, until one day it was too big for me to stop: it was a juggernaut smashing its way through my whole life. On the face of it, it was a numbers game because I soon discovered that everything, including my own worth, could be counted. For the longest time, I valued myself in calories, pounds and ounces and BMI; the lower the better.
Beyond the numbers there was nothing but horror in my head. I hated myself with such conviction that I started to hurt myself – in part as punishment and in part to prove to myself that I was capable of feeling something. Of course, what I really wanted to prove was simply that I was still alive – because for years, I felt dead. I know how dramatic that sounds, but in the end that’s what it came down to – my eating disorder took the feelings that go with being alive and replaced them with an all encompassing sense of nothingness. When I think of myself back then the living dead is the thing that most vividly comes to mind.
It took the best part of ten years to get that particular monkey off my back, although I would be lying if I said I don’t still struggle from time to time. Mostly it’s a fleeting thought that threatens to burn through everything before I stamp it out but I live in constant fear that one day, I won’t be able to extinguish it. To this day, I can still recite the calorific content of pretty much any food you can think of and find myself tallying up my meals as if its second nature. I still sometimes feel a little flutter of excitement when I realise I’m hungry because somewhere in my brain being hungry still equals good work. I still struggle to eat in front of strangers, and I still have the strong urge to a) always leave food on my plate and b) conceal what I leave. Habits, as they say, a minute to make, a lifetime to break….
Finding a path back to a healthy relationship with food is the most difficult thing I have ever had to do. The urge to restrict my calorie intake was so powerful, the cycle of denial and reward so overwhelming, the desire to disappear so all encompassing, that there were many times I wondered if I was capable of swimming to the shore at all.
Above all else, I struggled with the conflicting messages from the people who were supporting me, and what I saw as the world at large. In every sphere of my life I came across people who were on calorie-controlled diets, and the biggest diet message at the time was low fat, low fat, low fat. There has been much debate about the role in the media in the prevalence of eating disorders, and it isn’t one I am going to be able to solve here. All I can say is that, for me personally, the never-ending dichotomy about how certain food groups are ‘bad’ (when they were the very food groups I was being encouraged to eat), and about certain body shapes being ‘beautiful’ (when I was – as I saw it – not allowed to pursue those body shapes) hindered my recovery.
In the end, of course, I made peace with myself. I came to understand that nutrition was a fairly straightforward balance of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals – and that the kinds of diets you find in lifestyle magazines were by and large, bullshit. I came to understand that healthy humans come in all kinds of shapes and sizes and that in the end, the size of other humans was really none of my concern. I made a promise to myself, a promise that I keep to this day. I promised that each day, I would do my best to nourish my body properly and, if I ever found myself unable to nourish my body properly, I would seek help.
As far as mantras go, I’m pretty pleased with it.
I still come across people who are dieting on a near daily basis, and that, as I’ve said, is none of my concern. Sometimes, though, it worries me. The diet industry seems so much more pervasive than it did twenty years ago, the messages so much more mainstream. The notion still persists that some food is good, and some food is bad. Fat is frowned upon and thin is the Holy Grail. More often than not, the nutritional science is sketchy at best, and to me, some of the advice seems to have been lifted straight from the eating disorder playbook (The 5:2 diet, for example). The constant pursuit of ‘thin’ over health makes less sense to me the further away from my eating disorder I get.
I can’t help wonder if the diet industry is designed to keep people on constant diets that don’t work, because they don’t work if you see what I mean. For some people, that will be endlessly frustrating. For others it will perpetuate negative messages about good food, bad food, sins, fat bodies, thin bodies, and fasting. And for some, it is more damaging than you can begin to imagine.
Eating disorders are serious psychiatric conditions that are difficult to beat. Research suggests that 46% of anorexia patients make a full recovery, 33% improve and 20% remain chronically ill; for bulimia patients these figures are 45%, 27% and 23% respectively*. I find it so very sad that more than half of the people affected by the two most common eating disorders won’t be able to escape the terrible clutch it has over them. At the same time, it seems clear that it isn’t all bad: if you approach the research from a slightly different angle, it suggests that 80% of anorexia and bulimia patients go on to make a full, or at least a partial, recovery.
Recovering from an eating disorder is completely possible – I’m a living, breathing example of that – but it isn’t easy and for some, despite their best efforts, it remains beyond their reach. Eating disorders are complex conditions, with a varied range of contributory factors, issues and challenges for each patient. Against this backdrop it is difficult to fully understand why some people who are affected by eating disorders find recovery so difficult to achieve.
As with so many things, early intervention seems to be key. In that regard, I was incredibly fortunate. I received swift referral to specialist support services and, benefited from having a sympathetic and knowledgeable family doctor. Years later, when I found myself struggling to cope with some significant changes in my life I started to worry about relapsing, and again, the best support network the NHS had to offer seemed to swing into action around me again. Sadly, that isn’t always the case which is why B-eat, the eating disorder charity, are focusing on getting people into treatment as early as possible during Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
You can read more about the work B-eat do, and why early intervention is so important on their website at the following link:
If, like me, you understand how important this work is, you might like to consider signing the petition calling on government to ensure eating disorder patients are treated without delay:
That’s all from me folks. So long, and thanks for all the fish……
Love you lots like jelly tots,