Grace, a local patient, tells us about her journey for Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2020.
If you asked me before 2017 what an eating disorder was, I would have told you a list of typical stereotypes that the media often perceives an eating disorder as. Perhaps a girl who is skeletal in her exterior, who eats very little and when she does, she simply stares at a lettuce leaf. This perception isn’t completely inaccurate; eating disorders don’t discriminate, and misconceptions often make eating disorders one of the most misunderstood mental health conditions.
I know this all too well when in December 2018 I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. That night, I remember the endless thoughts I had, like “I’m not skinny enough to have that,” or “but I’m still eating some things.” Today, I realise that I was in fact suffering from an eating disorder, but the embedded perceptions I had of them made me feel that I wasn’t ‘anorexic enough’ to carry that label. However, this was far from the truth, even though I felt that my behaviours didn’t conform to the stereotypical image of an eating disorder. The truth is: eating disorders are complex. So, let’s talk about eating disorders and challenge our ideas towards them. I’m one for small steps at a time so I will start by telling you my story.
It started around summer 2017. The sun was shining, but it wasn’t so bright for me. I was suffering with anxiety and depression that prevented me from going to school, so I was isolated at home. I had lost all my friends, and this was when anorexia first attempted to be my best acquaintance. I felt like I had lost control in my life, but there was always my saviour, anorexia. My eating disorder allowed me to control at least one aspect of my life when I felt like I had no control over everything else. Firstly, I cut back on ‘unhealthy food’, which meant that the cheeky Double Decker after school was replaced by the far less appealing rice cakes. My anorexia encouraged me to do more to ‘improve myself’, so I began to exercise more and cut more things out. In my head, this was all fine because I was eating the bare minimum.
Anorexia constantly told me that it wasn’t a real issue because I was alive, and people with ‘real’ eating disorders ate nothing at all. As a result, I experienced extreme fatigue, and I was always cold or aching. However, it wasn’t just physical issues I faced, as I was completely consumed by food; it was my every thought. I would get up each morning, with the aim to eat as little as possible to avoid weight gain, and my mind would plan all the ways that I wouldn’t have to face eating. The numerous panic attacks after eating were followed by an immense feeling of guilt, the same that you’d feel if you’d mistreated a loved one. I despised myself in every possible way – I hated the fact that I couldn’t just eat normally, and I hated how my body was changing.
My life was spiralling downhill. And alongside it was my hobbies, grades and relationships. Every mealtime became a recreation of doomsday, and the endless encouragement would lead to arguments and tension between myself and my parents. I have never been an argumentative person, but anorexia made me defensive if someone commented on my appearance or as soon as I was being forced to eat more food, as I felt out of control again. Because of this, I didn’t recognise myself. I was referred to Forward Thinking Birmingham (FTB), where I promptly began treatment. My weight was monitored weekly, and I would have meetings with the specialists, where I would talk about my struggles.
I also began to receive family therapy, which was crucial to my recovery. These sessions were a place where my parents could openly talk about their concerns too, and get educated about the disorder and how they could support me. The sessions allowed me to personify the illness as ‘the beast’ and I learnt to separate the eating disorder from who I was as a person – I realised that I was much more than my anorexia.
There’s a common misunderstanding that eating disorders are always treated in a hospital setting, and if they’re not, then it isn’t serious. I remember numerous conversations about hospital admission – the form was even filled in. Once I was in a safer recovery stage of my journey, I’d later learned that my heart could’ve stopped at any moment. But with the support of my family and FTB, I was allowed to stay at home with close supervision, which consisted of meal supports at lunch and dinner. A member of the FTB team would come over and sit with my family as we ate, and despite having to do what I feared the most, their presence was never menacing. They had a calming influence, and got me through some really difficult meals. The hardest part for me was feeling helpless whilst watching my family suffer too. My parents had to take time off work to care for me, and endless tears were shed by them as they watched me fall deeper and deeper into my illness.
The rest of my journey is a blur to me to me now, but with the support of everyone around me as time went on, I got better. I began to restore my weight, and received a good set of GCSE results. My contact with FTB was reduced, and my life started to get better.
Although I’m still in the process of recovery, I honestly can’t believe how different my life is compared to this time last year. I have a part time job in a restaurant (which I never thought I’d be able to do), and I have followed my love of music and joined a band.
A lot of people think that once your weight has been restored, then suddenly you have no more intrusive thoughts. From personal experience, this isn’t true; I’m at the healthiest weight I have ever been at, but I still struggle daily with ‘the beast’ and accepting the change that my body has gone through in the past year. I deal with this by sharing my thoughts and feelings with others, and sharing my story to educate others about anorexia.
If you ask me now in 2020 what an eating disorder is, I will tell you that it’s not what you think - behind that typical image is a far more complex tale to be told.