If you are struggling with an eating disorder, please read with caution as this article contains details that could be triggering.
According to Beat – the UK’s eating disorder charity – there are approximately 1.25 million people in the UK living with an eating disorder and with this number on the rise, I wanted to speak out and share my own personal experiences of living with an eating disorder in order to raise awareness of this mental illness.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
To those who don’t know about my mental health issues, I may look like I have my life together – at 29 years old, I’m married and mum to a happy, healthy boy, I have a degree and a job that I love, I come from a loving family and I have wonderful friends – but I struggle with one thing that most people don’t even think about: eating.
I’ve had an eating disorder for more than a decade. I was first diagnosed with anorexia nervosa when I was just 12 years old and have spent most of my teenage and adult years in and out of treatment, consumed by this illness.
I’ve always found it hard to open up about my mental health issues, even to those closest to me, because eating disorders don’t make a whole lot of sense – like breathing or sleeping, eating is a basic human need that we all need to do in order to survive… so why does my mind try to convince me otherwise?
Eating disorders are complex.
I struggle to pin-point one thing that led to me developing an eating disorder but my issues with food began round the time I started high school. Like many others, I’m sure, I found the transition from primary school to high school to be quite overwhelming. I’ve always had a “Type A” personality – ambitious, competitive but insecure – so instantly, I felt the pressure to work hard in order to stand out and achieve what I thought was expected of me.
It’s a well-known fact that what we put into our bodies affects what we get out of them, so I thought that by improving diet and lifestyle, I could improve my performance at school. At first, I stopped eating junk food – chocolate, crisps, sweets – opting for healthier snacks instead. I also started exercising more and everyone praised my new, healthy lifestyle.
Then I decided to cut out snacks – I thought that I didn’t really need to snack in between meals if I was eating a good, nutritious breakfast, lunch and dinner. Somewhere around this time, my mindset shifted and my thoughts became distorted. I started eating less and exercising more. I became paranoid about eating in front of people because I was convinced everyone was watching what I ate, so I stopped eating at school. Not eating at home was difficult as we always sat down as a family at mealtimes, but I ate nothing where I could and ate less where I couldn’t.
I lost a lot of weight very quickly and people – family, friends, teachers – became worried, but despite their concern, nobody really knew what to do or how to help me. Knowledge/understanding of eating disorders was basically nonexistent and the resources available were limited. I was referred to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) and that’s where my journey to recovery began.
I just want to clarify that eating disorders are not caused by dieting alone. The exact cause is often unknown, but it is generally believed to be a result of biological, psychological, and/or environmental influences. Through working with a therapist, I have discovered that there were other factors that contributed to the development of my eating disorder, but I’m not ready to share that part of my story just yet… not to mention that this piece would basically be a novel!
17 years later and I was recently discharged from my 4th (and hopefully, final!) treatment programme.
Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. Research has found that 20% of anorexia sufferers will die prematurely from their illness. Bulimia is also associated with severe medical complications, and binge eating disorder sufferers often experience the medical complications associated with obesity. In every case, eating disorders severely affect the quality of life of the sufferer and those that care for them.
Recovering from an eating disorder is hard.
Food is a fundamental need, so unlike someone recovering from a drinking problem where the focus of treatment is working towards a life that doesn’t necessarily include alcohol, recovering from an eating disorder is complicated, because the focus of treatment is working towards a life that does include food.
Living with an eating disorder – or any mental illness for that matter – is exhausting. Every day is a fight between what you know is right (eating) and what your eating disorder tells you is right (not eating). There are good days and there are bad days, but there’s no such thing as a day off from mental illness.
Until recently, I’ve always avoided talking about my mental health. I’ve always felt embarrassed about having an eating disorder – I mean, what sort person doesn’t love food?! – but I’ve realised that opening up and talking about it and breaking down the barriers surrounding mental health can be a good thing.
Having an eating disorder has shaped who I am as a person and while there’s nothing I can do about that, I can and do want to help shape the future of mental health by raising awareness and encouraging others to speak out too.