2 to 8 March is Eating Disorder Awareness Week, a week dedicated to raising awareness of eating disorders and the impact they have on all those and their families and friends affected.
1.25million people in the UK are living with an eating disorder. Here, Sam, tells her story and how she overcame her eating disorder.
I’m Sam and I’ve worked for the NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) for around three years now, most recently as a Fraud Officer for Loss Recovery Services.
I first realised I’d developed an eating disorder around the age of 17, but on reflection it likely started when I was 14. From my perspective, eating disorders take form from a number of small decisions and ‘rules’ you set yourself that snowball over time. As you don’t talk to anyone else about it (unless you know they’ll encourage you, which is another monologue for another time) you can avoid any balanced perspective on the changes in your lifestyle, demeanour and appearance relatively easily until it’s too late.
Around 14, I noticed the emphasis people put on your appearance and began receiving negative comments on physical attributes I’d never considered an issue before. As a child, I thought of my body as a machine and suddenly it was considered a summary of my worth. My weight had become equitable to personality traits such as laziness and lack of discipline. It was considered ugly and, by extension, so was I. The concept someone could be overweight and attractive at the same time was not something I, or others at my stage of puberty, were able to comprehend. If only Lizzo had been famous sooner, right?
I’ve always been interested in reading and so, after I decided losing weight was the best way to avoid having drinks thrown at me on the school stairs, I started researching the fastest ways to become ‘thin enough’ and watching documentaries about eating disorders for ‘tips’. I’d keep my dinner money and lie about what I’d eaten. I’d hide food in my pockets and my room, throwing it away when everyone was out or asleep. I’d buy various kinds of weight loss pills and appetite suppressants. I made myself sick a lot. When doing that manually became more difficult (surprise: I tore my stomach lining) I’d read somewhere about various drinks you could make that would force you to be sick and started trying those. I’d compulsively exercise whenever I was alone and the numbers of repetitions kept increasing.
When I started to lose weight, I received compliments from the people who used to try and trip me over in the aforementioned corridors. People started asking me to give them ‘tips’; I didn’t share, but if I’m honest that was from selfishness rather than from compassion. They did literally bully me after all. Even though they were now comparing me to others in a favourable way, I still felt like I hadn’t done enough and they were trying an alternate bullying tactic based on high level sarcasm.
As I lost more weight, it started becoming difficult to concentrate on anything except the calories I was taking in and the ones I was burning off. I had amazing recall of the dietary information for most foods but couldn’t focus on school (and then college) very well. I began to feel weak, cold and tired all the time. I fainted in public a few times. At one point when I was 17, I had what I’d probably refer to as my wakeup call. I was in the supermarket with my parents and fainted. When I regained consciousness, I was sitting down in what they told me was the Opticians section. I didn’t know this myself because, even though my eyes were physically open, I had gone blind. A staff member assumed (correctly) that this was due to how low my blood sugar was and my terror was such that they convinced me to eat half a chocolate bar (Dairy Milk, if you’re interested). Thankfully this restored my sight quite quickly, but some people would not have been so lucky.
Following this incident, I told my parents everything and they took me to the GP. I was diagnosed with EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) but avoided hospitalisation. I arranged a treatment plan within my GP and my family in which they monitored my meals, encouraged me to adjust my opinions of certain foods (‘fear foods’ high in calories and fat, like pizza or any of the other good stuff) and rewarded me as I continued to regain weight. My parents did a lot of research themselves, which must be where I get that trait from, but theirs was geared towards recovery. The extent that an eating disorder can distort your view of things and your understanding of language can’t be underestimated; I remember an old friend telling me I looked ‘healthy’ and I was so upset about it I almost skipped my next meal, despite all the progress I was making. To me, ‘healthy’ still meant fat, lazy, unworthy of acceptance.
Eating disorders are statistically the most deadly mental disorder and more awareness is needed around the various kinds of eating disorders, their danger to health and their prevalence. There are still many stereotypes (e.g. ‘men don’t get eating disorders’, ‘they’re only a western problem’ and ‘they’re just about vain people wanting to look thinner’). Overall, I’d argue eating disorders are about control and self-medication to mask other issues; incidentally there’s a high level of comorbidity with eating disorders and anxiety. People still assume someone with an eating disorder will be noticeably thin, which is far from the truth. Anorexia can become a serious issue before someone is below their ‘ideal’ weight, and someone with bulimia can maintain an average or an overweight status whilst still causing serious damage to their internal organs (RIP stomach lining). Binge eating is surrounded by particular stigma as it relates more to overweight people and, despite many positive role models visible in the media, there are still many negative connotations with being overweight we need to work through in order for those with binging issues to feel comfortable enough to seek help.
As my family did, I think it would of great benefit if the general public educated themselves on the topic of eating disorders. It could enable loved ones to spot signs of a potential eating disorder, understand how to communicate with the person effectively and assist them with recovery. Understanding around appropriate language would be of great assistance, as this can often feel like a delicate tightrope to walk. The BEAT website has a lot of excellent resources in this area, some of which we’ll be turning into posters and covering your workplaces with. Please take a minute to read them and discuss them with your colleagues.
Though I’m arguably fully recovered today, there’s still a voice in my head in times of stress that suggests I’d feel better if I slipped into some of my old habits. When I was first asked to write this blog post, my initial thought was ‘I can’t do that. Nobody will believe I had an eating disorder because I’m not thin now.’ I had to remind myself that style of thinking is what started my disorder in the first place. In those times, I remember what a dark place that voice took me into and try be kind to myself instead. This could mean I reach out to a friend, distract myself with a project or schedule some self-care (I play a lot of Skyrim and own a lot of eye shadow).
Despite my eating disorder giving me a sense of control over my life, the irony of that is it could have ended my life entirely. Also, I’m pretty sure it stunted my growth, and my platform boots will be trying to make up that deficit forever.
I’d say the most important factors in seeking help and working on recovery are communication, trust and a strong support network. Our Mental Health First Aiders provide a support network to colleagues and I’d encourage anyone struggling with an eating disorder to talk to one of us.