Breaking the silence on Eating Disorders

Posted: February 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

This week (20th-26th Feb 2012) is Eating Disorders Awareness Week. This year’s theme is “breaking the silence”, so I decided to re-post my story, which I first published on sane.org.uk last year. It’s a frank account of how my ED took over my life, and how I successfully kicked its arse, with the help of mental health professionals and my friends & family.

I’ve suffered with an eating disorder (ED) since I was 15. It started as a genuine attempt to eat more healthily and look after myself, with the added bonus that I’d probably lose a few pounds (I was chubby, but not overweight).

This soon developed into full-blown anorexia. I was eating less and less each day. I was actually frightened of food, of calories, and the idea of calories being converted into human mass. Every bite of food I ate, I could “feel” it sticking to me, like a lead weight. I became an expert at lying and manipulating, telling people I’d already eaten, or would eat later, or “don’t worry about getting anything vegan* in for me, I’ll get something later/beforehand”.

*My veganism was not a cover for an eating disorder. It was, and still is (6 years later) based on real morals and ethics. But I did exploit it to the advantage of my ED.

After a few months of successfully restricting enough to lose about a stone and a half, I began getting cravings for “unhealthy” or “forbidden” foods that I’d avoided for so long. I also, through vegan forums, developed a love and talent for cooking and baking. So every day, when I wasn’t at work or college, I would cook and bake enough food for ten people. And I would eat it all. And I would throw it up. It was shortly before my 16th birthday that I discovered the wonderful trick of making myself throw up, and realised that I could “cheat” nature – I could eat absolutely everything I desired, but not put on a pound. I fell into a full-blown cycle of binge-purge behaviour. From this point on I classed myself as bulimic.

Because throughout most of my ED, I was fully aware that what I was doing was abnormal, unhealthy, damaging to my mental health, and totally irrational. But the ED was so strong, that it could completely override any sense of rationality that my “normal” brain tried to argue. I could not break out of the cycle, and most of the time I didn’t want to. I had a perfect system in place – eat whatever I want, stay skinny. It felt like a big two fingers up at all the dieters, living on ryvita and slim-a-soup, and the fatties who couldn’t pull together the willpower to give up cake. I was a winner.

I moved to Birmingham a few months after my 18th birthday. For years my behaviour had remained unchanged, other than my increasing ability to come up with incredible lies to cover for my ED – as Dexter would call it, my “Dark Passenger”. It consumed my life, and caused me to lie to all those I knew.

It was my sister who saved me. I moved in with her, and we lived incredibly happily together – if ever two people were meant to live together, it’s us! It didn’t take long for her to spot my behaviours, and the fact that the amount I was eating and my diminishing weight didn’t correlate. She confronted me a couple of times but, just like I had with my parents, I denied everything and found some ridiculous excuse for whatever it was she was questioning.

In February of 2009 my sister wrote me a letter, telling me she knew everything, and couldn’t bear to see my go on like this. I broke down in tears, told her everything, and that week we went to the GP together. That was my first step towards getting help.

A few months down the line, I was seen by a psychiatrist who referred me to the eating disorders service within Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust (BSMHFT). I was seen by a doctor and an occupational therapist, who agreed I was a suitable candidate for group therapy. These ten sessions did me some good, but I still had a long way to go. The thing that was working in my favour was my general happiness: I was happy with myself, my life, I had a great relationship with a boyfriend who loved me (and who I loved) and plenty of friends. I had a rewarding job that I loved.

When talking to my sister about the ED, I often described my life as a picture of a beautiful landscape, and the ED was a black smudge on this picture. At times in my life, the black smudge had covered the whole picture, so I couldn’t see the real picture underneath. But, over time, with a combination of therapy, medication (Prozac) and the incredible support of my sister (and friends), the black smudge got smaller and smaller, until I could see the picture underneath, and just had to remind myself to keep wiping at that ugly smudge.

The real changes happened when I started one-on-one therapy. My therapist didn’t “do” anything radical, other than make me look at myself, my behaviours and what was going on in my head. I saw her regularly for over a year now, and came such a long way that in January of this year, we agreed that I was in a place where I could discontinue therapy. I have now been discharged from the mental health service. I am off medication.

My black smudge has completely gone. My landscape is shining bright, with no blemishes. I don’t even need to dust. The “demon” of my ED has gone (my sister and I often likened it to the little blue gremlins in those ads for adult education that go “oooooh, forms, there’ll be numbers and writing, you’re not good at that”…!, and we’ve said at different tages that it’s either been on my shoulder, in the room or – as it is now – on another planet, nowhere near having any effect on my life).

I am one of the lucky ones. Not only have I got control of my unhealthy and irrational behaviours, all those thoughts are gone from my mind. I can now enjoy food in the same way as everyone else. There is no guilt, no compensation. In September last year I ran 5km to raise money for beat (the Eating Disorders Association) and in July this year I will run 10km for the same charity.  You can sponsor me here.

My message to anyone struggling with issues around food, body image or self-esteem is this: Please please, confide in those near to you, and let them help you get the help you need. Beat has a saying which I believe rings true to most people battling a mental health problem, especially addiction and compulsions (which for me, bulimia was a compulsive way of behaving): “You alone can do it, but you cannot do it alone.”

Good luck and take care. You have the strength to get better, it’s just a matter of finding it. And you are not alone.

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