When I heard that tomorrow is Time to talk day, a day to raise awareness of mental illness, I knew that I wanted to contribute somehow. I have made no secrets of the fact that I have battled with mental illness my whole adult life and my on-going struggle with depression, anxiety and panic is something which I speak about very honestly and openly in my blog.
What I speak very little about, perhaps due to the stigma attached to it, is my battle with anorexia, which stole almost twelve years of my life.
When writing todays blog I came across this shocking statistic,
More than 1.6 million people in the UK are affected by eating disorders. There are more deaths from eating disorders than from any other mental illness, and it is estimated that 10% of all sufferers die as a result of their condition and 1 in 5 will commit suicide.
And for a mental illness that is the most deadly, I would say that, in my experience, it is still one of the least talked about. Although there are a huge number of mental illnesses that are still relatively unknown, I find that as a society we are opening up a lot more with things like depression, anxiety and PND. They are becoming more widely spoken about, written about, documented on TV shows, soaps and publicised by celebrity sufferers. I find that more commonly now during conversations with friends, when I mention a history of depression, of my battles with PND, many of then will nod along, admit they too have struggled, tell me about a friend, a sister, a partner who has been through the same. At playgroup or the school yard, people are much more willing to admit that they too have suffered with mental illness, share stories of their battles with depression or PND, united in the realisation that actually, it is very common. And it is all very much more accepted.
But with eating disorders, it still isn’t something that we speak about as freely. When I share the story of my battle with anorexia it can cut a conversation dead. And I think that the reason why we don’t talk about it is mainly due to the fact that there is still an element of shame surrounding it. And for those suffering, it is very much a secretive illness and something which we go to extreme lengths to cover up. With something like depression there is that desperation to get better, there is the motivation to reach out to a partner, a friend, a doctor, and ask for the help that we need in order to get better, to find a way to be happy again. With anorexia, talking about it, admitting that there is a problem and asking for help to recover, can only mean one thing. Recovery = gaining weight. And for somebody in the throes of an eating disorder, for me during my own personal battle, I just didn’t want to talk about it.
And people can be so mean when it comes to eating disorders, the ignorance surrounding it is shocking. The things I see shared on social media on a daily basis disgust me, ‘hilarious’ e-cards shared by seemingly intelligent women, the word “Anorexic” bandied around as an insult, to inadvertently mock and shame those of us who have suffered. You only need to open any magazine to see “body shaming” posts, close up pap shots of slim celebrities with headlines such as “Anorexic” and “Skeletal” and yet on the next page an article about celebrities who have gained weight, big red circles highlighting the tiniest amount of cellulite. And I hate that kind of thing, I hate that it is seen as something to be ashamed of, something that is used as an insult, something that people assume we have control over.
Because it is hugely ironic that a mental illness which is very much about control, is actually controlling us. Most of the sufferers I have met along the way will tell you that they became anorexic during difficult times in their life, during stressful periods, break-ups or losses, in a bid to claw back a little control at a time when they felt that they had lost control of the reins. I have never met anyone who planned to become anorexic, it was never a conscious decision, a lifestyle choice that they made . It was a case of losing a few pounds and feeling good about the results, losing a grip on a pre-holiday diet or trying to fit into a particular dress for a special occasion. It was feeling too depressed to eat properly, being so stressed that the weight just fell off, the thought that perhaps losing a few pounds would make them feel better about themselves at a time when they were lacking self-esteem. And it’s so true what they say about mental illness, that before you know it, it can spiral out of your control.
And I guess the same thing happened for me. What started as dropping a few pounds as a side effect of my anti-depressants, rapidly spiralled into an eating disorder which at the time I truly believed I had control over. While I was consciously cutting back and enjoying the weight loss, I fully believed that when I hit my target weight I would resume a normal, healthy diet. And every time I hit that target weight, and still didn’t feel completely happy, I would widen the goal posts, tell myself that a few more pounds would make me feel even better, even happier, perhaps lift me from the depression that I had found myself in. And even when family and friends commented that I had taken it too far, when they pointed out that I was far too thin and that I was looking un-well, I believed that they were wrong, that they were simply trying to sabotage my efforts.
I think it was ‘unfortunate’ for me, for want of a better word, that life then threw me the tragedy of losing Joseph right at a time when I was already struggling. Where as every parent would struggle with the grief and the loss of losing a baby, for me it was the final straw. Within a year of Josephs death I found myself at rock bottom, incredibly poorly, eating just a few mouthfuls a day, purging on up to 120 laxatives each day with a BMI of just 13. And it was only when I was admitted to an Eating Disorders Unit that the severity of the situation really sank in.
My time in the EDU was a necessary evil. I had to kiss goodbye to my then husband and our three year old son and, after a vigorous medical in which I was informed of all of the damage I had done to my body, I was led to a room where I was assigned a one-to-one nurse who would stay with me at all times. And by that I mean, at ALL times. She watched me dress, shower, use the toilet and at night, as I lay in my special air bed, designed so my protruding bones didn’t develop pressure sores, she sat beside me and watched me sleep.
I can still remember sitting there each day, eating my specially calculated calorie counted meal, and I would look around the dining room at the other patients, the majority being female, and ask myself how did I ever end up in this place? Some of the girls would be sedated just so that they could eat their food, others sobbing over a mouthful of cereal, their nurses encouraging them to eat just one more spoonful. Some of the girls would sit there, glassy eyed and wheel-chair bound, tubes stitched into their stomachs or down their throats, a high calorie food supplement being physically pumped into them in a bid to keep them alive. And if ever I needed a wake up call, this was it.
Mondays were always the worst day in the EDU, 9am saw our weekly weigh in and we would line up, naked but for a blue plastic gown and knickers, waiting to see what the scales would report back. I soon learned the tricks, how some of the girls, who had more freedom from their nurses, would set their alarms early to drink as much water as they could before hand, how they would place small weights in their underwear to boost the number on the scales that morning. If we had gained, we would be rewarded with more freedom during the week, anything from hourly checks from the nurses to trips out to the shopping centre across the road, and yet for many there would be tears, desperate cries of self repulsion at having gained merely half a pound of “fat”. If we had lost we would have our calorie intake increased, our checks more often and even put on complete bed rest. It was a regimented, oppressive, carefully controlled system that we had no choice but to conform to.
And after several weeks in there, it was very easy to become institutionalised. I became accustomed to the same routines, to the daily walk around the hospital grounds,where we would be chastised should we walk faster than a snails pace, the therapy classes, educational seminars, the weekly yoga sessions. And I’ll be honest with you, it was very easy to forget about the outside world, to become so consumed with our life in the hospital and the friendships that we had formed, that ultimately I became very afraid to leave. In a strange way the EDU made me feel safe, I had finally relinquished the control which I had held on to for such a long time. I had no other choice but to let go of the exhausting habits which had landed me in there in the first place, and for the first time in years I was feeling good, I was feeling healthy, I was feeling positive.
And it was during my time in there, when one of the girls sadly passed away, that I realised exactly what I was doing to myself. The harsh realisation kicked in that slowly but surely, should I carry on down the path I was living, I would die. And that was a shocking realisation. Up until that point I had never heard of somebody dying of anorexia, I had never acknowledged that the damage I was doing to my body could cause my body to shut down, my organs to fail, my heart to stop beating. I had never imagined a time when my son would have to grow up without his Mummy. And that thought spurred me on like no other.
I would love to tell you that when I left the EDU I was cured, that I went home, several pounds heavier, and lived happily ever after with my husband and our son. Because the cruel reality of any eating disorder is that it never truly goes away, not really. And in times of crisis, stress and depression, anorexia was the one thing that I knew I could fall back on. Sufferers often describe anorexia as being their friend, someone who never lets them down, who will always be there as an emotional crutch just waiting to pick up where they left off. A friend who will always make them feel better about themselves, remind them that they can claw back some control in times of crisis, give them a confidence boost when their self esteem is failing. And I did exactly that. For several years I was up and down, recovering and relapsing dependent on my state of mind, my relationships and my circumstances. With the failure of my marriage I massively relapsed, recovering after meeting my new husband and relapsing with each baby and the return of PND. And it must have been heart breaking for my family to witness, but equally heart breaking for me who just wanted the constant tug of war between anorexia and my logical brain to stop once and for all.
These days, I am doing good. I eat, a whole range of foods that at one point I would have beat myself up over, I cook, I enjoy my food and I indulge on a daily basis. It’s ironic that I am able, and always have been, to eat all of my favourite foods and still never gain an ounce. But then it was never about being thin, not really. I have days when I look in the mirror and I feel good, days when I scrutinise my lumps and bumps, and days when I can’t bear to even look in the mirror at all. And I cant promise you that one day the anorexia will not crawl out from the dark hole that it occupies in the back of my mind and take over again, but through therapy and education, I would like to think that should that happen, I would recognise the signs, reach out and get the help I needed.
But most of all, I am proud to be at a point in my life where I am finally ready to talk.
And I hope that you will all join me.