Anorexia is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It is difficult to explain how much it takes out of you, mentally and physically, and how much it takes over you. The people around me noticed what was happening before I did - once so bubbly and confident, I had gradually become withdrawn and quiet, isolating myself behind ‘I’m busy’ or the increasingly common ‘I’m tired’.
I’ve always been classed as an ‘overachiever’. Whether academic work, extracurriculars, or my friendships, I try to throw all of myself into everything I do. Thus, at the start of sixth form, I promised myself I was going to try to be ‘better’ - work harder, take on more extracurriculars, be a better daughter, a better friend. But blind determination has consequences. My days were absolutely packed - too involved in clubs and societies at lunch to actually eat, so I’d bring in lunch instead. Soon I got too busy in the mornings to even eat breakfast, let alone make my lunch. And when you’re hustling that hard, dinner seems unnecessary. It was a torturous cycle of trying to ‘beat’ what I’d done the day before - doing more work on less energy was such a high that I soon needed it to get me through the day. Very quickly, this spiralled into something I no longer had control over. Months later, I can say I have a healthy relationship with food again, and I want to use my voice to shine some light on this issue. I’ve spoken to a number of girls at my school, both older and younger than me, about their experiences with eating disorders and it astounds me how invisible and ubiquitous they are.
1. Eating disorders don’t have a “type”
All too often today you say “eating disorder” and an image jumps into peoples minds - often of an adolescent girl desperate to be thin. This is heartbreakingly false. 10% of sufferers are in fact male, and they seem to get little to no support or even recognition that they may be struggling. Eating disorders affect people of all race, colour and age, without discrimination.
2. Eating disorders aren’t always visible
People tend to have an image in their mind of what a “typical anorexic’ looks like. “Scarily thin” and “bag of bones’ often spring to mind. This is so false. With restrictive eating disorders, weight loss is simply a side effect of the mental disorder - it is the mental aspect that inhibits recovery. If an individual loses a large amount of weight in a short amount of time, regardless of their size, they are probably very sick. In fact, often the speed of weight loss dictates the severity of the illness rather than the amount of weight lost. Although the transformation photos commonly seen in newspapers make for gripping headlines, in reality, they simply serve to reinforce the idea that everyone with anorexia nervosa looks extremely thin, preventing so many from getting help and preventing the illness from worsening.
3. Anorexics want to be skinny
This is the most common misconception. If you’d told me before all this that I’d end up having anorexia I would have laughed in your face. One of my closest friends had an eating disorder a couple of years ago, and I saw what it did to her, I thought I knew all about it, that it would never happen to me. But when it did, I didn’t even realise it was happening. I can say, hand on heart, that I have never wanted to be “thin”. For me, the disorder stemmed from a need for control, a need to push myself, and it so quickly became addictive. When people told me that I’d lost a lot of weight and needed to eat more I wasn’t too fussed.. Until I sat down and realised I couldn’t. For me, it wasn’t about what the food would do to me, it was the action of putting food in my mouth that felt like such a defeat. I do realise that for some people, anorexia can be a “diet gone wrong” or can stem from self hate, but that was not true in my case. I’ve never hated my body, it was the notion of willpower and control that had me so hooked.
4. Early intervention
In January, I was offered a chance to participate in a study by the students at King’s College Hospital about the effects of early intervention in eating disorder recovery. The idea is that the quicker an eating disorder is stopped in its tracks, the quicker the overall recovery process tends to be, because the thought patterns and rituals have had less time to set in the brain. I truly think that had it not been for early intervention I would not have been able to make the level of progress I’ve made now. I was given treatment four months after my disorder began, and just a few months later I am so much better, physically and mentally.
Of course, there are still challenges but I have my life back, and I have such an acute appreciation for the people around me and the life I live. My two best friends were by my side for the entirety of this, be it physically dragging me to lunch at school and refusing to move until I’d cleared a plate, despite me desperately pocketing food when I thought no one was looking. Screaming at me down the phone for going to the gym when I’d sworn I wouldn’t. They tell me now how frightening it was, how secretive, obsessive and manipulative I became. People with eating disorders aren’t themselves. They tell me how I changed, going from extroverted, compassionate and entertaining to miserable, exhausted, lifeless. If your loved one appears to be struggling with abnormal eating, it is so, so important to intervene as soon as possible, whether they want you to or not.
5. Eating disorders aren’t pretty
This is perhaps the most important point, the one I feel most strongly about. Eating disorders are ugly, ugly experiences. People only see you drop a couple of stone and put it back on again. They don’t see the messy bits - not washing your hair for weeks because everytime you touch it it disintegrates in scarily large clumps. They don’t feel your dizziness that never really goes - a couple of weeks into recovery I remember climbing a flight of stairs and feeling odd. I then realised that for the first time in too long I hadn’t felt a rush of lightheadedness at the top of the staircase. They don’t see you lose the tiny things - I stopped saying thank you to the bus driver when I got off the bus, I stopped caring about littering, I stopped all the tiny things that make me me, because every little action required energy I just didn’t have. The only things I seemed to have energy for were my daily run and doing just enough to keep my grades near-perfect. Music lessons became impossible because standing up to play the violin for half an hour was beyond exhausting. In reality I was completely and utterly miserable, falling out with my best friends because I was trying so badly to hold it all together, because I was so jealous of them - it drove me mad watching them happy and healthy, knowing I should have been too, when in reality I was losing everything.
There is such a stigma around eating disorders, so I wanted to address that, while sharing some of my own experiences. I am incredibly grateful for the people around me that got me through this. Recovery is the hardest thing I have dragged myself through to date, but it was so worth it because I have never been happier. I am so thankful for my two aforementioned best friends, to Izzy, to my parents, and last but definitely not least to my teachers at school who intervened despite my frustration at the time. If this article reaches even one person who needs it, it will have been worth writing. As my dietician once told me ‘Weighing even just 10% less than your body wants you to, ends up making you lose 90% of the life you deserve to live’. It will never be worth it.
Useful websites and helplines: