This week is eating disorder awareness week. I am very aware of my eating disorder, having suffered with an eating disorder since the age of 11. I am now 25.
A couple of weeks ago I found myself engaging in a very topical conversation with my hairdresser about adolescence and a family friend who had been causing a bit of trouble. The family friend was experiencing mental health problems and from the brief conversation displaying signs of anxiety, depression and suffering socially. The hairdresser commented that she was surprised the child hadn't "got anorexia". I patiently let her finish before explaining that I had spent a lot of time working with people with mental health issues in a volunteer capacity, and particularly eating disorders. Without highlighting my own case study, I acknowledged that eating disorders are not merely something you "get", but serious mental and physical illnesses, which manifest themselves as a result of traumatic events occurring in a person's life. Whilst it is most common to develop an eating disorder during adolescence, eating disorders can affect any member of the population; male, female, child, teenager, adult and even the elderly.
I felt it important to describe the range of triggers; post traumatic stress disorder, post pregnancy, rape, divorce, parent's marrying, moving house and what is very common, bullying or in my case the onset of puberty combined with a want to be accepted at school and finding the opposite.
Does a person choose to have an eating disorder? Certainly not. I have found through understanding myself better, that I avoid confrontation - I despise it, and when there are situations which have hurt me, and are out of my control, instead of responding assertively, I take it out on myself in the only way I know how, through starving myself. This coping strategy has been my response right up till now, and the only thing it achieves is a brief respite, or victory. The more I allow this area to control me, the more out of control everything else around me tends to be. For other people, self harm, or alcohol abuse are behaviours which work for them in the same way. The point is the strategy is not a healthy choice and the more entrenched you become in a particular manner, the harder it is to change the pattern. Giving up your way out is virtually impossible, and it seems like it is the only thing making you happy.
One of the things I have learned through my years of therapy and nutritional input is to learn to trust, and to retrain the eating disordered mind, which is pushing me to my limits and willing the scales to be lower, multiple times a day.
I still get anxious about getting weighed, because my mindset has been conditioned to be as low as possible, even to the point of wearing the lightest clothing when I get weighed. Teaching my mind that the number on the scales is not a reflection of how much weight I've gained, but actually a transfer of fluid is a crucial shift, but still takes a while to really get my head around.
This is just one of the battles I face in recovery, which is why I therefore get extremely angry when confronted with the argument that an eating disorder is a choice, and that sufferers are attention seeking and selfish. If I could have things any other way, I would not choose to spend so much time planning my meals, working out my feelings to avoid potential anxiety attacks later on in the day, and all the money I and my parents have spent on therapy over the years. I could definitely do without the hours of time I've spent at hospitals trying to get better, and getting all the more frustrated when nothing seems to be happening and I'm still struggling on liquids.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rates of all mental illnesses, and early intervention is critical to allow for a positive outcome in recovery. It's one of the reasons I've had to work so hard this time round in my recovery.
There is still insurmountable stigma surrounding eating disorders and all mental illnesses. We just don't understand them enough until we are confronted with them, and by that point it sadly can be too late. By not understanding mental illness, we can often make situations worse; a former manager highlighted that she didn't see how my eating disorder could be a disability (she was proven very wrong) and also indicated that she hadn't noticed that I wasn't eating. As a person in recovery even at this point, I obviously found this extremely hard to take. From her part, she should have known better.
The media has a significant role to play in telling the story better. We constantly find ourselves bombarded with the latest celeb fad diet, accompanied by an image of an "anorexic" looking celeb who is probably breathing in in a photograph. Anorexia nervosa is actually the least common of eating disorders, yet receives the most coverage owing to the shocking nature of the disorder.
By ignoring the other disorders, we also set a bar, or create a culture where sufferers with binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa and EDNOS (eating disorders not otherwise specified) feel unable to seek help, because they will not be taken seriously, despite suffering severe mental health symptoms, characteristic of the eating disorder.
Does a person choose to recover? Absolutely.
As someone who is recovering from an eating disorder, it is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. You have to be fully committed to recovery and you also have to accept that sometimes you might need other people to help you on the way.
No-one chooses to have a mental illness. If you think you might suffer with an eating disorder or know someone that does, it is nothing to be ashamed of.
The most important step is to seek help.
For more information on accessing help, please visit the B-eat website.
Adult Helpline: 0845 634 1414 or email email@example.com
Youthline: 0845 634 7650 or email firstname.lastname@example.org