Today is the second day of Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2016; a year since I reached my thirtieth week of inpatient treatment and two since I took a leave of absence due to my eating disorder. I wanted to share a bit more of my story.
I think I reached rock bottom when I was put on bed rest. I was an inpatient on an eating disorder unit in a psychiatric hospital and the doctors had decided to remove all my responsibility from me. I was locked out of my bedroom all day meaning I had to stay in communal areas where staff could see me at all times. I wasn't allowed to move without permission from a member of staff, I couldn't even go outside. One evening I threw a bit of a strop when a pregnant member of staff wouldn't let me change my bedding myself. I tried to argue a heavily pregnant woman shouldn't be doing this for me. Her response summed up my situation perfectly: she was healthy enough to be pregnant and at that point, I wasn't.
I got sucked into my eating disorder by the illusion of control it provided me, the idea that I could fix everything and make everything right, including myself. My illness had completely isolated me and was risking my life. It's terrifying to think back to that time, I was so caught up in it's depths that I didn't even believe it was a problem, let alone life threatening. I'd been living in a horrible eating disorder bubble with no real social life and horribly dark thoughts. I agreed to a six week admission to a psychiatric hospital, convinced I would be leaving at the end of that time. Eventually, I started to see that I'd be there for the long haul. It ended up being ten months.
If you ask me when I first became unwell, I'm not sure I could pinpoint it exactly. I had never made a conscious decision to have an eating disorder. It was a much more gradual process; yet there came a point where it felt like everything had snowballed and was suddenly completely out of my control. I can remember always wanting to be different; whether it be a thinner, brainier, more popular or a more successful version of me. I never quite felt good enough.
I started at University and came down with the dreaded fresher's flu, being physically poorly seemed like the final trigger that set me off on a downward spiral. I lost a large amount of weight in my first term and struggled to eat at all, it became easy to restrict my intake and compensate when I did eat. In second year, I went to the doctors with a chest infection and he asked what was being done about my eating disorder. He'd recognised my weight loss and made an accurate guess and knew all the right questions to ask to expose my unhealthy eating habits. I completely broke down and admitted that I was in a really dark place and didn't know how to get out of it. I was referred to Uni support services, the Community Mental Health Team and the eating disorders team.
A year and a half later everything had taken a more serious turn. My physical health was suffering; I had chronic gastro intestinal problems including gastritis from the stress I was putting my body under. I couldn't concentrate and had no energy. I was getting the majority of my nutritional intake from disgusting Fortisip supplements, a prescription drink usually given to ill old people who can't eat. I'd been in hospital overnight after fainting due to dehydration and worrying electrolyte levels. Electrolytes conduct electrical impulses throughout the body and an imbalance can lead to arrhythmias and heart failure. I had gone from worrying a little about my weight, to being totally encompassed mentally and physically with an eating disorder.
It was my eating disorder specialist nurse who suggested inpatient treatment. I truly believed it was an over reaction. She told me if I didn't accept support now, it may get to a point where the choice wouldn't be mine, or I'd get so ill I'd be admitted to general hospital. During my assessment I answered a lot of questions about my self-image, eating habits and was weighed. It was decided I should be admitted to the hospital as quickly as possible. I'd managed for such a long time to be a 'high functioning' eating disorder suffering. Maintaining a fairly healthy weight at periods and not looking like a stereotypical anorexic. In a way, managing had meant my illness had become very ingrained and I was really in denial about it's severity. I didn't think I would be accepted into inpatient treatment.
Thanks to movies like Girl Interrupted, I was expecting a scary asylum full of scary people. The reality was a lot more normal. I received a lot of support, a regular program of meals and group treatment, therapy and a graded approach to returning to the real world. On arrival my bags were searched to remove anything I might use to hurt myself, it seemed unnecessary but made the reality of my situation really sink in.
At first I wasn't even allowed to go outside without a staff member to escort me. All the control was taken away. I spent a lot of time in the dining room. Everyone had to wait until everyone else finished eating. Then it was time for post-meal support. Sometimes we'd spend hours in the dining room. It was a place of tears and tantrums but also amazing support from the other girls.
I went through the program with staff members initially reminding me when to have a drink, go for meals, portioning out my food and supporting me to eat it. It was a nurturing environment but completely different to anything I had ever experienced. I was very emotional and overwhelmed in the early days of being in hospital, perhaps feeling the emotions I had shut out for so long with my eating disorder. Gradually I worked my way through the program and gained back responsibility, starting with self-portioning and self-catering before being allowed out of the hospital to practice the skills I'd learned in a more realistic setting. Returning to the real world was really challenging. It started with an hour coffee trip once a week. During the first one I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people and how fast everything was going.
My eating disorder had a huge impact on my time at university. I stopped socialising and I really struggled to leave the house to attend lectures or go out. My grades slipped and I had to have frequent extensions until I there was no choice but to take a leave of absence. I am so thankful to have had such a supportive group of friends who stuck by me when I was struggling. I also have the most amazing supervisor, community and uni support team who have helped me regain my health and return to uni. I spent about six months back with my family after leaving hospital. Eventually, I moved back to my university town and returned to my course about a month later. I'm now getting to the end of my degree... with my last few taught sessions; a year after my 30th week in hospital and two since I had taken my leave of absence.
It's been an emotional rollercoaster. I'm by no means recovered but feel I'm going in the right direction. I have my good days and bad days, but I always try to remember that my worst days in recovery are always better than the best days in relapse. There has been so much about being back on campus that, at times, made me want to be back in that dark place. I'm back in the place I felt the most unwell, which in itself can feel like a trigger. The key has been to keep talking about what's going on for me and use the skills I learnt in hospital to try and make sure I don't slip back to old coping methods. My experience has enabled me to become a much stronger person despite my struggles, which I am grateful for.
Eating disorders are such horrible illnesses that can affect so many different types of people. You can't always tell if someone has an eating disorder... in fact weight is just one symptom but isn't a measure of what's happening inside someone's head. If you are worried about your eating or about a friend, then please do seek support and help. You deserve to recover and recovery is so worth it.