Sometimes I feel like I'm eighteen, going on fifty three. I get angry at tube strikes, my coffee arriving luke warm ruins my morning and I wish that young girls wore tights in the winter. I get angry at magazines telling me how to be gorgeous and which make-up is best to hide my "imperfections" and I want to hug the mothers I see trying to get their children to eat in the Starbucks next to the Royal Free Hospital Eating Disorder Unit. I want the girl that I tutor to tell me why she's feeling low because her face is giving it away and I want that small boy across the street to not hide the small bandage on his arm in shame.
I am a former anorexic and ever since my recovery four years ago, I have become hyper-sensitive to any form of mental health illness and increasingly frustrated by the lack of support and structure we provide to adolescents. How can we expect a thirteen year old girl to come clean about her binging when we shame celebrities for the contents of their fridges in a women's weekly? How can we tell a fifteen year old boy not to be ashamed of his scars when the only men boys are told to admire are football players and airbrushed male models? I was never told before my eating disorder that losing weight was a bad thing because in our society- it isnt. However, even at my lowest weight, I still felt people judged me for the way I looked. No one had taught people in my school year that Anorexia Nervosa was an illness. No one had told my parents that I really couldn't help my fear of grapes, milk chocolate and cheese.
How can we expect a thirteen year old girl to come clean about her binging when we shame celebrities for the contents of their fridges in a women's weekly?
I learnt the ins and outs of mental health education the hard way. I learnt that the only way to overcome the problem was to explain to my friends and family how I felt. It was hard enough dealing with the lack of self-worth but internalising my feelings just made the whole situation much harder to overcome. I wanted people to understand what it felt like to think of nothing but food and more than anything I wanted people to understand just how scared I was.
My mother is petrified of water. Getting her into the swimming pool on holiday is a rarity and she admits her fear of drowning under the head of the shower. One day, early into my recovery my mother screamed at me. She was frustrated that I was unable to eat a single roast potato. What she didnt understand at the time was that that roast potato to me was the equivalent of her being thrown into the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with tidal waves coming at her from all directions. A mental health illness, whether it be an eating disorder, depression or OCD, is best imagined as the thing that scares you most.
Fully recovered, I am eighteen going on fifty three and wishing I was seven again. I wish that I could go to school and feel no pressure to look a certain way and I wish that I was still oblivious to the concept of calories, macro-nutrients, the five-two diet and good old Mr Atkins. I remember a time when food was something I just ate and no one treated it as some new religion, with different sects following new commandments: thou must not eat meat, thou must only eat food of a certain letter, thou must fast even when hungry. No one was fed infomation on when and how we should be losing our virginity or which jobs were going to be totally out of our league. When I was seven, no one told me about weird things called thigh gaps or thigh-brows. Thighs were the part of my leg that I learnt about in science and the part of the chicken my mum would always buy from our local butchers every Tuesday. I ran because it made me happy and I was taught in PE that it was both healthy for my brain and my body. I ran because I wanted to win and even competing as an international athlete today, I still run for those reasons. I was taught that exercise was a synonym for health and enjoyment not something I had to do to combat my emotional insecurities. When I was seven, I was taught to love myself and the importance of self acceptance and ever since then society has been telling me otherwise.
I remember a time when food was something I just ate and no one treated it as some new religion
From now on I aim to be a seven year old again in the way I value myself and my life. I am allowed to aspire and I am allowed to love myself without thinking it's a crime. I understand that this situation isn't as simple as it was in primary school and that mental health illnesses aren't going to go away by themselves. But if I can be a mature and educated seven year old, who is as much support to my friends as I am to myself, I'm pretty sure the world will appear a much less complicated place.