This week, Monday 23 February to Sunday 1 March, marks Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Sadly there's still a lot of ignorance shrouding eating disorder understanding, with pervasive myths about the "type" of people who suffer from them. The truth is that anyone can experience an eating disorder, and in some cases, multiple eating disorders. Thus, Eating Disorder Awareness Week is the perfect opportunity to create a better understanding of eating disorders as not one, but a myriad of illnesses.
Persistently eating too much or too little can be symptomatic or indicative of an eating disorder, but what many people don't appreciate is that food is just one factor in an eating disorder. While they're characterised by disordered eating habits, ultimately eating disorders are serious mental health illnesses.
I'm going to talk about Binge Eating Disorder. I've experienced other eating disorders too, but have spoken less about my relationship with binging. Of all the types of eating disorder, this one is perhaps the most misunderstood and can be seen as the not-as-serious-as-the-other-ones one. In reality this isn't the case at all. Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is a 'serious mental illness where people experience a loss of control and overeat on a regular basis'.
For me, binging was never about physical hunger but an addiction to overeating in order to block out emotional pain. This became a compulsive behaviour that no amount of willpower could shift. I developed BED as a response to trauma - a way of protecting and comforting myself at a time when I had very little control over other factors in my life. What started out as a coping mechanism soon became a cycle of compulsion to binge, followed by a period of intense guilt and shame, followed by compulsion to binge.
I started binging at the age of 9 and by the time I was eleven I weighed 11 stone. I'd like to stress that weight isn't an important factor to me now because numbers on the scale are only a slight insight into a much bigger picture, but looking back at old photos I can see how deeply unhealthy and unhappy I was. I didn't know at the time that I had an eating disorder; I just knew that I was miserable and overweight, and being overweight meant that I was an easy target for bullies.
I was unhappy because although I was no longer experiencing trauma, I was still binging. I couldn't control what I put into my mouth, and the only way to stop the compulsions was to eat. I'd eat until I couldn't eat any more. I'd eat until I couldn't move for fear of physically vomiting. I'd eat until the feelings of guilt and shame caught up with me, and then I'd cry and tell myself I'd never do it again. I knew that I would.
I tried so many things to break the addiction. I tried fat-shaming myself by rehearsing out loud, 'stop being so greedy!' and setting my laptop wallpaper to pictures of obese people to remind myself of what I would become if I didn't stop binging. I tried extreme dieting to combat the addiction, but I'd always fall off the wagon and the feelings of guilt and shame would intensify each time I did. I tried pleading with a God I didn't believe in. I even once got so desperate as to chuck out all of the household crisps and sweets, because if they were in the bin then I couldn't eat them.
I did all of these things as a young, confused teenager who didn't realise that she had an eating disorder. I did all of these things just thinking that I was born without any self-control. My levels of self-loathing were fuelled by my inability to control my eating habits, and the shame that I felt from being an overweight woman in a society that called me fat, lazy, and greedy.
When I realised that I was suffering from BED, I felt relieved, ashamed, and scared. I was relieved because it was an actual illness that had nothing to do with willpower or weakness, ashamed because I still felt powerless to fight it, and confused because now I had all this information and didn't know what to do with it.
By this point I had been suffering with BED for a number of years, and I'd half resigned myself to the fact that it was just something that would always be there - something that would always follow me around like a black cloud, draining me to the point of physical and emotional exhaustion.
It's near impossible to articulate the feelings of compulsion that accompany BED. It's almost like there's a voice in your head telling you that you should eat, regardless of whether or not you're physically hungry. The voice doesn't stop niggling at you until you do what it says. After years and years of it, often you don't have the energy to resist. Sometimes I would sit in my room for hours just trying to block out the compulsions, unable to focus on anything except the emotional need to eat.
A few people have said to me that binging is just an excuse for being greedy. It's not an excuse, and this is possibly one of the worst things you can say to someone with an eating disorder. Consuming 12,000 calories in one sitting to shut up the voices is my head wasn't an act of greed - it was an uncontrollable act of self-harm committed in a trance-like state. I would eat and eat and eat until the compulsions went - not stopping even when my stomach was stretched to the point of agony, because the compulsions were still there. That isn't greed - that's an eating disorder.
The guilt and the shame that followed the binging was perhaps what I found hardest to deal with. Feeling powerless to your own mind is one of the most overwhelming emotions. I felt guilty that I would binge again after I'd promised myself that I wouldn't. I felt guilty that I was putting myself at risk of serious illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. In severe cases binge-eating can lead to death. I felt shame at not being able to control my mind or my body. I felt like I'd never be able to do anything in life if I couldn't even stop eating when I wanted to.
I lost count of the amount of times I just sat and cried helpless, uncontrollable tears after a binge. As with so many mental health illnesses, it's the feelings of guilt and shame that pervade our lives and isolate us from friends and family. I didn't tell anyone about my eating disorder for years because I thought that people would judge me in the exact way that I judged myself, and I couldn't bear the thought of being perceived as weak.
It wasn't until I sought professional help that I truly believed I could live a life free from eating disorders. My therapist enabled me to empower myself by addressing the pervasive negative thoughts surrounding my eating habits, helping me to create new positive behavioural patterns. She made me realise that the eating disorder was symptomatic of past trauma and unhelpful neural pathways that needed to be re-written in order for me to live my life in the way that I wanted to.
She didn't blame me for my problems, she didn't tell me I was lazy or greedy or to just 'try a bit harder', and she didn't tell me how lucky I was to not have 'a more serious eating disorder' - all of which people have said to me in the past.
Thankfully now I am in control of my eating habits. Sometimes I still overeat, but it's not compulsive, and I try to eat mindfully. I never weigh myself because I don't care what the scales say. Some days I eat more than others, and that's fine. I know I'm in recovery because I rarely get the voices in my head these days, and when I do I've learnt to distract myself. There's no power in them anymore. I'm creating new pathways and I can see that my life can be free from eating disorders forever.
I couldn't have achieved this without professional help, and I would never have had the courage to ask for that if I hadn't told people what was really going on. Recovery isn't always a linear process and it takes time. During my first therapy session I felt able to release all of the emotions that I'd been carrying around with me for years, and I cried for almost two hours solid.
It was cathartic for me to do this, and my therapist said to me: 'Imagine you'd had a broken leg for 13 years, you wouldn't feel silly about crying over that.' She was right. For me, being honest with people was the catalyst to recovery. Once I realised that the right people wouldn't judge me, telling others became easier. Now I'm writing this and telling everyone, because I refuse to indulge the stigma.
I've since been offered a job working for the nationwide eating disorder charity, Beat, delivering understanding eating disorders training. I feel like I've come full circle. I feel like I am finally free from the eating disorders that have haunted me since I was a child. I can't wait to be a part of the movement that sees eating disorders beaten for good.