There was a time, when fuelled by youth and naivety, I thought of anorexia as simply a silly girls desperate attempts to lose weight and ashamedly I suggested it was attention seeking.
Now, with only a few more years on me, I can say with absolute certainty that Eating Disorders are both horrendous and life changing. They tear apart lives leaving a skeleton in mind, body and soul.
I learnt this the hard way, and after starting my own diet at 19, I was eventually diagnosed with anorexia at 23, eventually being admitted to hospital twice in that same year.
Alex was truly honest when we first spoke and said that he had come to realise that he knew next to nothing about eating disorders. I am always on the look out for new people to connect and link in with as we all pledge to improve the dialogue around all mental health issues. Collectively we aim to break stigma, increase understanding and campaign to improve services and Pushing Back The Shadows is the perfect forum for that.
Knowledge is everything when it comes to showing compassion and empathy to anyone suffering with a mental illness, and that has never been more true than when helping someone who is suffering with an eating disorder. In recognition of this, Alex has dedicated a whole week to raising awareness and improving understanding and I have been given the incredible opportunity to open the week. To try and give a proper introduction to eating disorders I am going to dispel a few myths and try to get to the bottom of an illness layered with misconception and stigma.
There is a massive difference between disordered eating and eating disorders, most importantly is that the latter is of course a very severe mental illness. It is however important to recognise the spiral that can occur when disordered eating takes hold and the person looses their sense of control.
Anorexia, very commonly starts out this way. It certainly did for me, as I said I started that diet, cutting out more and more, restringing my life more and more until my whole existence had been defined by meal times and exercise. All consuming, all encompassing and all dominating. There were rules that I placed on myself that were both unrecognisable and incomprehensible to those around me, but to me they were my everything, my security and my comfort.
For others however, being able to control their food and calorie intake forms their relenting attempt at coping with inner turmoil or external pressures. It’s a terrifying existence and one that the sufferers will find themselves consumed by
So recovery- “just eat”. Because it’s that easy? I recall days as an inpatient where I could eat a meal without almost a thought, but then hours later, after a difficult and painful family session, I would be begging for the food to be taken away, the struggle being just too much.
I used food as the thing that I could control, the thing that kept me safe and it became a comfort blanket. The restriction made me feel powerful, looking back the reality was that my illness was in total control. It harboured itself in my body and it pained every part of my existence.
“Well you can’t have an eating disorder because you don’t even look that skinny” and “surely you’re all better now that you’ve weight restored”. Let me tell you, eating disorders don’t actually care- once they infiltrate the mind they take a powerful grip which can only tightens as ones weight initially starts to increase. Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes and whether the person is underweight, normal weight or over weight they can still be diagnosed with an eating disorder. Lets not forget the complexity of eating disorders, a combination of medical and psychiatric illness that is not going to be “cured” through the attainment of a goal weight. Food has been used as some sort of crutch, coping mechanism- it is indicative of a repressed issue that underpins the illnesses existence, recovery is about uncovering everything, recovery is from the inside out and then the outside in.
The next myth that is far too commonly heard is that eating disorders are somehow selective in the people that they effect. It seems that the white females, from a middle class background of high mental aptitude are more likely to become unwell with a form of eating disorder- APPARENTLY.
Now I am no expert and nor do I have statistics in front of me that might collaborate me but I am almost 100% sure that there is no selection process for eating disorders. There is no discrimination, and whilst it is true that there may be certain predispositions to becoming unwell, these predispositions are not found in demographical variables. This means that men, BME groups and even the working class can and do develop eating disorders.
I could go on into so much more detail on all the horrendous myths around eating disorders that require dispelling, that need smashing down and breaking through.
I’ll be brief though;
Eating disorders are not for life, recovery is possible. If you are suffering from this horrible and debilitating illness, please know that if you want to recover, if you are willing to put your heart, soul and courage into making yourself well, using the people around you for love, support and guidance then yes, yes recovery is possible.
There is no one to blame- parents aren’t to blame, loved ones and family members are not to blame. Undoubtedly they may be contributing factors, they may have triggered but they are not in isolation to blame. To suggest so is not conducive to recovery, to assert blame to anyone but the illness will not help through stages of recovery. We all need to acknowledge that sometimes people do things that hurt, that cause anxiety and so much more but individually they do not cause eating disorders.
And finally, all eating disorders are serious. Anorexia kills, we know that. But Bulimia and all the other variants of eating disorders have associated health concerns in equal measure, the effects of the behaviours on the body can be damaging, long term and devastatingly fatal.
An introduction to eating disorders in 1000 words is simply impossible. To dispel rumours, raise awareness and increase understanding takes time and an army of people to speak out and do so with courage and tenacity. There are not enough resources available to fully and comprehensively give this mental illness the exploration that it requires. Layers upon layers, complexities in complexities- there is so much- too much.
If you take one thing away from this article- take the learning that eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, forms and variants. They do no discriminate, they’re not a phase or a habit that’s become out of control. It can’t be “fixed” and just eating won’t be a magic cure.
Enjoy this week, learn and comprehend. Be kind to yourself and those around you but most importantly open your mind to an illness that is almost unexplainable and yet provides so much to those it holds in its manipulative grips.
And if you, or a loved on is struggling please get in touch- because everyone deserves an ear to hear.
About the Author
As a blogger and campaigner on mental health issues, Hannah has used her experience of suffering from Anorexia to help support others through the founding of her, own recovery peer support service- aneartohear.co.uk, working as a voluntarily organisation. Now, working closely with NHS providers, other professionals in the field together with schools, corporations and MP’s-she continues to help others by increasing the dialogue around eating disorders and encouraging those to speak out, reaching for help that she knows they not only need but most importantly deserve.