As a younger teenager, I struggled with Anorexia Nervosa which was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. I was struggling to manage the everyday pressures of being 15/16 and whilst I had many friends, a supportive close family and was doing well at school, I was looking for something to give me a sense of control.
My body and food intake seemed easy enough and what started as, in my eyes, a harmless weight loss diet soon escalated into something I could no longer control. I struggled with anorexia and its associated demons, depression and anxiety for roughly 5 years, although I was in recovery and getting professional help for this from the first year, for which I now consider myself extremely lucky. The truth is, Anorexia Nervosa is a pretty relentless illness and whilst you can restore your weight and present a pretty good façade to the outside world, the lingering mental grip is powerful and it takes time and a continued energy to keep fighting, especially in our current culture which places so much value on physical appearance.
Now, about 9 years on from the onset, I consider myself fully recovered. I attribute this in many respects to the early detection and intervention and to a very supportive network of friends and family. I am hugely grateful to have overcome my eating disorder, for me it has restored my freedoms and appreciation for life, particularly the ability to really do what I would like to do. There is evidence that no matter how severe or the duration an individual can make a full recovery and I really want to share that hope. It’s not about the weight or the food, it’s really about being able to reclaim a life rich in experience and with meaningful relationships.
Stigma really affected how my illness was treated, at the time there was so little understanding. Of course, my friends at school knew there was something up but I never really felt like I got the chance to sit down with them and explain what I was going through and that I couldn’t ‘just eat’. I actually remember sitting down on several occasions to write a Facebook message, I wanted to tell them from me what was going on and how this had impacted me and also to apologise to them for the difficulties it was in turn causing them.
Individuals impacted with anorexia can be really difficult to be around, and whilst this certainly does not mean they should be ostracised I am aware that for people who may be vulnerable sometimes it can be highly triggering. I realise now that I shouldn’t have felt so ashamed by my illness and that there was no need to apologise to my friends. Really, at school, there should have been more education and awareness and eating disorders shouldn’t have been regarded as a grotesque failure on an individual’s part but like any other physical illness. At the time however I felt so alone and isolated but I think this was in some respects a motivation for recovery.
My advice to anyone struggling with this eating disorder is please be kind to yourself. I know first-hand just how agonising each day can be and how nasty and vile the internal dialogue gets. One of the hardest things for me was that every time I did something for my recovery, like a food challenge or sticking to my meal plan, my motivation was quickly squashed by the disorder. During these times the eating disorder can make you feel weak and that you’re giving up and a failure. I had to come to understand that this was my eating disorder playing tricks on me and at the very times where it was giving me hell, these were in fact the times I was being my strongest.
The other thing I cannot stress enough is the importance of early intervention. It’s so scary to speak up and ask for help and again the eating disorder acts as a huge barrier to this. But there are people out there who are trained and want to help you and accessing that support early improves outcomes.