‘Spending your life with an eating disorder is not living’

Every day I take a step away from my anorexia and towards my new life and my full potential, I feel as if I am seeing things in colour for the first time

 

The first and most important thing I would like to say about anorexia nervosa is that it is not, by any means, a choice.

I don’t think a single one of all the sufferers I have encountered woke up and made the decision “I am going to be anorexic.” I know that I most certainly didn’t.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly when it began. I am 18 now, and during the summer of first year, when I was turning 14, I began to restrict what I ate. However, despite the fact that I was eating less, and that my school and my parents were worried, the problem did not really become serious until just before the Junior Cert.

At this point I finally admitted I had a problem, but it had taken two years of arguments and furious denial for my parents to convince me. I was often told about people with anorexia, and told I was on this dangerous path, but I was adamant that everything was okay and insisted that it would not happen to me.

For years this became my mantra. I was convinced that I didn’t have anorexia and then when I finally had to admit that I did, I was certain that I was not seriously ill and that none of the horrifying things that had happened to other people would happen to me.

If only somebody could have told me that this is how all people with anorexia feel, whether on their deathbed or beginning the cycle of restricting. We all believe we are not that bad and we believe we are somehow different from everyone else. Others may have died, others may have been admitted to hospital, but we will not be.

The truth is that none of us is different; nobody can live a full and happy life with anorexia because of the simple fact that spending your life with an eating disorder is not living. Days spent counting calories, planning your next meal or how to avoid it, trying to squeeze exercise in every which way; that is not a life.

I never believed I would be admitted to hospital, see four therapists or miss most of fourth year. But that is what happened to me.

Anorexia takes your life away. From the minute I began restricting, my life began to crumble. I didn’t realise it at the time, but because of my anorexia my relationships worsened, my mood darkened as I had no energy, and I lost interest in all my hobbies.

I had two main focuses; to get all As in my Junior Cert and all exams, and to be skinny. The girl I, my family and my friends knew disappeared. I was taken over. I was no longer me. Every day became hell and I survived every one by looking at my watch and counting down the hours. My thoughts were dominated by food, and even when I was studying I couldn’t get these thoughts out of my head.

Anorexia convinced me that once I was skinny, this would not be the case and everything would be perfect. I would be able to study better, my grades would shoot up and I would have lots of friends. I’m not trying to blame somebody else; I’m just trying to make it clear that we sufferers do not make the decision to become the people we do when consumed by this illness.

There is a voice in our heads telling us not to eat, that we will be perfect if we are skinny; that everything will be solved if we just don’t eat. For a long time, I believed this voice and any time I was upset I sought solace in food. I don’t know why but a huge part of me believed that not eating would make me feel better.

Every time something went wrong, I simply ate less and for a brief minute or two I did feel good, and because this was one of the only times in the day I felt happiness or satisfaction, I believed that by being skinny I could achieve this happiness forever. Anyone with a rational mind would know that this would not be the case.

 

Not rational

The problem with anorexia is that you do not have a fully rational mind because part of it is taken over by the illness and every time you give into it – when you restrict or put food in the bin, or go for an extra run – anorexia becomes stronger and takes over more of your mind until it controls most of you, and the real you is hidden somewhere deep within.

I wouldn’t wish this illness on my worst enemy, but sometimes I wish that, for just one day, everybody could experience what it is like to have anorexia.

No one can imagine how painful and scary it is to have someone or something else inside your head. A part of you knows what it is saying is wrong and if you listen to it, you could end up in hospital, you could miss fourth year, miss a trip to China, miss work experience in a national newspaper, miss out on making friends, but you are powerless to ignore it because if you lose one more kilo, one more pound, one more gram, everything will be perfect.

It’s not, though, because it is never enough. And with every pound you lose, you lose more of your life.

It has taken me so long – two years of restricting, a hospital admission, several therapists and moving to a new school – to, finally, begin to recover.

There are many people I can attribute this to, all the people I met along the way, friends, therapists and doctors, but, most importantly, my family, my friends and my amazing dietitian, Aveen Bannon.

I never thought I would recover and at the beginning I wasn’t doing it for myself, I was doing it for everyone else. Everyone, Aveen in particular, told me that by eating and fighting this illness, I would begin to feel stronger and the battle would become easier.

They said I would begin to rediscover myself – the girl who laughed for hours on end and could speak for Ireland. I was promised that recovery would be worth it.

I didn’t believe them but eventually I got so tired of missing out on everything that I decided to do it and let me tell you, recovery is most definitely, 100 per cent worth it. I am a long, long way from full recovery but already I feel better.

I still have a long way to go and much weight to gain but already my face is brighter, my hair is shinier, I no longer look like the walking dead. I like to put an effort into my appearance and there is a spring in my step. Some days are a battle and the guilt consumes me; I feel as if I am underneath a dark cloud but when I fight through these days and eat anyway, I come out on the other side, brighter and stronger than ever.

I couldn’t have started this recovery “properly” without the help of an Instagram recovery community that I found. The internet can be detrimental to people with anorexia, but for me it has been an amazing resource and inspiration in my recovery.

I have encountered some incredible girls and all I have to do is think of them whenever I doubt that recovery is worth it. It helps me to know that other people understand and had felt the way I did (and still do) but that they managed to push through and get their lives back on track.

 

Important messages

I have two important messages today. One is to anyone who suffers from this illness. Please don’t give up on yourself and don’t give into this monster, whatever type of eating disorder it is. I never in my wildest dreams believed recovery could have so many benefits, but it does. And yes, it is terribly tough and some days are hell, but it will be worth it, I promise.

It is time to stop hiding your other problems behind your eating disorder and fight. Because if you don’t, you soon won’t have any problems except that you’ll be on your deathbed. Remember you are beautiful and fabulous, and you can beat this. Really and truly, despite what anorexia makes you believe, everything tastes better than skinny feels.

And to parents, guardians and friends of a sufferer, or of someone you suspect may be showing signs of an eating disorder, I urge you to get help now. Do not hesitate or listen to protests such as the ones I made. Do not give up.

Show them that life is worth living, make them see what they are missing out on and reach out to them. Force them to go out. Anorexia is an isolating illness and even in recovery I find myself staying at home; I need to challenge this habit.

Don’t give up on your loved one, no matter how changed and hopeless they seem. They do not mean the hateful things they say or sometimes scream.

When they tell you to go away, don’t. It is the anorexia that wants you to leave; your child, your friend who is buried inside really wants help, whether they can voice that or not.

Don’t lose hope because I really and truly seemed like a hopeless case. I am not yet better but I am going to recover. I want the old me back, I want to laugh and talk and be hyper like I used to but in order to do that, I need to be free of this illness.

I still have a long way to go and much weight to gain, which terrifies me, but the thing that terrifies me more is the idea of ever going back to that awful place where anorexia controlled my life.

Now that I have begun to recover, I have seen the life I could have, the life I deserve and I am never letting myself slip back into that dark hole again. It’s tough when you’re in the depths of an eating disorder to believe that there is a better life beyond it but if you just start to recover and battle through the tough days, you will see that there is. Don’t give up.

 

In the grips of anorexia, you cannot picture a day where food does not matter, when calories don’t count. But if you are prepared to fight, this can happen.

I am not yet there, but finally I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and know that as long as I continue to fight as hard as I am fighting, recovery will soon become a reality. In the few months since I wrote the first part of this article I have made major steps.

To somebody without an eating disorder the things I have achieved seem trivial and are part of daily life but for me, just six months ago, I thought I could never reach these goals, but I did. And now I have even more faith in recovery than ever.

For the first time in several years I had a proper birthday, I did what I wanted and not what anorexia dictated. I challenged the fear and due to the fact that it was my 18th birthday and knowing that I deserve to live and experience things, I had a drink and a slice of birthday cake. I am now in sixth year and am working hard towards university. Anorexia has taken a back seat in my life, and the future I so desperately want is now my driving force.

Every day I take a step away from my eating disorder and towards my new life and my full potential, I feel almost as if I am seeing things in colour for the first time in years. It has been tough and will continue to be; but if you are suffering, please believe me. I know you can fight.

I know therapy can help a lot of people; I have seen several therapists but it did not work for me.

So far the main thing that has contributed to my recovery is my own motivation. I realised how bad my life was with anorexia, and how much I had lost because of it, and I decided I did not want to lose any more.

Take the support and love offered to you, find what drives you in life and use it to get out of the grasp of anorexia. As a wise woman said to me: “You had the determination to get yourself into this mess, so now you must use that determination to get yourself out.”

Intervention and services of the HSE

The HSE says its Early Intervention in Eating Disorders clinical programme has been developed in partnership with Bodywhys, which provides high quality support, peer support and support for those who can self-manage .

The new children’s hospital will include an eating disorder programme.

Services for adults presenting with eating disorders are provided by adult mental health services across the country. Children and adolescents with eating disorders are treated by child and adolescent mental health teams. If a person’s psychiatric or medical needs are more acute, inpatient admission is offered as required following the recommendation of the consultant psychiatrist.

On occasion, the HSE has worked with independent providers of specialised inpatient and outpatient care.

Where inpatient care is required, patients are admitted to acute mental health units, preferably in acute hospitals in which there is access to gastroenterology opinion and intervention.

There are three public specialist eating disorders beds available in Ireland, all in the Elm Mount Unit at St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin. Eating disorders are one of three areas that are the subject of a clinical programme; although eating disorders are managed and treated by the mental health services, those services may need additional support.

If someone is concerned about themselves or someone else , they should attend their GP for clinical assessment and referral to an appropriate service .

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