`You stop eating to numb self-hatred'

 

To meet Niamh Sullivan (24) and Gillian Moore (22), you'd never think that they share a history of mental illness so severe that it nearly killed them. They come across as strong, confident and attractive young women with insight and maturity beyond their years.

Yet Niamh, who is starting a new career as a PA, still lacks the capacity to see herself in the mirror as she really is, even though she has recovered.

"Eating distress has absolutely nothing to do with food," she says. "Whether you're overeating or undereating, it's totally driven by your subconscious mind. You think you're great because you're not eating and losing weight, but the illness controls you, you don't control it. You stop eating to numb the feelings of self-hatred."

Gillian, a third-level student, felt that her body had been taken over by a force over which she had no control when she began suffering from eating distress at the age of 15. Her attempts to control her food intake consumed her to the extent that she often delayed getting out of bed until mid-afternoon so that she would not have to deal with the issue.

Hospitalised and treated by psychiatrists, she was prescribed anti-depressants which didn't work.

"You're covering up your problems rather than dealing with them. Hospital is not the way to go, in my opinion," she says. "I went through several different forms of treatment before I got to Marie Campion. All of them were probing for skeletons in the closet, but there were none."

The question of where the negativity and self-hatred comes from is one of the intriguing aspects of this illness, as most sufferers - like Niamh and Gillian - come from supportive family backgrounds and cannot recall being traumatised in any way.

"Negativity affects people differently and I think it depends on how sensitive one is," says Niamh. "I am super-sensitive and I think that parents and teachers don't understand the implications of words. You hear people tell you that you're `bold', then there's the competitive aspect of school, where girls are constantly comparing each other's hair and size.

"Mum was always telling me how fantastic I was, but it went over my head. I'm perfectionistic and felt that I never felt good enough."

Through therapy, Gillian now sees her sensitivity as a gift and feels that her new understanding of herself will help her succeed "in any walk of life".

Niamh believes that "now I have overcome this, I don't think there's anything in life that I won't be able to achieve".