Each time I fell into crisis, there was a point whereby the label of ‘Anorexic’ ultimately consumed my identity. In the eyes and hearts of loved ones who could not continue to reason with me about feminism, or art, or Ital, when my life was so clearly in danger. In my family who felt lost, despairing, and distraught. In romantic relationships that I could no longer manage. Eventually in myself, when I could no longer imagine a future without my illness. Everything I’d known and believed in, including myself, seemed to disappear.
In retrospect, feeling that the label of anorexia consumed my identity is an honest reflection of the reality of my condition. I only got the support I needed (and deserved) because my loved ones refused to stand by and watch my obvious deterioration. They had to fight against me, and against a chronically under-funded and under-educated healthcare system, to get that support. Research shows that early intervention in eating disorders makes a huge impact on prospects for a full recovery. Widespread lack of understanding around eating disorders, even from within the medical community, makes early intervention all the more difficult. In June 2018, the Postgraduate Medical Journal published research showing that UK medical students receive, on average, 1.8 hours of untested training on eating disorders throughout a four to six year medical degree— with one-in-five courses offering no training at all.
The more experiences I had of being misunderstood, the more I blamed myself, and lost trust in the system. Some of the people who should have helped me, undermined the seriousness of my illness in ways that were measurably damaging. I was once shown out the door of a mental health assessment being told “We all have issues with food. You don’t need an Eating Disorder to claim benefits, you already have depression.” There were so many layers of judgement going on in that sentence I was stunned into silence. I just went home and cried. It felt like being told, ‘what you’re doing is not a real problem’. I felt unworthy— I was taking up too much time, too much space, and too many resources. My restriction and exercise intensified, my weight dropped rapidly, and I became hypoglycaemic to the point I could no longer stand up without fainting, or talk without slurring my speech. For months I refused to voluntarily seek help again, which obviously put a huge amount of pressure on those who were exhaustively trying to support me.
I blamed myself constantly for the difficulty I faced functioning on a basic day- to-day level. I wanted more than anything to be ‘normal’, but what was happening was not a choice. Eating disorders are not a protest, or a statement, or a diet gone wrong. It’s not a lack of will power, or self-control, or desire.
It was extremely difficult to dismantle the belief that I didn’t deserve help, even when I was eventually diagnosed in specialist treatment. It took a huge amount of support and enlightening words from others to relieve just a small piece of the blame I placed on myself. No matter how guilty I felt about compromising my feminism and Ital practices, or how ashamed I felt in wanting to honour Laura, the truth was that anorexia hadn’t been created in a vacuum and placed into me. My eating disorder manifested in me as a way to deal with a combination of pre-existing mental illnesses and simultaneous traumatic events— over which I had very little control or support with at the time. Anorexia protected my mind from the buried psychological pain of what I had gone through. Accepting this might be true meant I would need to uncover that pain, and to heal it. In the same moment of overwhelming fear, I realised it also meant that recovery was possible. I found hope.
All in all, social eating proved far more difficult to reintroduce than it was to avoid. Truth be told, it was one of the only areas of my recovery where I was happy to take as much advice as possible— preferably be told exactly what to do. Whilst I certainly wouldn’t be persuaded into doing anything I didn’t want to do (I can hear literally everyone who knows me laughing their heads off in agreement), social eating was an aspect of recovery which I saw as an important part of my spiritual and social healing— a step forward that I wanted to take, but had no idea how to approach. The nutritionist and I spoke about specific anxieties I had, and possible ways to reduce or manage these. It was still terrifying, we weren’t going to be able to eliminate all these fears, but I trusted her enough to try some of the suggestions she put to me. I then proceeded to blu-tac a lot of these ideas up on my bathroom wall, scrawled on brightly coloured paper in a very mental-health-arts-and-crafts sort of way. But whatever, I lived alone at the time. I reversed the mirrors and placed these goals carefully so I could read them when I brushed my teeth in the morning, and when I washed myself at night. Having daily visual reminders of my goals, the benefits of recovery and the dread of acute illness, helped me to challenge engrained disordered thought patterns and destructive behaviours. I took a handy picture to show you;
What most people would call daily habits - eating lunch with colleagues, grabbing a snack on the bus home, or sharing dinner with family or cohabitants - some days felt like such terrifying impossibilities that they alone made me want to give up altogether. When I spoke to my nutritionist about it she helped me to see that it wasn’t impossible, but she understood it was really hard. Instead of giving up (which was my plan), she encouraged me to take the time I needed to recover. Difficult though it was, I had to be proud of my progress: I’d gone from 0—not eating to 2—eating with safe people. Together we decided it would be helpful to make some of these steps smaller, so we added some more steps, like: 2.5—Try a bit of someone else’s food, 4.5—Share a meal with someone and 5.5—Order food from somewhere you trust.
I realised that the most important part of these steps for me wasn’t reaching the top, it was everything around it— literally and metaphorically; the support which I built up, allowing myself to take time and not pursue relentless progress, reassessing goals so that I could still move forward, and to have empathy and love for myself when (inevitably) things didn’t always go to plan.
Undertaking these steps meant that I had to ask others for help, I had to let them know my vulnerability, and I had to ask for patience in following all my meticulous preparations. Sometimes I asked the wrong people for that support— people who didn’t have the time, people who wanted more from a relationship with me, people who were scared to talk about or acknowledge my illness. There were some people I found it easier to share food with than others, which mainly depended on their understanding of Eating Disorders. Stereotypes of what someone with an eating disorder ‘should’ look or behave like, stopped me from sharing in meals and celebrations on a lot of occasions when I wanted to participate.
Taking as much time as is needed to accept my condition and the needs I continue to navigate during recovery, is compassionate self-care. With all the challenges I’ve had in understanding and managing my own (constantly evolving) triggers, it’s easy to see why my family and friends had difficulty knowing how to help at times. My friends and family clearly wanted to help, but they didn’t know where to start. They were scared to upset me or give me unhelpful advice, which inevitably happened sometimes.
I’ve always appreciated most when people ask me questions; “Can I ask you about food at the moment?” “How can I support you, what would you be comfortable with?” “What would be helpful in this situation?” It makes me feel like support is happening with me, rather than to me. I usually didn’t know the answer those questions straight away, but it encouraged me to think about what I might need or find helpful. It also let me know that person was thinking about me and wanted to support me, in a non-threatening way. Asking questions allows space for both parties’ feelings to be heard and respected equally.
Active listening is often the difference between those who offer me appeasement and those who extend me real support. Hearing someone’s anxieties (appeasement), and making space for the needs they have in managing those anxieties (support), are very different things. Comfort is perfect if that’s what I need and have asked for, but otherwise comments like “Don’t worry about it”, “You’ll be fine”, and “You’re so strong”, are no more than useful than ‘Get over it’. My inability to feel fine, or strong, or not worry, makes me feel guilty. It sparks the beginning of spiralling self-doubt: “They don’t want to hear about this. I’ve annoyed them with my incessant emotions. I’m so needy. I need to stop putting my needs onto other people. Just swallow it down. I’m impossible to be around. It’s no wonder everybody hates me. I’m worthless.” I know logically that ‘worthless’ isn’t how someone literally giving me a pack on the back wants to make me feel. Nonetheless, it hurts to feel shut down or dismissed when you’ve been emotionally vulnerable with someone. Worthlessness is the emotion that it triggers for me. It feels like a bigger risk the next time I try and be open with that person. Appeasing comments usually come from a place of genuine caring; unfortunately, that doesn’t always make them genuinely helpful.
Once I began to trust those around me really wanted to help, I began figuring out how to let them know what I needed in a way that was comfortable for me— whether that be sharing meals, catching up on the phone, going out for the day, sharing recovery resources, delivering care packages, or whatever else. I recognised that it’s not just my own wellbeing for which communication’s important. The more we’ve all learnt about my condition, as well as eating disorders and mental health in general, the more we’ve mapped out the language and dialogue that suits us for talking about these things. It wasn’t a small ask by any means, it was incredibly difficult for everyone involved.
Quick select rewards