Health Check Wales: Eating Disorders

I recently wrote a piece about eating disorders for Health Check Wales. Here is the article:

My battle with mental illness began at such a young age that I don’t really know what it’s like not to have one. But I can understand how it must be difficult for someone to understand it if their lives have not yet been touched by it. I’ve seen the stares, heard the comments and read the hate I’ve been sent over the internet. Being unwell is hard enough on its own without the added ignorance and stigma. I became fearful and anxious around food when I was five years old. After seeing a family member become unwell I thought that I would become poorly if I ate food too. As I grew older food became more of an issue. First it was about fear, then it was about perfectionism and control. I was seven years old and banging my head against the school toilet walls for getting a question wrong. By the end of primary school not eating had become my identity. Other children in my class were good at PE or art or maths. I was known for eating “like a bird” and I finally felt like I had a something that I could do. Secondary school complicated life even more. I was bullied, I didn’t feel welcome in any of the friendship groups that I tried to hang around with. I felt geeky, ugly and hated myself. I saw the bigger girls wearing gym knickers in PE and I was scared that I’d get big and be laughed at in my gym knickers too. I began to walk for hours before school, I’d barely eat anything and anything that was eaten would be thrown up. I was self-harming several times a day and overdosing at the back of class – and yet my school didn’t get me help. At this point I didn’t even know that I had a mental illness. Once I left school life became more difficult because with each sad event that happened in my life anorexia and depression seemed to grip their hands tighter and tighter around my neck. I became withdrawn and isolated myself from everyone. It’s scary how mental illness can blend seven whole years into one big blur of hospital admissions, detentions under the Mental Health Act, numbers, scales and suicide attempts. Growing up I wanted to be a nurse or a dancer, battling severe mental illness was not a part of the plan. Often eating disorders are on a spectrum and it is recognised that symptoms change. Someone who meets the criteria for anorexia may months or years down the line meet the criteria for bulimia, or binge-eating disorder. I have certainly experienced many different symptoms with my eating disorder. My primary diagnosis is anorexia. Many months of my life have been spent surviving – or dying – on very little food. I would eat so little food that my body couldn’t keep itself warm. I’d spend my day in the bath or leaning against a radiator. The cold that an eating disorder brings is different from the cold of a winter’s day. It is unbearable, painful and numbing. I’d see the number on the scale drop and the outfit options in the wardrobe became minimal as nothing would stay on my tiny frame, and yet the reflection in the mirror never changed. The girl I saw in front of me didn’t seem to be shrinking, and therefore any weight I lost did not feel like enough. I’m not sure it would ever have been enough. I was slipping towards death, not happiness, perfection or body satisfaction. Then comes the bingeing and purging. The uncontrollable binges that extreme hunger brings. I’d sit on the kitchen floor and eat and eat and eat. I’d work my way around the room, from the fridge to the cupboards, and sometimes, once the food had all gone, I’d eat icing and drink vinegar. I’d try to make myself sick but nothing took away the feelings of guilt and self-disgust, anger and fear that would be left behind for the coming weeks. I hate bingeing and purging and I hate the way I feel I have no control over it. I’ve tried to stop it by attempting to end my life in the past – that’s how desperate and horrific it has made me feel. I also struggled with abusing laxatives and diet pills. I would take far more than the recommended amount but the more I took, the more I felt I needed. I knew exactly the time to take my laxatives so that it would have an effect at night when my family were asleep. Every night spent in agony in the bathroom, sweating and biting onto a towel with pain. It was horrible. One night I took 20 times the recommended dose and I genuinely thought I was going to die. I was in so much pain that it made me sick. My body was weak and I was lying on the bathroom floor, convinced it was the end. I was admitted to hospital the next day and laxatives have not been a part of my life since. I’m still in treatment now and I still really struggle with my mental health. I’m on medication for depression and the other symptoms that affect me and I’m in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy for my eating disorder, which has helped me cope with the distress that an eating disorder can bring, as well as recognising when decisions are fuelled by emotions. Eating is still a challenge. Regular eating is not something I’ve ever really done and I struggle to eat regularly every day but I’m better than I was. Depression and mental illness still take over my life and there are days when the suicidal thoughts are a whisper in my head, but there are still days where the suicidal thoughts are loud and repetitive and I struggle to find a reason to carry on with my life. My hospital admissions are getting shorter and the length between them is getting longer and I see that as a positive sign. I recognise I’ve got a long way to come but I am already on the journey and I never thought that I would be where I am now. While I would never wish mental illness on myself or anyone else I am grateful for the lessons it has taught me. I’ve learnt that everything happens for a reason and the best days of my life have happened as a direct result of the worst days of my life. I spent a night in a police cell when there were no hospital beds available. I was law-abiding, not violent and very shy. That night was terrifying and traumatising and made me feel a lot of shame, but without that night I would never have appeared on national radio and news, live TV and newspapers like I have. I would never have started my blog or found my love for writing again. Without anorexia I would never have met my best friend in treatment, my recovery buddy, who I have shared many happy memories with at the beach, or at a restaurant winning against our eating disorders. I would never have been to London to speak at conferences and meetings. The help and treatment I receive from South East Wales Eating Disorder Service has been life-changing, and without their help I wouldn’t have achieved these things either.

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