For National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, I have been asked by Alivia to share my personal struggle with you, in hopes that people will better understand and know how to support their friends or family members living with an eating disorder. I also want to grab the attention of people who are suffering in silence and encourage you to reach out to someone – because reaching out was the smartest decision I ever made.
My eating disorder was not pretty business.. so I’m not going to go into too many details. But it involved a mixture of obsessive dieting, over-eating, purging, over-exercising and starving myself (basically bulimia and anorexia all mixed into one big mess). I was pretty good at hiding it from most people. Only a small group of people that I really trust know this about me, and for now at least, I would like to keep it that way until I know I am fully recovered (which is why this is anonymous).
About a year and a half ago, I started a normal school year with no idea of the hell that lay ahead ofme. When certain events took place in my life and I became increasingly overwhelmed, I sought some form of escape. (As eating disorders don’t usually have an exact beginning “date” and instead are more of a “gradual decline”, it is hard to explain how exactly this began). But I remember noticing that I was examining myself in the mirror more and more. I despised my appearance. Everyday I uncovered more and more flaws with my body. But, what made me so incredibly fearful was that I was stuck in this body for the rest of my life. I could not live like this. What was one thing that I could change to make myself feel the least bit better about my body? My weight. If I was just a bit skinnier, I might be pretty. Maybe if I was pretty, I would be happy – this is a common misconception. Because if I took one thing from this experience it would be that an eating disorder will NEVER make you happier.
What I originally thought was a ‘healthy diet’ quickly spiraled out of my control and into a full-blown eating disorder. It was my way of coping with problems (whether they were my own or someone else’s) and re-gaining a sense of control over my life. Months passed, and the effects of my eating disorder became more apparent. I was drained of energy – struggling to keep my eyes open in lessons, and falling asleep so early after school that I fell behind on all of my homework. I was even more exhausted from acting “fine” at school and over-playing my “loveof food” – to throw off anyone’s suspicion that I was in fact deeply afraid of it. Another thing I struggled a lot with, which people are generally
less aware about, was my inability to make decisions. I simply lost all sense of self-confidence so that even the smallest task caused me huge stress and anxiety. This only added to my feelings of shame and self-hatred, which I then “dealt with” by either eating too much or too little.
From the second I woke up to the second I fell asleep, food occupied my mind. At my worst I was eating as little as a bag of plain mixed leaved lettuce from Tesco a day… that’s about 16 calories. And, the reason I was putting my body through this torture? Quite frankly, because the thought of gaining weight terrified me. Not only was I deteriorating mentally, but also physically. I had a persistent sore throat. I constantly trembled from my overload of coffee (black coffee – no milk, no sugar, no calories yet pretty much the only thing that kept me going at times). My stomach was weak and often in pain. I had some heavy nosebleeds through which I nearly passed out. I felt a constant tightness in my chest. I still feel it today. I was, in fact, very sick – not just mentally now, but physically too. But none of this stopped me from continuing to try to lose weight. I was determined. Obsessed. Completely consumed by the hatred for my body. But somehow I still convinced myself that I was in control. I could stop if I really wanted to. I wouldn’t say I was ‘in denial’ because I knew perfectly well that I had a problem. In fact, I felt insane most of the time – I even joked with my friend that I would probably end up in a mental hospital (we both had quite a dark sense of humor at the time…). The issue was that I didn’t care that I had a problem. I guess I thought that this problem would somehow solve a bigger problem, that my eating disorder would eventually make me happy. Some part of me was simply holding on too tightly to the hope that, one day, I would be proud of my body. Obviously, I was wrong.
Although some elements of‘the old me’ remained, a large part of me had grown unrecognizable. Work was no longer a priority, neither was my health. My social life was slowly crumbling away. I don’t blame any friends for distancing themselves from me; I’m sure it was the best thing for them. But as they distanced themselves from me, I grew so frustrated with the situation for this reason: I couldn’t do the same. I couldn’t escape my body. I couldn’t walk away from my eating disorder. I couldn’t change the way I was and I couldn’t put an end to the screaming voices in my head. They told me that I had to be thin – not just thin – but skeletal. They told me I had to be thin or I might as well die trying. I hope this sheds some light on why people with eating disorders appear to dismiss the physical consequences that anorexia/bulimia have on your body: because losing weight is the priority and that once you are “thin enough” everything will be OK.
I became weak, lethargic and unmotivated to do anything. This is what brought on my later diagnosis of clinical depression. Almost everyone knows/has known someone struggling with depression. It’s often described as a “dark place” and is most commonly understood as “persistent unhappiness”. But until you have personally lived through depression, you cannot begin to understand how much of an understatement this is.
Just over a couple years ago when I was leading a healthy and happy life, I had days where I felt great, days where I felt fine and days where I felt awful. But that’s life. We need the “downs” in order to fully appreciate the “ups”. So, yes – depression, in it’s most basic sense, could be described as “persistent unhappiness” – but this definition lacks something essential to understanding depression. People suffering from depression have a skewed view of life. When you’re depressed, every day is as bleak and lonely as the day before. You have no memory of the “ups” – even though you are certain there was a point in your life that you didn’t feel this bad. You lose any reason to get out of bed in the morning, let alone go to school. You forget the concept of what it feels like to be happy, and so it seems like life will never improve and so… why not end it now?
This is why it is so hard to get through to someone who’s depressed – they simply cannot relate. I remember countless times when people told me: “You’ve got to stay positive and think about the great things to come”. To a healthy person, this could be great advice. But – to me – great things were never going to come, because any “ups” that I had previously experienced in my life were all distant memories. I was certain that I would live the rest of my with this eating disorder. This is what depression does to you: it drills into your brain the idea that “you’re worthless and you never won’t be worthless”. The only thing that kept me going at times was the hope that my eating disorder would eventually bring me happiness (even though a part of me knew that was impossible). Having said this, the underlying source of my perseverance and – ultimately – my recovery, was the support of my friends and family.
I honestly don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for the fact that my family supported me and provided me with the professional help that I needed. To all of the friends that listened to me and never gave up on me, even at my absolute worst – I could not be more grateful. I’m not saying that advice such as “stay positive/look at the bright side etc.” is completely unhelpful, it is just very unlikely that the sufferer will feel inspired. The fact is that the inspiration to really want to get better can only come from you.
I’m going to finish this off by letting you know that I am in a much better place now. I still have far to go, but with the support of my family, friends and doctors, I believe I can make it. I am determined to experience the feeling of sustained happiness (with the occasional “down”) that I used to feel before all of this. I’m just going to take it one day at a time. So, if you are suffering from some sort of mental illness, please be patient with yourself – recovery doesn’t happen overnight. Or if you have a
friend who is struggling, be patient with them – because if you give up on them, what’s stopping them from giving up on themselves?
If you take anything from this post, please remember:
- ANYONE could suffer from a mental illness, even someone who appears to be perfectly happy – you never know what happens behind closed doors.
- All mental illnesses should be treated with the same level of seriousness you would treat a physical one – whether it is bulimia, anorexia, EDNOS, binge-eating, orthorexia, depression, anxiety, OCD, drug/alcohol addiction, etc. – because even though not all of the symptoms are visible, they are all equally as damaging.
- Eating disorders are the furthest thing from vanity or attention-seeking. It is something out of one’s control – something that is triggered by extreme self-hatred, disgust and dissatisfaction.
- People go through all of these sorts of things differently. So, my experience of depression or an eating disorder might be quite different to someone else’s. (I can’t even begin to imagine the strength that people have to overcome this illness after living with it for several years). But, at the end of the day, they are all life-threatening and emotionally draining illnesses which are likely to stay with you for life – unless you get the proper help and support that you need.
Thank you for reading.