In October 2005 I was diagnosed with an eating disorder, Anorexia Nervosa. My Mum took me to the Doctors and made sure she came in to the consulting room with me, she knew that if she didn’t i’d make up a reason as to why I was there and not tell the truth. I’d become very good at hiding what was really going on. I had been doing it for years.
Looking back, my eating habits changed gradually as things in my life got worse, at first I didn’t notice it but eventually I did; I learnt to hide it well.
Everything changed for me when I started Secondary school. I’d been bullied at Primary school and was anxious about starting Secondary, I expected to be bullied wherever I went but I never expected it to almost take my life.
Before being diagnosed, I had been suffering from the eating disorder for 5 years, I’d been silently controlling what I ate as I couldn’t control what people said to me or what they did to me. I couldn’t stop them from taunting me with scissors when I had my hair in a pony tail like they did or stop them from telling me they were going to tear my school jumper off because it was the same colour as theirs (it didn’t matter that half the school wore that colour too). I couldn’t stop them from sending me text messages calling me horrendous names and commenting in vile ways about how I looked.
My parents were great with the bullying, they spoke to the school to try and get it to stop. My Dad said that the bullies were only doing it because they were jealous of me. But what were they jealous of? How could they be jealous of someone like me? I wasn’t anything special. The school, looking back on it, were useless. I don’t think they did anything other than comment to the girls that what they were doing wasn’t nice. The police had even been involved because of the text messages but the girls didn’t care, so it just went on and on. The more they carried on, the more worthless I felt. I kept on telling myself that because they kept on going I must have deserved it. It’s my fault.
Nothing changed, so I just carried on controlling what I was able to, until I could get away from it, when school ended after GCSE’s and I went on to study Beauty Therapy at college. Those girls were gone but after a while at college I was a target for others. I tried some counselling at college but it didn’t help as I wasn’t ready or willing to talk to anyone about what was going on, I didn’t want to give up my secret. College was over quickly as the course was only a year long and as I had done well I decided to return to my secondary school to sit my A-Levels that September. This however tipped me over the edge. There were no bullies but the memories were there.
When I started to realise what I was doing, I went through denial. Not because I wanted to stop what I was doing, I just didn’t want anyone to find out and take the control away from me. I’d go to the Doctor’s with made up symptoms to get Mum and Dad off my back about my mood swings or my fatigue. I’ve always been terrified of needles but I’d have blood tests regularly to see if they would pick up something so I could blame that, but they never did. When it came to meal times, I’d have either eaten earlier, wasn’t hungry or would take my food to my room to eat whilst ‘I was doing homework’. The food would then go in the bin or I would tip the plate out of the window for the dogs to eat depending on what it was.
I think I knew what I was doing and was trying my hardest to hide it for nearly a year before I got found out. My boyfriend at the time noticed my weight loss spiked (I’d wear baggy jumpers to cover it up), he told my parents to look at my stomach. My Mum came into my room, demanded I lifted my jumper and my jeans fell down. I remember then being sat down until I fessed up that I wasn’t coping. I ended up telling them everything, that I wasn’t eating, that the thought of eating made me feel sick, that I couldn’t get the bullying out of my head and that I didn’t want to exist anymore. It must have been the hardest thing for my parents to hear, that their little girl didn’t want to carry on because the damage had been done. I couldn’t stop hearing the names I had been called, couldn’t stop reliving the way I had been treated or change the way I had gained control.
So in October 2005, as I mentioned, my Mum took me to the Doctors and made sure I told them the truth, which I reluctantly did, and they told us what we already knew. I was weighed and I was six stone three ounces, my BMI was 15. I was in trouble. I was referred to a dietitian, a counsellor, a psychiatrist and put on anti-depressants. They told me I had 6 months for improvement, but if in that time I didn’t get better i’d be hospitalised. This hit us like a ton of bricks, it was a wake up call but I had no idea how I could get better.
I think I had to wait about 3 weeks for the first dietitian appointment as an outpatient at my local hospital. I had no idea what to expect and I was terrified at the prospect of being told to eat. I was scared that food was going to be forced down my throat and the thought of it made me want to run and hide. My Mum took me to the appointment, when we arrived I was like a closed book; I couldn’t give eye contact, I didn’t want to be there. After about 15 minutes I relaxed a bit, my dietitian was gentle about the subject of eating, she didn’t force anything. I was given an eating schedule. In addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner there were several added snack times. The thought of attempting it filled me with dread, as there were lists of meal options under each section. I was told that there was a lot on the sheet as our appointments would be far apart and as we only had 6 she hoped that over this time I would progress to eating some of the bigger options. I was told to basically eat little and often and to try Complan drinks (these are light meal replacement drinks) so that I was getting some nutrients without feeling like I was eating.
Christmas was coming up and I was scared for the traditional Christmas lunch, in previous years all the food was in serving dishes on the table and everyone would dive in and fill their plates until almost spilling over. I’d just got to the point of eating in front of people again (albeit small amounts) and couldn’t begin to think about the feast we would have. My dietitian recommended everyone just put small amounts of the meat and veggies on their plates so I wouldn’t be overwhelmed. When the 25th December arrived and we sat down to dinner, that’s what we did however Mum put a turkey thigh on my Dads plate and I had a panic attack, looking at that compared to the small slice on my plate was too much. I think that was the first time my Dad had seen the full effect this disorder had on me.
My first counselling appointment didn’t come through for another couple of weeks and I think I was more terrified of this than seeing the dietitian, I had to put more effort in during these sessions. I wasn’t being told information this time, I was going to be the one speaking. In the first session I didn’t talk much, I was scared of feeling judged or looked down on. My rational mind knows that wouldn’t be the case, but I wasn’t in a rational state of mind. I was self harming by not eating and at this point in my life i’d been doing it so long that it was my normality.
Counselling sessions were weekly (again there was only six given by the NHS) and seemed to be over before they even started. I had started eating again but I struggled massively with it. It was left that I should be able to self manage it from here and I was still waiting to see the Psychiatrist, this turned out to be a complete waste of time. With the counsellor they gave me tips and coping strategies but all I got was ‘hmmm’ and ‘ok’ in response to anything I said to their initial questions, I felt like I was talking to a brick wall. I didn’t go back to any further appointments, it wasn’t for me.
Thankfully I did continue to ‘improve’ but eating was still a huge struggle, it was very easy to fall in to old habits as I still didn’t believe I deserved to eat. I hadn’t fully faced my demons, I’d only acknowledged them.
As I said, I was back at my previous school and struggling with my A-Levels. My Doctor had sent a letter to my Head of Year explaining my diagnosis, the treatment they had put in place and how I may struggle with lessons. As a whole the school were supportive apart from one member of staff. When it was exam time I had a relapse, the pressure was very high and I didn’t believe in myself so I didn’t eat. I knew I needed something, so in a free period during the day I went to the local shops to buy a pack of Complan and some milk. I drank it but I couldn’t stay at school, I needed to go home, I felt sick and that I was going to spiral out of control or have a panic attack. I found a member of staff and explained, they said I could go home. I phoned my Mum and told her what was happening and said I’d get the bus back and would be about an hour (we lived 30 minutes from school but with the bus stopping for passengers it’d take longer). When I was on the bus I had a call from my Mum to check I was ok but to also inform me that this member of staff had called her, not to do the responsible thing of checking in to make sure I had made the call myself but to inform my Mum that I was making it all up. According to her I wasn’t having a relapse and was just playing truant. As you can imagine this made me feel even worse. I spiralled.
As time went on I managed to get back on track with the support of my family. I went to the Doctors and my anti-depressants were increased but I was not offered any further support or any more counselling sessions because I was still under the Dietitian and was putting weight on, albeit slowly. Even though I only had six sessions with my Dietitian, she spread them out, there were longer gaps between them as we went along so she could ‘keep hold of me longer’. This is the only thing that gave me any help whatsoever from the NHS during the darkest parts of my battle. I was never told about any charities or helplines to contact.
In the end I taught myself to control it (the best I could anyway). I ended up being dependant on Complan drinks, they were my safety net when I was having a bad day, but I did relapse several time over the coming years. When my parents split up, my Grandad died and when an accident triggered PTSD and changed my working life (I will talk in depth about this in the next post). These relapses were brought on by my lack of being able to control what was happening around me; but when I relapsed before we got married it was because of a different reason.
I had started to do really well and I was putting on weight. I was in a steady relationship, had a good job and was looking forward to getting married. I went to the Doctors for a check up on an unrelated issue and I was weighed. When I was originally diagnosed I was told my goal weight and that it was unlikely I would hit it as it was over three stone more than I weighed then. So when the Doctor told me I was currently nine and a half stone I was over the moon.
This ended up bringing a problem with it, I kept putting weight on. I went up nearly another stone and this was happening while I was having fittings for my wedding dress. Once the final fitting was done I couldn’t put any more weight on or lose it. This terrified me, I tried to gently change my diet; I didn’t eat unhealthily but I snacked a lot through my coping strategies. Still the thoughts that my dress wouldn’t fit consumed me and I started swapping meals for a Complan, I relied too heavily on them and was replacing more and more meals with them and stopped snacking all together to the point where J (my then Fiance) told me to get rid of them. I’d once again let the beast control me and stopped enjoying the time leading up to our wedding. I was in a fix, I didn’t want to put on anymore weight and my instinct was to stop eating, but then the thought of going down that road again scared me. I was internally pulling myself from one extreme to the other. It was only after several caring conversations with family and friends that I let myself relax.
In the last three years I have relapsed twice, once following a miscarriage (I will talk about this in the third part of this series) and then earlier this year when my cousin passed away. I’m still not fully out of the woods on this one but I’m aware of it and am using coping strategies to make sure I do eat. I’ve written some of these that I have learnt through counselling and personal research below.
- When I feel a panic attack coming on, I count down from 100, inhaling on an even number and exhaling on odd numbers. I continue this until I feel better.
- I wrote down the reasons why I want to recover and get better and looked at them when things felt difficult.
- Take baby steps, avoid weighing yourself (the scales were hidden from me so I wasn’t tempted.) Remember that things won’t change over night but even the smallest step forward is amazing.
- Mindfulness. This is something I have discovered in more recent years and I love it. It’s about being present and in the moment. It really helps me focus.
- I have a notebook/diary that I always have with me and I have a list of positive affirmations in it to keep me going.
- TALK. I bottled up what I was feeling along with my demons for so long, it was the worst thing I could have done. I now make sure I talk, even if it feels silly, because that first feeling can snowball if you keep it to yourself.
- At the end of a stressful day I lay in bed and go to my ‘Safe Place’, it’s a place where I am happy, I immerse myself in it, imagining the sights, sound and smells. This helps me to relax and drift off to sleep.
- Practice gratitude, this can go hand in hand with mindfulness. It can be really hard to think of a couple of things at the end of a really horrible day but if you write them down it can help. Sometimes for me it is simply being grateful for a walk in the fresh air or a hot cup of tea. I have started to use The Bees Knees Journal as this incorporates both. You don’t have to write essays and you can also colour it in. It has really helped me focus on the positives in life.
There are also charities that you can contact, I have linked three below.
This is my story of Anorexia, I am recovering but it will always be my shadow, however I will never let it take hold of me again. The most important thing I have learnt through all the counselling and self-help I have researched is to talk, do not bottle things up. You are not alone. You are enough.
Thank you for reading, this has been the hardest thing for me to do and has brought up a lot of memories for both myself and my family, but if my story helps one person to reach out then it’s worth it.