My friend Sarah very kindly allowed me to ask her some questions about her experience with her eating disorder. I know this is a long post but she has given me lots of insightful answers so please have a read
“1. What age did you start experiencing Anorexic symptoms? What do you think initially triggered it?
I first started experiencing anorexic symptoms around 15-16. I think my trigger was a friendship group who were very image conscious, as a lot of teenagers are, but I didn’t have the self esteem or skills to tell myself that this wasn’t what counted. I know that my weight started to drop and I began counting calories at college. I had always been a very high achiever, I knew I was. I was the best in the class. But at college the bar was raised and I couldn’t reach that standard. To me that meant I had lost my identity. I was no longer the smart one, so I chose to be attractive to gain friends. Now I’ve learnt this makes no difference in true friendship, but teenagers can be shallow, it’s in their nature as they learn about themselves, but at the time it felt like everything
2. What Treatments have you had during your recovery? What have you found to be the most beneficial?
I am one to talk about treatments. For some time I was in denial about having an eating disorder. In college when I first lost a lot of weight and restricted heavily, I believed that eating a lot and gaining the weight back meant I had recovered. I ate scones and cakes and biscuits as I studied, and in some respects I was doing the right thing. I fed myself what I wanted, gained back the weight and at least I was eating. But if I were to give a message to anyone experiencing an eating disorder, or unsure if they are, it is seek help!
My recovery was not final. The thoughts that triggered my ed, as previously mentioned, we’re not addressed. At university I first saw a councillor who discussed my thoughts of inadequacy. I will always remember the release I felt walking out of that office. Unfortunately my sessions were short lived due to leaving university but from here on it I have seeked many different types of help, and I believe each has helped me in some way.
I attended one on one cbt with a councillor. Personally I found the whole thing too structural: I didn’t like having to fill out sheets for each of my thoughts and felt guilty for not addressing them. I think I was not far enough into recovery for cbt to be effective
Then I spent a few years seeking my own therapies. I actually undertook a programme called the Gupta programme, a self help meditation and positive belief programme which requires a daily commitment. It sounds scary but is one of the better things I have done. I was not working at this time and it gave me techniques I use to this day to use in difficult situations. You might have heard of colouring for mindfulness, well think of that, on a larger scale, whilst also addressing negativities surrounding your body. If you are someone who doesn’t respond well to outside therapy, it is something I would definitely recommend.
I also did phone sessions of hypnotherapy. I won’t go into these in detail but if you enjoy yoga and practical healing have a look into them.
The best therapy I have found is talking therapy. I think it addresses my needs the best. It’s almost like having a best friend you can tell anything to, except these are the things I can’t tell anyone else. Every week, or however often I go, I literally offload everything I want to say. It helps me to see the world rationally. I might be having difficulty one week with an action someone has taken towards me and my therapist might say so what. And quite reliably, I carry that wisdom with me all week. It is hard to take on board the opinions of others when you feel judged as many people with eating disorders do, but this person has no judgement,
But equally I think it is important you find the right person for you. I have been to a few talking therapists, including groups. My current therapist is fantastic. Very literal, to the point, exactly what I need. Don’t be afraid to look for a new therapist if yours is not right for you. You may have to be patient if you are on the nhs, but recovery is worth it. I had one therapist, and I found her comments toward my situation negative. I needed someone to let me work out the answers I needed to make and to help me there, rather than assume my situation for me. I do not think she is a bad therapist, she just was not right for me You might be in a situation like me, thinking nothing is helping to defeat these thoughts. It might just be you need a change!
3. What are your thoughts on the NHS using BMI as a method of determining if someone is eligible for treatment for an eating disorder?
I think any psychological disorder or difficulty is very difficult to diagnose and I think as someone who is being diagnosed we have to bear that in mind.
Two years ago I was rushed into hospital with stomach pains and was discharged due to my weight. I felt unfairly treated. Why should it be that just because I am underweight my problems are caused by an eating disorder.
Yes I was in denial. I had many attributes of an eating disorder. But I think this highlights a big problem in using bmi to assess anorexia.
I was underweight for a long period. But partially this was due to stomach problems. I could not digest food, and when I did, a lot of foods had adverse symptoms. I still to this day do not know how psychological or physiological these problems are, but I do know that physically, eating was painful for me. Can we therefore say that because someone has a bmi of 15 they clinically have anorexia? I do not think so. I think there a lot of medical issues to take into account. Only last week I read a case of a lady diagnosed with anorexia who then sadly passed of chrohns disease, a very painful inflammation of the intestines. I think the doctors we see need to be aware of additional factors that may play a role.
I do not dislike doctors. I think their job is incredibly hard and j think they are right to assume in many cases. As my therapist says, eating disorders are crafty: they come in many forms. You may have chrohns disease, and be scared of eating because of the pain. But this is still a negative relationship with food that must be addressed.
Rather than dismiss the problem as an eating disorder, i think the problem must be addressed taking into account the psychological symptoms that may have resulted, but primarily if A person is asking to be addressed physically, this must be checked, to make sure there are no physical causes that could delay your recovery. I won’t lie. Recovery is hard. But every good moment is worth it.
You may find that you are unaware you have an eating disorder or be lucky enough to catch one before it really begins. Or you might have a physical problem. Either way bmi is an indication that something is awry.
4. One thing a lot of people in recovery struggle with is coping with recovery weight. What are your suggestions for those struggling to cope with the new weight?
I am currently moving towards my recovery Weight and I am facing a lot of barriers. I look in the mirror and although I don’t think I’m fat, I tend to compare myself to others with their ‘bikini bodies’ a lot more than when I was toned and flat.
It is not an easy think to deal with, but it can be made a lot easier. Something that helped me was to write positive statements about myself daily, unrelated to weight. I think ‘I love my hair’ was written on my mirror for months as it was one of the only things I could say positively about myself. But after a week I would wake up and without a second thought think, my hair looks so good today. Adjusting to a new weight is adjusting to a new belief about what is healthy. My healthy weight means I have a belly. My healthy weight means I have a bit of wiggle on my arms. I’m not a flat stomached person. And I find that difficult. But I am healthy at that weight. I am more able at that weight and I start to do and achieve things because I’m not cold, or tired or aching.
At your recovery weight, you probably will have more thoughts of losing weight. But my advise it focus on your health. Think about what a body needs. A woman needs fat to look after her children and reproduce. A man needs strength to carry out his daily tasks. Focus on these strengths as much as you can and make them your strength. You could be a mother one day, or if you are, you could progress in your career because you are able to get up and go to work more days in the week.
5. What are your thoughts if someone tells you you look healthy? I’ve always found that as a bit of a trigger, that someone is calling me fat and I thrive off of people saying I’m too thin.
Healthy is a word I’m learning is a good thing. Everywhere in the media today we see the words skinny, toned, flat. So much so that when we see the word healthy we begin to associate it with the opposite. But to be brutally truthful on both myself and others, this is wrong. To be healthy is to be at a weight to height ratio where your body is working at its optimum. We need to be a healthy weight so that our brains and bodies can function. We also need a healthy diet, which for all the health obsessed out there, does not mean a salad at every meal. It means a proper portion of carbs, fats, vegetables and proteins at every meal.
For someone with an ongoing eating disorder, or even someone in recovery, the word healthy can be a trigger, or something to fear. It is easy to take someone’s words and perceive them as negative when you have negative perceptions of yourself, but recovery is learning to be healthy and have a healthy relationship with food. I, myself, once saw healthy to mean I had gained weight and it was this thought, and comparing myself to all those who were so proud of losing weight, that would trigger my own weight loss. But behind that was a belief that I was not achieving or progressing or satisfied elsewhere in my life. To be healthy is a lot easier to manage if you are living a full life, seeing friends, working, doing things for yourself and others and as cliche as it is, accepting yourself for who you are, something I find very difficult. I am a worrier, this is okay. If things go wrong I tend to panic, but that doesn’t make me any less of a person than someone calm and collected. If you are struggling with the idea of health. Think about health meaning in all aspects of life, you may look healthy because you are smiling more, or you have colour in your cheeks.
6. What would you say to someone who has a loved one who is suffering with anorexia. What can people do to support that person?
I really hope that someone who knows someone with anorexia reads this because support is one of the aspects of my recovery that I feel very strongly about, and i know that surrounding yourself in the best support you can is vital to healing.
If you are supporting someone with anorexia, don’t be scared of the condition. It is okay to talk about it. Be somebody that the person can talk to, without judgement. For someone with an eating disorder to hear somebody say ‘I haven’t been through this but it sounds really tough and I’m here for you’ is often enough to help them out of a dip in their recovery. Eating disorders are very lonely. Millions of people across the world suffer with a form of ed, and that number is increasing all the time as cultures focus more on body image, but most people with an ed will tell you that they feel alone. It is not that we are the only person suffering, it is the thoughts in our heads that make us feel trapped and segregated from the world. Whilst you may be thinking about what is on tv, or what you need to do, we may be counting the last weeks calories to see if we can rationalise eating that next meal.
As a friend of family member of a person with an ed, be open to change, and accepting that the person you want to help may act out in strange ways, but telling them that what they are doing is wrong will only perpetuate the behaviour. We probably know we are in a bad mood. We probably feel terrible for how we are acting. But we are often angry at ourselves and, much like a child, we do not know how to deal with the emotion and thoughts. We are scared and most cases of Eds are based around fear of doing wrong or being hurt. You may be trying to help by saying ‘just eat something’ you are being ridiculous’ and yes, that is what we should do. But to myself and many others we hear someone else telling us what to do and not understanding how hard things are. A better approach is to ask how we are feeling or if there is anything that might make us feel better.
For some people it helps to know how you feel. For years my own family turned themselves off from my ed behaviour, changing the subject if i mentioned food or not allowing me to join in conversations about food. It made me feel less of a person, more obsessed with the fact food dominated my life. It is only recently they have started to accept change in themselves to help me. Instead of ignoring my comments, sometimes, not always, they will say ‘when is your next therapy session’, appreciating that I need help.
It’s not easy for us people with Eds, but I know it’s not easy for you either. Going through something like this it is hard to think about how other people feel, that they may be worried about you and fear for you and your life. But that does not come from selfishness, in fact it is the opposite. For me it was being So concerned with what my family thought about me, I neglected who j wanted to be, resulting in my anger and withdrawal.
I think my final piece of advice therefore is just to be honest and patient with us. Let us know how you feel. Talk openly about the disorder, and maybe you might help to find the root cause and begin to address it. As a friend, be supportive without being overwhelming. You are there if we need you, but you won’t force us into any difficult situations. And please, compliment our personalities. A lot if my thoughts were on my appearance, I would much rather hear that you think I did a good drawing, or that I did a good job washing up.”
A huge huge huge thanks to Sarah for agreeing to partake and giving me some great answers. I hope you all learnt something from reading this and I will speak to you all soon!
Thanks for reading!