Last Day NEDA ’16 – The Starving Voices

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Last day – National Eating Disorder Awareness Week

Saturday: share anything else you want! Anything to help people struggling and encourage them in recovery ❤️

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This is the last day of my National Eating Disorder Awareness Week posts. It has honestly been completely exhausting and taken a lot of mental re-hashing of difficult things. But I hope it has been worth it. I hope that it has helped somebody, somewhere. Thanks for sticking with me. I really want to know what you think, so get in touch. You are the people I want to hear from the most. You are my encouragers. Thank you.

The following is called “The Starving Voices,” and is dedicated to all of my dear friends who have fought demons in the darkness when it comes to food. It is here to show you we are not alone.

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She is royalty. She is the Queen of pain, and fear, and the Struggling Journey. Her body is a map, the path littered with scars and bruises and stretch marks. She has grown and shrunk and bloated and starved according to the seasons of her life, and now she is an open book – radiant with light and hope. She is no longer ashamed of the stories her body tells. Her insides are broken from years of regurgitation, she has thrown up her health with her dinner many times and now the scars are deep and wide in her secret insides. But still, she is miraculous, still alive. Her curves are her trophies now, a sign of life when she had thought nothing would grow again. This is the palace she lives in. It might be broken beyond repair in places. It might bear the signs of the siege, the years of assault when she was told her body was not enough, but now she can see it for what it is: Home.

She is the girl in the middle of the dance, twirling with a furious speed, a laugh on her shining face. She is motion and movement, song and dance, and she is pounding away her fear with every step she makes. The darkness tried to tell her she was too big, too large, too fat, too stupid – not worthy of food and kind glances. The music tells her she is free and good and worthy of love. When her feet flick and jump and sink into the earth she does not hate her legs any more. She does not wish they were thinner or smaller or had gaps between the thighs. Instead she is fire and water, earth and sky. When she dances she is snapped free of the body she wanted to have, and released into the body she can dance in. This body right here. When she swings her arms, those arms she hated, those arms she starved herself to reduce, she knows they are no longer arms. She has grown herself a pair of wings, and now she can dance in the air.

She is the cook, the chef, the woman with life in her hands and flour in her hair. She mixes and whisks and bakes and fries, she covers her kitchen in potato peelings and her friends in love. She is no longer afraid of the taste of things, she is no longer trapped by the anxiety that closes her throat and cuts off her appetite. Now she is the Mother to many; the woman who gives and creates happiness out of eggs and sugar and left over casserole. The deep darkness has told her that no where is safe, something terrible is coming and she is powerless to stop it. But she is defiant and cooks in its snarling face. She will create safety amidst the wine glasses, she will build a castle out of warm homely scents and the taste of joy. The darkness cannot have her, and she will cook and eat in safety. She will make safety for others and grow a church out of home made bread and sour-dough starters. She is beating back the demons with a herb garden.

She is the face you see in pictures, she is the pouty lips and arched eyebrows. She is the tilted head and waves of perfect hair. She is the face you look at with wonder, she is the body you admire from a distance. She is the face that hides the brutal struggle for normality, she is the face that fights her darkest urges to unravel her body down to it’s bones and then take a selfie. She is the face hidden behind large sunglasses so you cannot see the insecurity that lies there.  She is the face who has heard it all before – you’re beautiful, you’re so skinny, your hair is amazing – She is the face who knows it will never be enough to feed the monster who lives inside. She is the face of strength, fighting every day to love herself despite her fears and her lust for the perfect body. She is the face of determination, looking out at you with a smile, despite the roving judgement of your eyes.

She is the performer, the artist, the singer of songs and bringer of words. She no longer starves herself for the perfect costume, the perfect role. Instead she throws her whole body onto the stage, laying it down on the altar. You can have all of me, she cries to the Gods, I give you my whole body and my whole spirit. She buries her fear inside her characters, wears them like a skin that she can love and not hate. She calms her heart in the glow of the stage-lights, and closes her eyes to the hum of the audience. She stands, her soul naked, letting their many eyes pierce her flesh like daggers. Let them look, let them see, she will not feed her hunger to their gaze any more. She decides to bleed with their glare rather than hide from their stares. Her body is a theatre now, no longer a house of bones and tears. She takes a bow in an empty room.

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Day 5: Recovery measured in books

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Day 5 – National Eating Disorder Awareness Week

Friday: share any tips for reaching out. Give people advice for sites, books, hotlines, or anything else that helped you or might just help them in recovery!

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Since childhood books and reading have been my way of understanding the world. I spent playtimes at school reading Harry Potter and my mealtimes bouncing Lord of the Rings trivia off my parents. So it isn’t much surprise that when I come to recommending “resources” that a person could use to encourage recovery from their eating problems, my recommendations are all things to be read. So here’s my reading list for recovery, starting from those childhood years when I first had eating problems.

When I was about twelve years old I read “Girls Under Pressure,” by Jacqueline Wilson in which the teenage protagonist, 13 year old Ellie, struggled with bulimia. This was the first book to introduce me to the idea that a person could die from an eating disorder. In the book, Ellie is awakened to her own need for recovery by the hospitalisation of her friend. Until I read this book, I didn’t really have a language for what I was experiencing. Thank God for Jacqueline Wilson. I was never told by a doctor that I “had” anorexia, and this book was my first moment of linking my experiences to the disorder. Ellie’s story gave me the first narrative for my eating disorder, not only that it was problem but that it could be overcome.

In my teenage years I lost myself in fiction as a solace, but I read and re-read “Chicken Soup for the Teenager Soul,” and “Chicken soup for the Teenage Soul – Tough Stuff.” In these compilation anthologies of teenage stories I could found voices that sound like mine. They were scared and frightened too, although they spelt “Mom” wrong and I had no idea exactly what “middle school” was. The books were passed onto me by a friend’s Aunt who lived in America. I hadn’t found anything in the UK where normal teenagers were sharing their stories quite like this. True stories. When I read them, I felt like I was hearing from people who were telling me it was going to be okay, but they were saying it from very very far away, over oceans. I suppose in the early 2000’s, this was the equivalent of something like Tumblr. This book of real-life tales and anecdotes was my first awakening to the fact that other people’s stories kept me going. Fiction was my oxygen,  but real life stories told me to keep breathing.

Nowadays I have particular places on the internet where I find people who inspire me in the same way those voices from Chicken soup used to do. I read post-secret, the  blog hub of secret keepers on the internet. During my really bad period at University it got to the point where I was sitting on my computer on a Sunday afternoon, waiting for it to turn midnight in the states and for the Sunday secrets to be refreshed. Post-secret is the group confession of strangers – they have a suicide outreach program, they run huge public events and publish books. They create a platform to say the things we feel we can’t say in a safe environment. They connect us to one another, through our secrets. On the worst of days, when I couldn’t get out of bed and everyone felt very far away, I could go online and read other people’s secrets and know I was not alone.

I also subscribe to newsletters where I know I will never come across a piece that will talk down to mental health, or people with eating disorders. I read The Pool and Lenny. Both websites are run by women, they demonstrate awareness of mental health, and they promote whole body health, not “perfect” body health. They are sources of online writing where I feel I will always find something to uplift me. I also look for stories on sites like narrative.ly, buzzfeed big stories, hellogiggles and the newyorker, where long form stories are honest and empowering. Here are just some of the articles that have helped me in my recovery:

“What it feels like to live with an eating disorder at Christmas,” by Victoria Smith, The Pool. This helped remind me that there are other women out there who continue to live with their eating disorders. This article gave me a lot of strength over the most recent Christmas break (always a bad time for me)

More eating disorders than ever are being formally recognised and that’s an important thing.’ by Natalia Lusinski at Hello Giggles. I related a lot to Natalia’s story, and also appreciated the detail she went into about the variations of eating disorders out there.

‘Getting a massage shifted my relationship with my body’  by Lesley A Miller at Buzzfeed. I know too well the feeling of being afraid of showing people my body – I feel like this story gave me more confidence to be open about what I might need for my body. Like a massage!

‘My Boyfriend Loves Fat Women,’ by Kristin Chirico at Buzzfeed. This artucle was really challenging for me,because I recognised in Kristin’s words the same disbelief that I felt about people finding a bigger body more attractive than a smaller one. But it encouraged me significantly, because even deeply ingrained thought processes we have can be worn away with time.

And in the less electronic written words, I can definitely say the following books have helped my continuing journey of recovery. They all fall into the ‘memoir’ category, and the women who wrote them have all taught me something about my own ability to overcome my current situation:

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed: Cheryl attempted to overcome her grief, divorce and drug problems whilst walking one of the most intense hiking routes in America. It is moving, beautiful, heart-wrenching and uplifting. I cried at the last chapter because I knew it was ending, and I couldn’t bear that Cheryl’s journey would go on without me. I thought it was just going to be The Incredible Journey but with people. It kind of was, but I had forgotten how much The Incredible Journey made me cry. Bawled like a baby. Not sorry.

How to be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran: Caitlin has always made me laugh, but her book made me laugh and feel strong. The way she talks about ‘fat’ and the fetish of young women’s bodies in our society was revelatory to me. It was like she provided this genuine reason for why it always feels like the world is shouting “BE THINNER!” at me. Caitlin has the strange ability to write like she’s my best friend and my guru at the same time. Don’t read it on a train though, you will laugh so loud people will stare. Trust me.

Not that Kind of Girl, by Lena Dunham: Lena is completely open about the fact she still fights her mental illness on a daily basis. She’s funny and smart and makes a lot of sense, and I know this book got some bad rap at the time but I really think the people who were dishing it out just didn’t understand the kind of brain a child/person with anxiety really has. I felt understood by Lena. Her candid writing makes me feel like I am talking to a friend about my stuff, and she is saying “Oh yeah, I totally understand.”

Giving up the Ghost, by Hilary Mantel: Hilary is one of my favourite fiction writers and her memoir reads like the exquisite story of someone else’s life. Yet her description of her struggles with illness in her life leap off the page and give me so much inspiration to keep going. She kept going, and look at her. She has also had an astonishing life, with anecdotes and an intriguing past and even a few ghosts thrown in the mix. When I finished the book I felt like Hilary had basically told me that whatever doesn’t kill you at least gives you a good story.

That’s my reading list!

I read to find the people who are saying the things I feel. I read to find the words I am unable to say. And then, when I have found someone who has been brave enough to speak, I feel strong enough to write my own story with my own words. That is what this blog is, really, and especially what it has been this week as I have tried, painfully, to un-work some of the tangles of my eating disorder in the hope it might help some other people untangle their own. But without the constant support and inspiration from all these written words, all these writers and authors and journalists and bloggers, I wouldn’t be writing this at all.

So a thank you is due – to those who have written words I have felt understood me, and those who have read my words and understood.

Thanks a bunch.

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Do you have some resources, books, articles, anything that have really helped you get through the day? Let me know. 🙂 Do you need to talk? I’m here.

I’ll be back tomorrow for Day 5. Last post for National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and then I’m tucking into my favourite victory food: potato cakes. Yum.

Day 4: Recovery and the things I don’t do

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Thursday: share recovery advice! What are you doing, how did you make it, what helped/is helping you, who supported you, etc! Anything that can assist others in their own recovery process!

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It’s Day 4 of National Eating Disorder Awareness week, and my week of doing a post a day about my journey. Yesterday, I wrote a comparatively short post about tips to get through tough days. Part of the reason it was so short was because in part, yesterday was a tough day. I needed some of my own advice, and spending too long ruminating on bad days wasn’t going to build me up in the way I needed to, so I hope you can forgive me. The advice is still good – just a little short!

Day 4 is about recovery, which is technically what I am: recovering.

Recovery is such a huge process, for me it has been over ten years in the making. So it is difficult to distil it down into a few easy sound bites, but what I’m going to do is just address some of the broader things I do to help myself out, and also leave some open space for people to get in touch, comment, or message me if they have personal questions. No question is too personal or too strange, hit me with it.

What are you doing to aid recovery?

For me it’s often about the things that I don’t do, rather than the things I do to keep myself healthy with my food. They often have to do with numbers. For me, numbers are a big trigger. Whatever number gets called would never be low enough for me, so I just stopped having it my life.

  1. I don’t weigh myself. 

I haven’t weighed myself on a scale in fifteen years. I don’t keep scales in my home, look up my BMI online, and even when I get weighed at the doctors I ask them not to tell me any numbers and keep my eyes closed.

2.  I don’t look at the calorie count.

I don’t read nutritional information, I just try and look at food for how it tastes and if I like it. I have to protect myself from certain information in order to progress.

3. I don’t pay attention to sizes of clothes in shops. (This one is still really, really REALLY hard)

For me, there is nothing less encouraging and more triggering than trying on a something that is “my size”, only for it to be too small. Even if I know the sizes run small in the shop, it might set me back a lot in progress because I can’t get the number on the label out of my brain. To make it easier, I tend buy in the sale or in charity shops/vintage shops where sizes seem to be less important. In those stores I can often pick a piece of clothing based on if I like it or not, and since it is usually the only one of it’s kind, if it doesn’t fit then that’s that. And if it does fit and is technically a bigger size than I might have chosen on the rack, I tend not to care because it’s such a steal in terms of price. Right now I am wearing a huge fluffy jumper from Topshop which I nabbed in the sale for £20. It is too big and a size 16, but it is so comfortable and snuggly that I don’t care. If I had seen this jumper on the rack, I would have been mortified if I didn’t find the smaller size comfortable. I would never have dreamed of buying a size this big. It’s a way for me to make clothes less about size and more about fun.

Then there’s some stuff I do to help with my recovery. 

  1. I cook. 

For me food has always been about control, and one thing that allows me to channel this control into positives is making food from scratch.Through this I’ve learnt about cuisines I love to eat that make me feel like I am helping my body be healthy; for instance I love south east Asian and Japanese cuisine, foods I would never have considered when I first had my eating disorder.

2. I talk. 

Sometimes it’s really difficult. I don’t want to say anything, and I’m afraid people will tire of my relapses and problems. But I have reached a strength in some of my friendships and especially my relationship with my partner that we have developed a certain language to talk about these things. So it’s not like I have to call someone up and say “I’m feeling particularly anorexic today.” Rather, I will say “food stuff is really hard at the moment,” and they will know how to speak to me in a way that’s non-threatening. They ask questions like “have you been stressed?” and “how are you feeling?” rather than quizzing me about exactly what I’m eating or not eating.

Basically, they help me find a way to make my recovery not about food, and that’s kind of what all of these things do. With these things in place it becomes about what’s going on inside my mind, not about my body and what it looks like. And that is the most important thing for me.

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Is there something you want to ask that I haven’t covered? Are you really struggling with a particular part of your own eating disorder that you could really use some advice on? Please feel free to send me a message – you can get in touch with me through my “Talk to the Runner” page, or you can find me on Tumblr at thewritingfuriosa.tumblr.org.

So that’s Thursday. I’ll be back tomorrow with some sources and resources that have really helped me.

Peace out.

 

 

Day 3 – Making it through the day

Wednesday: share tips on getting through the hard days! The hard days of recovery or just living with the disorder. Encourage people that it gets better, and give advice to help get them through!

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1. Don’t ‘should’ yourself.

I should be happy. I should be better. I should be able to fight my urges. I should be happy that I’m healthy.

Don’t do it to yourself. You don’t have to be anything but who you are in this moment.

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2. Talk yourself up.

Sometimes the bad voices in your head tell you you’re the worst person in the world. You’re not. You’re just a person with some stuff going on. Give yourself a good talking to. You’re not as bad as you think you are.

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3. Don’t listen to negative people.

On a bad day a bad comment about your illness can feel like a punch to the chest. Don’t listen. Don’t read the comments. Don’t talk to the people who aren’t going to get it. It might seem like if you’re in recovery then you have to represent your illness to your friends and the public, remove the stigma and fight the battle. You don’t have to. Not every day. Let them and their stigmatising views flow off your back.

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4. Be honest with someone

On a bad day sometimes you need to just tell someone that it’s a bad day. You’re not invincible, and that’s okay.

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5. Do things that give you comfort but aren’t going to hurt you

On a bad day with anorexia the thing I want to do is starve. But I can’t do that. So I need to do things that comfort me but don ‘t hurt me. What are those things?  I want to climb into bed and watch Grey’s anatomy. I want to drink peppermint tea and hug my husband. Do things that give you comfort. Watch your favourite show. Dance with your bezzie.

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Those are my top tips, over and out.

When you don’t know what to look for

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Illustration by Michael Woloschinow

Day 2: National Eating Disorder Awareness Week

Tuesday: talk about warning signs associated with the disorder you struggled with. Help to raise awareness for others and encourage them to reach out for help before it gets worse.

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I am sitting in a friend’s living room at University. She has told me she has switched to skimmed milk and given up eating bread. She’s also joined a running club and is jogging every day. I start to see red flags.

Why do I do that?

Well, if she was an overweight person who had been medically advised to lose excess weight, these might be good choices. But she wasn’t. She was a perfectly sized individual. That might have been all right if she was being made happy by her choices, but she wasn’t. She was tense, and tired, and only thinking about the food she wasn’t eating, the running she wasn’t doing. And that was the main problem for me, the problem I recognised all to well in my own life: the fact that she couldn’t stop.

Those were signs of an eating disorder. My stomach dropped when I recognised them.

Most people would suggest that she was just making incredibly healthy life choices. But I was there to read the signs that I could recognise from my own life; the signs of an inner monologue inside her, growing stronger, that was only concerned with what she ate and when she ate it. An unseen, aggressive, deadly obsession.

Maybe it was good that I was her friend at that point, that I could tell her it wasn’t really about the food. I could explain to her how it was for me and how I suspected it was now for her, too:  it was about the fact that there was a voice in her brain telling her exactly what she could and could not consume, and that if she kept listening to the voice and doing what it said, soon she would not even be able to recognise that it was there. It wasn’t like she was starving, or calling herself fat, or refusing to eat meals.

But that’s part of the problem. There are so many signs that are easy to miss.

On the national eating disorders website, it has a list of warning signs for anorexia nervosa. Many of them are signs that everybody associates with anorexia, the signs we have seen played out on weekday soaps and in health class text books. Signs such as dramatic weight loss, commenting on feeling or looking fat, and anxiety about gaining weight. The top billers. Consequently, when a friend loses a lot of weight we might consider saying something. Or when a brother or sister constantly makes comments that they are ‘fat and ugly’ we might begin to worry that something was going on inside their minds.

But when a friend says lightly ‘Oh I’m not hungry thanks,’ when we go for coffee at lunch every day, we might not say anything. Denial of hunger – seems quite innocuous, doesn’t it? Maybe they just don’t want to eat anything, maybe they’re just skipping lunch to lose a few pounds! That might be true, but consider this:

Someone who has a healthy relationship with food goes on a diet. When they talk about their diet with others they will talk about the good things and the bad things, the foods they miss and the foods they look forward to. They will eagerly sit down at meal times to enjoy the food they have. An anorexic will not do that. An anorexic will say they are not hungry. Rather than engage food and enjoy it, the anorexic wishes it was gone, that he didn’t need it. Saying they are not hungry is rejecting the desire that they instinctively have, it’s being ashamed of it, the natural need for food.

Another example: ‘Development of food rituals.’

‘Well wait,’ you might say, ‘we all have these, don’t we?’

‘I only eat chips with ketchup, that’s a ritual.’

Yes, it is, you’re right. But what happens to you when you can’t eat chips with ketchup?

If you have a healthy relationship with food you might just order something different. No chips with ketchup, that’s fine, I’ll have a side salad.  You might have a sulk. Well, I won’t have any chips at all! OR a side salad!  You might just shrug your shoulders, close your eyes and eat them anyway.

If you are an anorexic, you don’t eat anything.

You maybe don’t eat anything for the rest of the day, the rest of the week. You can’t eat. That carefully orchestrated food moment where you allow yourself nourishment in a very specific way is completely tarnished, and you cannot have it now. These are food rituals that cannot be broken and when they are, there is nothing adequate to replace them. I once read an article by a mother of a anorexic who recalls driving around multiple shopping centres at night to get one specific brand of yoghurt for her daughter, knowing full well that if the yogurt wasn’t brought home, her daughter wouldn’t eat a thing.  It may seem quirky that a person is specific about how they eat their food, in what order they eat the components on their plate, but perhaps it’s worth asking why they are doing that. Is it a force of habit from childhood? Something that makes them smile? Or is it something much more dangerous? Perhaps they have to eat the carrots first because they increase metabolism and will break down the food faster, making it less likely for them to gain weight. Perhaps they have to eat the lettuce first because it has very few calories and if they eat it all, it will make it look like they have eaten most of their salad.

Red flags. Easy to miss, but just as potent warning signs. (Full list here)

Perhaps when reading this you have recognised some behaviours in someone you know. Perhaps now, you are worried for them and want to make sure they are okay. You can do that, but just know that most people with eating disorders like mine carry it close to their chest like a shameful, ugly secret. It can be painful for us to share, and very easy for our hackles to be raised if we think someone might want to talk about this incredibly private thing that we are guarding from the outside world. It can take a long time for people to feel safe to open up. Maybe just come alongside them for now, invite them to hang out, let them know you are there and worthy of trust. Then maybe broach the subject tentatively, making it absolutely clear to them that whatever may or may not be happening, you are there for them. Many people just need to hear that you aren’t going to judge them, or “make” them stop, and that they can always talk to you about these things. Make sure they know the conversational door is always open to them, should they ever need to use it. Maybe they will.

Perhaps when reading this you have recognised some behaviours in yourself that are giving you cause for concern. Perhaps you’ve read the warning signs list and are starting to think, ‘maybe I really don’t have a healthy attitude towards my eating!’ That’s fine. Don’t panic. I don’t think you’re a ‘psycho’, I don’t think your ‘mentally disturbed.’ You might just have a problem that you could use some help with. In the course of my battle with anorexia I have picked up many friends with similar eating disorders. We often find each other, it seems. Some of these friends have battled for a long time, some of them will battle all of their lives, but many of them fight a short battle and recover quickly. When given the right support and help, many people who exhibit warnings signs of anorexia can overcome their mental hurdles and never experience some of the terrible effects of living with anorexia nervosa. They learn how to disengage from dangerous thinking patterns, they learn what their triggers for controlling eating are, and they live their lives healthily. Don’t be afraid of seeking a little bit of help because you are worried of what you will be “labelled.” Anorexia nervosa is a disease of the mind, and just because you have some symptoms does not mean you will develop them all, or suffer all the side effects.

That being said, like most diseases, if a warning sign is left unchecked it can fester inside you and become worse. I know that it might be frightening to engage with an area that most people consider to be black and white – people tend to think you’re either mentally ill or you’re not – but all of our minds are subject to change and threat and imbalance, just as they are capable of recovering and healing from past traumas. For some people, our relationships with food are a big part of that, and we need to be honest with ourselves about the fact that what we do physically will effect how we react mentally. Don’t ignore a warning sign because you think it’s probably nothing. Just as you might have a threatening mole on your skin checked at the doctors, so we should all be consistently in the habit of checking our mental landscape for potential areas of damage. So talk to someone. See if there is a bit of work that needs to be done. After all, mental health is a journey, not a status.

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If you need to talk about anything that I’m posting about this week, please get in touch. I’m here for a chat, or whatever. Don’t be silent.

Have a happy Tuesday and I will be back tomorrow with some of my top tips on getting through the hard days.

NEDA 2016 – Skinny thoughts can kill you

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It’s National Eating Disorder Awareness week, so this week I will be posting every day about this topic, following a structure proposed on Tumblr to promote NEDA. On Tumblr I’ll be posting more frequently and you can be part of that by following me along at thewritingfuriosa.tumblr.com.

Before we begin, I have never used trigger warnings before now but I am starting to utilise them more as I blog in a less private way, so please consider using trigger warnings if you are re-blogging these posts this week.

And I want to thank you in advance for your compassion this week – this is a hard project for me to undertake, but I really feel it is very important. I hope you do too.

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“Monday: share your story. This can be brief or detailed. You can share what you went through on a day-to-day basis and anything else.”

My story begins when I was ten years old. I knew I was a bigger girl than some of my friends. I was taller, heavier, and very very fond of chocolate. They all seemed unbelievably skinny, with tiny bodies and concave stomachs. In contrast, my belly stuck out. I hated that.  As a child I liked to sneak snacks out of the kitchen early in the morning and consume them in bed, stuffing empty wrappers down the side of the bed which my Mum would invariably find. I liked food and I was ashamed of that. But it didn’t get bad until I got violently sick one day. For years I pin-pointed that moment as the entire reason for my eating disorder, and it wasn’t until therapy that I started to see that my shyness, my fear, my shame were all contributing factors. But that week of sickness was the breaking point.

Memories are fuzzy (I was so young) and come back to me in moments of clarity without grounding. My Mum taking me to the doctors a few weeks later worried that I was still telling her I felt sick and was only eating very minimally. The doctor setting me on the scale and telling me my weight. Me thinking to myself “oh that’s quite good,” never questioning where I got the idea of what a “good” weight was. I wanted to weigh four stone (about 25 kilograms) because that was what some of my lightest, smallest friends weighed. I didn’t realise they were still living in their childhood bodies whilst I was transitioning to a teenage one.

After that, for me my memories are scattered across a long procession of fear and worry. I limited my diet, having decided what was “safe” food, what was going to keep me healthy and not get me fat.  I can’t go in depth about it, I’m really sorry, but it is almost too hard to try and dig back into the mindset of that little girl, starting secondary school, frightened of everything. I stopped eating chocolate. My best friend bought me an Easter egg and it sat on the side in our kitchen for a year. Eventually she ate it herself. I hid in the bathroom, praying that God would make me better without really knowing what I had. Friends of my parents started approaching me about eating, wanting to tell me to eat something properly. I would go out for birthday dinners with friends and be too afraid to order. I ritualistically took medicine I didn’t need to take in order to keep myself safe. Then one day I took my Mum into the lounge and through muffled sobs, managed to tell her something about what I was feeling. I ate chocolate for the first time in a long time – it was Smarties at my friends house – and I was so afraid and nervous I automatically spat it back out. That was the first time that I named my interaction with food as a problem. It gave me a point not to go back to. But my family and I were destined for many more ups and downs before we would get to a place where we could talk openly about my mental illness. It would take ten more years and a lot of growth.

I fought on an off through my teenage years to pull myself out of the dark patches, which became darker with growing depression and anxiety. When someone else in the house got sick or ill, I would starve myself out of fear until I felt like the threat had passed. Then I would resume normal eating patterns. Or as normal as I thought I could be. I went through valleys and peaks – break ups prompted violent valleys, as did the threat of summer and holidays. I viciously dieted before a school trip to Rome and found it difficult to drop afterwards. I ran out of a timed essay and had a panic attack in the bathroom because my friend had told me, in no uncertain terms, that my strange dieting habits were just a cloak for my control issues. She picked me up off the floor and managed to take me home and feed me ice cream that I was scared of. I didn’t want help, and fought off any teachers who wanted to talk about it or talk to my parents about it. My parents were wonderful – my mother created a strong, safe, space for me to live and eat in. She put dinner on the table and challenged me when I didn’t want to eat it. She cuddled me when I did eat it and then convinced myself it had made me sick. Throughout the turbulence, I could always find something to eat at home.

But then I left home. Without the regular care of my parents and their structured, familiar environment my relationship with food only worsened. When living in Sheffield I once went a whole week without consuming anything in the house of my hosts or using their facilities because someone living in the house had a stomach bug. I kept a bag packed in the back of my car on their driveway in case I needed to run away. University wasn’t so much better. In my first year my eating began to swing the other way as catered accommodation meant I ate for comfort and warmth. I was lonely so I ate, I was cold (Scotland!!) so I ate, I was unhappy so I ate – I think I gained some weight initially, and my skin was terrible. But when I moved out of halls and my depression worsened, my eating did too. In the next couple of years it would take a turn for the very bad as my efforts to control my eating would reach screaming pitch. At one point I was only eating porridge, made with water and cinnamon. I think it was the strange specificity of my eating that worried the people around me the most. The pool of “safe” foods I had swum in for years suddenly became a puddle. Safe times for food changed too, as for a while I would only eat alone (so I could eat as little as possible) and then for a while I would only eat with certain people, like my boyfriend. At my lowest point I still saw myself as that fat ten-year old girl stuffing chocolate down the sides of the sofa. But at the same time, I knew I was afraid. Afraid because my boobs had disappeared into my ribcage and I was afraid of eating anything. Afraid because I knew I couldn’t stop, and deep down, I think I was worried it might kill me.

Then I started to get some professional help.

Therapy and medication helped to stabilize some of this and make me much more aware of dealing with my fears and control issues. For the first time I spoke to a doctor honestly and a counsellor honestly. I also spoke to my family honestly. They supported my decision to go on medication, and we started to find ways to talk about the big problems. The honesty started to make a difference. My relationship with the church has also helped a lot. I was raised Christian, but I was pretty sure God was completely ashamed of me for being so weak as to struggle mentally in the ways I did. But in my fourth year of University, Church transformed from being a place that would condemn me to a place that would hold me. My church at University was full of unashamedly broken people, lots of people who were open about their mental health disorders, and honest about their faith too.Having a church leader who could stand up in front of her congregation and speak about her experience with mental health was astonishing for me. Her bravery, her strength, but also her undeniable belief that God cared about her was a revelation. The friendships of these people restored me to a place where God wasn’t necessarily against me. For a child of a Christian family, that was a tremendous burden to be lifted, no matter where I took my faith or what I believed in the future. For the first time in my life I had friends who had developed eating disorders, just like me, and were trying to manage them in a community. Sometimes we were bad for each other, but most of the time we were good at pulling each other up. No one else but them felt comfortable enough asking what I had eaten that day. No one else but them wouldn’t kick off if I said “nothing.” I had started to find new safe people.

Now I’m in a place where I am less ashamed of the problems I have. I still struggle – this year over Christmas I went through a really low period and food was very difficult for me, without my partner I might have sunk – but I can now tell people I trust when things are getting dicey. I can call someone or text someone and say “stuff with food is really hard” and we can talk about it. We can work out what I need to make it a bit better. The shame, the overwhelming crushing shame and fear that the people I love will reject me because of my issues, has nearly gone.

My story’s not over yet. I still have an eating disorder. I don’t think I will ever be able to think about food in a way that is not a little bit tainted by it. It gets in everything – every coffee, every teaspoon of sugar, every splash of cooking oil – it’s still there, the fear. I see my partner eating and I know that he has only two thoughts about food: “Am I hungry?” and “Is it tasty?” The simplicity of those thoughts completely baffles me. It seems totally unimaginable to me that a person could eat something and feel nothing but satiated, but maybe it isn’t unimaginable for the future. I guess the difference is that whilst I may always have an eating disorder, now some days I could almost believe that I didn’t.

*****

I’ll be back tomorrow for “Tuesday: talk about warning signs associated with the disorder you struggled with. Help to raise awareness for others and encourage them to reach out for help before it gets worse.”

Have a great Monday, and please share this story if you think it might help someone.

If you need help or need to talk to someone, I’m around. Please get in touch with me via my ‘Talk to the Runner’ page on this blog. Or you can chat online with a NEDA representative online at http://nedawareness.org.

Don’t stay quiet.

 

 

Jr. Dr. solidarity – Saved by the NHS

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There has been loads of talk about the junior doctors contract here in the UK. I’ve been posting my support on Facebook and signing various petitions to make sure my friends who are doctors know they are supported, but I feel like I need take a bit of time to talk about the NHS. About why it’s important, why we need the NHS, and why we need our junior doctors to stay with us.

Why do I need the NHS?

Because the NHS has saved my life. Because the NHS is saving the lives of people I love.

For some, in big ways. Like my partner who needs regular surgery to correct an unusual defect in his body. If the NHS wasn’t there and like our American friends we needed to pay for these operations ourselves, we would send ourselves into a spiral of intense debt and his condition would be a ticking time bomb. The unique substance that needs to be pumped into his veins in order to correct the problem is worth hundreds of pounds. We joke that his leg is worth a fortune. But it is. And without the NHS and without a fortune, we might run into serious problems.

I think of the times we have waited in hospital; me tired and achy, he drugged up to the eyeballs, and remember that often the reason we have waited to be seen or discharged is because somewhere a junior doctor has been trying to get to us. Pushing against their enormous workload as if dragging a stone around behind them they have battled on, and en route to talking us through the post-op recovery they have been catching people’s lives in their hands. We have seen with our own eyes their harried faces as they sweep the curtains around a person’s bed – another individual on the cardiovascular ward fighting for their life. We have heard their calming, friendly voices flowing from behind these curtains as they do what they can, reassure the individual, and push on to the next. We’ve watched them read charts, take blood pressure, and gently check in with us before they leave for the evening, even if their shift is over. I think of those times and I worry for these junior doctors; that these extra hours proposed by the government will be the stone that finally breaks their back.

That slowly this nation is moving towards a private healthcare that many of us won’t be able to afford. That the journey to get us there will be overflowing with harassed doctors who can’t manage effective care in these working conditions.

And then I worry for my partner who still needs several operations on the NHS. Expensive, complicated operations for a condition that makes the radiologist sit up and take notice. I worry that a doctor might be get too tired one night from endless shifts to notice a spike in his blood pressure.

I worry for my grandmother who receives all her medication free from the NHS and who is afraid to turn on the heating in case she over-spends. I worry that no one will be there if she falls.

I worry for my parents as they struggle with their own medical problems whilst trying to hold together my 97 year old grandfather with Alzheimers.He now needs expensive secure housing in order to be cared for effectively and has received emergency care twice in the last two years. I worry that since he is elderly and not in his right mind, he will become a patient that is easy to overlook in a bloated, under-staffed system.

I worry that the NHS won’t be around to save all of these lives again, in the way that they have been doing. I worry that the doctors won’t be fit enough to keep working effectively, in the way they continue to do so wonderfully at the moment.

 

And for others the NHS saved their life in little ways. Like me.

I didn’t come into A&E struggling to breathe, I didn’t need a life-changing operation to survive. What I needed was someone to help me keep going.

I walked into a doctors office when I was 21 years old knowing I needed something to help with the crushing depression that was permeating every area of my life. I was on break from university staying with my parents and overwhelmed with the knowledge that I couldn’t, wouldn’t be able to go back to Scotland, I surrendered to my fears and went to the doctors. I broke down on a nice lady doctor who gave me some tissues, and suggested it might be time to try anti-depressants.

The NHS provided me with medication and an excellent doctor to walk through it with me. Since I was in Scotland and a student, the NHS paid for my medication at a time when I would not have been able to regularly afford it. The NHS provided me with a psychiatrist to work through some of my issues. My doctor was a GP trainee, also known as a Junior doctor. She listened to me, she arranged to see me regularly, she worked out my medication delicately and sensitively, and she engaged with my mental health progress in a way that suggested to me that she really cared. At the time when I was most likely to fall off the map of the universe, the NHS was there to save my life a little bit. Other people were doing it too – my therapist, my parents, my boyfriend, the friend who met me after every counselling session I had for a cup of coffee – but so was she, the junior doctor I saw at the local community hospital once a month. She was saving my life in small ways.

But this is often the story for people who are struggling with mental health. They don’t need to be brought back to life with the shock-pads like you see in movies, they don’t need to be resuscitated or given a heart transplant. What they need is an accurate diagnosis and medication they can afford. They need a doctor who listens to them and has the time to care for them. They need support groups and programs that have the funding to invest in being there for their long-term development.

These are exactly the things we could be losing in this gradual disintegration of the NHS.

Junior doctors are fighting for an NHS where patient care is the first priority, and if the cuts to mental health services have taught us anything in the last couple of years it’s that patient care has become less of a priority. Statistics already show that mental health services have overwhelmingly suffered from budget cuts, with the amount of referrals for mental health issues rising but the amount of services dwindling. 80 million pounds has been cut from the mental health budget for children and adolescents in the past four years. And 55% of young people aged 12-25 years old are not receiving the mental health services they need.

It’s fine though, because it’s not like that time of life is particularly vulnerable or mentally strenuous. (!)

Apart from the statistical evidence that says half of all mental health problems have been established by the age of 14 and rising to 75% by the age of 24 , anecdotally I can tell you that almost every person I know who also struggles with mental health issues has struggled since childhood or adolescence.

I have friends who went through several counselling services in their teenage years. Friends who have been admitted to hospital due to brutal eating disorders in their late teenage years. Friends who have tried to take their own lives at university, and received the necessary medical attention. And from my own story, my struggle with eating began aged 10 and my battle with depression was established by the time I was 13 years old.

Even though I know from my friends with these stories, that we have all benefited to some extent from some mental health services (whether through medication, hospitalisation, or a well-timed ambulance) I know I speak for them when I say that more services are needed, not less. So often we slipped through the cracks; connections between mental health programmes and public schools often failing to catch those of us who needed to be caught. Over-stretched emergency services struggled to connect us to the right after-care after mental health incidents.

The NHS saved some of our lives in little ways, some in big ways. But for some of us, especially in our teenage years, it didn’t do enough.

Then why would you still support it? You might ask.

Why would you not agree that budgets should be cut and changes should be made?

Because the “changes” I see coming to us are not changes that improve things. So far, cutting the NHS has only added to the problems. When the mental health services are being asked to do more with less, when their qualified practitioners and doctors are leaving the NHS for jobs overseas, public access to mental health becomes brutally untenable for those who are most at risk.

It’s not just a case of making sure a Junior doctor gets paid right. It’s not even about individuals having enough personal wealth to afford an operation or services.

It’s about the local anxiety support group on a Friday morning that suddenly disappears.

Why? No funding.

It’s the person who ends up in A&E in the middle of the night after an unsuccessful overdose, but there is no 24-7 liaison for mental health in their hospital.

Why? It got cut.

It’s the current 32 week wait for psychological therapy that will only get longer.

Why? Too many patients and not enough doctors.

It’s the rising suicide rate, after years and years of it falling.

Why.

It’s the Junior doctor, over-worked and desperate for sleep, who cannot, absolutely cannot do this any more. It’s their mental health patient, who desperately needs them to be able to.

This has been a long post, but I have good reason this week. I’m supporting the Junior doctors because they, and others like them, have saved me and those I love regardless of our financial or social status multiple times. They have done it over-worked and under-paid as it is, they have done it exhausted, but they have still done it.

It is not too much for them to ask me to help them save their NHS.

******

Sources and important websites for more information:

Young minds – for information about changes recommended to current CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services)

‘Mental health services cut by 8%’  Michael Buchanan, BBC article about cuts to mental health services

‘Cuts to UK mental health are destroying young lives and families’  Mark Austin, The Guardian

‘Juniors Doctor’s row: the dispute explained’ BBC article explaining some of the details, Nick Triggle.

‘Improved mental health care “Needed” for 70,000 children and young people.’ Laura Silver, Buzzfeed.