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.
“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.