Okay, so I've been sitting here with a blank screen for a good 10 minutes, completely bewildered as to how to start this blog post. When it comes to eating disorders, I have SO much to say that I really don't know where to begin. This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week though, and so I felt like it was the perfect time to open up and help raise awareness about the disorders which can take over, and in some heartbreaking instances, claim, peoples' lives.
I've opened up about my issues with food before on here in my post 'Me and Food' (I can't believe this was almost two years ago now), but I've never really gone in depth to tell you my story. I honestly think I could write an entire memoir on my struggles with eating disorders, and whilst I'm going to try not to do that today, I do want to let you know more about my experience, in the hope it helps even one person suffering.
Growing up I felt like I had a pretty decent relationship with food. I was a healthy-looking kid, full of energy and constantly happy, and never one to turn down a slice of cake (or two). I loved food, that was true, but I didn't feel like it consumed my life. When I got older, around the age of 10 or 11, the weight started to pile on. I went from being the pretty little healthy-looking girl to a 10 year old wearing women's size 16 clothes. I don't think I gorged on chocolate or anything to get that way, but growing up knowing I should never leave food on my plate and having a fondness for helping myself to more than a single serving probably didn't help.
At secondary school, as you can probably imagine, my weight became a talking point and I was bullied for being fat. It was weird - I'd never really been "aware" of my weight until that point - diets and calories weren't vocabulary that had ever entered my repertoire before. Then, suddenly, I was being picked on for being bigger than everyone else, and it felt... weird. It threw me completely. I didn't decide to start dieting then, because that would almost be like letting them win. Instead, my big sister had started to diet and with that, I kind of unknowingly fell into the diet too. Me and my sister were pretty much joint at the hip growing up and so when one person did one thing, the other followed suit. Suddenly my packed lunches were no longer filled with ready salted Walkers crisps and Cadbury chocolate cake bars - instead out came the Go Ahead cereal bars and snacks. I started walking a lot more, too - instead of staying at school and enduring the endless taunts from bullies at lunch time, I'd walk the 15 minutes home and have dinner with my parents.
It didn't take long until people started to notice - I was losing weight. I don't know how long a period of time it happened over - I think by the age of 12 I was starting to lose some, and when 13 came along I was unrecognisable. People complimented me left right and centre - and it was such a bizarre feeling, to have someone tell you you looked good for having lost weight, something so ridiculously unfamiliar to me.
The funny thing was, I thought I'd done it without really trying. I actually went to the doctor with my mum about it, as we were confused as to why I was losing weight so quickly - was it something medical? As a test, to see if something sinister was going on, I was told by the doctor to eat as much as I liked, over the normal calorie allowance, for two weeks, to see if it made a difference. If I still lost weight, they would know something was wrong. Boy did I rise to the challenge. Chocolate bars galore, eating full packs of cakes - I did it all. Then came the day I stepped back on the scales and I was horrified with the results. I'd put on A LOT of weight in that time, and whilst it meant there was nothing physically wrong with me, it terrified me to my very core just how easy it was to gain weight. That was it - something inside my brain clicked and I think it might have been the turning point to the deadly downward spiral I was heading on.
Over the next few months, what had started out as a harmless diet turned into a full-blown obsession. I learnt about calories, and started counting them religiously. I did crunches in my bedroom, and I walked everywhere. The weight fell off me. Soon I started to hide food, to actually dread meal times - something I had always looked forward to. While all this was going on, my OCD was taking a battering. Yes - before my eating disorder, a long time before, I had OCD. While I was starving myself, my OCD was getting much worse, to the point that my parents forced me to go to the GP to get it under control. I was referred to CAMHS, the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, but they took one look at me and all notions of trying to get the OCD under control went out of the window. They diagnosed me with Anorexia Nervosa then and there.
Over the next few months my anorexia continued to get worse. Whilst I was banned from doing any physical activity (P.E. and walking to and from school were out of the question) that didn't stop me and my weight got dangerously low. I had stopped having periods, a downy hair had begun to grow all over my body and I was constantly freezing cold. The girls who had previously picked on me for being fat now took pleasure in saying loudly 'God she's SO thin, she looks disgusting. GO EAT A BURGER!' instead. It was like I couldn't win.
I had to be weighed weekly, as well as having weekly sessions with CAMHS. I'd moved into a different friendship group at school, and even had a boyfriend. Despite all this, I was still dangerously ill, and it got so bad that I was threatened with being sent away to a mental health inpatient unit. Even though I was showed round the unit, I didn't believe I'd ever end up there. In my eyes, I wasn't ill enough for that. Then when my sister showed me the bag my mum had packed me, full of stuff to take there, it hit me - this was actually happening. If I didn't sort myself out, that's where I'd end up. Later on I found out that if it hadn't been for my dad giving me one final chance, I'd have had to have gone there.
I improved a little bit from there, mainly because I didn't want to be away from my boyfriend at the time, but things still weren't great. Then said boyfriend broke up with me and boom - something else clicked in my brain. I remember walking home from school, completely distraught, and going into every food shop I could find. I bought chocolate bars, custard creams, basically everything I could get my hands on, and ate it all. Obviously my body couldn't cope with it and I woke up in the middle of the night to throw up violently all over my bed (not deliberately, my tiny stomach literally couldn't cope with all the food) - but that was the start of yet another eating disorder. I walked straight out of Anorexia Nervosa and right into Binge Eating Disorder.
My weight ballooned over the next few months. I took regular trips to the shops to stock up on chocolate, only to have gorged on it before I'd even got home. I didn't throw it up - only on very few occasions - and I think everyone around me was both horrified by how quickly I'd gained weight (honestly - I was unrecognisable), but also incredibly relieved that I was no longer at death's door starving myself. It was a catch 22 situation. The comments started again - I remember one particularly nasty bully, who had previously shouted 'ANOREXIC!' at me saying: 'I thought you were supposed to be anorexic' when he saw me one day. I was a mess - I've always been a person of extremes - very much all or nothing, and so my only way out of anorexia was to go the in the opposite direction. I swapped one eating disorder for another.
Thankfully, despite how unhealthy it was to go from starving to gorging, my weight balanced out, and over time the disrupted eating stopped. I began to feel like a "normal" person again. I was a healthy weight, and for the most part, ate a healthy, balanced diet. At times of stress or upset, I'd still resort to food for comfort, but it was never anything major and generally, these times were few and far between. It wasn't until a couple of years ago that binge eating began to take hold again, and whilst it's never been as bad as it was all those years ago, it's still a big part of my life.
Whilst suffering with anorexia took away my periods, left me at risk of osteoporosis, infertility and, ultimately, death, suffering with binge eating disorder means I'm at risk of obesity, heart problems and diabetes, as well the fact both disorders completely mess up your metabolism. My anorexia hasn't fully left me, either - since suffering with it I am completely unaware of how I look - anorexia warps how you see yourself (you'll look in the mirror and see a fat person staring back at you, when actually you're emaciated) and I still feel like I'm never 100% sure about how my body looks. Ever since becoming anorexic, I've been obsessed with my size, and whilst I hope there will come a day when I don't obsess over my weight or over food in general, I don't think it will ever come. Sadly, once you set foot into the world of eating disorders, those thoughts never really leave you.
My hope is that one day I can go back to at least feeling normal again when it comes to food. My relationship with food will probably always be turbulent, particularly at times of stress or upset, but I want to be able to control it more, instead of letting it control me.
Eating disorders are horrible, torturous diseases that consume peoples' lives. They aren't fads or quick-fix weight loss diets, they're illnesses that require time and treatment - and often never really mean a full recovery. I've seen first-hand the effects eating disorders can have - and the consequences. One of my closest friends fought anorexia for over a decade, but in the end the disease took her life. It breaks my heart every day knowing that I survived yet I couldn't save her.
If you suspect someone you know has an eating disorder, make sure you reach out to them and encourage them to get help. The best resource for getting your head around the complicated world of eating disorders has got to be Beat's website - Beat is the UK's eating disorder charity, who this week are raising awareness of eating disorders. You can head on over and donate to the charity here, and find out more about Eating Disorder Awareness Week here.
Apologies for how long this post was - well done for getting to the end if you did!