Today marks the start of Eating Disorders Awareness Week, something very close to my heart. I’m not writing this blog post because I think people need to know about my personal journey over the last few years, but because I think that eating disorders – like so many other mental illnesses – are so often misrepresented in the media and in public knowledge. Eating disorders (EDs) are very complex, especially since they traverse the boundary between “physical” and “mental” illnesses.
I’m not going to start from the beginning here. In 2013, at my worst, I narrowly avoided being admitted to hospital in a forced recovery in order to sit my GCSE examinations. After being told that I should “lower my expectations” and would “probably not be well enough to sit all of my exams, let alone get the grades I deserved”. I managed to gain 12A*s and 1 A grade, but my pride was cut short when on results day I was immediately hounded by a local newspaper who wanted to print stories “about people who overcame difficulties” in their exams. I turned the article down. Partly because my mum didn’t want my extended family (only one auntie knew about my condition) to find out, and because she didn’t want me to be known as “the girl with anorexia” at my new sixth form. Partly because I think some journalists have an agenda in mind, with their eyes set on a particular story to share (that particular journalist wanted info I didn’t really want to share). It’s this latter reason that has also now prompted me to write this post, because I was approached by another blog to write a piece but all they wanted was a narrative that said something like “Hi, I used to be really sick but now I’ve recovered… recovery is great” but life with an eating disorder (and after) is never that simple.
I believe that we need to reexamine how we define and classify eating disorders. Whilst I was a GCSE PE student with anorexia, I had to sit in a classroom with about 20 other students and learn that the Edexcel definition for anorexia nervosa was ‘a prolonged eating disorder due to loss of appetite‘. When students are taught this in school, it is really not surprising that so many people do not have a sufficient understanding of EDs. I promise you that anorexia is never due to a loss of appetite. During years 10 and 11, at my worst, I was utterly obsessed with food. I was constantly thinking about food: my next meal; the meal after that; when I was “allowed” to eat; what I was “allowed” to eat; how many calories were in X, Y and Z; how I could eat a smaller portion; how I could skip a meal; how I could hide food; how I could pretend that I had eaten more. I was constantly hungry. My stomach ached as I slowly reduced my intake further and further. I got colder. I got thinner. My bones showed more and more. I got two sets of cheekbones. My stomach became concave. My body became covered in lanugo (fine hair). I became exhausted. I found it harder to run, and yet I pushed myself to do more and more exercise, claiming that I needed to in order to “practice for my GCSE assessments, mum”. I distanced myself from everyone around me. I started doing ICT work every lunch time (it meant that I didn’t have to eat lunch with my friends in the science corridor, that I didn’t need to eat at all because no food was allowed in the computer room). I started spending less time at home – I would run as often as possible, as well as attending zumba, hockey and netball training sessions most evenings. This slow decline where I lost my identity, my appearance and largely my life was certainly NOT due to a “loss of appetite”.
Classifying eating disorders is problematic in many respects and often over-simplified. Too often people believe that EDs are either anorexia nervosa (I.E. reducing food intake) or bulimia nervosa (I.E. purging). That view is wrong. There are other types of eating disorders – e.g. EDNOS, overeating etc. But more importantly, many people do not suffer from merely one form of eating disorder. For example, I was diagnosed with anorexia, but often I would binge and purge by making myself sick and buying laxatives. Throughout my recovery and beyond, even until this day, I have suffered with overeating. I eat to feed my emotions. I eat when I’m bored, happy, sad, upset, lonely, angry etc. in a way that is not healthy and has caused me to maintain a very negative body image. I constantly think I am fat, hate how I look, wish I could lose weight, and this is made worse by overeating when I am not hungry. Another big problem with eating disorders is the way in which some people define suffers of conditions such as anorexia as being “under the BMi of 18.5”. Sadly health provision for eating disorders in the UK is poor at best, and often people only really receive treatment when they weigh so little that they have become an emergency case. But this has created a whole host of further problems. Time and again I have come across people with EDs who believe that they are “not ill”, “not ill enough to matter” or “too fat to have an ED” because their BMI is deemed “healthy”. This NEEDS to change. There are streams of people who are suffering from EDs, whose lives are being affected, and they can’t always get the treatment they need, or they believe they don’t deserve help. I don’t want to live in a society where my mental/physical health is judged purely on a number that compares my weight to my height. It’s just not right.
People talk of ED recovery a lot. Yet it’s really not as simply as being “ill” and then “recovered”. Recovery has many stages, phases, highs and lows. Sometimes people go through moments of “pseudo” or “quasi” recovery, whereby they put enough effort into recovering – or pretending to recover – in order to avoid hospitalisation/serious physical side effects/judgement of others etc. There were days when I made a real effort in my recovery because I wanted to gain weight and gain my life back. There were also days when I pretended I wanted to recover when really I didn’t at all. There were days where I had gained at weigh-in. There were days when I had lost weight again at weigh-in. There were even days when I drank loads of water to try to pretend I had gained weight. And here, right now, three years later, I’m not sure that I have fully recovered… because truthfully, I don’t think it’s ever really possible. Your mind can block out a lot of bad memories regarding living with an eating disorder, but no matter how far you travel a part of it will always be there. Some days having an ED feels like a very distanced memory, something that supposedly happened to me but feels like another lifetime. Other days I overeat and I feel guilty and ugly and my self-loathing is as potent as it was three years ago.
So, no – I will not write an article that merely claims that I’ve recovered from an eating disorder, because fundamentally we need to reevaluate how we talk about and define eating disorders, or else they’re only going to get worse.