We have all seen the sensationalised stories about anorexia nervosa, focusing on bones, scales, tape measures and numbers. Stories which are concentrated on doom and gloom. Although these stories may grab the reader’s attention, I think they do little for the plight of people with eating disorders in general – and anorexia sufferers specifically – as it strengthens the myth that anorexia nervosa is a disease purely of numbers and outward symptoms.
Most people have some awareness of the horrific physical things that happen to the body in anorexia nervosa, but what bothers me is the neglect of what happens to the brain throughout this terrible disease. For me the effects on the brain were far more punishing and terrifying. The constant thoughts, the feeling of being stuck in the past, feeling terrified of what people think of you and abusing yourself if you make even the slightest mistake. Not everyone is at their most unwell mentally when at their lowest physical point and weight.
Recognising the impact of eating disorders
Having carried that voice and disease around with me for half of my life, it upsets me so much that people still think that anorexia is; ‘just a diet’, ‘just a phase’, ‘a disease for girls who want attention’. Anorexia nervosa is a very serious mental illness that carries with it dramatic physical effects and catastrophic mental and emotional distress. Suicide rates are high and it has high co-morbidity with other mental illnesses such as depressive and anxiety disorders. Many people experiencing anorexia are in denial that they even have a problem, let alone a serious illness, which can make compliance with treatment difficult.
I get very angry and upset about my eating disorder: what it did to me, what it took from me (friends, relationships, work and study, feelings of normality, enjoyment and freedom). It put so much strain on my body and brain and I lost so much time and freedom, having to spend so long in hospital.
When I had anorexia I was like a robot, obsessed with time, efficiency and activity. During this period anything enjoyable was a ‘waste of time’ – I could never waste precious hours watching a movie or sitting and having a meal with a friend, I was a machine and was always walking, exercising, doing housework, shopping – anything that kept me busy. I always had something scheduled as I didn’t want anyone to think that I was lazy or boring. It was a truly miserable and exhausting experience, which not only wore me out but exhausted those around me.
A journey of recovery
I was fortunate enough, having private health insurance and a psychiatrist who cared about my outcomes, to receive treatment in a quality setting with fantastic support. I attended a wonderful program which, while restoring my weight, enabled me to participate in group therapies including ‘psychology groups’, art therapy, physiotherapy and even yoga at stages. Not everyone is lucky enough to have all that support – and even with support, getting well is hard work. Group therapy, although confronting, is highly effective because it allows you to be around others who understand what you do and how you think without raising their eyebrows and thinking you’re crazy.
Many people struggle with anorexia for years and years and so recovery is a long and bumpy process, with many people (myself included) experiencing multiple relapses before finally getting better, and some sadly never getting better at all.
One thing which is extremely difficult about eating disorder treatment is that it’s like a ‘secret’ – you really have to dig around to find out what treatments and facilities are available to you. This is why I think the work of organisations such as EDV is so important in helping people to know where to go and who to call.
It’s not all doom and gloom
I am probably the most psychologically, mentally and emotionally happy that I have ever been. I actually feel connected to myself, my mind, my dreams and the world around me – and the only voice in my head is my own. After suffering from anorexia nervosa for a terrible 15 years I can finally and honestly say that I am 100% free from it.
The journey to recovery was not an easy one and I had many stumbles along the way – some quite horrific, public and embarrassing – but I kept at it and I kept my dreams in mind every time I challenged myself.
Last year was so fantastic for me as, without anorexia’s voice and demands dictating my life, I was able to fully engage with and participate in my teaching course and I loved it! I had so much fun on my placements and those kids couldn’t care less what size I am; as long as I am engaged and enthusiastic and show an interest in them, they’re happy .
I have become friends with a really nice guy in the last year and as I was telling him about this article. I found myself rushing through it and holding my breath, worried about what his response would be. He was really good about it but in that moment I realised that there’s still a part of me that is embarrassed about having suffered from this illness, fearful that new people may withdraw or distance themselves from me when they find out. The reality is I have nothing to be embarrassed about. I struggled through a terrible mental illness that I did not choose, and I worked my butt off to beat it. If someone had a physical illness we would not make them feel ashamed of it, so why do people try to make someone experiencing anorexia feel this way?
For me, finding the resolve to beat this illness was about learning to engage in life and finding happiness and pleasure in the simple things in life. I think that one of the most important aspects of recovering from anorexia, which is often overlooked, is creating a life for yourself that you want to live in (not just changing all of your behaviours and having nothing to replace them with).
I love taking my dog for a walk in the fresh air every day, getting a fantastic soy cappuccino, feeding the ducks, catching up with friends and actually having the ability to have meaningful conversations – things that I would’ve found to be a waste of time when I was sick. My sense of humour has even returned and I love annoying my Dad and sisters with my silly jokes. I love family occasions and trying new foods at different restaurants.
What I’ve learnt from the process of recovery
I am someone who often allows myself to get caught up on regrets and ‘what ifs?’ Recently one of my cousins made sense of this for me by saying ‘sometimes you have to go through the same experience or situation multiple times until you really tune into it and learn all of the lessons from it that you need to’. This is exactly how I feel about my treatment and recovery. I am a much stronger person for having gone through this experience. I am far more resilient and am able to remove myself from situations and people that make me feel bad about myself, rather than blaming myself for anything that is wrong, which is what I would have done in the past.
Exploring ways to reframe negatives into opportunities to learn and grow is crucial. As is teaching people how to value and respect themselves and consider the impacts that their words and actions have on each other. Meditation helped me greatly as did yoga and journaling during my treatment phase, as all of these activities involve engaging in the present and with yourself. It is very important that we learn to make time for ourselves and for self-reflection.
My advice – for everyone, not just those suffering from anorexia – don’t wait for someone to rescue you and don’t put your life on hold until you’re 100% better. Remember, recovery is possible – so don’t give up.
Contributed by Lauren