By Charlotte Springett
For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with being skinny. I don’t mean slim, I mean Keira Knightly-on-Atkins, skinny. Aged 13, I used to play around with a BMI calculator to find out what I needed to weigh to be classed as underweight. I was terrified of being fat and equally terrified of being a ‘normal’ weight. I was a short, flat chested, awkward geek who desperately wanted to be described as thin. At this stage, I was just a teenager with poor body image, which I think describes 99.99% of teenagers and so I didn’t feel alone. It wasn’t a problem.
Fast forward a few years to university and during my freshers’ week a photo a friend had posted on social media of me reduced me to tears. I have never been athletic or been in a sports team. At this point I’d also never been on a run either. No wonder I had low self-esteem!
After I saw that photo, I joined a gym, started learning about eating healthily and followed a few social media fitness bloggers as inspiration/motivation. For a brief moment, I actually started to feel semi-comfortable in my own skin. I toned up a bit, had more energy and enjoyed exercising, “happy days!” I thought to myself.
However, it wasn’t long before I was making excuses as to why I couldn’t go out socialising, either for drinks or food. If I absolutely had to, I would make sure I had done a big gym session in an attempt to offset any guilt. This guilt soon became a full-time mental fog.
I created an immense number of rules to follow; I cut food groups, (ciao carbs, see you later sugar, adios alcohol!), had a (short) list of ‘good’ foods and a (long) list of ‘bad’ foods and would plan my life around going to the gym (which was the only form of exercise I deemed ‘real’ exercise).
While I still wanted to be super skinny, I also wanted to look like a stereotypical ‘Instagram model’. These conflicting ‘goals’ led to some pretty chaotic eating patterns.
From the outside I like to think I appeared pretty healthy. I had a balanced diet with protein, ‘good’ fats and vegetables; healthy. However, all of this was accompanied by something deeply unhealthy. I was utterly repulsed by my body.
Clothes shopping was a nightmare and mainly involved trying not to cry in changing rooms. Food shopping was torture. I’d buy the food on my ‘bad’ list hoping I’d find the courage from somewhere to eat it but in reality, I just ended up with a cupboard full of food to torment myself with. I could forget about eating out or having someone else cook for me.
I remember going out for a burger once and feeling so revolted I tried to make myself sick in the restaurant toilets (I should point out that I mostly resisted the temptation to ‘purge’ and was always unsuccessful when I did try).
I went to bed that night wishing I could physically rip out my stomach and imagined tearing the fat off myself. Holidays (both abroad and family holidays like Christmas) were something I dreaded as they involved a huge emphasis on food and took away from my exercise routine.
By now the voice was literally a constant, screaming presence. I was worrying about the food I’d eaten, the food I was going to eat, when I’d be able to exercise and whether or not people thought I looked fat.
I was physically checking my body, pinching and pulling at the fat on me. If I had a bad day or if I was stressed, my first reaction was to restrict the food I consumed. The repetitive nature of my ED was exhausting and I cried myself to sleep more times than I care to remember. The irony is, I love food but I had become terrified of it.
I remember the exact moment where I recognised things had got out of control. I was anxious about a family event. Going to it meant being away for two days, so I phoned my Dad to ask what our plans were. Upon realising I wouldn’t be able to get to a gym, I cried out of sheer panic.
I was crying because I saw how out of control I’d become but I didn’t know how to help myself. I had maintained a healthy weight and so I thought if I asked for help, I’d be laughed out of a GP’s surgery and told to come back when my periods had stopped.
The prospect of therapy was also daunting, I thought to myself, would I be made to gain weight? Whilst I knew I had to get help, in all honesty, at that point, I really didn’t want to let my ED go. I can’t explain the rationale behind my thought process but to me, it kept me safe. I needed it.
The DSM-5 (the diagnostic manual used to identify and diagnose psychological illnesses) notes three criteria an individual must exhibit in order to receive the diagnosis of Anorexia Nervosa;
- Restriction of food intake leading to weight loss or a failure to gain weight resulting in a “significantly low body weight”
- Fear of becoming fat or gaining weight
- Having a distorted view of themselves and their condition. For example, believing you will gain weight from eating one meal.
I knew I fell into the second criterium and recognised I probably fell into the third but I was a healthy weight. I knew I wouldn’t get a clinical diagnosis so I put it off. It wasn’t until after visiting a friend for a few days in Oslo and spending my entire time consumed by what we were eating and drinking rather than enjoying myself, I decided I’d had enough.
The voice in my head had wrecked too many experiences by this point, so I booked an appointment with my GP. It was the best decision I have ever made.
It was the first time I’d told anyone outside of my family what was going on and I felt like I was listened to and taken seriously from the start. Within three months I had a pre-assessment at the ED clinic. A month after that, I was into my first session of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
I was apprehensive about therapy. That shouting voice in my head had been my constant companion for years. I am the least confrontational person you could meet and the prospect of shouting back and saying “no” to my own mind felt an almost impossible task.
Whilst I recognised how damaging the voice was, I didn’t want to let it go. Research has explored the relationship with one’s ED voice and domestic abuse relationships. Deep down I knew in order to be stronger and make way for better things, I had to say goodbye.
A year on after being discharged from the ED clinic, I am at a point where I can go out for dinner without feeling like I want to rip out my stomach. I can have a week or two away from the gym and not melt down and am able to enjoy food again. There are still foods I can’t eat but that’s fine!
Recovery is an ongoing process; I still have bad days (although they’re much fewer) but I know my triggers and I know the thoughts and behaviours to watch out for. I’m starting to learn to accept my body and how I look. I can for the most part, look in the mirror without crying – a small improvement but an important one!
I’ve accepted that the ED voice will always be there. Some days it shouts. Some days it whispers.
Most days I’m good at ignoring it but some days I pay it too much attention. That’s okay with me because every new day is a blank slate and an opportunity to try again!
What I think unites most people who are struggling with an ED (and arguably most if not all mental health problems), is fear; fear of reaching out, fear of being judged, fear of being brushed off and not taken seriously or fear of having to let go of something that has been your life for however many months or years.
I am truly passionate about breaking down mental health stigma and so I hope that by being open with my story, it may encourage others to either open up about their struggles or reach out and check in with someone you think could be struggling.
I firmly believe that unless we all start feeling as if we can be open about how and what we are feeling, stigma will always be a barrier for accessing support.
I recently opened up to a friend about my difficulties with food, to which he replied “doesn’t everyone?”.
We live in a society where we are constantly bombarded with conflicting information about nutrition and exercise. Working in an all-girls school, I saw the astonishing effect social media has on young girls and the pressure they feel to look a certain way. I’m confident there is an equal effect on young boys too.
There’s more and more research being done that highlights how social media is contributing to an unattainable desire to be perfect creeping into our psyche. Whilst social media cannot be blamed for society’s deteriorating mental health, I fear Instagram’s Valencia filtered glasses and mis-informed ‘fitspos’ may not be the best thing for our psychological wellbeing.
I also want to highlight that there is a fine line between healthy and unhealthy; namely your mindset. A lot of my eating and exercise behaviours at the beginning were healthy but it soon became a dark obsession that took over my life. I was lying to everyone, putting on a front of being “Miss Health” when in reality my mindset was far from that.
Many people think that you need a reason such as suffering a traumatic event to have mental health problems. It can just be sheer, bad, biological luck.
You don’t need to justify why you’re feeling how you’re feeling. If you’re down, you’re down and that’s okay, normal even! Some would argue you need to feel sad sometimes in order to appreciate the happy times but when you’re struggling and feel like you need help, please, talk.
If you have read this and resonate with any of what I’ve been through, please know that there is still help out there for you. I recognise that I was extremely lucky receiving help so quickly (although in my experience, NHS mental health services have always been brilliant).
Whilst news outlets report a lack of NHS funding for mental health services, there are also many charities that can provide you with support and help you in the right direction. Please believe me when I say it can get better, it really, really can.
If you’re struggling with your own Eating Disorder, below are some useful links that might be able to help:
For more articles like this, check out our section dedicated to helping people living with Eating Disorders.