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Recovery is a journey: Eating Disorders Awareness Week

The following piece is written by J, a Young Champion at the Anna Freud National Centre

Professor Peter Fonagy, our Chief Executive, said: “Eating Disorders Awareness Week is an opportunity to talk about mental health problems without fear of stigma. [...].  Eating disorders are becoming more common and are starting earlier in young people's lives. Successful support for children can eliminate the profound unhappiness that some children and families experience as a result of an eating disorder or other mental health problems, and instead, open up a life of opportunity for them.”

This week, I (J) am taking that opportunity to share my story of eating disorders and the journey that is recovery.

It sounds like a cliché, but I didn’t think I would be a person that experiences mental health problems. On paper I’ve got a version of a perfect life. I’m fortunate to come from a good background and have a bright future ahead of me as a doctor, and yet five years ago I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.

Back then, I didn’t know much about eating disorders. I still believed in the stereotypes and misconceptions of anorexia being something that vain school girls ‘have’ when they freely choose not to eat in order to be thin. In reality, eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that any person of any age, gender, shape, weight, race or social background can develop, and it’s not something you can (or would want to) choose to have or can necessarily see from the outside.

I learnt the hard way that eating disorders aren’t just about food in the way people may assume, but rather controlling food is a maladaptive way to control negative emotions. Although it gives you short-term relief, the long-term consequence is that the illness takes everything away from you. It tainted nearly every aspect of life: my relationships with family and friends; my work and ambitions; my enjoyment of everyday things such as watching television or holding conversations; and eventually it threatened my future.

This is because a side effect of controlling my food intake was that I was too physically and mentally exhausted to care about anything. I lost interest in everything so that my whole world narrowed to just the illness and I shut myself away. Time seemed to go so slowly. I could hardly sleep at night and I spent the days feeling numb and empty in an emotionless ‘zombie-like’ state which at the time I welcomed as a protection from experiencing negative thoughts. I remember the first time that I truly laughed after starting recovery; it was such an alien experience – not having to fake happiness - that I actually got the giggles from my own laugh.

Eating disorders are often glamorised by the media, but they are far from glamorous. To me, they are hiding food by secretly squishing it into my clothes, always feeling too cold, or feeling dizzy and weak, and losing control of my bladder because my body was taking energy from my muscles. Eating disorders are watching my parents cry as they feel helpless and frustrated, being told I may have problems with fertility later in life, and knowing that I have osteoporosis in my twenties. To people with an eating disorder, these often forgotten aspects aren’t at all glamorous or desirable, but only add to the continuous sense of isolation that the illness brings with it.

So, with all this, ‘Why don’t you just eat?’

The simple answer is that it was just easier not too. I was scared of what might happen. I found life with anorexia was like being trapped inside your mind along with someone that doesn’t like you but has tricked you into thinking they are your friend. This voice convinces you everything will be better if you follow its demanding rules and rituals and if you don’t the illness punishes you with self-critical and guilt-ridden thoughts. Not facilitating the eating disorder would mean losing its anaesthetic effects, and I was scared of the surge of negative emotions that would follow.

It became easier to be submissive to the eating disorder and argue with real people around me than it was to have a constant internal battle. When I was at my most unwell it was hard to even distinguish my own rational thoughts from the anorexic thoughts, and this confusion meant I was convinced that my thoughts and behaviours were normal and I was fine. I think this is the reason why it was so hard to get better. The time when you need help the most is when you want it the least.

The people and healthcare services that tried to help me couldn’t because they were not able to force me into recovery while others didn’t attempt to try to help because of their misconceptions that it was a ‘lifestyle’ that I had chosen. I spent a long time waiting for someone or something to come along and instantly fix everything, until I realised I was the only person that could face my fears head on and actively take responsibility for my recovery.

However, this is significantly easier said than done, and it’s a long and unpredictable process. Every day I’ve had to make a conscious effort to disentangle my own personality from that of the eating disorder until eventually it became just a small part of my mind and therefore now no longer has control over me. Along the way, my family and others have continued to play invaluable roles in helping me learn to recognise and work through thoughts and feelings that stem from the eating disorder in order to avoid relapsing into the anorexic patterns. Instead, I’ve had to learn new, healthier ways to deal with negative emotions. The key has been months of perseverance, honesty and support.

It may be a cliché, but recovery is a journey. It is a journey that will take different turns as I enter new stages of my life, but I know now that I can loosen the grip of my eating disorder, and lead a life that is both content and fulfilling.

If you want to hear more about the latest research on eating disorders, listen to the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families’ expert podcast here, featuring Dr Dasha Nicholls, a young person with experience of disordered eating, and BBC Radio 4 presenter Claudia Hammond.