It was September 2018, I was in A and E after collapsing at work, my husband had met me there, I had to have an IV of fluids, the doctor explained I had become severely dehydrated, however they never suspected why, I looked healthy after all. The doctor went on to explain that they wanted to keep me in as they were concerned about my heart, my heart rate was dropping below 35, and they were concerned my heart was giving up. This could be life threatening. But again could not work out why. But I was not listening, all I was thinking about was, how many calories are in this bag of fluids, is this going to make me gain weight, what can I do to burn this of. It was these thoughts and this pattern of behaviour’s that had landed me in the hospital in the first place, The doctor left the room and my husband broke down next to me, in tears looked me in the eye and said “can you really not see what this is doing to you, it is killing you”
For 14 years, I have struggled with a-typical anorexia, and to this very day, I still find myself having to validate my illness, validate my struggles, because I am not slim enough to have an eating disorder, I am too fat to have an eating disorder. I use to binge, and then restrict, constantly yo yoing in weight constantly obsessing over my weight and size, warped in body image issues.
My eating disorder developed when I was in secondary school, I was bullied. Very badly. I mean I played flute, had braces, wore glasses, hormones made me spotty and I was a goth. I had no chance really. I tried to tell my form tutor at the time and was told to learn to take a joke, it was banter. So mask on I carried on, but then the age of 14, I met someone, a boy. Popular, fit and he showed interest in me. I had 0 self-esteem, hated myself. So when he showed interest, I felt so lucky, so amazed, I did not see the danger I was in. this “boyfriend” was a few years older than me. Due to low self-esteem, and being brought up believing it was acceptable to be treated and spoken to appallingly, pulled down constantly and believing I will never be good enough, When he started physically abusing me, I thought nothing of it. This was what I deserved. But then with the physical abuse came the emotional abuse, name calling, fat shaming, calling me worthless, waste of space, but I was so use to this it had become the norm for me. Then finally the sexual abuse. This “boyfriend” raped me. I was so scared, and when I did cry, the physical abuse became worse, so again my mask was needed. If I cried or asked him to stop, it would physically hurt. He would beat me up for being weak. I became numb from my emotions. Eventually I managed to get out of this relationship. However the damage had been done, I developed an eating disorder as a way of coping. I thought it was my fault, my body’s fault, maybe if I looked different I might get treated better. Above all the body image issues, the eating disorder was a coping strategy, from that point on any time I was faced with trauma or any negative emotion, I used the eating disorder as a way of coping, a distraction, a numbing technique. When I had no control over what was going on in the world around me, I kept resorting back to the disorder, because I had control over this. However the sad thing is, it actually had complete control over me.
I seemed to have the disorder somewhat under control, or so I thought, I was still obsessing with calories and exercising but not excessively. But then I had a year where everything that could go wrong, did seem to go wrong, I also lost three people very dear to me within a very short period of time, and as a result went back to my disordered ways. By the time I was 25 years old, I was exercising excessively and restricting, I also started to abuse laxatives, as well as use diet pills I had brought online.
Weight loss became addictive, I was overweight to begin with so even though what I was doing was dangerous, I was receiving compliments for how well I was doing on my latest “diet.” Soon I was isolating myself from friends, because if I dared to go out, to enjoy myself, I would come home and the scales would tell me I had failed and didn’t deserve to eat. It tore my self-esteem apart. And because I didn’t ‘look sick’, no one suspected that I had been up all night thinking about food, torturing myself by looking at recipes and memorising the calorie content in foods.
By May 2018 , I was unable to work and getting crippling chest pains. When my periods stopped, I finally plucked up the courage to visit my GP. I told him everything, and he confirmed what I had started to suspect. ‘This sounds like an eating disorder. Let’s check your BMI and go from there.’ He weighed me, and measured me, and concluded, ‘You aren’t slim enough for an eating disorder. Drink a full fat can of Coke a day to stop you from collapsing.’
I burst into tears but he shrugged his shoulders, adamant that I didn’t need help. Believing that nothing was wrong, I spiralled and upped all my efforts to lose weight. My husband was so unhappy at the outcome of the GP appointment that he contacted the eating disorder charity Beat and they clarified that you do not need to be underweight to struggle with anorexia. Beat helped me seek a referral and I entered treatment, eventually having cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for over a year and a half, and entering a day programme three days a week, where I was taught how to handle the ED voice, and worked through past traumas. Initially it was hard to accept that I was ill. The BMI chart told me I was healthy – so surely I was fine? But I couldn’t have been further from it, both healthy physically and mentally.
Having treatment helped me gain acceptance but since opening up about my illness, I have been greeted with the same damaging phrase time and time again: ‘But you don’t look like you have an eating disorder.’ It is invalidating, harmful and wrong.
I’ve had to explain to so many people what atypical anorexia is, including nurses and doctors. When I was having tests for long term damage on my heart and fertility, my diagnosis was met with confusion. One nurse looked me up and down, and said, ‘You clearly don’t have a problem now!’
These sorts of comments can be extremely triggering, and invalidate the battles ED sufferers go through. I nearly lost my life due to my eating disorder but I was never taken seriously because my weight was ‘healthy’. If I had been smaller, and lost weight more quickly, I suspect there would have been more alarm but I was missed, congratulated and praised instead of receiving help.
We have an image of what eating disorders look like: the painfully thin, drawn and usually female stereotype. It’s dangerous because those that may be struggling may held back because they do not fit the stereotypical image. On my journey through recovery I have met just as many men with EDs, as well as people of all shapes and sizes. Everyone’s struggle is real, valid, and can be fatal.
I have now turned this negative experience around, I am fed up with how eating disorders are being represented, Instead of being hurt that no health care professionals have herd of atypical anorexia I try and educate. I travel the country giving talks on eating disorders particularly OSFED (other specified feeding and eating disorders) I talk openly about my experiences in the hope it helps others. I do not want anyone to feel how I felt.
I have a mission to spread the message that eating disorders can kill, any gender, race, age, size, anyone can struggle. Eating disorders do not discriminate; I will not rest until atypical anorexia is taken more seriously by health care workers and more awareness provided so early intervention can be accessed. Alongside this, I also teach body image workshops, I had such a negative view of my body, I hated every bone in my body, I developed a five step guide to learning to accept your body and become body positive. I learnt these techniques through therapy and they took me years to perfect; now I want to share my hard work and encourage others to become more body positive. Life is too short to spend another day at war with yourself, being slim did not solve all my problems, if anything it made them worse, I learnt I am more than a number on the scale, My self-worth cannot be measured by any number, I will help others see this too. Life is more than self-hatred and celery sticks.