An anonymous student looks at the eating disorders that so often go undiscovered or undiagnosed.
***trigger warning: references to mental health issues, self-harm and eating disorders which some readers may find distressing***
‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent’ – Eleanor Roosevelt
There is significant stigma surrounding eating disorders. Most forget that they are largely psychological and that some suffer with no severe physiological symptoms.
Whilst it is true that some sufferers of anorexia are severely emaciated, some are not. Those suffering from bulimia may be within the normal weight range, or may even be overweight.
Statistics from B-eat suggest that 10 per cent of eating disorder sufferers are anorexic, 40 per cent are bulimic and 60 per cent suffer from EDNOS – unspecified eating disorders not necessarily governed by physical symptoms.
You can live with an eating disorder and be any size.
Government funding to mental health, particularly that of eating disorders, is completely inadequate say experts.
The Red Cross recently suggested that the NHS is amidst a ‘humanitarian crisis’ in more ways than one. The extra 1.25 billion meant to be invested in mental health care in 2015 should have been ring-fenced and not used as a ‘resource to be raided’, as suggested by Corbyn.
Beyond the problem of funding is the battle with diagnosis. Psychiatrists who treat people with eating disorders suggest that NHS services are so cripplingly inadequate that in some cases patients who are unwell – often not visibly – must lose more weight to qualify for treatment.
For a lot of people, mental health services are largely inaccessible. When suffering with any psychological problem, the first port of call, naturally, is your GP.
Yet doctors, at times unequipped to deal with any problem not clearly delineated into a category, often offer a cold and impersonal service.
When met with such an abject lack of compassion, it is unsurprising that young people such as myself choose to shun the health service.
There are countless stories like mine, all of which document the sense of self-loathing; the abjection; the wanting to be heard but the wanting to be left alone; the social sacrifice; the fear of contempt or external judgement.
The magnitude of people suffering with issues of self-esteem, each important to be recognised, can at times render your own bodily issues as trivial.
Though this may be the case, my experiences have made me realise how expressing the brutal truths of your own mind is the first step to recovery. No suffering is too small.
I use the term ‘eating disorder’ only because it is more easily related to and understood by most people. My story isn’t designed to seek attention, or to exaggerate upon an experience that others may have had on a more severe scale.
Part of my experience of an ‘eating disorder’ was not the desire for recognition, but for seclusion; even oblivion at times.
It’s important to note at this point that I don’t write from a position of complete recovery, but I have emotional distance enough from my issues to now write about them and stage this confession.
Our symptoms do not square with the health system’s categories of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder.
As I write these words, I’m considering how I never thought to have come this far to be making these admissions.
Part of my writing experience, painful though it may be, is a quest of self-realisation. The things I confess now may never have come to mind before.
That’s why I stress the importance of dialogue, if not with another person but with yourself, as a means of unearthing repressed emotions that may have contributed to this ‘disordered’ behaviour.
I write this in light of a conversation I had with a friend over coffee. We share solidarity with our issues with our body image – previous or ongoing.
People like us slip through the health system. We exist under the veil of a ‘normal’ body type as our weight hasn’t severely plummeted enough for it to be recognised by doctors as a problem.
Our symptoms do not square with the health system’s categories of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder. Our concerns are basically rendered invisible by those seeking physical evidence of disordered eating.
In my experience, what started out as a desire to gain a washboard stomach like those of my friends turned into a full-scale assault on my entire body. EVERY ounce of fat had to go.
Issues with body image were always bubbling under the surface with me, even as a child. I developed early and gained breasts and hips before most girls in my year. I remember staring at the other girls in the changing rooms before PE who were all tiny and prepubescent, unable to understand why I was so much rounder, and basically fatter, than them.
I was always a bit of a tomboy, but even surrounded by a group of girls at secondary school that were the most girly you could get, I still felt most comfortable in jeans and a baggy shirt that could hide every imperfection. They became my armour.
After a slow and painful demise of a four-year relationship that started when I was barely sixteen, my self-confidence was at rock bottom. Emotional and physical distance between us had started to take its toll about a year before we even broke up.
I guess taking control of the emotional chaos that ensued from these feelings involved pursuing a punishable act upon my defenceless body.
I felt an extreme sense of rejection from not only him, but everyone around me and I took it very personally. The only tangible way in which I could improve myself, make people love me again, was by looking better; getting thin.
My counsellor always used to tell me that my biggest problem was that I couldn’t accept love. I couldn’t accept that someone could care for me unless I had done something, or could be something, incredible enough to deserve it.
I guess taking control of the emotional chaos that ensued from these feelings involved pursuing a punishable act upon my defenceless body. That’s what controlled eating and exercise became to me – total self-sadism.
I would eat hardly any calories a day, run miles and then beat myself up about it afterwards – sometimes literally – just for good measure. This carried on for months. My anxiety was through the roof.
If friends suggested going out for dinner on a Friday night, I would spend the whole week pent up in my flat paralysed by the fear of having to sit and eat a meal that I considered to be unhealthy or ‘bad’ for my body.
I tracked every morsel that entered my mouth. I binged, I purged. I blew off social plans to sit in my room and revel in my own bodily misery. And then I had an epiphany – I STILL wasn’t happy.
No one had loved me more or less than when I started. I was underweight – not by much, but enough to have people comment on it. I was ill and fatigued; a shadow of the formidable woman I used to be.
I used to be renowned in my friendship group for having the biggest appetite. My best friend said to me in utter desperation when I was at my lowest weight, ‘What happened to the girl that used to finish the food off my plate that I couldn’t eat?’ I realised how far I had come.
Eventually I acknowledged the fact that insecurities are mobile and ultimately just farcical. My most hated feature would change by the day and I would spend hours scrolling through the internet looking for the perfect workout to lose love handles or shape thighs.
My energies are now channeled into healthy, yet still controlled, eating and rigorous gym routines but I am slowly learning to love myself again.
I am awakened to the value of carving out time for myself to do what I love, and to take care of my body as a vessel of health which, let’s face it, I am stuck with no matter what.
A friend of mine suggested that her experience of an eating disorder was characterised by a desire to take up less space physically; to dissolve into, preferably thin, air.
To the health service, it’s not exactly orderly to admit to a disorder, but a person shouldn’t have to look like the picture of anorexia to be heard.
Thank you anonymous for sharing your story.