Why I don’t say I’m ‘better’

Anorexia recovery

2 Rainbows, dreamy

Most people in the public eye who discuss past/previous difficulties like to paint themselves as ‘great now’. Gurus (especially those who release self-help videos and books) tend to portray themselves as ‘the solution’ in a fairly patronising way, talking about the ‘past’ and discussing their rosy life as it is now, and telling you how you can be like them (for a fee). The problem with this is that NOBODY’s life is perfect – and many of these people run the risk of being ‘outed’ when it turns out they shouted at a parking warden, or had a momentary lapse in their ‘strict vegan diet’ as they’re snapped tucking into a McDonald’s. This of course is all pretty embarrassing and undermining – but the main reason I tell the truth about who I am and how I feel is because that’s the only way I feel I can help people – by being honest, and by sharing my journey as I go.

I overcame Anorexia – but my root beliefs were never addressed

I was lucky enough to be able to recover fully from Anorexia without relapse. But that doesn’t mean that since that time I’ve been issue-free. Unfortunately I didn’t have psychological support before, during or after my eating disorder – so the core beliefs which caused it were never addressed or treated. If I’d had that support then I honestly believe I may have been able to get away with a life without mental illness – as I was still young. However those beliefs were left to exacerbate silently over the course of a few years, and I developed several difficult mental health conditions in the years that followed. Each time I never had adequate support, so the thoughts and feelings I have about myself deep down have been allowed to compact and strengthen to a point where they’re hard to just ‘undo’. The complicated belief system behind it all has never changed – instead it has manifested itself in different ways over the years that have followed since my recovery. I think it’s important to be honest about this, not to scaremonger people who are embarking on their own recovery, but to emphasise the importance of proper therapy and psychological care for people going through an eating disorder. I also want to be clear that I am not an idol and I still deal with my own struggles each and every day – as all of us do.

I share what I learn as I go, or I discuss my previous experiences in a positive and open way

I do what I do because I want to use my own experiences to help people. So I can talk about previous experiences and how I overcame them, but I can also discuss the things I still struggle with now and the things I do which help me to live with myself day to day and more than that to live my life to the full. I’m different because I never make out as though this isn’t the case, and I always make sure I’m positive and helpful rather than just being ‘doom and gloom’ or sensationalistic.

For more on eating disorders, body image or nutrition, take a look at my books or related blogs here.

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How does nutrition feel after an eating disorder?

Nutrition eating disorder

coconuts_high_res

Maintaining a healthy relationship with food is hardly easy in today’s society. We’re constantly bombarded with ‘eat this, don’t eat that’ articles, advertisements featuring ‘perfect’ bodies and dubious celebrity endorsements for diets and fitness regimes. This makes loving your body (and treating it well) really difficult – and it complicates basic nutrition beyond comprehension.

Eating disorders aren’t about food (you can read my article on this here), and they’re not strictly about how we look (another article on that here!). But food is undoubtedly a large element of an eating disorder, and body image can be an issue for many sufferers.

I developed Anorexia primarily because I was in a very bad place. I was being bullied relentlessly (mostly for how I looked, but for pretty much everything else too) but I’d also had a family bereavement which had been pretty traumatic for all of us. Because I’d been bullied for over three years at that point I’d developed severe OCD and had become incredibly depressed – but I also had massively low self-esteem. It’s fair to say I hated myself – inside and out. Whilst I tried desperately to fit in I didn’t feel I could change my personality – but I did start to feel that it could be possible to change my appearance as I became more exposed and aware of advertisements and articles largely aimed at young adults.

I was overweight before I developed Anorexia and had an incredibly poor diet – so I had absolutely no knowledge of how my body worked and how I should eat. This was a dangerous combination – as my ignorance meant I absorbed the false information I read and heard and saw like a sponge. I went on various diets before settling on one (a diet which is still prominent and popular today) and combined it with various other well-known ‘weight loss’ methods. I became obsessed with counting ‘points’ and ‘calories’, good and bad. Soon I was incredibly poorly with organ failure and seemingly no way out.

My perspective on food has been shaped by this experience – but I only developed it recently. My relationship with food continued to be poor (and confused) for nearly ten years following my recovery from Anorexia. And this is why I’m so passionate about denouncing diets and talking about nutrition in a positive, truthful way now – as well as discussing how important and precious our bodies are.

Diets are the worst thing you can do to your body

If human beings needed diets to function, we’d have died out a long time ago. We naturally instinctively know how and what to eat – just like many species of animal. But unfortunately as we’ve evolved the choice of food we have to eat has widened. And in recent years the natural foods we called staples for years have been replaced with second-grade, inferior alternatives – made in factories from chemicals and harmful preservatives. Our busy lifestyles make it increasingly difficult to accommodate food as it should be accommodated – and these things in turn have caused an obesity crisis.

Diet companies might appear to be the ‘solution’ to the crisis, the saviours here to ‘fix’ us and get us fighting fit again. But they’re actually exploitative (and lucrative) business, making money out of the bad choices we make and the poor habits we’ve developed. They’re not interested in emphasising the responsibility of the individual, caring for our self-esteem or ensuring our bodies (and minds) aren’t harmed as we desperately try to be ‘slim’. They don’t address the questionable motives many people have behind a diet – mostly to be aesthetically acceptable to others, not to be happy and healthy from the inside out. They’re temporary, rather than promoting balanced, healthy eating for life. And studies have shown that aside from the physical and psychological damage many diets cause, they often result in participants getting bigger (and unhappier) as a result.

For all of these reasons I believe diets are toxic. They emphasise our weight and appearance and nothing else – even the supposedly ‘holistic’ and ‘responsible’ ones. They promote disordered eating and make many people much more unhealthy as a result when they’re trying to achieve the complete opposite! But more than that I think they contribute to a climate of self-loathing that makes body image issues and eating disorders much easier to develop. And they make money from all of that – lots of it.

I believe that nutrition and self-esteem are linked

Good nutrition goes hand in hand with positive self-esteem. I believe that when we improve one, we improve the other naturally. Since I developed a healthy relationship with food, my relationship with myself as a whole person has improved. I know my mind better than I ever have done. I appreciate now that starving myself, living off crappy expensive diet foods and depriving my body of nutrients like fat is abusive and makes me weaker mentally and physically. And most of all I understand that I only have one body, and I need to look after it if I want to live my life and do the things I want to do.

If you’re on a diet or are considering one, I hope this article has stopped to make you think about the consequences of that – and the alternatives. Although we’ve not all been through something as perspective-shifting as an eating disorder, we can all learn to understand our bodies and love food so that we can treat ourselves better.

For more on my perspective, diets and body image you can take a look at my books and related blogs here.

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A reminder that an eating disorder isn’t a choice

Girl with Tape over Mouth --- Image by © Corbis
Girl with Tape over Mouth — Image by © Corbis

Recently comments were made by broadcaster Joan Bakewell, who outrageously claimed that ‘you don’t find people with Anorexia and Bulimia in Syria’ and went on to say that they are caused by ‘narcissism’ as people are now very self-concerned and self-absorbed, meaning these self-inflicted, self-indulgent eating disorders are inevitably now a ‘modern day’ illness. She’s since apologised after plenty of backlash from sufferers and those who have been through an eating disorder like me, who kindly pointed out to her that she was way, way off the mark with these wildly inconsiderate allegations.

The problem with this is that people with eating disorders already face plenty of backlash from ignorant people in their day-to-day lives. This ‘well you could just eat so don’t be so bloody selfish/ungrateful’ mentality is unfortunately shared by lots of people, young and old, who don’t properly understand what an eating disorder is like and how it affects someone. In fact, many mental illnesses are misunderstood in this way, because people think there is an element of choice involved. I often was told to ‘just eat’ or that I was being ‘selfish’ or ‘self-obsessed’.

Although Bakewell has since apologised and says she recognises that actually the things she said were hurtful, false and far from reality, the damage has already been done. What public comments (made by prominent people) like this do is reinforce the mistaken beliefs people hold about Anorexia and Bulimia, so they believe they’re justified then to try and ‘guilt’ a person into recovery by saying things like ‘you’ve got lots of food here, but they have nothing in third world countries, don’t be so wasteful’, or ‘you could eat and you choose not to, but think about all the people who can’t’ ‘people are so concerned with how they look these days’. The saddest thing for me is that her opinion mirrors that of many of a certain generation who inadvertently make recovery very difficult for someone really struggling with Anorexia or Bulimia.

Why is an eating disorder not a choice?

These mistaken opinions all come from one root cause – ignorance. And where eating disorders are concerned ignorance often manifests itself in the form of people assuming an eating disorder is a choice, or that the person involved has a choice in the matter and therefore wilfully decides not to eat – much to the inconvenience and frustration of everyone round them. And then they go taking up resources on the NHS and make themselves incredibly poorly. How selfish.

An eating disorder, like any other mental or physical health issue, is not contracted through choice. Nobody decides to get an eating disorder. They’re deadly and they’re a horrendous thing to go through – with lasting consequences for many. The idea that people are ‘playing up’ or ‘being selfish’ is just plain wrong – and it’s not something that should be publicly voiced to a large audience by someone who knows absolutely nothing about what it’s like to go through an eating disorder first-hand.

Anorexia and Bulimia aren’t ‘new’. Like many mental illnesses, learning difficulties and conditions such as Autism and ADHD, eating disorders are often made out to be ‘new’, when in fact they’ve afflicted people for hundreds of years, yet back then they weren’t recognised officially or treated appropriately. Years ago people with acute mental illness were packed off to asylums and concealed from the outside world, and those who could hide it did so for fear of being ostracised. And I’m pretty sure that there are plenty of people in refugee camps struggling with all sorts of mental illnesses, including eating disorders, as a consequence of the trauma they have been through and the dire living conditions and situation they are in.

So a little more consideration and sensitivity please Ms Bakewell. And a reminder that when you don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s best not to open your mouth at all.

 

If you liked this blog, take a look at When will people realise eating disorders aren’t aesthetic?

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Responsible reporting

news anorexia

news anorexia

Why I never share pictures of myself or my lowest weight

One thing I publicly discuss quite often is my positive perspective on eating disorders, body image, self-esteem and mental health in general. That means a lot of things, but where eating disorders are concerned in particular it means being responsible.

We don’t need to sensationalise eating disorders to raise awareness

I campaign for responsible reporting because most press coverage of Anorexia we are exposed to is negative in some way. Headlines screaming ‘I was left to die’ or ‘I ate an apple a day’ or ‘I was 4 stone’ are not designed to help people – they’re designed to sell newspapers. The worst thing about this (other than fuelling the fire of confusion surrounding eating disorders) is that many vulnerable people find inspiration in these articles. I did when I was developing an eating disorder. I saw the numbers and the competitive Anorexic mind within me latched on to them – ‘you’re not thin enough.’ I saw the pictures and thought ‘your bones don’t show enough’. I saw the ‘shocking’ ‘one apple a day’ headlines as tips.

They’re unhelpful for a number of reasons aside from this – including their omission of any tangible useful information for sufferers to use to inspire hope, and the negative reviews of EDUs and the NHS with no alternative offered – which seemingly gives people no option but not to bother with recovery. Whilst they think these ‘recovery’ stories featuring people who now live ‘wonderful lives’ are inspiring and positive, in fact they’re never a true representation with a wholesome message behind them. People with Anorexia already understand what’s contained within these articles – it’s nothing new. It’s time some were written with them in mind.

Why are these articles so unhelpful?

I find it so upsetting and frustrating to constantly see articles in prominent publications featuring ‘before and after’ images. They’re sensationalistic and even though they and their subjects often claim to be sharing the story to help people, they’re doing anything but. In fact it shows ignorance and an absolute disregard for anyone vulnerable or currently suffering with an eating disorder who may see that and feel ‘inspired’ or ‘driven’ – and not in a positive way.

This is exactly what happened to me – and many people currently battling an eating disorder agree with me and message me to tell me they find these articles frustrating too as they exacerbate the thoughts they’re trying to get rid of. These articles make a battle which is already difficult worse – and they’re certainly not helpful.

I do what I do to help people – and sharing photos and certain details of my illness isn’t helpful

Everybody who has or has had Anorexia understands all too well how horrendous it is. How emaciated and horrific you look, how empty you feel. How shocking your appearance is to others. Most know that their weight has plummeted far below what is healthy or acceptable – to a figure which lots of people will find equally shocking. So sharing photographs and weights only serves one purpose at best – to satisfy the sick curiosity of people who’ve never had an eating disorder, and to sell more papers. At worst it encourages vulnerable people in the early stages of an eating disorder to continue when the right sort of publicity could deter and strengthen them, improving their mental wellbeing rather than continuing to destroy it and encouraging the types of thoughts which harmful and negative behaviour feeds off. Often Anorexia and Bulimia become an internal competition – constantly feeling as though you’re not ‘thin’ enough or your weight isn’t low enough.

Aside from that they’re not a helpful representation of eating disorders or recovery.   (‘everything’s better now’ don’t often go into detail about how the person recovered , or consistently negative about the NHS ‘I was left to die’ . The message this gives to people struggling right now is that they might as well not bother – give up now, because there’s nothing out there to help you – without offering the tools or an alternative they can take hope and inspiration from. That’s why I’m careful about how I share my story – because often ignorant publicity can be so harmful.

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Christmas Survival Guide

 

Christmas is undoubtedly a difficult time for anyone with an eating disorder – because in essence it involves everything that sufferers find stressful. In fact, Christmas can set those who are recovering back – not just because of the annual obsession with food that everyone around us temporarily develops, but because of the pressure and constant barrage of comments, looks and poor treatment which is often directed at people with eating disorders at this time of year. I know myself that I developed other worse ‘habits’ (mental illnesses in themselves) around particularly stressful events like Christmas, using harmful coping mechanisms like self-harm to get myself through the season.

Please don’t turn to self-harm or any other destructive methods of coping – they will only make things worse for you and more deeply ingrain the negative beliefs you’re wrestling with. Even if you don’t feel you are worth it, it’s especially important that you look after yourself now, as the dark nights, cold weather and claustrophobic ‘trapped’ feeling of spending time indoors with relatives has psychological consequences for those who aren’t already struggling, let alone anyone with an eating disorder. Here are my tips for staying as safe and as well as possible during Christmas time – and remember, you can always get in touch or take a look at these charities for further help and support.

 

Try not to take comments to heart

It’s highly likely that (sometimes ‘well meaning’) people will make comments about your appearance and your behaviour. At this time of year families spend a lot more time together, which often causes fuses to shorten and results in judgmental, hurtful comments being made. Nobody in your family will be able to appreciate how hard it is for you to be surrounded by triggers – food, people, social gatherings, niceties, alcohol. They won’t understand the ‘torn’ feeling of being presented with gifts and plates of food which you feel you can’t eat, the voice in your head telling you you’ll be fat and hating them for eating whilst pangs of guilt hit your stomach for rejecting another meal or chocolate reindeer. Yet still they think it is appropriate to voice their misguided opinion – often because they believe they might be the one to make you ‘snap out of it’ (good one!). The only thing to do when this happens is to ignore what has been said and remove yourself from the situation. Don’t allow one comment to form an avalanche of others, or start an internal dialogue of self-hatred. Just walk away without explanation and keep yourself safe.

Have a ‘safe space’ to escape to

It’s important that you have somewhere to go and something to do which is safe which you can escape to if things all get a bit too much. Perhaps that’s your room, or maybe you can go outside for some air. Cabin fever sets in all too often at Christmas time – especially if you’re confined to a relatively small space with people who are constantly judging you. Have an activity (whether that’s a film, writing, sketching or playing a game) planned so that you can go up there and get straight to it. Distraction has been key to my recovery from anxiety and it was also an important part of my recovery from Anorexia. The best activity of all would be reading and contemplating your future and making a mood board – then putting plans in place so you can dream about something exciting and tangible to look forward to.

Know when everything is too much

Anxiety and stress can slowly creep up on you – until it all gets too much and results in a meltdown. It seems to come as a surprise to your family (or even to you) but actually the tension has been building with every meal, every comment, every time you’re forced to step out of your ‘safe’ zone. Keep a check on yourself and keep taking the time to make sure you’re okay (or as ‘okay’ as you possibly can be). This way you should be able to identify when you’re headed for meltdown and can put measures in place to ensure that you are not too badly hurt when it does come around.

Don’t allow yourself (or anyone else) to pile on the pressure

Christmas really is just a traditional holiday and the things which are made out to be the ‘be all and end all’ are actually unimportant. Christmas should be a celebration – or at least a time when family and friends gather round to support you, not to make you feel bad and cause you to be isolated. Even the loveliest of families will find it difficult to fully appreciate your situation, or to know what to do around this time when they are likely to be spinning lots of plates and trying to keep others happy. Just remember that the main goal is for you to be free from your ED – and in lots of ways Christmas could set you back a few notches because of the stress and pressure involved. Focus on your goal and ask for help and support. Don’t give in to pressure (one of the main factors behind EDs) piled on by family members or friends to eat a whole roast dinner or to drink alcohol. Don’t feel bad because you are ‘ruining Christmas’ or ‘aren’t happy’ – remember, this isn’t your fault, you are poorly. Make sure you feel safe and secure and take little steps you are comfortable with. Perhaps you will have a small roast dinner with your family. That’s a HUGE step. Don’t let anyone push you further or tell you otherwise.

Charities are open for support throughout the Christmas period, as is Tough Cookie. You can find details here: 

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A Tragic Warning – Slimming Pills

You may have already heard this story in the news over the past few weeks, highlighting the dangers of taking pills to lose weight. Increasingly, busy women are looking for a ‘quick fix’ to lose weight, unsatisfied with their appearance. Unfortunately I am a strong believer in ‘too good to be true’. Guys, the only way to be healthy is to eat well and be active. We all know that. But sometimes, our judgement is clouded and we are so unhappy that we will turn to dangerous alternatives just to reach our goal.

23 year old Student Doctor Sarah Houston had so much ahead of her. She had travelled the world, helping those less fortunate than herself and now wanted to do the same at home.

Sarah had been taking DNP, an industrial Pesticide which speeds up the metabolism resulting in the fast burning of fat. She had been using it up until her death for 18 months, before she accidentally took a fatal overdose. DNP is sold over the internet and is described as ‘extremely dangerous’ by doctors. It causes the body to overheat and eventually causes a massive heart attack. The dosage is so sensitive that there is a very fine line between taking the drug to lose weight and overdosing.

Even more tragically, Sarah is not the only person to have died from taking DNP or other harmful ‘slimming pills’. Doctors, parents and the coroner involved in Sarah’s case are all now joining a campaign to raise awareness about DNP and other dangerous slimming medicines.

This story made me so sad, because it could have happened to any of us. Desperate to look ‘better’, we will overlook and sometimes completely ignore what we are doing to our bodies, unaware of the serious consequences involved, or feeling that they are a necessary price to pay for looking ‘good’. And perhaps more poignantly, the latest victims of DNP have all suffered Eating Disorders in the past. For me, this again highlights the need to treat those with ED’s properly and safe-guard them against future behaviour which can prove as fatal as Anorexia or Bulimia. Sarah was having treatment for Bulimia for 3 years and was also on Anti-Depressants. Clearly neither of these had been effective – why was this not noticed? Personally I am angry that Sarah’s more deep-seated issues appear to have been ignored, only for them to manifest themselves in another way and ultimately cause her untimely death.

Please, never ever take anything to lose weight. If you are unhappy with your weight, talk about it and seek medical help if you feel something needs to be done about it. Please don’t take matters into your own hands, however desperate you feel.

Sarah Houston

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