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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Telling your eating disorder where to go

Taken in Townsville Qld 2010.© I retain copyright.

If you’re reading this, you’re taking a really positive step. The very first important thing in recovery is admitting that you think you have a problem, but then when you want support and need support how do you find it – what do you do? I’ve been there, feeling so helpless and desperately wanting to change, but at the same being unable to stop listening to the voice that compelled me to continue.

I often say that the most encouraging and important step in a person’s recovery is the point at which they say ‘I think I need help’ or ‘I don’t want to live like this anymore.’ If your experience is anything like mine, this happens in small bits to begin with, where the ‘real you’ inside voices concern over your health, dares to think for a moment about the future you could have, or feels a pang of guilt over something you said or did to a loved one whilst you were caught up in the stress of having to eat something, or being interrupted when you rushed off to make yourself sick.

But ‘I don’t want to be like this anymore’ or ‘I want to fight this’ isn’t necessarily the same thing as ‘I’m ready to fight this’. You’re able – you’re strong enough, but you might not be fully equipped – perhaps you don’t feel you have the right support or don’t know where to start. Eating disorders are persuasive, secretive, obsessive and compelling. They don’t slide away into submission. You need some support to fight them.

When I was at the point where I felt I might want to live and didn’t want to be poorly anymore, I found myself without the support I needed. I desperately wanted to speak to someone who had recovered from Anorexia, but I had no real example of somebody who had been through what I was currently going through and who could offer guidance, advise and above all empathy.

That’s why Tough Cookie exists – because I want anybody who is in that place feeling so in despair, without hope or struggling to know that it is possible to get better and that there is support out there for them. That’s why I run the blog and wrote the books. Here are a few things I learned during my journey – by sharing these I hope you won’t feel so alone and will know for sure that how you feel is just a natural part of the recovery process.

Try not to feel guilty and don’t beat yourself up

The problem with eating disorders is they get away with none of the pain, whilst you feel all the hurt and the guilt. Family members and friends often mistakenly think that they can ‘guilt’ you into eating, because they don’t see that it isn’t you behind your actions. Even without their input, you might feel naturally guilty anyway because you know that people around you are concerned and if you are in the first stages of overcoming your eating disorder, might feel as though you ‘aren’t doing it quickly enough.’

I can’t describe the guilt I experienced when I was at a point where I felt I wanted to ‘get better’. I could suddenly see the hurt I appeared to have caused and the difficulty, stress and strain I was putting my parents through. I didn’t care about myself – but I did care about them – that’s why I decided I wanted to try in the first place.

If you do find yourself feeling guilty, try to remember that none of this is your ‘fault’. Just like a physical illness, you aren’t responsible for the things you did or said, just like somebody with cancer isn’t responsible for upsetting people around them with their emaciated appearance, or somebody with a stomach bug isn’t responsible for throwing up everywhere. Guilt is a natural feeling and it actually shows that you give a shit – you care about things and that is a powerful and important thing. Try not to let guilt eat you up inside and hamper your progress – instead try to distract from it and focus on building your future.

Relapses happen

It isn’t a smooth ride for everybody. In fact most people find that recovery is a journey full of ups and downs. Some days you’ll feel good and do well – other days you’ll find yourself in the clutches of your eating disorder again unable to drown out the cruel voice which is angry because you haven’t been doing what it has been telling you to. But please know that gradually the bad days lessen and you find yourself with more and more good days. You start to fill the void created by the lack of noise your eating disorder makes with all the things you love – doing the things you want to do and enjoy again. You begin to dream about the future and take positive steps towards it – a future that an eating disorder doesn’t and cannot have a role in. All of these things ultimately help you to become the person you really are again.

Ask for (and take advantage of) as much support as possible

It’s difficult to go through this alone – and you don’t have to be alone, even if your family don’t seem to understand or you have no friends or professional help. I know that there are few resources online – but if you’re reading this you’ve found what I hope is a helpful and valuable resource. You can find details of charities I have personally heard are helpful here, and read more blogs and take a look at my books on this site. Sometimes you’ll find conventional healthcare services can’t (or are unable to) help you – but that’s okay – they didn’t help me either. With or without them, you can do it with other types of support by your side.

If you need further help and support on fighting Anorexia from a positive personal perspective,  you might find these articles helpful:

Coming out of an EDU – what now?

5 things Anorexia won’t tell you

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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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Interview with That’s Manchester

Now vloggers and YouTube stars are all the rage, I am conscious that I’ve not jumped on the ‘video’ bandwagon and I’ve concentrated my efforts into writing to help people rather than ‘putting myself out there’ in the flesh. Part of the reason for this is that I’m only just starting to promote what I do properly now I have released all of the books – and secondly, I still have body dysmorphia and anxiety, which means I can understandably be fairly pedantic and more than a little self-critical when it comes to appearing on camera!

I’ve been doing a lot more keynotes, talks and presentations lately and I’m used to standing up and talking to people about my experiences, but going on the telly is a whole new kettle of fish. But when brand new local channel That’s Manchester dropped me a line and asked me to come in and share my thoughts with them I took the opportunity with both hands. It’s really important to me to be able to share my message of positivity with as many people as possible – and this was a fantastic way to do it and something which I hope I will be able to do more!

So here it is – this aired last week but in case you missed it or live in another part of the UK (or the world!) you can take a look now:

 

That’s Manchester

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Dealing with A Level pressure

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A level results – the future is YOURS – and yours only

It’s not a conventional topic for me to post about – but today is A Level Results Day. And whilst there are many influences behind people developing an eating disorder, pressure is undoubtedly one of them, both internal and external.

It’s 5 years ago since I ventured into college to collect my results. I could hardly be bothered to get out of bed and make the journey. I wasn’t well throughout the two years I spent at college, so I skipped a lot of classes and as I wanted to be a make-up artist I wasn’t particularly bothered about my results. I didn’t see them as the key to my future, like so many of my friends did.

I’m so grateful for that perspective now; even though I was told I was careless and unambitious at the time. If I’d have gone to university I wouldn’t have published books or be running my own business today having gained so much throughout the course of my 5 years in the employment of others.

When I was leaving college, going to university was everything. If you didn’t, you’d failed – it was the only path. The only other option was employment or an apprenticeship, which were both seen as ‘poor relations’. Most of my friends who were going to uni had questionable motives for doing so – either involving drinking, partying and dossing, or crippled by immense pressure from parents and peers to take the plunge. I knew university wasn’t for me, and I refused to be bullied into it. Besides that, my mental health was incredibly poor, and I knew it would worsen as a consequence of going to uni – I simply wouldn’t have survived there. So I gave myself a break and protected myself from certain disaster whilst chasing the dreams the careers staff at college told me were unambitious and wouldn’t constitute a ‘proper career’.

Watching the much hyped-up television coverage of anxious and elated students collecting their results, it’s clear nothing has changed. Contrary to what many people will have you believe, your A level results are not everything. This is just the very start of your life – there is so much time for you to change your mind and think things through. Don’t rush into anything or go to university just because you have been told that’s what you should do. Follow your instincts – do your research, then go out and do what you truly want to do. you never know where it will take you – perhaps you will end up somewhere completely different to where you expected to be, as I did! Either way, life is a journey and it is filled with second chances. Don’t allow anyone – no matter who they are – to shit on your dreams. I didn’t – and I’m so pleased I stood my ground! Many people my age who have just left or who are leaving uni are trapped in soul-destroying supermarket jobs, or have gone straight to the top of their tree only to find they don’t like it there. It’s not necessarily the right path for you – it’s certainly not for everyone.

So if you don’t get the results you’re expecting, or you simply don’t feel university is for you, then follow your heart. It will pay dividends in the future – even though you may be being told you are making a foolish choice. That’s what they told me – but I’m better off now than I ever imagined I could be.

For more advice and support on dealing with A Level pressure, other external and internal pressures,  and for plenty of inspiration, keep reading the blog!

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5 things NEVER to say to someone with Anorexia

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If you’re going through Anorexia at the moment, or have been through it as I have, you’ll probably know that people who don’t understand have an unfortunate habit of putting their foot in their mouth! It’s awful when somebody says something to you which really has a negative impact on your day (or worse, stays with you) whilst you are so poorly – purely because they don’t understand what you’re going through and are ignorant as to what they should say and do.  At best it’s naivety; at worst it’s people feeling as though they have the right to bring you down because they think what ‘you’re doing’ is wrong. Of course they have no idea that none of this is your doing!

I’ve put together my top five comments which just make my blood boil when I hear them. I hope that by sharing these I’ll help you to feel better knowing that even though people say these things, they are not a reflection on you and you should try your hardest not to take them on board on concentrate on yourself because they can harm your recovery. Remember that you deserve to recover and keep focusing on the positive things you want to have in your life and if you encounter one of these people, limit the time you spend in their negative energy.

‘Why don’t you just eat?’ You need to eat’ – ARGHHSGSHDGAjfksfjsj as IF it is that simple. As IF you would put yourself in this position knowingly. As if it’s your fault. People who say this to you have NO understanding of what you’re going through. They see Anorexia as a choice – they don’t feel the strong compulsion not to eat and they don’t hear the cruel voices in your head that taunt you.

‘You’re selfish’ – Again, when Anorexia is a choice, making the person struggling feel guilty seems like a genuine method of turning things around. Of course all it does in reality is make YOU feel awful and Anorexia more angry and determined. You know that what is happening affects the people around you – and you wish it didn’t. What you don’t need it someone pointing that out as if you are deliberately poorly. Remember – mental illness is the same as physical illness – and if it would be unreasonable to accuse somebody with cancer or physical disability of being ‘selfish’ then it is DEFINITELY out of order to say the same thing to you.

‘You used to like that’ – Yeah, I know. Please don’t point it out. One day I may eat it again but I am struggling with a demon in my head which won’t allow me to eat it. Please be patient and recognise that I am trying.

‘You’re VERY thin – you look so ill’ – Yeah I know (again). This comment is annoying for several reasons because no matter how it’s said or who to, it has a harmful effect on the person you’re saying it to. I had (and still have) body dysmorphia when I had Anorexia, so I couldn’t focus on the bigger picture and still believed I was ‘fat’ because I was meticulously measuring parts of my body and scrutinising them 24/7. Nonetheless, Anorexia still lapped up comments like this as compliments which drove it to carry on.  I know that not everybody with Anorexia has BD too, and speaking to those people, it’s clear that on this side of the spectrum it’s still VERY unhelpful. They are fully aware of how they look, thank you very much. They DO NOT need somebody else to point it out.

‘You’re not even trying’ – Again, recovery is partially out of your hands. You are doing as much as you possibly can at the moment – even if it doesn’t feel like it or others are trying to make you feel as if you could be ‘trying harder’. To use the physical example again, if someone accused a person with a broken leg of ‘not trying hard enough’ to fix it, it would be ludicrous. The same goes for you.

I could go on! Have you got any of your own to add?

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5 things NEVER to say to someone with Anorexia

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