National Eating Disorder Week • Fliss Baker’s story
Eating disorders are a mental illness I feel very passionate talking about. Due to it’s secretive nature, it is very difficult for those who have struggled to speak out. I know that for a fact because it can be hard for me. Having an eating disorder changes your life and instils deep set coping strategies inside you that are hard to ignore and easy to fall victim to. I have been in recovery for five years and avoid using the phrase ‘I’ve recovered’, which indicates that something is completely over. I still have the eating disorder thoughts but I don’t act on them as I have learnt to manage them. When I feel I anxious I still hear the coaxing voice to hate, disgust, restrict food and be skinny but I know now it’s my illness beckoning attention and I can choose whether to listen or not. Awareness and acceptance is key along with working through psychological issues and learning to cope ‘normally’ with stresses in life. No matter what type of eating disorder someone has I can hand on heart say that based on experience, there is always hope and there is always recovery.
I was twenty four years old when my eating disorder started to creep up on me. I was going through a lot of stress at the time. There were problems in the family that affected me, I was working long hours for my next promotion at work and I was seeing a guy who treated me appalling. I started to lose my personality and character and the strong minded, ‘don’t take no shit’ Fliss became an impressionable, sad girl with sinking low self esteem.
I did the same as most women out there who feel low with self deprecating thoughts and decided losing a bit of weight would solve all my problems. It is a billion pound industry out there associating our figures with feelings and self esteem so aiming to lose a bit of weight is quite ‘normal’ in terms of societal attitudes. No one was to know that an innocent goal was to snowball into a full blown eating disorder.
I over exercised, kept food diaries, reduced meals and calories, starved, lost weight then binged and purged. It became my life obsession and took over everything I did. I became disconnected with reality and lived only by my eating disorder rules. Initially I felt I had control and every pound lost indicated achievement. However, I began to set unachieveble goals and every one missed meant I was a desperate failure. The eating disorder had complete control of me and it was like living in a prison where I hated myself and felt disgusted with myself. I lied about eating, missed meals out and lied to everyone so an eating disorder was never suspected. It was only after my ‘breakdown’ did friends say we knew something was wrong. They said my gym routine was scarily obsessive and noticed I took fifteen supplements a day, cried a lot, didn’t talk about my feelings and was irritable. Ultimately, my behaviour was not normal for me. I was vulnerable, distant and fragile.
That’s the key in spotting a problem within someone.
Of course there are patterns of behaviour as tell tale signs. For instance, weight loss, missing meals, obsessing over calories, isolating, disappearing after meals etc. but approaching someone over an eating disorder is like asking someone to expose their dark, distressing, encapsulating secret to the world. Can you imagine how that might feel? Asking someone to face something so big and controlling they can’t explain it themselves? It is possible on confrontation that the person may recoil and indulge further in the one thing they feel will relieve their anxiety…..their trusted friend, the eating disorder.
The core of the eating disorder is about control and feelings, and it arises when people can’t cope with stress, sadness or related mental health issues. Approaching someone needs kindness and sensitivity with minimal pressure. Don’t ‘confront’ someone, instead ask them if they have a few minutes, sit down with them, say you’re concerned and they don’t seem like themselves. Ask them if they need help. You may be told no but a trusted communication channel will have been opened for them to approach you in the future. Signpost to professional support channels – their GP would be first port of call. Offer to go with them and tell the doctor on their behalf how they are acting. I couldn’t vocalise anything when my friend took me to the doctor – they spoke for me. Refer them to BEAT, the national eating disorder charity (details below) with a helpline where they can talk to someone non-judgementally and find out about appropriate support.
When I was twenty-six years old I was hospitalised for my bipolar disorder and my eating disorder wasn’t treated properly until a year after. I had two years of cognitive behavioural therapy from an eating disorder specialist where I learnt to eat a balanced diet instead of a ‘healthy-calorie obsessed diet’. I worked with food plans which I freaked out about many times and was in a safe environment to talk about all the deep rooted, painful memories and experiences which had led to the evolution of my eating disorder.
I still speak to my therapist now and when I am particularly anxious about things I get what I call my eating disorder thoughts. In fact, not so long ago I put on some weight due to new mood stabilising medication. I started to think I was fat but thankfully my therapist reassured me that it was ‘normal’ to get those thoughts and most women worry when they put on weight. He reminded me to let those thoughts go like traffic passing by and work on feeling good about myself through actions like my mental health campaigning, indulging in a great book or going out with friends who I can talk to if I need to.
I hope this article raises awareness of eating disorders and gives a few pointers on how to approach someone you are worried about. There is a range of support resources available and listed below. If someone is not engaging with you, maybe refer them to this article. I hope to give hope! You may notice that I haven’t gone into detail about my weight loss or how many dress sizes I dropped. To me, it’s not relevant. Anyone of any size can be suffering with an eating disorder. There are diagnoses of anorexia, bulimia or EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, which show symptoms of both anorexia and bulimia) and binge eating disorder. Eating disorder’s require professional help to unpick the stitches of what is a very complicated physical and psychological illness.
Don’t grin and bear it. Share it.
Specialist eating disorder support resources:
- GP is first port of call and referral to an eating disorder specialist OR
- Google local specialist support centres
- b-eat.co.uk – National eating disorders website with fantastic support in terms of helplines for both adults and youths and online support forums.
- http://mengetedstoo.co.uk/ – For men with eating disorders
- IAPT (Improved access to psychological therapies) – google IAPT in your area for free support resources
General mental health support resources:
- livinglifetothefull.com – online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) website
- youngminds.org.uk – with parents/carers helpline
- amazon.co.uk ‘Madly Seeking Sanity’ – Lola Jane
- http://www.samaritans.org/ – The Samaritans are a non-judgemental ear where you can talk confidentially about anything