The Dark World of the Eating Disorder
By Fliss Baker
My last article talked about body image but I wanted to extend into the deeper world of the associative eating disorder because of the growing increase and level of severity.
We know that we associate feelings with food and often throw ourselves into diet, exercise and weight management in order to feel better emotionally. What initially starts as a focus can easily become an obsession and in some cases trigger an eating disorder. That’s what happened to me.
Back in 2008, after a period of prolonged stress, I thought if I lost weight I would look better and feel better. I think the impact of having a relationship where I believed he would ‘eventually’ fall in love with me and consequently treat me better played a huge part. Accepting poor treatment and deep down in the pit of my stomach feeling unwanted and unattractive spurred me on to hit the gym. I was a perfectionist with underlying, undiagnosed mental health problems and got better and better at losing weight. I listened, learnt, consistently weighed, paid a personal trainer and shifted my focus from heartache to being skinny. It became my full time job and was all I thought about. I reduced calories, portion sizes, stopped going out to eat and hid my secret. Women commended me with compliments and picked my brain for weight loss tips. This did nothing but spur me on and entangle me further into the eating disorder’s dark world. I remember living on cigarettes and diet coke and for a tiny square of flapjack, I would give up food for the rest of the day. I set myself unrealistic, daily goals and they became the dictation of success or failure. If I starved myself and lost lbs I would feel amazing but if I ate something ‘disallowed’ or failed to exercise every calorie off, I was a disgusting creature and hated my very core. I started to make myself sick to rid myself of the ‘dirty’ feeling associated with any bite of food sat in my stomach.
The momentary relief of losing weight was always outweighed by the overwhelming intensity of never, ever feeling good enough. You have invested into the ‘eating disorder voice’ that controls you and its web of deceit is consequently inescapable.
We must remember that eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that affect people physically, psychologically and socially. They are about controlling and coping with life and low self-esteem is a critical factor. One of the misconceptions is that ‘it’s all about food’. It’s not. That person is mentally and physically in distress. 6.4% of adults display signs of eating disorders and they can impact anyone regardless of their age, sex or cultural background. Shockingly eating disorders claim more lives than other mental illnesses with 1 in 5 most seriously affected dying prematurely from the physical consequences or suicide.
Take a moment to consider that…….
I was diagnosed with EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified), which is when the illness doesn’t fit the specific criteria for anorexia or bulimia but is just as serious. Around 50% of those with eating disorders are diagnosed with this, which reinforces the fact anyone at any weight can develop an eating disorder. It is not all about the ‘skeletal’ images as mostly shown in the media (anorexia affects around 10% of those diagnosed). In fact, a young woman I met in hospital, who really affected me with her audible distress and panic, was bulimic and perceived as ‘normal’ weight.
(Figures taken from www.b-eat.co.uk & Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, 2007)
An eating disorder draws you in and isolates you. My family didn’t approach me, they didn’t know how to. It was my friends who finally stepped in after I broke down and said ‘Fliss, you don’t seem well and you’ve lost too much weight. Are you ok?’ Just that question opened up the flood gates and it’s important to have what is considered those ‘uncomfortable’ conversations. It is highly likely initial efforts will be fobbed off but that is the nature of the illness. Who would want to open the door to a compression of life’s pain and anguish? At least you are encouraging that person to talk and they know the communication channel is open for support (see support resources at the end).
It took years of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) with an eating disorder specialist to break my love/hate relationship with food and rebuild my understanding that food is fuel and nourishment for the body. I stopped labelling food as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and was re-educated that it is not all about ‘healthy’ eating but eating a balanced diet to include all food groups. I also learnt it was ‘ok’ to exercise to the best of your ability and have fun with it without relentless pressure.
I still get those ‘eating disorder’ thoughts pop into my head, especially at stressful times in my life but I don’t listen to them. I know better. I have control of my life. I’d rather talk to a friend about my problems than let them be absorbed into losing weight. It’s very empowering to look and appreciate women’s figures but feel no jealousy or pang to look any different. I am what I am and I only wish more women felt the same. My life is so much more honest and enriching and I’m appreciative of all the help and support I received.
(That’s why I love writing for this magazine. It focuses on ‘upcycling’ women’s lives with positivity instead of criticising our mere ‘shells’ that only once we crack, reveal the really good stuff).
Don’t grin and bear it. Share it.
Specialist eating disorder support resources:
GP is first port of call and referral to an ED specialist OR
Google local specialist support centres
www.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:
www.livinglifetothefull.com – online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) website
www.youngminds.org.uk – with parents/carers helpline
www.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