EDAW’13: Now that I don’t have an eating disorder…

Cake: Something I enjoy.

Cake: Much tastier without a side of guilt and self-loathing.

So today’s the last day of this year’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week. I’ve read the blog-posts, the newspaper articles and watched the campaign videos – there’s been some fantastic stuff this year. And I’ve spent quite a bit of the week thinking about what my offering would be. Last year I wrote this post about how difficult it is to spot someone suffering from an eating disorder.

The days ticked on. And I realised that maybe the reason I’m struggling to engage with this topic is that, really, I don’t have an eating disorder.

I used to. I had an eating disorder for 6 years and recovery, like the onset, has snuck insidiously into my life. At first it was all big steps, exceptions and firsts. Challenges and a lot of tears. But slowly, it started becoming more and more everyday until I reached a point where I don’t really remember the last time I engaged in some typically ‘eating disordered’ behaviour. Every time I eat a typical meal or don’t beat myself up about gaining a couple of pounds, it’s not ‘a step in recovery‘, it’s just ‘living‘.

It’s taken a long time and a lot of work to get here, and I don’t want to lose track of that. I’ve done a whole lot of treatment (thank you NHS!) and I’ve had some brilliant support from my long-suffering friends, family and partners. It didn’t ‘just happen’, but then, suddenly, here I am. I have off-days and times when I get down about my body, but they’re not extreme and they don’t restrict my life. So I thought this year I’d reflect on some of the quiet achievements of recovery and living in (relative) balance with food and my body. I’d like to encourage others still stuck in ED-hell that recovery, though not easy, really is possible. And life on the other side is rather good.

Now that I don’t have an eating disorder…

  • I go out to dinner, to parties and events. I don’t have to live in fear of a buffet being suddenly sprung on me! And these events don’t revolve around the food, I can focus on being together with others.
  • I have no ‘forbidden’ foods. I eat all sorts of food. Sometimes I go for a very indulgent meal or eat a whole packet of biscuits and I don’t really care because everyone does that and one day of indulgence will not make me balloon-out. 
  • I don’t cry when I go clothes shopping. I go get another size. Or just shop online.
  • Sometimes I gain weight. And sometimes I lose weight. It doesn’t have a huge impact on my day/week/month. I actually rarely weigh myself.
  • There are things about my appearance I’m not so keen on. I still have hang-ups and insecurities. But I don’t think anyone has a 100% positive body-image. However, looking in the mirror and not liking how I look doesn’t stop me going out and doing the things I want to do.
  • When someone tells me I look ‘well’ or ‘healthy’ I don’t automatically assume that they mean I’ve put on weight. I can actually take a compliment now!
  • I don’t get into ‘diet talks’. They really bore me. Diets have had enough of my life already.
  • I can think about things other than food, weight, body sizes and the massive long lists of numbers (calories, time in the gym, km run, inches round the waist) that an eating disorder can involve. There’s so much space inside my head now to think so many different things.

So well done to everyone involved in the week raising awareness, there’s still so much more to do but every year I feel like people are becoming more sensitive and understanding of eating disorders.

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Eating Disorder Awareness Week – Can you spot a sufferer?

Yesterday began the UK’s Eating Disorder Awarreness Week, flagged up by charity B-eat. the year is littered with various ‘awareness’ and appreciation days, weeks and months, making them all too easy to meet. Why should we pay attention to this one? Do eating disorders really need more awareness? Arguably they’re one of the most sensationalised mental health problems, providing women’s weeklies and gossip rags an endless supply of material, along with photographs of emaciated beings. There’s an argument that this publicity does more harm than good, teaching young people that throwing up and skipping meals is a viable way of losing weight. When you think of eating disorders, what kind of image comes to mind? Nicole Richie? Mary-Kate Olsen? Red-carpet shots of protruding ribs or an image of a supermodel nibbling on a lettuce leaf?

For the majority, this is not the true face of eating disorders, and this is what needs greater awareness. An eating disorder may exist in a stereotypical teenage girl who aspires to look like a model and goes on a starvation diet, but they could also be a middle-aged single mother, binging after her children are asleep and then overdosing on diet drugs and laxatives. Body-image campaigners Body Gossip have spoken about this far better than I could, so I’ll leave you with a few links to some fantatastic websites and a few stats.

  • The stereotype of eating disorders is a teenager/young woman, white, heterosexual, middle-class, wanting to lose weight. But eating disorders occur in men and women of all ages and backgrounds. Suffers may have no obvious outward signs of their disorder and may be very successful in other areas of their lives, so the problem goes unnoticed. Not all sufferers want to lose weight, be thinner or be more attractive, the disorder can begin for many different reasons. Some sufferers may actively want to make themselves less attractive. 
  • The majority of individuals with eating disorders will be of ‘normal’ weight, or overweight. Many cases of obesity are due to a binge-eating disorder. Services for individuals who are not at a ‘dangerous’ weight can be very limited, adding to the stigma that one must be underweight to have an eating disorder and be ‘worthy’ of help. Ilona Burton’s fantastic article ‘But you don’t LOOK anorexic’ is well-worth reading.
  • Anorexia is probably the best-known eating disorder, but only accounts for about 10% of cases. 40% have bulimia and the remaining 50% are often categorised as ‘Eating disorder not-otherwise specified’. These are disorders that do not meet the AN or BN criteria and may include: all symptoms of anorexia but being a ‘normal’ weight, binging and purging less often, abuse of diet-drugs, eating non-food items, purging without binging, binging without compensatory behaviour, eating a very selective diet such as avoidance or fear of a particular food/group, difficulties relating to swallowing.
  • All eating disorders, regardless of the individual’s weight, are dangerous. Binging, purging, over-exercising, use of laxatives and diet-drugs can have very serious physical effects including electrolyte imbalance, risk of diabetes, fainting, osteoporosis, obesity, tooth damage amongst others. Sufferers of eating disorders are also at high risk of suicide, self-harm and problematic drug and alcohol use.
  • Eating disorders have been seen in children of 6 and adults above pension age. Often these conditions are misdiagnosed or not picked up. Although age of onset is often between 15 and 30, many sufferers may take the disorder with them through their lives.
  • An estimated 10-15% of eating disorder suffers are male, though the real figure may be greater as many do not come forward for treatment due to the stigma attached. Check out the wonderful MGET for more details.
  • There is often overlap with Body Dysmorphic Disorder, where individuals have a distorted view of their body and may go to frantic and obsessive lengths to change or conceal it. Recently more attention is being given to Muscle Dysmorphia, a condition where individuals believe they are weak and ‘puny’ and may abuse steroids and over-exercise in attempts to build up muscle. This condition is seen more frequently in men than women.
  • Eating disorders can be beaten! It often takes a lot of time, support, patience and determination from both the sufferer and the people around them. There will be set-backs and relapses, but recovery is very much possible and worth it.

More facts and figures at B-eat. 

So there’s my bit! Don’t forget, the Re-Capture exhibition (which features one of my photos) launched today in Edinburgh and will be on at Scottish Parliament on the 27th February – 2nd March, in the Garden Lobby. More on the project here. You can also see my article on body image distortions and obsessions in our culture here.

Ordinary Obsessions

When I left eating disorder treatment I wanted to love myself and my body. Love, not just like. Not just tolerate, put up with, make-do. I wanted to look in the mirror and smile at the person standing there, feel that that was someone worth being. Turn around, do a twirl, and love the me-ness reflecting out.

I was 18 and I’d been in out-patient treatment for a year. I’d been to countless assessments and therapy sessions, cried in front of various stern professionals, and grudgingly, bite by painful bite, I’d put the weight back on. I was crawling back to wellness. But it had been worth it. When my body had enough energy to power it, the world didn’t feel like quite such a fearful place. I began to venture out, to open my mouth, smile and rekindle the friendships my illness had tossed aside.  Something warm began to grow in me.

When the clasps of this monster started to loosen, I felt like I could finally see the full extent of the horror I’d led myself into. The scars on my limbs, the downy hair that now grows permanently from my cheeks, my back and chest.  The dull ache in my fragile, calcium-deficient bones. The feeling of grief for the younger-me began to turn into an anger. Why had being thin, being ‘beautiful’ been so important that I had risked my life and hurt so many others for it? I felt desperately sad for everyone else still stuck in the pain I had felt. I wanted to lash out at the world that had planted such ideas in my head. I was a born-again body-confidence evangelist. Working Saturdays in a local book-shop I felt a surge of rage at the shelves in the ‘health’ section.  Filled with tones of empty promises for the perfect figure and the perfect life; through a few simple dietary instructions. Why should we sell so many of these ugly things, when we didn’t have a single copy of ‘Lolita’, or ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’? But there was a demand that kept the books in stock.

At the eating disorder clinic, there were no fashion or gossip magazines in the waiting room. Only rather dull publications on gardening, interior design and current affairs. At the time I found this rather patronising, that they feared that a photo of a supermodel would be so wretchedly triggering that I wouldn’t be able to bare it. But looking back on it, I think about how they’d tried to keep the clinic a safe space, away from the blare of the appearance-obsessed media. A rare haven away from the storm. It was a token-effort, but I can appreciate it.

In treatment you learn that ‘normal’ people do not keep their bodies at an unhealthy weight, or go to such extremes to lose and maintain weight. The dietician gave me a plan of ‘normal’ eating, with three balanced meals a day, plus snacks in between. ‘Normal’ people feel hunger, and then they eat. And they’re able to stop eating when they’re full. And then they carry on with their day. ‘Normal’ people do not wake up in the middle of the night sweating because they dreamt they went downstairs and ate everything in the fridge. ‘Normal’ people do not burst into tears when trying on jeans in Topshop.

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