While some people question the usefulness of awareness weeks, I think they can be a force for good, especially when it comes to challenging misconceptions and alerting people to the signs and symptoms of illnesses. This includes eating disorders - and this week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
There are several 'types' of eating disorder, including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, ARFID (avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder) and OSFED (other specified eating or feeding disorder). I won't go into them all now, but you can read more about them and their symptoms here.
Today, I wanted to share my story with you. I suffered from anorexia and bulimia as a teenager, but I won't be posting weights, restrictive methods or photos, because I know this can be distressing for people in recovery.
At the beginning
It started when I was in school (the school nurse was first to pick up on it, as we had a 'sick room' with beds where I regularly went when I was upset or needed to rest) and continued for a few years. There was a lot going on in my life and, I suppose, I felt like I had no control over anything that was happening. Chuck in a load of teenage hormones and you've got the kind of situation where eating disorders can start to manifest.
Realising that I was 'good' at losing weight (and hiding it from people) gave me a feeling of control. Humans experience a dopamine boost when we achieve or succeed at something and this can be addictive of itself. When my illness was 'outed' to my family and friends, things became really tough - not just for me, but for them. My mum, in particular, blamed herself.
An illness, or a person?
There's a reason a lot of ED sufferers refer to their illness by using a name (typically 'ana' for anorexia and 'mia' for bulimia). It becomes an obsession. You begin to feel like your own personality is draining out from you like sand in an hourglass, and being replaced by something else. Your body becomes a host for the disease, which is like a constant voice. It is always there, keeping a vice-like hold on your mind and, subsequently, your behaviour.
You lie. You deceive. You get angry at the people trying to help you and push them away. For me, part of the problem was the experience I had when I was already well along the path into anorexia, but was not 'emaciated'. A counsellor referred to what I had as 'mild anorexia'. This is a red rag to a bull when it comes to someone with this condition and it still baffles me that she thought it was appropriate. I was furious. I felt like she was mocking me for not being 'thin enough' and it cemented my belief that I wasn't 'sick enough'. So I fought against recovery even more.
At school, someone commented that I looked amazing. "Don't lose anymore weight though or you'll be anorexic."
I already was.
Recovery was a long, arduous journey, made difficult when people lost their temper (which is understandable, given the nature of this illness). I lost my boyfriend at the time - the first person I had ever been in love with. I kept diaries of what I'd eaten and how I felt about it. Many of them were full of rage and self-loathing.
But there were moments that spurred me on. The pride on the faces of family members when I ate a food I had previously felt terrified of. And, while some people started picking at their own food at meal times (not helpful), my brother would eat normally, enjoying his food, snacking, and making me feel like it was normal and healthy to do so.
I went through cognitive behavioural therapy, which was appropriate at the time, as I hadn't processed a lot of the issues behind the eating disorder. My therapist, unlike the counsellor, was very helpful. I kept a scrap book, sticking in pictures of celebrities who had embraced their bodies, as well as reminders of the pros of recovery: being able to go out and socialise fully with friends, getting my personality back, making my family proud, not making mealtimes tense and uncomfortable, being able to think about and enjoy things other than losing weight!
Setbacks along the way
Recovery is not easy. You feel like you're the rope in a tug of war, being pulled in two different directions. When you do what people tell you is good and healthy, you feel bad and ashamed. And, when the weight starts coming back, you struggle. Your body changes. Weight accumulates around your hips and stomach, especially as a woman, and makes you feel out of proportion. Your period, if you lost it as I did, returns; proof that you are moving away from the destination part of you still longs to move towards. You can slip into binge eating and purging cycles.
But perseverance pays off and with the weight comes clarity of mind. I'm 32 now and I am delighted to say I am fully recovered from anorexia. Every now and then - but very rarely (maybe once or twice a year) - I slip into bulimic behaviour. I don't keep tubs of ice-cream in the house often because, for some reason, that can still end in a binge and purge situation. I try to eat mindfully and I challenge negative thoughts when they pop into my head.
I do not regret my recovery. I am thankful for it. I am proud of it. And, above all, I am relieved that this dark chapter of my life is over.
The bigger picture
Misconceptions about eating disorders are rife. People think that purging means making yourself sick. It can do, but overexercising is another form of purging. People think that anorexia means you have to look emaciated. It does not. And, if you wait that long to help someone, you may have left it too late.
Some people don't recognise binge eating disorder as an eating disorder either. This is made worse by the way fatness is demonised by our society. While anorexia can be envied - something that the fashion industry and media have made possible - binge eating and the weight that can come with it are stigmatised with connotations of laziness and a lack of self control.
This is why representation is so very important, particularly in the fashion industry, which still drags its heels despite the deaths of seriously ill models. We need to see a diverse range of people with different body types, ages, skin colours, sexual orientations and gender identities. We must not view any one thing as 'the ideal' and everything else as 'other'.
Until then, we are contributing to a society where it's normalised to hate your body and to strive for thinness, no matter the cost. It's a society where Adele's weight loss is celebrated, without an understanding of whether it was intentional or healthy. It's a society where Victoria's Secret can openly state that the 'fantasy' they sell would somehow be broken by including plus-size (and 'acceptably plus size' at that) and trans women.
This eating disorders awareness week, let's take some time to educate ourselves about these illnesses and question the society that normalises and exacerbates them.
For advice on recovering from an eating disorder or helping someone close to you, visit BEAT.