It’s a really important week. It’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week. It’s time, more than ever, to try and get words out there to help raise awareness and a much needed understanding of the massive complexities which are so often hidden, feared and misunderstood, surrounding this devastating mental illness. I started this week by doing a live interview on BBC Radio Norfolk, to discuss a new campaign developed by the charity Beat about eating disorders and the workplace. Beat are the UK’s biggest eating disorder charity and they’re based in my home city of Norwich, so I help them out by volunteering to share my story; it’s a role I cherish and believe really helps both me and other sufferers. As part of this important week I’m gonna do 5 short (short-ish, I am known to blabber on and on!) blog posts, one each day, on the going’s on inside the head of somebody with Anorexia and Bulimia. To a person who has no experience or insight into this illness, it often seems as though it could be fixed in such a straightforward way; to EAT. But, it ain’t that simple. Not. At. All. And here, I’ll try to explain why. An idiot’s guide to understanding an eating disorder if you like. Not that I’m calling anyone an idiot though. Duh.
So, a question or comment I always got from people when I was in the grips of both Anorexia and Bulimia was this; ‘Why don’t you just eat something?’ Or, as a relative once said to my Mum, ‘Well, you just need to feed her a good square meal and she’ll be fine.’ Easy, right? Nope. When I would hear those words, my inner voice would kick off in disbelief that they didn’t understand how f**ked up my head was, how strong this thing had a hold of me, how scared I was to eat food and keep it in my body. The thing is, with an eating disorder, it’s not actually about food. Well, it is, but not directly. Food is merely the vehicle a sufferer uses to physicalize and to cope with the upset going on in their head. It’s a head illness, one which manifests itself through food, and food, it’s something we all need in order to survive, so, by using food as a way to deal with your head, you begin to get ill in your body too. It consumes you both physically and mentally. Never underestimate the power of the hold this illness can have on a sufferer. With starvation, a sufferer is literally shrinking themselves out of existence. Not necessarily to die, but to in some way, dissolve a little, to be invisible, to take up less space, because that’s the worth they have of themselves. A sufferer has such minimal self esteem they believe they should disappear, and it becomes a literal thing. The skinnier I got, the more I believed I was succeeding in showing how insignificant I felt. If I was to eat, and therefore gain weight (which I believed the smallest morsel would do) I felt as though I would be appearing to be content with myself and happy. As long as I starved and vomited and remained self destructive, the more obvious it was to the outside world that I didn’t like myself and had no self value. An eating disorder is a strong statement being silently and painfully shouted. The illness talks to you. It becomes your companion, it makes you believe you are doing the right thing by starving yourself, it makes you think that is all you deserve, it constantly reminds you that nobody knows or understands, that only it knows what is best for you. Every single time you think about eating any food, it screams that you are a failure if you do, that you haven’t fought your cause enough yet, that you will have let yourself down if you give in. Anorexia is a stubborn illness. So darn stubborn and so darn strict. If you eat any food, the fear and guilt cycle is whacked violently into action again. That constant, all day every day cycle that never lets up. You eat something and it feels alien, alien to feel food and taste in your mouth because you have so long denied yourself. You feel like you are betraying your illness, the illness that sticks with you like a faithful friend. That food you have eaten, whether a meal or a mouthful, makes your mind race, it will not shut up. Then it sits uneasy in your stomach, it feels like a swishing tide in your tummy, glugging around like slop. You convince yourself it will turn to fat, that your body will grab onto any shred of fat you offer it and will make you gain pounds in an instant, you believe that you can literally feel it forming on your bones. So, the easiest option was always to throw the food up. To shut up the mind and rid the physical unease. It became the solution. A habit so familiar, so reliable. It becomes an addictive act, the purge, the emptying, the re-set, the starting again. It’s a heartbreaking situation. A mental nightmare and a physical torture. The hard option is to learn to break that cycle, to allow yourself, to trust yourself and to accept food into your body. Somebody told me to see food as my medicine, to use it as a tool to get well with. Those were words that stuck with me since I heard them. I always liken an eating disorder to drug addiction or alcoholism, it’s an illness that develops because you need something to help you cope with life. An alcoholic or a drug addict gets better by omitting their destructive habit, but with food issues, we have to re-introduce food as our friend and learn to live with it, and that’s a really brave thing to do. It’s a hard road to walk but it’s worth every single step once you get there.
That, is just scratching at the surface as to why somebody suffering from an eating disorder can’t ‘just eat something‘. It’s something I’ll write way more on in the future. But, there it is, a small insight into the head of an eating disorder. It’s hard in there so go easy on any sufferers you know. Go gentle and go with compassion and let them know you’re there to listen whenever they are ready to talk.
You can hear my BBC Radio Norfolk interview here, just scroll through to 2.06 to hear me chat, its available for thirty days from today.
This blog expresses purely my own views.