I think my mum once summed it up perfectly: an alienating illness that takes over the personality and the mind of the one you love. That’s how she described my eating disorder. When I asked her how she felt during my illness? Helpless. Trapped in a bubble, feeling like it was impossible to find a way out. My once strong relationship with my sister had completely broken down. She spent most of her time at her friend’s house, because it was easier for her to push anorexia out and forget it existed than to watch it destroy, not only me, but our whole family. My Dad struggled with the idea that he couldn’t do anything. Although he tried to hide it, I could sense his frustration and sheer panic that he couldn’t fix the problem. My teachers saw me struggle, they saw my self-esteem plummet, but heard me say time and time again that I was fine. My friends missed the true me. They missed the bubbly, fun-loving and caring person that anorexia had stolen from them and they struggled to deal with the manipulative and deceiving person that was in my place.
That’s what I hated the most about Anorexia. It turned me into something and somebody that I no longer recognised. It isolated me from everything I valued. I was horrified to see the effects it had on those around me whilst feeling completely unable to change. I think that’s why I began to drift away from them. I thought that if I took myself away, the eating disorder would no longer affect them. But I now know that that was not the case. I’m sure you all know, that even if someone isolates themselves from you, you still very much feel the effects of the eating disorder.
We all know how exhausting it is to care for someone with an eating disorder, whether you’re a parent, sibling, clinician or a friend. You may feel like you are putting so much effort in, but getting very little back. I’ve been there too. As well as being the person with an eating disorder, I’ve been the friend, as well as someone who works with those with an eating disorder. I know how frustrating it is to see somebody really struggling, but not accepting help. I know how much it hurts when you find out that someone’s eating disorder has forced them to hide things from you. I understand the anger, the frustration, the feeling of helplessness and the complete devastation such an illness can have.
But equally, I have seen how much someone’s life can change for the better, despite once feeling helpless and hopeless. I have seen friends flourish, have children, graduate from university, go travelling and generally enjoy the freedom that recovery has brought them. I’ve seen my parents more relaxed, happier, and able to trust me again, knowing that it IS me and not anorexia talking. I can stand here today and say I am a survivor of an eating disorder, someone who has been able to let go of anorexia and flourish. I can live my life without being controlled by the illness that did once control me. I am not the same person I was before my illness, after all, everything we experience shapes who we are, but I am a confident, bubbly and loving woman who is thankful for every day. It would be unrealistic to say that my life is perfect, because I think we can all agree that nobody’s life is perfect. But overall, my life is good. My once broken-down relationships with my family have been rebuilt and my relationship with my sister has blossomed. I am about to finish my degree and hope to go on to help those affected by an eating disorder. I use my caring and determined nature to campaign and volunteer for Beat, because I am so passionate about sharing my journey to recovery and sharing what I have learnt along the way.
Learning partly came from therapy and help from clinicians. My therapist saw me for me and tried to understand what was going on for me. He didn’t see me as a diagnosis, he saw me as a person. That allowed me to see myself as a person, as a somebody at a time when I thought I was a nobody.
Another thing I have learnt is that it is ok to make mistakes. I don’t like using the word fail, because failing implies giving up. But when I make a mistake, I have learnt not to give up, and not to let that critical voice tell me I am a failure. Instead, I have realised that making a mistake gives me a platform to learn. I use this in every day life, but I also applied this to my recovery. If I had a day where I would struggle, I would remember that this did not mean I had relapsed. It just meant I had had a more challenging day. Taking away the blame or feeling of failure meant I could explore why I had struggled and think about what I could do next time to help the situation. Every little blip, every challenge I faced became a little piece of a larger jigsaw that became more and more complete. And that’s what recovery, as well as supporting someone in recovery is about. It is a learning process. Learning, and making mistakes will also be part of your journey. So many people say to me that they’re scared to open their mouths in case they say the wrong thing. So this is a message to everyone: we’re all human, we all make mistakes and that’s ok. If you do get a negative reaction to something you have said, ask the person what feelings that sentence brought up for them, and what you could say next time as alternative. This also helps to show that making mistakes is normal and allows you to be a good role model.
Another way those around me were role models was by showing that it is ok, and in fact necessary, to also look after themselves. As a clinician, a carer and a supporter, you deserve as much care and support as anyone else. Whether it’s dancing, like my mum does, or spending time with friends, you, too, need to take care of your own mental wellbeing and show some self compassion. I know as someone who works with people with eating disorders that I cannot care for others if I don’t practice self-compassion and self-care. This also sets a good example for those around you. I needed to see that, although it was a hard time for those around me, they were still able to at least keep a part of their lives running, still live a life according to their values.
I remember my dad wanting to cancel a planned family holiday to Paris whilst I was in hospital. He said it didn’t feel right going without me. But I longed for them to enjoy some time to themselves, away from hospital visits. As they did with me, I longed to see them smile again. I knew that they would still be thinking about me, still aware of the situation they would go back to, but at least for those two weeks, they could relax a little bit and enjoy the pleasures that being on holiday brings. By just seeing that my care network, including parents, friends, teachers and professionals, were looking after themselves, I was able to start taking little steps to also look after myself. And just little changes that I noticed, such as reminding myself I am not a failure, or telling myself everything will be ok, gave me a glimpse of hope for the future.
Hope for the future is what I would like to leave you with. The other day, my friend said to me Rosie, I’ve lost hope. I’m a linguist, I love words and so I thought about what my friend said to me. He had LOST hope. That doesn’t mean that hope can’t be found, or that it doesn’t exist. I still carry that hope for him. I carry hope for everyone else out there affected by an eating disorder.
Recovery is possible. It is possible to lead a life that you value and to cope with the ups and downs of life without falling back on the eating disorder as a way of coping. Sometimes recovery seems so out of reach and too difficult to think about, but it IS possible to slowly build back parts of your life that the eating disorder has stolen from you and as time goes on, recovery becomes reachable and possible.
So finally, to parents, carers, clinicians and anyone else who is supporting someone with an eating disorder. I would just like to say thank you. Thank you for being there for the people you care for and thank you for continuing to fight. Please remember to look after yourself and remember, there certainly is hope.