Sitting at the table, eating my third heaping plateful of pasta, I watched as my housemates shuffled in and out of the lounge where we are all gathered around watching Hollyoaks. The dinner conversation turned from who was going to do the washing up to when our final exams had been scheduled…no one mentioned my food…or my eating habits. I don’t know if that was out of politeness? Or embarrassment? Or whether they simply didn’t notice or worst of all…didn’t care. Part of me felt resentful that no one asked what was wrong and the other part felt grateful that my eating disorder and me were being left alone.
After dinner I hauled myself upstairs to the bedroom in the house that I shared with 4 other housemates at university. My typical routine after dinner was to go upstairs to ‘have my dessert’…this usually consisted of whatever I had in the box that I kept underneath my bed. Chocolates, cakes, crisps, crackers, sweets. I would then eat until I felt sick and bloated. I would then take approx 6-10 rennies and ½ a bottle of Pepto Bismol. I had been doing this for the last 18 months and my body was really beginning to suffer. Not only had I gone from 14 stone to 22 stone (I’m 5’11”) but also my digestive system simply didn’t seem to be working properly. I had been to see the GP who had diagnosed me with irritable bowel syndrome but it didn’t seem to occur to him either that I might have an issue with food.
I was often perplexed by my apparent lack of will power…I had been very driven and determined in other areas of my life. I was captain of the rugby team and I scored high marks throughout my education. I did however recognise a tendency toward perfectionism…I always wanted to be the best, to get the best marks, to finish first and to win everyone over. Why was I all over the place when it came to food?
Now when I look back I can see that a fair bit of my behaviour was not healthy at all and I think much of this started when I was still living at home with my family. My mother had been born into a poor, working class family and had often gone without as a child…that included food. As an adult she had ‘worked her way up’ and was financially secure but she was still preoccupied with us having enough, especially enough food. My father worked in his own business; he worked hard and played hard. He liked a drink and was a tough man. There wasn’t a lot of room for tears in our house. I had two older brothers and a baby sister. My older brothers were frequently getting into trouble and being yelled at for one thing or another and my baby sister was just that…the baby and we all adored her. I figured that the best thing to do would be to get on with things and keep my head down. That resulted with me always trying to please everyone and that included eating everything that was given to me…no matter how hungry I was. I found myself forcing myself to be sick because I was so full of the food I had stuffed myself with. I was about 12 years old when this started.
Food became more than just food, it became an escape…when I was eating I had learnt to disengage from my body so that I could ignore the “YOU”RE FULL!” alarms that would be going off inside my head. I began to fantasise about food and became preoccupied with what I was going to eat and when. When I was 15 years old I noticed that my weight was steadily going up. I was exercising regularly and was on the rugby, cricket and football teams from my early teens so that had kept the weight down to a degree and was also vomiting 4-5 xs per week. I decided to start dieting and that’s when things really declined.
I decided to cut out all carbohydrates, sugar and fat. I lived on soups, salads, fish and diet coke. However no matter how hard I tried ‘to be good’ I would constantly relapse and binge on ‘forbidden foods’ every week or so. I continued this pattern for the next 6 years. Now when I write that I cannot believe I stayed trapped in that pattern of eating for 6 years! I simply cannot believe that so much of my early life has been taken up with an eating disorder. I was now 22 years old and my weight had plummeted. I was repulsed by people who were overweight and was obsessed with food, calories and exercise. No one knew what I was dealing with and at the time I really felt as though I was in control. I think deep down I was desperate for someone to notice how sad and lonely I had become.
I had left university and worked for a number of years in a small company in London as a marketing assistant. There was lots of social drinking and although I was instantly worried about the calories in drinking I decided that I could easily go for drinks after work and not have an evening meal. And so the spiral continued but now I was drinking as well. I was so so alone. Even though I was going out and was often the ‘life and soul’, I didn’t really feel as though I had anyone. No one really knew me.
I can’t really tell you what made me get help but something made me stop. There was a woman at work whom I saw every day, I hardly spoke to her but I watched and admired her from afar. She didn’t actually work for us; she was a pr consultant that was brought in to work on various projects. I was suffering from my biggest crush in years. I had no intention of ever approaching her or asking her out, she was amazing and well out of my league. I didn’t for one minute think she would be interested in me so there was no point and if by some small miracle she was interested, I would never allow myself to really get to know her because then she would discover my secret and she would reject me anyway. I realised that my behaviours around food were going to stop me from ever having a meaningful relationship and I found that thought devastating.
On that same day I went home and searched for ‘eating disorder help’ and I found the number for The Recover Clinic. I sent in an email and the next day a therapist called me back. I cannot tell you the relief I felt in being able to unburden myself with my secret. The therapist I spoke to was so kind and so patient and I felt heard and comforted. She reassured me that I was not alone and that there was hope.
I began one to one therapy sessions the following week and haven’t looked back since. That was 4 years ago. My life today has changed beyond recognition. It has been an incredibly hard journey, not just to change my behaviours around food but to learn to like myself, I didn’t know how to that. I was very lucky, my therapist didn’t just analyze my behaviours she cared for me and taught me how to care for myself. I started attending overeaters anonymous meetings and found that they also provided a massive source of support, I now sponsor several people through the program. I began to tell people close to me what I was dealing with and although not everyone ‘got it’ more or less people were kind and supportive. A lot of people were pretty surprised and I realised how misinformed most people are about eating disorders and what they entail.
Although early recovery was hard work, the food in some ways was the easy part. I knew what was ‘healthy behaviour’ and what was ‘unhealthy behaviour’…it was how the eating disorder had impacted on other areas of my life that I had found the most difficult to change. Over the years my self-esteem had withered away and I was now in a position where I was really underachieving and I had not had a relationship for several years. I found any sort of intimacy with others extremely challenging. The group work that I did really helped me to overcome this. Over time I began to work through these issues and although today I still see my relationship with myself as a work in progress, today I am happy. I like who I am.
When my therapist asked me to write my story for the blog I wondered how I would be able to convey a message of hope for those still suffering. All I can say is this…don’t give up, you are not alone, change is possible! Oh…and if you were wondering about whatever happened to that woman at work? After a very nerve wracking first date and 2 years later, we are expecting our first baby this November.
Take it one day at a time.