Our local Time to Change Champions are leading the fight against mental health stigma.
Eating disorders, particularly Anorexia, are widely misunderstood. Often anorexia is portrayed as a strictly a food-related illness manifested by the pursuit of a perfect body, but in reality it is much more complex. Hayley blogs about her experiences and dispels the misconceptions.
What is Anorexia?
There is a myriad of ideas as to what Anorexia is and what it is not – as a sufferer of Anorexia for over a third of my life, I’m not fully convinced I understand it either!
The best way that I can describe it, is that it’s like being in a constant war with both your mind and your body – a complete disconnect. A body that at one time, you were carefree about and a mind that you used to be in control of, but is now paralysed by the Anorexia’s constant incantations… a mind that has been manipulated to maintain the disease. It’s as if you’re in a hideous maze, where every choice is a dead end.
It is my hope, that this blog will help to highlight that Anorexia is a complex disorder that is a frightening and all-encompassing daily internal battle, not limited to just food.
Whilst I don’t have all the answers and I can only speak from my own experiences, I hope that through this article, I can help to dispel the stigma and myths that are associated with this cruel and multifaceted illness – after all knowledge is power!
Myth – “It’s all about vanity”
Fact – As a sufferer, I am acutely aware that my appearance is not socially deemed as “beautiful”. My bones protrude, my skin is the colour of a grey and overcast day, my hair is thin and brittle and I have bigger bags under my eyes than Asda have at their checkouts. I don’t choose this way to look because I think it is beautiful, in fact, I don’t choose to look this way at all. My illness dictates my appearance. To me, it is NOT about being aesthetically pleasing. It is far more than a superficial perception. To me it serves as a projection of the deeper, painful, inner self-loathing projected outwardly onto my outer appearance.
Ultimately, it is self-annihilation, not self-prettification.
Myth – “It just happens to young people”
Fact – It is a sad fact that Anorexia affects people of all ages- I’m living proof of this – the “Anorexic Seed” started to be planted in my late teens, this then manifested into anorexic behaviours in my 20’s and I’m still battling these in my 30’s.
Over time, Anorexia develops and engrains rituals and obsessions that gradually expand to dominate every aspect of your life.
Anorexia can affect anyone, at any time.
Myth – “Once you have gained the weight back and nutritionally restored you will be fine”
Fact – I have learnt through reading an overabundance of self-help guides and attending a multitude of various therapies that weight gain is only the first step to recovery. I have come to the realisation and unwelcome reality that recovery is a process. Just as it has taken time for me to develop Anorexia, it will, inevitably take time for to go through the recovery process. As daunting as it sounds, I know I have the power to overcome this, not only by gaining weight but with challenging the thoughts associated with Anorexia. I am attempting to work through recovery with the same singleness of purpose that characterised the disorder, and the commitment to keep it going.
Recovery isn’t just full of major revelations – you don’t just wake up and grab whatever you fancy from the fridge, see your target weight on the scale and be “cured” (I wish) – it takes time, things come together slowly, recovery is like a pendulum going backwards and forwards – I can do this, I can’t – it’s transient and terrifying.
I now know that other psychological work needs to be done to cope with and manage difficult situations and emotions without having to resort to anorexic behaviours- which have been masked as a warped “safety blanket.”
So, whilst recovery from Anorexia is about weight gain, it is, perhaps most importantly, about unpicking, and facing up to, the demons that continue to fuel it.
Whilst someone with Anorexia may outwardly look healthy, they may still battling with an unhealthy relationship towards food.
Myth – “It’s just an Eating Disorder… you can still do everything that everyone else does in day to day life”
Fact – This has been something that I have (with much regret) come to the realisation of: as much as I would like to and try to convince myself that I can do everything my peers do…I can’t.
My Anorexia dictates and affects all areas of my day to day life from when I can eat, to how much. It makes me think about how I will manage to fit in exercise around work, seeing friends or having a rest. This in turn, affects the relationships with others… I can only see people at certain times of the day that fit around my eating rituals, I can’t eat out, I avoid going to the cinema as I’m sat for too long and I can’t indulge in girly cocktail nights for fear of consuming too many calories and losing control. Instead of meeting up with colleagues for lunch, I compulsively exercise for an hour. Instead of continuing with my teaching career, my Anorexia made it impossible to maintain the relentless hours of work, it made me unable to perform in my perfectionist way. I feel lost not being in the classroom… my identity completely stripped.
So, whilst, I can still technically “function”, I am governed by its rules.
Myth – “You have to be emaciated to have be Anorexic”
Fact – It is important to know that Anorexia can affect anyone regardless of their weight. Any person, of any size, that are not meeting their nutritional needs or are unable to eat intuitively has a negative relationship with food. It is so important to challenge the stereotype of having to be worryingly thin to be diagnosed as Anorexic.
It is a sad and discouraging fact that, the cruel, invisible puppeteer that is Anorexia can make people compliant at any size.
Myth – “It’s caused by the media and today’s cultural expectations”
Fact – People often equate beauty and body shape with achievement and success which is avidly portrayed in the media, (shamefully I am included in this notion) but it’s important to know that it doesn’t all stem from the media. Whilst there are streams of magazines on shelves, countless programmes on the TV transforming people’s appearances and an overwhelming number of adverts promising to sell you the “perfect” body which will ultimately provide you with a “perfect life” it only serves to perpetuate the problem rather than cause it.
Unfortunately, it is not all down to the media, we live in a culture that glorifies “thinness”. It’s inescapable.
For me, this has had influence on my recovery, after all, it seems so alien in a world obsessed with being slim, to go against the grain and gain weight, rather than lose it.
Myth – “Eating Disorder behaviours only focus on food”
Fact – I have saved this myth until last as I believe this to be the most misunderstood part of Anorexia, it is so much more about food. Believe me, if it was just solely food related, I’d be eating all the food there is. Anorexia tarnishes every part of my life. It is all consuming, obsessive, a manipulator of thoughts.
Anorexia is about:
It manipulates you into thinking that you have control over every decision you are making. It seeks to give you the answers you want to hear, but, despairingly, you are not governing yourself. It is the Anorexia relinquishing control and taking the reins. It does this by desensitising rational thinking, by using its persuasive ways to think that food restriction, driven exercise and other worrying behaviours are the answer to your unbearable thoughts.
Food rituals and behaviours associated with this fill my day, rather than spending time with the people I care about, I would forever be thinking about getting home and eating or making sure I have done enough exercise to either feel deserving of food or to compensate for the food I have already consumed. I have to eat with the same cutlery, on the same space on the sofa, at the same time of day, I can’t have dinner unless I’m showered. I have to weigh out all of my food to the nearest gram. It’s relentless. It’s exhausting. It overrides every part of the authentic me.
In a world crowded with beautiful family and friends – I have never felt so lonely or isolated.
Exercise was at one time, something I enjoyed, now I endure it. It is no longer a positive past time but more of an incessant compulsion. It dominates the day and becomes an all-consuming obligation that leads to a very strict and exhausting daily routine. When I’m not out walking, I’m cleaning, sorting, busying myself – anything to avoid sitting down.
- Myth – “People are Anorexic because they just want to seek attention”
Fact – Believe me when I say, I would rather disappear and take up less space in the world than be noticed. My Anorexia didn’t develop to be self-indulgent, to gain attention or to get validation from others. It manifested its manipulation as a solutions to problems, a way of adapting to things and becoming my security blanket.
I hope that this article has raised awareness about the multi-faceted serious and potentially life-threatening illness that is Anorexia.
Together we can tackle the detrimental stigmas that are associated with the illness.
“Knowledge is Power, Power provides Information; Information leads to Education, Education breeds Wisdom; Wisdom is Liberation.”
? Israelmore Ayivor
Our local Time to Change Champions are leading the fight against mental health stigma. With this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week being themed on ‘Kindness’, they are sharing stories about how different sorts of kindness have helped them, and allowed them to help others:
“Kindness to self
When I found out that this year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness week was based on “Kindness” I wanted to share my story about how I am striving to be kind not only to others but perhaps more importantly the act of being kind to myself. I wanted to share a little of my journey into discovering self-kindness in the hope that it may help others, even in the smallest of ways, to know that YOU matter, you are worthy and that you are deserving.
Self-Kindness – is such a powerful phrase that conjures up a plethora of different thoughts and opinions.
Self-Kindness is something I admittedly actively avoided thinking about – it’s selfish, narcissistic, and self-indulgent. I always battled with a pervasive sense of not being good enough or worthy enough to allow myself to show kindness. However, having taken the step to get intensive daily support for Anorexia, I have learnt being kind to myself is so important and should be at the forefront of any journey into recovery. Without self-compassion recovery is neigh on impossible.
Don’t get me wrong, kindness to self is (like recovery) not linear, it comes with its hurdles and setbacks. Our own validation, self-worth, rises and falls in step with our latest successes or failures – I keep reminding myself that nothing worth having comes easy.
It is still something I battle with, feel guilty about, something that goes completely against what my Eating Disorder (ED) is telling me to do but in a strange way it empowers me, it fuels me to dismiss the negative voices that my ED enforces on me, that infiltrates my mind all day, it is putting me in touch with the authentic me – someone that has been controlled and manipulated for over a third of my life by an invisible, destructive demon illness.
I am going to continue to use all of the negative traits engrained within an ED – determination, stubbornness, grit, strength and use them towards positive outcomes, outcomes that will enable me to achieve the goals I’ve set myself in life, to be at peace with who I am and show myself the kindness that I show the people I care so dearly about.
So how did I start my journey of being kind to myself?
I became so tired of flagellating myself with self-criticism, self-doubt, and a lack of self-worth. I wanted to stop punishing myself for all the mistakes I made, for all the people I’ve let down, for all the times I corroded my sense of self.
I needed a plan to get out of this self-destructive and punishing trap I laid for myself. I had hit a very dark place, I moved in with my sister, had to take time off work and was under the support of a mental health crisis team – my life was spiralling and I needed to change this – this was not the life I craved, I just needed to figure out how to lay the foundations to pave a meaningful, fulfilling existence.
This is how my Year of Yes manifested itself – the year I vowed to be kinder, more accepting to myself and say yes to the things that would bring me a step closer to being in line with my authentic self – embracing life, the people in it, the experiences it offers and the opportunities it gives you to thrive and meet incredible people whilst doing it.
So, what did I say yes to?
Changing career, a career I loved so much but was highly detrimental to my health and wellbeing. This was the time I said yes to putting a pause on teaching and having the courage to take a risk. I now work with students who are studying at University with a disclosed disability. This has taught me that by being kind to myself is imperative. It made me realise that kindness actually needs to start from within before transcending to others (something that I value so much). It has taught me that I can transfer the skills I used in the classroom to a different role and still make a difference.
I ran my first 10k and rewarded myself with the first ice cream I had in years. I didn’t have a personal trainer or a training schedule to get me from my sofa to running such a distance, I just used my self-compassion as my coach – “You can do this Hayley”, “Just a little further,” “It’ll all be worth it in the end”. Do these phrases ring any bells? This experience taught me that the lessons you learn in one experience, in this case, running at an event, can be used to help you in the future with other life experiences – just to clarify, I’m not suggesting you all run a 10k to realise this!
I said yes to doing what I loved – travelling. I signed to embark on an adventure to Laos with a teaching charity that I saw advertised online just 6 weeks before. Prior to these 6 weeks I had (rather ignorantly) never heard of Laos – it is now one of my favourite places in the world! This enabled me to spread my passion for education, travel and meet the most inspirational people along the way. Having three weeks away from the bubble of being home, was for me, the ultimate gift to myself. This act of kindness towards myself gave me the opportunity to reflect on things; what I wanted out of life, what I cared most about and perhaps most importantly, how I wanted things to change on my return.
I said yes to trying new things, I never knew that a girl born in Essex whose idea of exercise constituted of walking around the local shopping centre, could and would end up loving climbing mountains – especially when the man of your dreams proposes to you at the top!
I realised that during my year of yes, self-kindness isn’t just about being on your own and doing things for yourself – it’s all about sharing your life with people that make you feel lucky to be alive – that actually spending time with good people is being kind to yourself. I learnt that being an Auntie to the most incredible nephews has given my life purpose, I can instil love, fun and most importantly kindness into my nephews so that hopefully, when they are older they’ll see their value in this world and give themselves the self-compassion that they deserve.
Sometimes self-care does involve spending a bit of money too – during this year of yes, I gave myself the permission to get something I’d always wanted – a CAT! After all, all the self-help books recommend pets as being great therapy! I can confirm this to be true. There is nothing better than sitting in bed, reading a book with a purring fluff ball keeping you company.
With each of these self-kindness successes, came greater confidence that I am, indeed stronger than my ED.
I’m still negotiating this relatively new territory of self-compassion, but I’m determined to stop the damaging berating that I have come to know as the norm. Life is full of hurdles, it’s terrifying, unpredictable but it’s also beautiful, fulfilling and enlightening at the same time – ultimately, we can only ever be who we are and do the best we can.
Let’s start a chain of self-kindness, after all we are all fragile human beings navigating life together, we are incredible treasures who have been given the gift of life – lets embrace it – let’s embrace ourselves!”
The Portsmouth and Southampton Time to change hub is delivered in partnership by Southampton City Council and Portsmouth City Council, co-ordinated by Solent Mind.
We are committed to the Hub being led by Champions. There are many ways that registered Champions can get involved in the direction of the Hub, including joining us at Steering Group meetings. If you’d like to find out more please contact email@example.com.