This is the scariest thing I have ever written. How do I start writing about the darkest time of my life?
Ok, that started off pretty dreary. I promise you that’s not what I intend to do by sharing my own story with an eating disorder: anorexia.
That word alone scares me, and it has since the first time I heard the word, but it is something I have had to come to terms with.
I want to share my story and raise awareness for it, and help at least one other person who is going through it right now. I want to do my part in society, especially this week, and just get this out there on the internet. It is time to brave the world and say it.
To say that COVID was not a major cause of the evolution of my eating disorder would be a fat lie. At the time, and throughout it all, I refused to believe that, but it is true.
I have always been a huge advocate for fitness and healthy eating, but nothing like I accustomed myself to during and after the first lockdown of the COVID pandemic back in 2020. With nothing else to do during the endless, monotonous days, I began excessively exercising. But I was eating more than enough to balance this out, so I thought I was fine. This was the start of my changing mindset, and the way I was thinking, my mindset towards exercise in particular. I began thinking that I had to ‘earn’ a meal or a snack. “Do this twenty, thirty workout and then you can have that ice cream you’ve wanted all day”, or even reverse it, “you’ve just eaten a chocolate bar, you need to workout now.”
After lockdown, when we returned to school for our final year, things plummeted. As I was so used to working out at every opportunity I could during the days of lockdown, being at school was hard. I started eating less and less, more as a challenge with myself than active starvation. These games that I was playing were obvious signs of an eating disorder, signs which I were oblivious to. I began to see progress with my weight – hey, I can see your ribs, that’s a good sign! – and I was so naive to this vision of weight loss.
I’d see how long I could go in the day without food. Before I knew it, I was waking up at five a.m. every day no excuse, before school and doing over an hour long full cardio based work out, then preceding to not eat until at least half-one. Some days I wouldn’t eat at all until dinner. After dinner, I’d do more exercise.
This went on for a long time, until I kind of realised one day what I was doing. I told my closest friend, but not my family – I didn’t feel like I could put that onto them. I went to the school psychologist, but as this person worked part time (Monday to Wednesday, only mornings, to be precise), it didn’t work. And I was still a prisoner to my own mind and habits.
I remember Christmas time being a dark, dark time. I was dreading the holidays, because I knew that meant lack of control again. I’d be around more food than usual and I’d be seeing family and going for meals. I was used to the five a.m. routine before school and anticipated the holidays horribly.
The darkest time then was when I waited in the kitchen, alone, whilst my whole family sat in the dining room, digging in to the Christmas dinner, waiting for the clock to chime 3pm. My food rules and other restrictions that the disordered part of my brain had set out for me made me scared to death to break them – and to eat a big roast dinner at that kind of time scared the absolute shit out of me, to be completely honest. I remember being so anxious and scared to go in, because I knew people would look at me and wonder why I wasn’t eating. But I forced myself to go in and eat the meal as though nothing was wrong.
I praised myself the more I didn’t eat and the more I exercised. And to recover, I had to completely invert the way I was thinking. The feeling of guilt was the hardest to challenge.
When did I recognise what was wrong? I didn’t, to be completely honest. When Boris announced the crueler, harsher lockdown in the January of 2021, things got even worse. It was the sheer uncertainty of the pandemic and lockdowns, whether we were going to take our A-Levels or not, whether we were going to even return to school! Everything on top of each other made me crave control, and thus I turned to food and exercise restrictions. It then wasn’t until I went back to school after that lockdown that I went back to my 5am habits and my family then got involved and that’s when everything started to become recognised.
The hardest thing was admitting it to myself. I needed help but refused it. I was severely underweight, but that wasn’t the worst thing. It’s the affect an eating disorder has on your brain. Effectively you grow another part of your brain, one with a stronger voice, a stronger hold over you in your mind. For a while, it controls you, until you begin to recognise this voice is not your own but someone else entirely. When I learned this, I could then begin to unravel my emotions and thoughts and habits. This was the hardest thing I have ever done, especially whilst tackling A-Levels and a bloody pandemic. This is something I will touch on more on Thursday.
Just some of the other effects of anorexia other than obvious weight loss? I lost my period, I couldn’t concentrate in school, I could no longer be around people. I lost my personality entirely as all my energy was, in a way, exerted on keeping my body alive due to the pure lack of nutrients it was needing to counterbalance the hours of exercise I was exhausting my body doing each day. I developed OCD behaviours and hypersensitivity – light, noises – and I became fixated on other people’s eating habits. I didn’t sleep, I was always in some kind of pain with my stomach.
I don’t want to scare anyone with these details – I am simply sharing the stone cold truth of what it is like to have an eating disorder. It completely consumes you like a tornado. The best analogy for it, I guess. It swallows you whole, without any warning, without you knowing it or expecting it. And until you hit the eye of the storm, you have no idea what is happening to you. When the calmness of the eye comes along, for a split second you are given the chance to understand it before the storm picks up again. This time it’s a torrent of battling your thought and emotions as you now see and understand the damage they are causing, the destructive past they are leaving behind. From then on, it is a constant battle against it. But it gets easier.
That is why I am telling you this! An eating disorder is a horrendous experience, for the one experiencing it, but also for their family and friends watching them go through it. However, it does get easier. Slowly but surely, you can breathe again. There’s always someone there to help guide you through it. Someone to sit beside you whilst you process all these feelings, heck, someone to sit their beside you whilst you eat your meals in a day – friends, family. There is always someone there you can turn to. Helplines, websites. Help is never too late.
This post is the most raw thing I have ever shared online and frankly I am terrified to post this, but here goes nothing. Please keep in mind that this is only one experience of an eating disorder, and a very very brief condensed explanation of my story. The hardest things about tackling eating disorders and treating them is that they effect every single person differently and everyone has a unique experience. No one should compare eating disorders and everyone has the right to have one – no matter their body size, shape, weight, age, gender. Anyone at anytime in their life is valid for an eating disorder. This illness can come for anyone at anytime – that’s the scariest thing.