The first time my mum worried I might have an eating disorder, I was 12. I was a competitive athlete, and a knee injury prevented me from training. I was terrified of gaining weight – I’d been afraid of being ‘fat’ throughout my childhood. In the wake of Jamie Oliver’s campaign about school dinners and the like, the weighing of children at school was brought in. As a perfectionist who was utterly terrified of getting anything wrong, I felt like I’d been set a new test. I needed to be a certain weight, otherwise I was going to fail. I got so distressed about the prospect, my parents had to tell the school they didn’t want me weighing. I guess this was probably the earliest warning sign.
Throughout my early teens, I struggled with bouts of disordered eating and self-harm. I hated myself and my body. At school, I was branded an attention seeker by my peers. I received online messages calling me a ‘wannabe anorexic’ for skipping lunch. I felt like a fraud.
Things got really bad when I started at Sixth Form College. There was a lot of change going on – I didn’t know where I fit, and it felt like I had no control over what was going around me. So I started restricting my diet. I exercised frantically, trying to burn off what I’d put into my body. If I didn’t have time or feel I’d done enough, I’d make myself sick. I was weighing myself more times a day than I’d care to admit. I was a shadow of my former self, obsessed with routines, too cold to leave the house and prioritising anorexia over every other relationship. Anorexia meant everything to me. I was completely consumed. Friends began to express concern, so I set myself a test. I bought a sachet of low-calorie hot chocolate. I told myself if I could drink it, I didn’t have an eating disorder. I couldn’t. Shortly after, I opened up to my mum who took me to the doctor, and I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.
Post-diagnosis I began what would be the first period of waiting for treatment, during which I got progressively worse. My parents didn’t know what to do. When my mum rushed a hysterical me to the GP, they simply provided me with an image of the Eat Well plate.
Whilst working with CAMHS, I slowly started to weight restore and get some of myself back. Against all odds, I managed to get a place at Oxford. I was thrilled, but turning 18 meant a handover to adult services, and where I lived at the time, there were no adult services. When we asked what would happen, we were told ‘they’ll wait until you’re so ill they have to hospitalise you’. Luckily, Oxford did have a service, so when I moved there, I was picked back up and began outpatient treatment. Without the support of my family, however, I relapsed almost on arrival.
Midway through my first year, I was told by health professionals I would have to suspend my studies and seek inpatient treatment. I was crushed but realised I simply could not go on as things were. We were assured that when I got home, there would be a bed for me in my local unit. There wasn’t, and thus began our fight for treatment. It seemed illogical that I had been told I was too ill to be an outpatient, and thus sent away by one service, only for there to be nothing for me to go to. Professionals agreed it was ridiculous, but there was nothing they could do. I was left with only the support of my family and friends and began to rapidly go downhill both physically and mentally. I had completely given up by this point. The only other thing I had ever defined myself by was my education and academic ability, and now anorexia had taken that too. I no longer saw the point. My parents were scared I was going to die. I wanted to.
As I had no care co-ordinator, my GP had to take on that role. We utilised Beat’s HelpFinder and made a list of every inpatient unit in the country to ring round. At that point, no one cared where the bed was, as long as I had one, as long as I was safe. Just over a month after having been sent home from Oxford, a bed was found. And thus began my first inpatient admission.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to accurately sum up how that first day felt. The pain I felt saying goodbye to my parents, not knowing how long it would be until I was allowed out again. The reality hit a few hours in: I realised my freedom had been taken away completely. As a fiercely independent person, I simply didn’t know how I was going to make it through. I called them begging them to come get me, to take me home, promising I’d eat. Thankfully they were strong enough not to come. That admission lasted eight months. I made a lot of progress, but I don’t think anybody thought I left ‘recovered’; deep down we all knew I’d be back.
And I was. I managed to complete my first-year exams and was taken almost immediately back into hospital. I don’t think I realised how poorly I was and refused to commit to a long-term admission. I said I’d stay over the summer solely to appease other people. I made progress and left feeling hopeful. Once again, I knew I wasn’t ‘there’ but I felt I was on the right track. I was excited to move forward with an outpatient team. Only there wasn’t an outpatient team to go to. I got put on a waiting list and thus went from 24/7 care to absolutely nothing within days. Naturally, it didn’t end well. My dad fought and fought to get me treatment, and eventually I did get to see someone much sooner than I otherwise would have. But by that point it was too late. The eating disorder had already slid back in and I didn’t see a way out. I tried and tried to motivate myself to move forward, but I simply couldn’t.
As my weight fell, so did my cognitive function. I was convinced I was okay, preparing for my year abroad and determined nothing would stop me. I was called into a meeting between health professionals, the university and my parents, where it was decided that I needed to go back into hospital. I was heartbroken. The thought of a year abroad had been one of my biggest motivations for recovery and it was gone. I was angry, and this anger meant I went in determined that was going to be my final admission.
I worked hard for nine months, and left, although not recovered, in a much better place than I’d been before. But once again I was discharged to little support. Due to a lack of services, it was arranged that I would Skype one of the therapists from the hospital once a week. That wasn’t enough and my weight started dropping again. When it hit a certain point, he wasn’t insured to see me anymore. I could see where things were going and was utterly terrified. Luckily, we then learnt that finally an eating disorders service had opened in my local area. I was allocated a therapist with whom I worked incredibly well and began to make progress again. She Skyped me whilst I was away at uni and saw me when I was home. I put in the work, and with her support I got to the end of my degree. Graduation was an emotional time for all of my family, as I don’t think any of us thought I would get there, given I spent more of my degree in hospital than I did in Oxford.
Although my ability to access treatment has not been consistent throughout my battle with anorexia, Beat has been. When my mum was first worried, it was Beat she approached for resources. Before I felt I could approach a doctor, I approached Beat. I can vividly remember running out of the college dining hall, dialling the number and blurting down the phone, “I can’t eat. I can’t eat.” The voice at the other end began to calm me down, they made me feel believed. When I was under CAMHS and my mum’s life had been consumed by meal plans, appointments and temper tantrums, she found solidarity in a support group for parents and carers, some of whom she’s still in touch with to this day.
Beat have been there for me and my loved ones consistently throughout my fight with anorexia in a way no other service has. When friends have asked how to support me, I have directed them to the website, when I’ve felt alone and scared, I’ve known their Helpline is available and the stories shared on their blog have given me hope.
Beat have also provided a public voice for me when I’ve seen policies, apps and products which threaten my recovery. They speak out for those of us in recovery when it feels like the rest of the world is on anorexia’s side. Without Beat fighting for those of us with eating disorders, I fear we would be forgotten altogether in policy making.
I have now been out of inpatient care for two years. I am Vice President of Oxford Student Union and an avid mental health campaigner, but I am far from recovered. I am still under the care of outpatient services and every day is a struggle. The difference now is that when my head screams at me, I know I don’t have to listen. I know I can fight it and that one day I will get there. I am in a place I never thought I would be, one where I want to live and I’m excited for the future. Anorexia is still here, but now it is the supporting artist to my leading lady.