The summer of 2014 I started my first year of university. Coming from a city I can only describe as a cultureless void, I was ecstatic to finally escape and start my new life in Glasgow. Having been born in Glasgow and spent many summers wandering up and down Byres Road in awe, it was a dream come true to me to finally move back home. Yet my first year, a time that should have been filled with excitement, partying and the occasional lecture was overshadowed by the mental illness that was holding me hostage. You see, from April 2014 to the summer of 2015, I suffered from anorexia.
Two years on, and I can proudly say that I am as fully recovered as one can ever be. Even now at a healthy weight and with a far more relaxed attitude to food I know that my relationship with food will never be the same as it once was – the difference now is that I am in control of my illness. The anorexia no longer dictates my actions or feelings towards myself. I am now able to talk myself down from the ledge where I once stood wondering whether it would be easier just to let go and give myself over to the illness consuming me. I have talked a lot about my struggle with anorexia in the past; however, what I have failed to comment on is what happens after recovery.
What many people don’t understand about anorexia is that it is often about control. Usually the illness does not stand alone; instead it acts as a twisted coping mechanism for dealing with the other issues in your life such as depression and/or anxiety. When you finally allow yourself to no longer be in control, you are left to deal with the issues that you had been trying to run from the whole time. When I finally felt I had recovered from anorexia, I found myself left with the anxiety and depression that I had been avoiding by putting all my energy into lowering the number on the scale. As awful as it sounds, a part of me missed my eating disorder, as I felt that at least then I was channelling those feelings of anxiety and depression into something productive. When the calorie counting stopped and the excessive exercising faded into memory, I found myself feeling more lost and empty than ever before. Where once I would run for miles to release my anxiety I now found myself hidden under my duvet, too afraid to face the world. The self-loathing I felt remained, except now instead of it being about my physical appearance, it was aimed at the very core of who I was.
Social occasions became mentally exhausting. I couldn’t have a conversation without overthinking everything I said and would spend the next day worrying that I had isolated people through meaningless comments that they probably wouldn’t even remember. I would spend hours sobbing in my room, unable to pinpoint the exact cause and unable to speak to anyone through fear I would be seen as a burden. I felt so unworthy of love that I isolated myself from people before they had the chance to reject me. This is something that no doctor or counsellor ever warned me of. Their focus was always centred around getting me to a healthy weight, as though this would rectify the negative thought process that had been plaguing me for years. As soon as my weight was no longer an issue, I was left to deal with the deeper issues myself, without the control mechanism that had allowed me to cope for so long. Thankfully now I have been able to access medication that has helped to alleviate these symptoms, yet a part of me still wishes I had been given more support on how to deal with the aftermath of an eating disorder.
There is another aspect of recovery which I feel is often overlooked and yet is equally detrimental to mental health. Those suffering from anorexia are often so consumed by their illness that they fail to see the collateral damage of their illness. Once you are able to step back and look at your illness from a rational perspective, you are able to see the damage that you have caused not only to yourself but to those around you. The denial that comes with an eating disorder is often infuriating to those around you. You lash out at the people you love in an attempt to defend actions that deep down inside you know are destroying you. It was only when I recovered that I was able to see the pain I put those around me through and the emotional strain my actions had caused them. With recovery came an overwhelming sense of unshakable guilt. I was young when I was suffering, but so were the people around me. I demanded an intense amount of emotional support from people who were also young and trying to figure out the world themselves. To this day I still struggle with the guilt I feel over what I put those around me through.
Yet I have also come to realise that it is important to fight these feelings of guilt. Guilt benefits no one. It does not benefit your recovery and it doesn’t help those you feel indebted to. All guilt does is add to the cycle of self-loathing and drags you back down to a place you have fought so hard to escape. For a long time, both during my illness and during recovery, I felt like a burden. This feeling caused me to isolate myself from people and was nothing but detrimental to my recovery process. This feeling of being perceived as a burden is the reason so many people suffering from mental health issues do not speak up, and it leads down a very dangerous path.
An easy solution to this would be to seek professional help, and this is extremely important. However, the lack of funding for mental health services often means that this is not possible for many people. I would encourage anyone suffering to speak to someone and to never feel guilty for doing so. Seeking professional help is incredibly important, but it is equally important that you speak to those around you in the meantime. I promise you that those around you would much rather you spoke to them than allow yourself to spiral into a darkness that many are unable to claw back from. Whether you are suffering from mental illness or are in recovery, there is one thing I must stress to you. You are not a burden. You are not ‘too much’. You are only human and you are going to make mistakes and at times you will ask a lot from the people around you. But I promise you, the people around you will always rather have you here talking to them than lose you because you suffered in silence. Everyone deserves to be heard. Everyone deserves the chance to recover. You are never a burden.
Remember: treatment should always address the underlying thoughts and feelings that cause the eating disorder, and not just focus on the physical aspects of the illness. Find out more about treatment and recovery here.