This young lady has an eating disorder and it's about time I stop being ashamed and hiding away. Aged 12 I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, an illness I spent the next 12 years battling. Aged 22 my health become so critical that I was admitted to a specialist eating disorders inpatient unit. I was existing staring death in the face, and I could see no way out. Recovery seemed an impossible journey. But this inpatient treatment was meant to be the turning point, the point where I actually got to start living, to catch up on all the years I missed, to restore my health. Anorexia had ruined so much: my dream of becoming an Olympic athlete; my bones were brittle as I was riddled with osteoporosis, something you’re meant to get when you’re 80, not 21; family relationships destroyed; friendships lost; my social life was non-existent. Basically, anything that brings joy to one’s life anorexia took away. After all, the winner in anorexia’s eyes is the first one to die.
So I went into this treatment all guns blazing. I was going to be a recovery story and my life was going to begin. And I am pleased to say it was a success (partially). I will not lie: it was by no means easy and it was not pretty. The tears, the anger, the frustration, the confusion. It was an emotional and physical rollercoaster, but it was totally worth it. Because we started to get a glimpse of Jen coming back. And things I had been deprived of for so many years started to make an entrance back into my life: family holidays, meals out, laughter, and dare I say it, I started having an interest in boys for the first time in my life. It was the most terrifying journey, but I kept the hope, I kept believing and I put my trust in my care team and my family who never doubted me, who supported me through every moment, and watched me as I began to blossom. I was beginning to experience the sweet taste of life and it was good. I managed to turn things around, and soon after my discharge I started a degree studying BSc in Sport and Exercise for Health, graduating with 1st class honours in 2018.
However, I would be lying to say the story was a perfect ending. One chapter closed but for me another one started, which was not absent of eating disorders. Since my recovery from anorexia I managed to navigate my way into orthorexia – being obsessed with healthy eating and 'healthy living'. In all honesty the situation is pretty messed up. Studying an MSc in Eating Disorders and giving talks on nutrition, I know more about nutrition than so many, but when I’m struggling myself this all seems counterintuitive. But quite honestly with an ED like mine it is almost like I have two brains. My intelligent brain can tell you what a healthy balanced diet looks like and knows what I need to do to ensure my health is at its optimum, and I can talk about that for days, and no one would ever know that I had a problem. Yet there is the ED brain that prevents this from happening, because up to now it’s kept me safe.
The thing with eating disorders is you don't have to look ill to be suffering. And at the heart of EDs they are really nothing to do with food; they are a coping mechanism. For the past 15 years of my life an ED has helped me feel safe in a world that is full of uncertainties (creating safe food rules, safe food lists, safe exercise routines – everything has to make me feel safe, in control). It helped me manage the emotional difficulties lying at the core that do not want to be addressed (uncertainty, loss, pain, inadequacy) or may be too overwhelming to deal with; turning to food/exercise helps provide that safety, that sense of achievement, something that is admirable and praised by society (eating 'healthily' and exercising more). It has provided me with approval from the outside world, helping me feel good enough (after all who would like someone in a bigger body when society convinces us otherwise). Driven by perfectionism, always in need of feeling accepted and looking for validation and anxious with the fear of not knowing what comes next, not knowing how to navigate the world, or deal with low self-esteem. Yet the problem is no matter what coping mechanisms you use (food exercise, alcohol, smoking) to numb the difficult emotions, they are always temporary. They always come back until you decide to deal with them to come out the other side.
You cannot fix someone with an ED through food; you have to change their behaviour, dealing with the underlying emotional difficulties that are lying at the centre. Every day I hear from people: ‘You’ve done so well', 'You look amazing' (which is the worst thing you can say to someone with an ED background), 'You’re glowing', 'Jen, you really kicked that ED up the backside; you are an inspiration'. After all, I’m the girl who came out of inpatient treatment and was deemed recovered, a success story. Yet this has led me to hide for the past three years how much I still struggle every day, and it’s now at a point where I cannot live a lie anymore.
I eat, and I eat well, and am praised by others at how 'healthy' my diet is (which again, along with society making nutrition very black and white, these things just validate the eating disorder rules and give me no reason to change). I have my safe foods and there is nothing wrong with the foods I eat, but would you see sugar pass my lips – are you kidding? Or would you see me be able to enjoy battered fish and chips at the seaside – I wouldn't even go. But dysfunctional eating has become the norm. Diet culture/the wellness industry has never been full of so much nonsense, with the latest trends being the way we 'must eat' to 'be accepted' or 'be healthy'. How an earth are we meant to have a healthy relationship with food, let alone try to recover from an eating disorder when you’re surrounded by this.
But quite honestly, I don’t know whether I want to live my life knowing that 11 years old was the last time I enjoyed a birthday cake, or an ice cream on holiday, or allowed myself a chocolate bar or pizza without even contemplating feeling any guilt. Eating healthily most of the time is essential, but the word 'balance' springs to mind. It’s understanding that nutrition is not black and white and every once in a while, something that is labelled as 'unhealthy' can be part of a balanced healthy diet. If it’s my birthday I should be able to enjoy cake and know that it’s not going to suddenly mean I get ill or gain lots of weight. I guess when food rules and exercise rules interfere with happiness and fun then maybe the question to ask is 'is this really how I want my life to be?'
Right now, I don't know what the answer is, and don't know how I will change these ways after so many years of it being all I have known. The thought of ever being able to return to sport, improve my bone health and get out of the osteoporosis category, and, who knows, be able to have children one day, are surely enough reasons to convince me, right? I struggle daily to understand why I had to experience these battles, but I am sure with time I will understand that this was a lesson that for some unknown reason I had to learn, to make me who I am meant to be, to lead me to my purpose – hopefully being able to inspire and help others realise that the journey of recovery may be long, there will be many bumps in the road but it is totally worth it, and giving up is never an option.
The future for me could be so bright – life has to be better living like a real 27-year-old should. I have so many wonderful opportunities waiting for me, but I have been paralysed in this for so long for fear of change. Life has to be more than being trapped in this forever. It’s a waste of energy and potential. But if only recovery was that simple. EDs are complex and the individual suffering doesn’t really even understand it, let alone trying to help others understand. But maybe, just maybe, I'm ready to give it a try. What have I got to lose in trying? ‘Why should we not want and hope for the best for ourselves? It will be a sad day when people stop hoping.’ (Molly McLaren, 2017)
You have to learn how to live again and, like with any lessons, you often have to fail to learn the best way or the right way...
In the past I’ve wanted to hide the eating disorders that are part of my history, but I want to shout from the rooftops: I'm proud of how far I had come!
What a year 2020 has been in general for everyone – it was a year no one ever could have imagined, from panic buying, toilet roll shortages, lockdowns and restrictions. Yet for so many, including me, the battle against an eating disorder continued.