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From eating disorders and self-harm to health and happiness

It’s hard to pinpoint when or why things started to go wrong for me. There was no significant traumatic event, no disruptive home life – in fact, on paper everything looked perfect and I should have been happy. But for some reason growing up I felt ‘different’ to my peers, and that I couldn’t quite fit in. It was like I was standing on the outside looking in on my life. The earliest I can remember starting to feel like this was when I was around 10 or 11, and in my final year at primary school. Even though I got on with the others in my class, and was well-liked, I just didn’t feel enough – not clever enough, not funny enough, not pretty enough, not thin enough. I began to note how different I looked in my uniform to my friends, and decided to do something about it. I started eating healthier and more, and this coupled with a well-timed growth spurt I was complimented left, right and centre and my confidence rose. Although I didn’t take things to an extreme on this occasion, this would be the first time that I felt the rush and associated it with confidence and popularity.

Fast-forward a few years, and I’m 13. I spent most of my time with a group of girls from older years, who I’d met during rehearsals for school plays. Although at the time I didn’t even admit it to myself, I wasn’t being treated right by some of the so-called friends in the group. I was considered the baby, and the dumb one (even though I was getting straight A's), and I played up to these roles in order to fit in. I was like a chameleon, willing to play whatever part was expected of me, as I didn’t know who on earth I really was and I needed to be accepted – even if it was as someone I wasn’t. Needless to say, my self-esteem at this time was the lowest it had been (although I didn’t let people see it). I had started to seriously restrict my food and in what I’d consider my first proper meeting with anorexia. My family became worried, and threatened to tell the school if I didn’t get back on track. Unbeknownst to anyone, this was also the time I first experimented with self-harm.

At 15, a close friend of mine developed severe anorexia. I completely neglected myself to be there for her, and took on almost the role of a therapist. I would visit her in hospital where she would tell me of her suicide attempts, self-harm etc. and I became sick with worry and stress, watching my friend fade away before my eyes. I was barely leaving the house, and felt like a black cloud was hovering over me at all times. I suffered from terrifying nightmares, and I subconsciously compensate for her starvation. A family intervention pulled me away from her for my own sanity, and unfortunately she never really forgave me for that. In her eyes, I had rejected her and that was that.

Things were very quickly unravelling in my life.

When I started Year 12, at 16, I slipped back into the low, dark, frightening place I had been in before. The few friends I had had all changed schools for 6th form and I found myself completely alone. This was when self-harm came back into my life. After a while my parents found out, and by the time I started Year 13 I was having Cognitive Behavioural Therapy once a week. For a while the self-harm stopped, and everyone was pleased, but all I had done was replace it with food restriction. The anorexia had started to take hold again, tighter than ever. As soon as my therapist realised what was going on, I discharged myself. I didn’t want anyone stopping me. I felt powerful and strong, driven by my eating disorder’s lies that thin = happy/popular. My mantra was that I needed to be skinny for when I started university. The self-harm soon came back as a punishment for if I did eat, to try and relieve the feelings of disgust and guilt.

At first, people were complimenting me and asking me for tips.

This just fuelled the lies fed to me by my eating disorder, and I felt proud and almost superior. I didn’t need food to live, like everyone else. I was different. However, compliments soon turned to worry, especially from my family. I remember my parents sitting me down in the kitchen and reading out the criteria for anorexia, from a little NHS booklet. I ticked every point, but was still in complete denial. I remember thinking, ‘okay, that’s all me, but the difference is that I could stop whenever I want, but I don’t want to. I didn’t understand why my family was so worried and upset all the time. Why couldn’t they see how great this was for me? Why weren’t they happy for me?

But the ‘honeymoon period’ of the anorexia suddenly came to an end, and before I knew it I realised I was no longer in control. Food filled my every thought. Somewhere along the line, and suddenly almost overnight I flipped into bulimia. I was seeing a therapist at this point, I was all-consumed by the eating disorder, and couldn’t be reached.

Eventually, there came ‘The Moment’ – the moment when I realised I needed help.

I broke down to my parents and just said, ‘I can’t do this anymore’. I didn’t really know what I meant by that; all I knew was that something had to change, or I was going to die. Within four days, my flights were booked and bags were packed, and I was on my way to a specialist clinic in South Africa. I was there for four months, and was completely stripped down, to be built back up again. I can’t put into words the gratitude I have for that place. They saved me, and changed my life.

Sitting here writing this now, I’m 20 years old, in my second year at university. I’ve got an incredible group of friends and a wonderful boyfriend. Life is good. Sometimes things get tough, really tough, and I’m still a work-in-progress, but the skills I learnt in treatment and since coming home (when I had the support of a therapist) help me combat those bad days/weeks and keep myself well.

Recovery is hard. Recovery is not ‘perfect’. But recovery is possible, and it is so incredibly worth it

Contributed by Lilly