Aged eleven, on the first day of summer school camp, I had a seizure. I remember doing star jumps, then everything went fuzzy and I blacked out. It took days for my limbs to not feel like lead again. For years after that I had many more seizures in a plethora of exciting places – French campsites, buses, biology class, school stairwells – until finally an appropriate cocktail of medication was found to suppress them. Unfortunately, these meds made me gain a lot of weight. Adolescence is a minefield of hormones regardless of any additional baggage, and epilepsy was for me a challenge. Due to the nature of the seizures, I had no prior warning, and at a time when I was seeking more independence, I felt myself met with greater restrictions.
As the seizures ceased, the welcome decision to wean me off the medication came. With each dose reduction the weight started to shed. I felt such relief at finally losing that fleshy bulk around my middle and my confidence built with each pound that fell off. I had always been active, dancing three or four times a week, so as I continued to exert myself without steroids increasing my appetite, weight fell away. Spurred on by my losses, I started going to the gym and for runs around the block in addition to all my dancing. I was in control of my body again, and it felt great.
People started to comment on how much I’d lost. I remember coming back after summer holidays and being met with admiring looks. It felt good. For years having felt so out of control, I was now in the driving seat.
It was around this time I started to skip meals. But I was careful to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes, watching cooking programmes, discussing recipes, and in company mustering all my energy to appear normal. Creating a perfect façade of a slim, active, foodie when in reality I was stringently calorie counting, obsessed with the scales, and tired all the time.
My first year away from home was volunteering at a retreat centre for young people. While this year was a wonderful one for me due to the people it brought to my life, it was also a massive challenge. It was the year I admitted to both others and myself that I had an eating disorder, triggered primarily by communal meals and lack of control over my own food, coupled with busy days on retreats leaving minimal time for exercise. It was a combination that saw my weight plummet and my eating disorder rise up to the fore.
The misery of my eating disorder continued when I got to university. Although I tried to fight it and engage in normal student life as much as possible, anxiety and depression joined in and at the end of my second year I conceded the need for a step back. My nursing degree entailed full shifts on the ward in addition to academic demands, and physically I couldn’t cope. I was fainting on the ward, my hair was starting to shed and my periods had stopped. My personal tutor aptly advised that I needed to learn to look after myself before I could look after others.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) helped me understand the root of my issues and tactics on how to cope with them. I won’t delve into the intricacies of where my unhealthy relationship with food stems from because that’s not really the purpose of this piece. However, through personally reflecting on how my thought processes evolved and uncovering reasons why, I was better equipped to rebuild new patterns. Alongside CBT, solid support from family and a few close friends meant that I was able to return to university and health.
Now a Staff Nurse, I am fortunate enough each working day to be in a position to help others heal, cope with or pass away from various illnesses. I am daily reminded of how precious my health is and how much I can do by nurturing it.
During my hardest times a friend brought me an article from National Geographic on women in a Congolese tribe. It presented a comparison of body image between these women and those in the West. The women of this tribe spoke of honouring their bodies for how they could practically serve them e.g. carrying water, children, farming, washing, dancing, etc. Western women were found to focus primarily on their body’s aesthetics. The concept of a ‘thigh gap’ was both alien and nonsensical to the Congolese women, as it should be to us all.
I recall this article often when old demons come out, and am thankful for all my body does for me. Life and all its opportunities are more fully enjoyed by giving my body what it justly deserves.