It is a paradox of the modern world that although we are all digitally intertwined – perennially bound by social media, emails and mobile – many of us are lonely. Individuals with mental health disorders can experience further isolation. This is exacerbated when the sufferer has an eating disorder, as food is a focal point of our society and many social events revolve around meals. I suffered from an eating disorder from the age of 12 to 22 and throughout this time and in the years after, I experienced social isolation and loneliness in many forms.
Before secondary school, I had always been shy and quiet but enjoyed spending time with friends at parties and gatherings. The coalescence of secondary school, puberty and my ensuing eating disorder plunged me into a protracted depression that still persists. Depression leaves me feeling physically drained, lethargic and headachy, like a heavy cold or flu. Combined with the effects of low body weight, I had no interest in or energy for socialising. This depression-induced social isolation was my first experience of loneliness.
Shortly after my 13th birthday, I was formally diagnosed with anorexia and went into an adolescent unit, for teenagers with general mental health problems. This period as an inpatient, the subsequent stint which followed and the diagnosis that led to them made me feel great shame. I remember I couldn’t say “Anorexia Nervosa” out loud, let alone divulge my diagnosis to another person. I couldn’t explain to my friends why I missed their birthdays or declined invites, and felt like I betrayed their trust by not speaking honestly and openly. This sense of shame I attached to my illness and my inability to confront it provided further isolation.
I spent three years out of mainstream education and drifted away from my friend group. Meanwhile, the relationship I had with my family was disintegrating around me. Normal teenage arguments were replaced with blazing fights across the dinner table. I retreated from family gatherings and I found that all celebrations became tinged with bitterness and resentment. I have rarely eaten Christmas dinner with my family from the age of 12; instead I would often sit in my room alone.
Skipping forward to my late teens and early twenties, university went much the same as my time at school had done. Aside from one kind friend, I existed on the fringes of social norm. It wasn’t long before the only relationship I had in my life was with the eating disorder and this persisted until I finished my degree. I had perfected the art of appearing to be a happy and bright young woman and while on the surface I appeared successful, with a good degree and strong job prospects, I was desperately sad and despairingly lonely.
At some point here, in very poor physical and mental health, I reached ‘rock bottom’, which is a disturbing place with its own circumstances and experiences. Crucially, however, it provided the turning point I needed to challenge my eating disorder. Months down the line, I was physically fitter and mentally much stronger; I moved away from home and found a job. I would describe this initial period as one of the loneliest. I had years of life, work and adventures ahead of me and rather than feel excited at the prospect, without my eating disorder which was the only ‘company’ I’d had, I felt lost.
However, I found strength in the realisation that I had overcome anorexia, an illness that had once seemed like a crevasse I would never reach the other side of. Using this small spark of knowledge, I made peace with being lonely. I worked hard to accept and love myself, focusing on my own interests outside of work. A simple surfing holiday by myself turned out to be one the most liberating experiences I’d had in years.
In parallel to learning to enjoy my own company, I addressed my isolation in the hope it may alleviate some of the loneliness I felt. Although awkward and uncomfortable at first, I attended social events, including those that involved eating and joined a gym, which has led to good friendships with likeminded people.
As I am starting to grow new relationships and tend to old ones that were neglected through my teens, I have reflected on my experiences of having an eating disorder and how lonely it made me feel. While I can’t deny a decade of my life was wasted, I can scrape small atonement from lessons I learnt in the process. For example, my observations of other patients in hospitals taught me how frail the human mind can be. Reaching some dark places myself, and knowing how painful loneliness feels, it’s important to me that others shouldn’t feel a similar way.
It’s taken me a while, but I learnt that by being a friend to myself, I can be a better friend to those around me and this, in turn, helps alleviate the loneliness when it creeps back in.