People look at me with a little confusion in their eyes when I tell them I am not ‘cured’ of my eating disorder. They watch me eating normally with no secret shame and stigma around food, they see that I am an average-looking build and weight and cannot understand I am the same man who has been severely underweight and overweight.
My eating is under control, the binges are minimal and the purging has stopped. But the thought process is still there and still needs managing. For me personally, the difference between cure and recovery is massive, even though they both achieve the same things and provide me with a sense of pride, hope and peace of mind. To me, being cured would mean being free of my eating disorder, but in reality my recovery will never go away and in many ways that is much better and makes me appreciate just what I have. I cannot cut food out of my life cold turkey, but I can manage the situation now. And for me, that management came through honesty, openness and sharing.
My name is Andy. I am 35 and I have been affected by eating disorders since I was in my early teens. Anorexia and bulimia both plagued me for considerable periods of time, followed by many years of binge eating disorder. Bulimia had taken over my life for a while until I started to develop an intense fear of being sick – the only problem being that I couldn’t find a way to give up the bingeing, so the weight I had been so concerned about started to spiral out of control and my secret was no more.
As my weight increased, my confidence was vanishing and my self-esteem was at rock bottom. I took to the house, only leaving to get food and to go to work to earn the money to buy food. I made excuses not to go out. I have been asked why I called my book ‘Because I Was Fat’ – and the answer is quite simple. It is the real reason I wasn’t socialising and didn’t go to dinners, parties or anything that involved people. It wasn’t one of the poor excuses or elaborate lies I made up in a state of panic and anxiety; it was because I was fat.
During Christmas 2013, I realised I was throwing away a life that I was only going to get one chance at. But how could I break the habit of my lifetime? Secret binges and crash diets had been an integral part of my life. In some ways it had been a consistent source of support and would be like saying goodbye to a childhood friend. Was I strong enough to do that? I decided that I would treat my eating disorder and body image issues like a plaster: ripping it off in one go, which is where the honesty came in.
Sharing my secret was the hardest thing I have ever done. But I looked people in the eye and told them – ‘I want to change my life’, ‘I have an eating disorder, in fact I have a collection of them’ and ‘I want to stop and I want to be cured’. The pressure vanished instantly. I was able to focus my attention on losing weight in a healthy and safe way and starting a life long journey of ‘normalising’ my relationship with food.
Over the next 10 months, I had my moments of weakness and my ‘bad’ days, but I also had a feeling of hope. Losing weight was an added bonus and it changed my life to reach a sensible and stable weight. But it was the honesty that really changed the way I think and react to situations.
I could no longer make excuses not to go out; I had shared the truth and people knew what was really happening. I couldn’t vanish to the bathroom after I had eaten and I couldn’t eat in the isolation of my house – the support network I had enlisted wouldn’t let me. In turn, this gave me the strength not to want to. I started enjoying being out of the house again and being social. I started enjoying a meal with friends and sitting at the table afterwards rather than bending over the toilet, kidding myself that nobody knew what I was up to.
CBT had never worked for me and I had always been jealous of the friends who it worked for so brilliantly. I decided that counselling was a workable option – despite my promise to be honest, there is only so much that friends and family can hear.
I also decided that I wanted to have weight loss surgery. This is something quite controversial and got mixed reactions when I told people. I didn’t go into this blindly or expecting it to give me a miracle cure. I wasn’t scared of the surgery – I was scared of the reaction to it. I had already lost some weight on my own before the surgery, so people wondered why I even needed it, when I could just carry on doing it on my. People actually accused me of cheating and I could already imagine comments on certain websites accusing me of wasting NHS money. So I paid for it myself, which had the bonus of also spurring me on not to waste money I couldn’t really afford.
I wanted to address my issues and tackle the eating disorder in a sensible way, but the fact that I couldn’t walk more than a few metres without needing to rest and struggling to breathe didn’t give me the luxury of time. So a two-pronged attack on my physical and mental health problems was the best approach for me.
Three years have passed since I started my recovery and I have never been happier than I am now. There is an advent calendar on my desk and I have just eaten today’s chocolate, but didn’t carry on opening windows like there was no tomorrow. So why do I not believe I am ‘cured’?
Because I know that some days, the urge is still there. Nine times out of ten I can talk myself out of bingeing and emotional eating, I can rationalise and recognise the true feeling and not mask it with food or feel the need to bury what I am really thinking. And when I can’t? I don’t punish myself; it is all part of a learning curve that will last forever.
Over the last year I have been sharing my story as much as possible, and the feedback has been incredible. Living with an eating disorder can be a lonely experience and the isolation can be terrifying. Every Facebook message, tweet and email has reminded me just how alone and trapped people can feel and I have been lucky enough to become friends with many people who initially messaged me as a stranger looking for somebody else who understands. I have got to watch them embark on their own journey of recovery and self-acceptance.