Disclaimer: although a part of my story is that I was pushed away from ED support and managed to recover alone, I definitely encourage anyone struggling with an eating disorder to reach out to Beat and to their GP. Even if you have a similar experience to me with seeking help, you can always push for support. The Beat helpline are really helpful for when it all feels impossible.
Like many, I had struggled with my body for a long time. For me, weight-based teasing began as young as 5 in primary school, which escalated into some nasty bullying during my time in secondary school, up until sixth form.
By my mid-late teens I had a very messy relationship with my body and I was constantly obsessing over my weight and food, and although I’m still not sure if it had quite spiralled at that stage it certainly caused a lot of struggle.
It did, however, escalate during Summer 2021, just after I’d turned 22. I would feel genuine pain and anxiety seeing my reflection in shop windows, which made me want to restrict my diet. I had some days where I acted on this urge. This soon became all-consuming.
I also have co-existing diagnosed depression and anxiety, which worsened in my early 20s. During the Autumn, I went to an even darker place with my mental illnesses.
This was when I began a vicious cycle. My world just became so small: I felt completely alone, like I could never be happy or hopeful again. I was still struggling with my body, and everything began to revolve around purging. This made me feel even more isolated and alone, because I didn’t feel like anyone could truly understand what was happening - and because I am a bigger person, I wondered how much that would factor into people’s reactions and perpetuate further misunderstandings around my eating disorder, so I barely told anyone.
I didn’t think I’d even be able to go to a doctor due to my BMI and didn’t even really think I had an eating disorder myself because my case didn’t fit into the stereotype. The behaviours had also only just begun, although the iron grip was on me immediately. I reached out to the Beat helpline anyway and was encouraged to seek a referral to an eating disorder specialist from my doctor - it was explained to me that I would be entitled to push for a referral and specialist assessment, and that the GP should not make the judgement based on my weight. Despite this, I was still very apprehensive about seeing the GP, especially after I found out I needed to be weighed in my initial assessment.
My assessment was scheduled for the start of January 2022, so I was still in a very dark place until then. Unfortunately, I was partially correct in my fears about going to the GP - my doctor started discussing weight loss with me at the start of the appointment, despite the fact I was there for an ED referral. began to wonder if she even knew why I was there! She also seemed more concerned about whether I was binge eating than the fact I was restricting and I was regularly purging multiple times a week. She still referred me to the local service, because I’d ended up in A&E twice in the last months of 2021. I felt horrendous after her comments in our appointment and felt like they truly added insult to injury as far as my ED was concerned.
At the end of the month I received a letter from the local service I had been referred to, stating that they don’t actually cover my area. They also used slightly discriminatory and patronising phrasing, suggesting “everyone, irrespective of their current presentation” should have a better relationship with food, which also added insult to injury. I felt so othered. Although it may sound minor and subtle, I filed a complaint about the phrasing a couple of months later and received a response saying they’d recognised their wording was outdated and they were changing their template.
With the letter I found myself at a crossroads - I was angry at how I’d been treated by both the clinic and my doctor, and a part of me wanted to completely succumb to my ED as a response to this. I felt lost and hopeless and like nobody fully understood or believed me. At the same time, I could use that anger to fight back against both how I’d been treated and my ED - I had to make the decision. I decided, “Right, I have to do this on my own then. I have to sort this out somehow.”
A lot of it is hard to remember now, because a key part of my recovery has actually been to distance myself from it, so that it wasn’t as consuming. It was also generally such a dark time for me that I think I have intentionally forgotten a lot of it.
I began attempting to eat 3 meals a day and tried hard to reduce my purging as much as possible. I allowed myself to eat whenever I was hungry - which happened a lot at first and was possibly the most terrifying part of my recovery, as there was no outside support to guide me. I wasn’t recovering from being underweight, so the ropes weren’t there for me. Now, I recognise I’d also been under-nourishing my body and obviously putting it through the trauma of regular purging, so naturally my body needed to recover from that even if it wasn’t as physically obvious I’d been ill in the first place! Now I’ve pushed through it, my body trusts me more and my hunger has regulated.
I was still having lapses with purging but it was much less frequent. The final time it happened was unfortunately triggered by me attending the belated celebration ceremony for my 2020 graduation, which caused me a great deal of anxiety. At that point, I felt very frustrated that my eating disorder had reared its head again and tarnished that memory for me!
Alongside confronting the behaviours themselves, I also worked on healing my body image. I let go of the battle I’d been having with my body for years and learnt to accept my body and that I deserve to live my life without fighting with myself and my reflection all the time. I now also accept that people may have their own ideas about my body, but what really matters is that I look after myself. The people who matter won’t be making judgements based on how my body looks to them.
Although I had no professional support for my eating disorder, I began going to counselling for my mental health more generally with the intention of tackling my depression and anxiety, which definitely had contributed. In the initial assessment I mentioned what had been happening, and my counsellor was very shocked that I’d managed to choose recovery and break the cycle on my own. I think the progression I made in that probably contributed to me sticking to recovery and essentially being better now, although it is still a very recent and significant dark time in my life and I’m still learning to live with what I went through.
In spite of everything, I began this recovery journey at the end of January, and it is now the end of September. Nine months later, I’d say I’m pretty much recovered - I have more energy, I’m eating regularly and not self-sabotaging when I do, and I’m way more comfortable in my own skin. I’m still dealing with my anxiety and depression but I don’t see my eating disorder as a coping mechanism for the darker days of that anymore.
One thing I want anyone who has come across this article to know is it is definitely possible to recover, and that the life on the other side of your eating disorder is worth living - and you absolutely deserve to get there.
-Contributed by Heather
If you've been affected by any of the issues raised in Heather's story, or are concerned for yourself or a loved one, you can find support and guidance on the help pages of our website.