I dislike National Eating Disorder Awareness Week because I feel that it is not really about raising awareness at all. Every year this week is flooded with photographs of sufferers at severely low weights. While intentions may be good, on the whole this can be very triggering, and only contributes to the public’s misunderstanding that eating disorders are solely about weight. People are trying to change how eating disorders are perceived and shout “it is not about weight” yet post photographs of themselves emaciated in order to tell their story. These photographs resemble images you would find if you Googled ‘pro-ana’ (I do not advise you do) and it is not acceptable. Furthermore, journalists who are adamant about using such images and including intimate details about a person’s eating are simply irresponsible.
The less visible an eating disorder is, the less seriously it appears to be taken, which is something that can be particularly problematic for sufferers who never reach an incredibly low weight, for example, those diagnosed with Bulimia, BED (Binge Eating Disorder) or OSFED (Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder). I had (have?) a diagnosis of Anorexia Nervosa, and although I have now reached a healthy weight, I still struggle with disordered thoughts and behaviours. A healthy weight does not mean a person is not suffering, and having an eating disorder does not automatically mean being significantly underweight.
I was diagnosed in 2008, and hospitalised for a year on a psychiatric unit. I relapsed in 2011 and had a brief medical admission for re-feeding as it was not something I was able to do at home, and I have been fighting ever since. It has been a long journey, and gaining the weight has been difficult. It still is difficult. I did not just have to deal with gaining weight, I also had to come face-to-face with all of the thoughts and feelings I had been avoiding. I know I am not overweight, but being heavier than I once was feels strange and it is hard to get used to. That being said, I would not go back for the world.
When I try to recall my worst times it is hard to remember much. But I do remember being violent towards my family, climbing upstairs to bed on my hands and feet because I could not physically walk (how glamorous?!) and crying my eyes out in the bath because clumps of hair began falling out. I do remember passing out down a flight of stairs and not brushing my teeth because I was terrified of the calories in toothpaste. I do remember having an emergency meeting with my mental health team because I had eaten one measly grape which lead to suicidal thoughts of a serious nature. I can laugh at it now, but at the time it was not funny at all.
Nothing in the world mattered to me other than my eating disorder. Not specifically losing weight, but wanting to show that I could cope without people, water, and food… anything that we all need to survive. It was never about wanting to lose weight to look different or to be ‘thin’. For some it is, at least to an extent, but for me it was not at all. I do not remember planning to lose weight. Over time little changes happened, and eventually I found myself eating very little, or some weeks, nothing. It was my coping mechanism, and I guess it worked for a while. I wanted to run away from all of the things that had happened in my life, and that were happening.
When things are tough, my reaction is to self-destruct, not to take care of myself, and when you don’t have any respect or love for yourself, it makes living very hard, and accepting love almost impossible. Starving myself was not about being thin. I did not want to look like a model or a celebrity. I did not even think I was fat until I was dangerously underweight. The more weight I lost, the bigger I felt. The only time I really had an issue with my weight, was when I was at my lowest weight. I feel happier with my body now than I did back then. I would almost say I feel ‘thinner’ now I am bigger. It makes no sense.
Prior to my eating disorder I suffered with depression, and like we talk about people self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, I guess starvation was my self-medication. When you are starving yourself you lose contact with the world. Everything feels distant and unreal. Your brain thinks about nothing other than food, and although that is hell because food is the one thing you will not allow yourself, it can feel a lot better than thinking about the things that are affecting you.
With eating disorders, people want to know what happened, they want the details of how much weight you lost. They want photographs. They want to know all about your illness, but not what happened to you before it. I want to try and tell you my story in the hope that it encourages others to share theirs in a similar way. I was depressed. I walked around school under a grey cloud. I struggled to socialise and would walk out of classes when things got too much, took frequent overdoses and began self-harming. I was existing, but I was not living.
I thought I had always been the annoying one, too loud, too much. I wanted to be less. I wanted to be the quiet one and if there is one thing my eating disorder did, it is silence me. I was no longer the Natalie that bounced around the place laughing and having fun. I no longer talked non-stop, which always drove my family up the wall. Suddenly I was quiet. I was still. I was less, and less was what I wanted. For me personally, this never was, and still is not about weight, and I will say this until I am blue in the face. It was about making myself numb. It was about having something else consume me, before my depression did. In many ways it was about survival, that is, until it nearly killed me itself.
Images of emaciated people are not helpful and do not represent the spectrum of those who suffer with eating disorders. What people need to know is that eating disorders are a mental illness, and a mental illness has causes, and these causes are never as simple as solely being down to the media, or just wanting to be thin. Stop reading about how low someone’s weight was, stop buying into the way the media tries to draw readers in with shocking stories of weight loss and photographs to match. Start asking why this happens without jumping to conclusions that this is just about appearance. My eating disorder was self-destruction, it was a way of hurting myself. It was a way of pushing away horrible memories and feelings. A way of coping with trauma. What I looked like when I was physically unwell does not show anything close to the pain I was suffering inside.
It is time to start understanding that people who develop symptoms of a mental illness have gone through a journey that started a long time before those first signs display themselves, often years before. The deep-rooted causes are much more important than stories about hospitalisations, and photographs of emaciated bodies. We need insight into why these disorders occur in order to begin to find ways to change societies understanding of them, to pick eating disorders up earlier, and to treat them as soon as possible. These stories can offer insight that could help a member of the public notice if someone close to them is showing signs of an eating disorder and this is why we need to raise awareness. We need to work together to stop eating disorders from stealing people’s happiness, and often lives. That is the reality.