Why we need to get angry at the diet industry.

My postgraduate research is focused on social media and dieting. I have looked at the history of dieting and the role of social media in reinforcing the ‘thin ideal’, and I am now beginning to look at how social media is used by people with or in recovery from an eating disorder and how social media is used for body image activism and education. For my final research project I will be looking at the impact of female fitness and dieting accounts on social media users.

There is a reason I am so passionate about this topic, and that reason is connected to having had anorexia nervosa, but it runs so much deeper than that. My experiences of anorexia as a teenager, developing into an adult, have seen me become very aware of the messages that the diet industry puts out there. I do not buy into any of it. Living with an eating disorder has made me less immune to the diet industry than the typical person is, of that I am sure.

What I have become most aware of goes beyond the impact that diet culture has on people with eating disorders, and my interest now is heavily on the impact of diet culture on everyone. Being surrounded by other people my age (and of all ages) has made me extremely aware of this; as someone in recovery from an eating disorder I often find myself questioning who is the one who has had the disorder. It often feels like the people around me are now more disordered than I am.

I am anti-dieting. Ridiculously anti-dieting. This does not mean I am against weight loss. It does not mean I am against healthy living, nor does it mean I am against exercise, weight lifting, or most other things. It does mean I heavily question standard approaches to weight loss, and how we are defining healthy. It does mean I am against diet pills, valuing ourselves based on our weight or shape, and denying ourselves pleasures in life.

The dieting industry is primarily a money making industry. I often remind myself of that. Those diet plans you pay for? Yep, they care about money above anything else. The message is that if you spend enough money, you can be perfect.

Diet culture has been built around the ‘thin ideal’ that tells us that in order to be happy and healthy we need to be thin; it leads us to judging our self-worth on how we look and what we weigh, and often it even leads us to judging other people in this way too. Weight gain is seen as being related to a lack of self-control and so we see ourselves and others as flawed when they gain weight, and yet often when people gain weight it is because they have learnt to let go of the strict rules and boundaries dieting places on our lives. Do not feel guilty for falling into this trap – sadly, I think we all are guilty at times, and this is because of the messages we receive.

The reality is that bodies come in all different shapes and sizes based on a multitude of factors beyond lifestyle choices; genetics, age, gender, race, physical health, mental health and hormones. Our size changes over time, and it is not something we can always control.

Health is so much more than a number on a scale, and happiness is never going to be found in pounds lost.

We need to learn how to trust ourselves and our bodies. We need to get angry. We need to get angry at a society that dictates how we should live our own lives. Angry that we are sent mixed messages. Angry that we feel bad for eating chocolate, and feel that we are better people for eating “clean”. We need to be angry that we can book a consultation with a plastic surgeon who will point out all of the surgery we need to look better like we are not enough as we are.  We need to be angry that our body dissatisfaction is now affecting the younger generations. We need to be angry that we are being pushed down a road into a way of living that can ruin the happiness of our children. We need to be angry that when we exercise we are thinking about how many calories we burnt rather than running like we did when we were young; for fun.

Health is important, but health does not equate to thinness. We need to be approaching our lifestyle in a way that is sustainable – and dieting is not. We need to be leading a lifestyle that is in balance, and that enables us to eat and exercise and enjoy ourselves.

I always remind myself that nobody is on their death bed thinking that they are glad they said no to dessert every now and then.

 

 

 

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The Reality of Anorexia Nervosa: There is no magic wand

Mark Austin has admitted to The Guardian that he told his daughter, who was suffering from Anorexia Nervosa, to “starve yourself to death.”

Undoubtedly it was not an easy thing to admit to, but the reality is that when you are a parent with a child who is quite literally starving themselves to death, you get desperate. I can recite the desperation of my parents when I was destroying myself. What do you do when your 15 year old daughter is laid up in bed, and has not eaten or drunk for the last week? We all say things in anger, but more than it being in anger, it is pure desperation to get a reaction, to change the situation. It is hoping that she will get up and eat.

The problem is, she won’t.

People close to me went to some shockingly desperate extremes that make me want to reach out to Mark Austin and say “it’s ok, really it is ok”. Some of the extremes people around me went to were not ok.

This admission from Mark is to make people see that eating disorders are a serious illness that cannot be ignored. People suffering with eating disorders are not selfish, they are not attention seeking, and neither are they vain. In order to help someone get better it is important, vital in fact, that we realise that this is a serious, life-threatening condition, that is going to require much more than anger, threats, or “just eat” comments to treat. It is a mental illness that requires treatment. It is a mental illness that carries the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric disorders, a fact, that even today still shocks and terrifies me.

There is no easy fix to an eating disorder. There was nothing my parents could do, not really. They could love me unconditionally, they could get me the help I needed, but this was something that was going to take a lot of time, and professional help.

At 15, I spent a year on a child and adolescent psychiatric ward being fed, some time of which was spent sectioned under the Mental Health Act because I could not see that I was ill. Life consisted of breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, tea, supper. I was fed all of the foods we are told not to eat. Doctors were forcing me to do the opposite of what most GP’s are telling their patients to do. Sponge and custard after lunch and tea, toast and cereal for breakfast. Insane amounts of milk (full fat of course!) and fruit juice. No exercise. Meals were followed by observations where we would have to sit in the lounge, watched by staff, being told off for so much as tapping our fingers. Bi-weekly weigh-ins where we were woken up, taken to the toilet where we would have to prove we had been, and were not water-loading, followed by the dreaded stepping on the scales.

It was a strange time of my life. I forgot the real world existed, I almost thought the real world was on pause, waiting for me. But it was not, and when I was finally discharged I had gained 37lbs which I lost in a matter of weeks.

I was not prepared for life outside of the hospital. It was a bleak time. I started giving up on the idea of ‘recovery’. I thought at best I would manage to survive.

Here we are, nearly a decade later. I underwent further treatment;  I had outpatient treatment in the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services  (CAMHS), plus outpatient and day patient treatment in the local adult Anorexia Nervosa Service including some time on a gastroenterology ward in a general hospital following a bad relapse…and here we are! (I make it sound simple, ta-dah! It was not.)

Am I 100% fully recovered? Nah. Am I surviving? Yes. But more to the point, I am doing more than that. My eating disorder does not have a devastating impact upon me anymore. I can go out for lunch, eat in front of people, have cake on my birthday and roll my eyes when people tell me how they no longer eat chocolate (more fool them!). Most importantly I have the energy to live my life. I will admit that my eating disorder still lingers there, constantly. I still do not get a day free of it, which is sad. Ten years of not a single anorexia free day. However, it is not loud any more. Yes it is always there, but it is floating in the background. I control it, it does not control me.

How did I get here? Time and professional help, plus support from the people around me.

This is not the sort of illness that can be easily fixed. There is no magic wand. There is no overnight transformation. It requires a lot of patience, specialist care and baby steps – but it is possible.

Mark Austin did not get it perfect. No parent gets it perfect. I do not read his account to The Guardian and feel shocked. I do not think anything negative of him, in fact I applaud him for speaking up. I know what it is like to go through this kind of illness. It is arguably harder for the family than the sufferer when the person is at the worst stage of being unwell, with no sign of wanting to get better in sight.

What is not acceptable is to have professionals that do not take it seriously, like the GP who met me aged 14 and said I would be fine after my exams, and who never saw me again because I was sectioned in hospital; this is what is not forgivable. It will not be “fine.” It is not a problem that will go away however hard you try to ignore it.

We need to be willing to face up to the reality of eating disorders, and the support that people need. Recovery is not easy or quick, but it is possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breakthrough! I don’t care!

I struggle immensely  with people not agreeing with me, or liking what I say. I have an intense need for approval.

I just bought the book “The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k: How to stop spending time you don’t have, doing things you don’t want to do with people you don’t like”. It is blunt. It is extreme. And even though I haven’t started it yet, I think it is a book I need to read.

Tonight someone commented on my Instagram, disagreeing with my opinion. Not only disagreeing with my opinion, but personally attacking me.

It was not even really my opinion, it was a screenshot of a blog I read and agreed with.

For the first time ever I did not care. I do not have the same opinions as this person. In fact, she is the perfect example of what I hate about the online eating disorder”recovery” community.

I do not believe that low body weight photographs are a helpful way to represent recovery from an eating disorder. She does.

She’s entitled to that opinion and I have never, and will never, personally attack her for holding that view. It is a shame she will personally attack me, but that is her problem. I’ve realised that her approach to our differing opinions is her issue, and not mine.

For the first time ever, I don’t really give a F**k! I am not going to get personal and I am not going to argue. I never have. But what is new is that it does not bother me!

 

 

Mental Illness Doesn’t Discriminate, So Why Do We?

I was at an appointment the other day. The staff were aware of my mental health problems, and they asked me what I do in my free time. I said at the moment I am working and at university. She looked shocked. She then said “unpaid work, though?” because obviously us crazy folk cannot hold down a paid job. I mean, what kind of fool would pay me to work?

It annoys me. Number one unpaid work is a brilliant thing to do for experience, and for giving something. Number two, why would you assume my job is unpaid?

I was then further annoyed when she said I needed to come back on Monday to see their consultant. I told her I had work, and couldn’t make it. She looked at me and said “well, you have to have see the consultant” and then booked me an appointment any way. I was stood there thinking ‘yup, please ignore me, my words mean nothing’.

I honestly do not think that if I was ten years older, and not in for something mental health related, she wouldn’t have ignored me. But hey, I am crazy so my job cannot be that important, right?!

We think that we have progressed with our attitudes towards mental illness, and my gut reaction is to say some progress has definitely been made. I mean, we do not lock everyone away in asylums anymore, people are not oblivious to mental illness, and people know what depression is. Mental health is talked about more. Being homosexual is no longer a sign of insanity, and we do not drill into peoples brains hoping it will ‘fix’ them like we did in 1935.

My research in my undergraduate degree proved that making a definitive conclusion is not that easy. Some things have improved, some things have not. Do you know what schizoaffective disorder is? What about obsessive compulsive personality disorder? Unless you have an interest in mental illness, or personal experience, probably not. Even spellcheck does not think ‘schizoaffective’ is a word.

While general attitudes have become better, I would argue it is something we are fine about as long as we do not have to come face-to-face with it, and for a lot of people mental illness is something that affects others, not themselves. Did you know that only 46.9% of disabled people are in employment? Which is a gap 33.1% higher compared to people without a disability. The disability employment gap is one of the most significant inequalities today.

In 2015 the Conservative Party stated that to half the gap they would need to change policies, practices and public attitudes.

Not all disabled people can work, fact. That is why there is no goal to get rid of the gap completely. But some can, and some want to. It is easy for people to respond to this huge gap by saying that disabled people do not want to work, that they want to live off benefits, and all of that other rubbish that realistically applies to a very small percentage of those with disabilities, and actually also to a larger number of people without

I do not personally have much of an issue with the term disability. I would agree that I do have a disability, and that it can be extremely disabling. But it can also be worked with if I am surrounded by people who are willing to be understanding, and to provide me the right environment to minimise the impact my disability has on my ability to work, and to succeed.

Starting my recent internship has made me aware of the difficulty I would definitely have to work full-time, while juggling my medical appointments. I can see why this could be unattractive for an employer, and even for me; even if I managed to find an employer who was happy for me to take time off work for appointments, it would mean that my disability would still be impacting my ability to work full-time, and receive full pay. But this is the thing. I would not think about that; that is something I have to live with, but being discriminated against, is not.

I would be overwhelmed by the amazing support of my workplace to enable me to work. I would arrange my appointments as best I could to avoid interruption. I would stay late at work if I could, or arrive early. I would give everything I could and more, and being able to have my necessary appointments would actually boost my productivity at work, compared to if I was having to delay them, hide them, or become stressed at managing them.

The thing is, people can discriminate against people with mental illness, but mental illness is never going to discriminate against you. You might have a negative attitude towards those with a mental health problem, but they are still going to come into your life. It is going to affect your colleagues, employees, friends or family, whether you like it or not. Whether you think it is something that happens in your life or not.

More scarily perhaps, is that one day it might be you. You could be the top dog in a major company who does not take particularly take an interest in disability in the workplace. You might be a bit irritated that your PA, Janice, has to take two hours off on a Wednesday afternoon because she has a one hour appointment with her community psychiatric nurse, plus has to travel to and from the clinic. You will forget Janice stayed at work for an extra hour on three days last week. You will forget Janice doesn’t take lunch breaks, and always emails back at weekends. You will forget that since Janice started her role, she has made your day-to-day life easier, and taken on many extra roles that you never expected her to take.

You will be reluctant to hire the best applicant for your new events manager because she disclosed that she has physical health problems that will mean she has to take some time off work once per month to travel to a hospital out of the local area. You will think that you need someone who does not have these needs, and that they are not suitable for your company, just like the principal that once said to my support worker that students with severe mental health problems are not going to achieve A-Levels, so why support them in trying to do so?

And then fast forward, it is 2027. You have been getting very stressed at work. Janice left, and her replacement is struggling. Your wife has been working away a lot, your kids have left home, and it is like you never see neither them or your wife any more; she admitted a few months back that she is not happy in your marriage. Your mother has Alzheimer’s (which is a mental illness too, but for some reason that doesn’t count) and she is deteriorating. Last time you saw her she did not know who you were. You have begun thinking a lot about your childhood growing up, and how she used to be. You keep remembering things you had forgotten; maybe your childhood was not as rosy as you had convinced yourself. You remember your father being very violent to your mother, and having to witness that. Bit by bit it is coming back to you, like a tap that no matter how hard you tighten it, it just will not stop dripping.

You feel low. You know you do. You say low, because you do not want to say depressed. Men do not get depressed, not strong men like you. Not top of the company men. Not men who earn £100, 00o per annum. Not men who are well educated, and whose parents were too. You tell yourself you will ‘snap out of it’ soon. Maybe you just need to work harder. Only weak people take a step back, take a break. But it is getting worse, and you end up going to see your GP. I mean, he will just say you are fine.

Well, apparently not. Apparently you have signs of depression, but mental illness is not something you will ever experience, right? He must be wrong.

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#TimetoTalk 2017

It is #TimetoTalk day tomorrow.

‘Time to Talk’ day is held by the mental health movement ‘Time to Change‘, which aims to change how people think and act about mental health to reduce isolation, and feelings of shame or worthlessness.

‘Time to Talk’ day tackles the difficulty of being able to be open about mental health problems by supporting people to be able to take the time to talk and listen.

For someone with a mental health problem talking can be a complicated issue. There is wanting to be open and honest Vs the fears of being judged and treated differently. There is wanting to share your struggles and experiences Vs wanting to maintain privacy. There is wanting to raise awareness and reduce stigma Vs not knowing what, nor how much, to say.

Talking is important. Being able to talk if you want to is particularly important; but I have to highlight that it is OK for you to choose how you approach this. Some people are private, some people are open, and many are somewhere in-between. There is no right or wrong way to talk about mental illness. We all share different things with different people; some people find strangers easier to talk to, some people prefer to talk to a select few. Some people talk online to raise awareness, but do not talk about it in their day-to-day lives.

Talking to raise awareness is incredibly important, but this does not mean you have to talk about anything you do not want to. The point of this campaign is to help people, not pressure them. You might just want to raise general awareness, rather than divulge personal information. Finding how you want to use your experiences and voice is a journey that takes time.

The reality is though, that despite amazing improvements in public understanding of mental illness, there remains stigma attached to having a mental disorder. There can still be feelings of shame attached to struggling with something that is both extremely common, and also not the your fault.

The biggest thing we need everyone to understand is that nobody is immune from mental health problems. The chances of you knowing a friend, family member, or colleague with a mental health problem is high. One in four people will experience a mental health problem in any given year. Not having a mental health problem right now does not make you immune. Having a great career, great family, good income, or anything else does not make you immune neither. Just become someone “looks fine” does not mean they do not have a mental health problem.

Mental illness does not discriminate; it can affect everyone. 

Sadly it often takes personal experiences to fully understand the impact and reality of life with a mental illness. It often takes having, or knowing someone with a mental illness, to make people take an interest – but mental illness should be something on everyone’s agenda.

“The way you act towards someone with a mental illness can change their life: by opening up to mental health you can make a real difference. ”

Time to Change

Mental illness is a disability, but with the right treatment, understanding, empathy and adjustments, it does not have to be disabling.

For ideas on how to get  involved with #TimetoTalk visit the website here.

If you have not yet signed the ‘Time to Change’ pledge and joined the 96675 other peopple who have, do so now!

 

 

 

 

 

It’s update time again!

I started my six week internship on Monday. I was meant to start two weeks ago, but unfortunately ended up in hospital twice.

I had no belief in myself that I could work. I thought that there was no way I am confident enough…no way I was going to get myself there. The two hospital admissions served as further evidence of this. Fast forward to Monday 8:20am, leaving the house to get there…and it hit me…the “normal” worries. Can I do the work? What if I can’t? What if I make them regret taking interns from my university? I had been so worried about not being able to even get myself there, that I had somehow forgotten about the more important worries.

Well, it has been fabulous. I am fortunate that both my university, and the place I am working for, have been very accommodating, and although they do not know it, have helped me stop myself from self-sabotaging.

I am working for a charity, as a Campaigns and Communications Officer, working primarily on one campaign. Everything is good. The routine and structure is good for me. The people I work with are lovely, the charity itself is amazing. When I applied for this intern scheme, I never expected to be so lucky to get the perfect match; not only am I doing a role I would love to do in the future as a career, but I am also working for the kind of place I would love to work for.

My work is especially geared around social media – scheduling posts and analytics. As well as drafting emails, promoting our campaign strategies etc.

My normal life is quite unstructured, especially as I do my own research at university, and therefore have minimal contact time. My sleep routine is less than healthy, and my iron levels dropped in December to borderline transfusion level. I felt like the odds of coping with working were against me. And yet the hours go SO quickly. I would work here part-time for free, without a doubt. I am so interested in what I am doing, I find myself researching and keeping an eye on one of our campaign strategies as soon as I get home. Heck, I check one right before I go to sleep!

The hardest part has to be managing my medical appointments. At the moment I have no contact with mental health services, other than the crisis team which is due to end tomorrow (and they can see me late evenings, so outside of office hours), but I am seeing two outpatient clinics for physical health problems plus another service. I feel like I live in hospital at the moment. I was at the hospital yesterday, and the day before, and two days before that. I finished work just after 5pm today, and went straight to the hospital. Tomorrow I am back at the hospital again for an X-Ray and then for a fracture clinic appointment. Then I am seeing my support worker at university, followed by the crisis team. I want to fit the gym in somewhere, but I am not sure where!

I am kind of relieved that my referral to CMHT is being messed about with. Every week I am told this is the week I will hear from them, and every week I don’t. I’m not sure I have the time for them right now, nor do I particularly want to engage in mental health services anymore. I was discharged from the two services I was under in November and December. The November one was due to being classed as “too high risk” for what they offer, and the December one was because the person I saw retired, and I no longer required help for that aspect of my problems – it was the Anorexia Nervosa service from where I am originally from, and I am doing well in that respect. I must admit it is nice not to travel back home every week! I’m finding I prefer not being under anyone at the moment. It’s a nice break from 10 years of mental health services. Whether it’s a good thing, or a bad thing, is debatable.

The service I was discharged from in November want me to consider returning there in a years time, when I am more stable. But it’s a three day per week day programme, for one year. Plus a prep group before you do that for a maximum of 6 months, and an after group as well, for six months. As a member of the main programme you are also expected to run the prep group in blocks, increasing it to four days per week at times.

I’d rather not go back to a place that made me feel the way it did, with people I would honestly rather never see again in my life. I’d rather do my PhD full time without juggling therapy, or get a full time job in the field I am passionate about.

Right now, I am focusing on managing this internship and my medical appointments, and I need to make sure I get on top of my MA work. I will re-assess after the internship.

For now, I’m going to focus on the fact that I am doing this, and that I am more capable than I realise. I don’t know how many positive experiences it is going to take for me to learn this!