This first week of March is Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Eating Disorders can be about feeling out of control, unwanted emotions, traits such as self-doubt or perfectionism, traumatic events, family strains, problems at school, lack of human connection and more... all things that have increased in this last year and with the added strain on the NHS, people aren't asking for help.
I have a personal attachment to eating disorder awareness as I suffered from anorexia when I was 14 years old and then bulimia from the age of 17. I am often asked how I recovered so I thought I’d try and answer this, from the points of view of the person suffering as well as the person who may want to help.
Being 14 years old is tough, and I didn’t even have social media to contend with. I experienced abuse as well as being in the midst of family problems. I had very little self-esteem, I felt out of control, missing human connection, a perfect recipe for mental health issues. I was depressed and put on Prozac very young (I remember taking it on a school PGL trip then hearing the word “Prozac” in Blur song lyrics years later!). I started controlling my food, being obsessed with losing weight and hating my body.
At first I simply stopped eating any foods with any fat in them, none. (I still pick the nuts out my cereal and don’t like butter, due to negative association). I hid food, fed it to my dog under the table and lied about what I was eating at school – which was barely anything. I became emaciated and lost my periods for a year. I was taken to doctors, therapies and weigh-ins, but I can mainly remember being bribed and manipulated into putting on weight; that was the goal. I was passionate about animals and my dream was to go on an orangutan conservation project in Borneo. I was told that wouldn’t happen unless I was a certain weight, so my anorexia turned into a type of bulimia. It meant I seemed to be a healthy weight but my relationship with food was just as messed up. I was obsessed with my eating, over-exercised, went through constant cycles of bingeing and starving, hated all social occasions involving food and went through all sorts of emotional roller-coasters.
I got to Borneo so in a way I had succeeded at something. But my emotional side hadn’t been dealt with and I returned home to the same stress stemming from my mum. I went to university which is an overwhelming place to navigate especially when you’re unsure of yourself and your own values. I didn’t drink in my first year - due to the calories in alcohol, not wanting to feel out of control or taken advantage of, and the fear of eating after a night out. I did then drink in my second year and promptly lost control of my eating and got admitted to hospital for self-harming along with the eating disorder. This time I was treated for addiction, which focused more on the emotions behind the behaviours. I was in group therapy amongst people with eating disorders, alcoholism, gambling problems, exercise obsession, drug addiction and co-dependency. It opened my eyes and made a huge difference as I related to all these people. I listened and learned, but looking back now I only touched the surface of my issues.
My recovery continued for years after university. Having children changed me massively – my priorities, values and goals. Training as an NLP and emotional coach then brought me to meet some incredible people, who I talked more openly about my childhood trauma with.
I strongly believe that if someone with an eating disorder gets the support they want and need, recovery can be a lot easier and quicker than my story. If any of this is sounding familiar or you know someone who is struggling, what can you do?
My Four L's:
Research and read up about eating disorders. There are many different types you may not have heard of e.g. binge eating disorder. All of them are commonly misunderstood and each person may have a slight variation on the signs and symptoms. If you learn and understand more, it’s easier to help in the right way.
Listen and Be There
Everyone is unique and may need different types of help, but I’d say the best start is to be there for them. Let them know you’re there for when they’re ready to talk. And if they do want to open up, it’s vital to actively listen. This means letting them speak, without interrupting, judgement or giving advice when it’s not asked for. Give them the space and unconditional love they need.
Look Out For Emotions
Eating disorders are never without emotional issues. It’s so important to focus on the person’s feelings rather than their behaviours around food. Abnormal or disrupted eating patterns are outward symptoms of deeper emotional issues. Be aware that there could be all sorts of feelings the person is experiencing that are hard to express or admit to, such as resentment, shame, guilt, anger.
Leave the Behaviour
Personally, I would say to avoid talking about food unless the person brings it up. If they’re on a food plan and agreed to you being part of that, then great. Otherwise, try not to constantly check what they eat. Asking what they’ve had, how much and when, will feel like prying and may well lead to lying or secretive behaviour. I totally understand being concerned and aiming to get them to a healthy weight, and depending on the severity, getting a person to a certain weight may be the priority. However, doing the monitoring without the emotions can cause more problems.
In all these steps, you need to be patient, understanding, respectful and supportive. Be there as someone they can rely on if they feel alone or misunderstood. You can encourage the person to express how they're feeling and ask for help. Listening to any worries, thoughts or feelings they have can be appreciated and reassuring. You may be able to help by distracting them with fun things to do, finding new hobbies or activities. New things can take their mind off eating and food but also make them feel better, releasing feel good hormones such as with dancing, walking in nature, listening to music, creating art etc.
If they do want help with the food side, you can help take some stress away from day to day life, e.g. with their eating plan, cooking and shopping so they don't have to think about it. You can also help to find support groups, a therapist or see their GP if the person is ready for this step.
If you are close to a person with an eating disorder and it’s affecting you, I’d recommend reaching out for help for you too. It’s really difficult to see someone you love suffering and you may feel helpless, angry and deeply sad. Talking about this with someone can help cope with any anxiety, overwhelm and stress you may be having, and will mean you’re stronger in yourself.
You’ll feel protective and want to do all you can to get them better, but this can backfire if you “go too far” in their eyes. If your loved one feels smothered or forced into a corner, they may become withdrawn and resent you.
Charities such as “Beat Eating Disorders” are a great source of information, as well as contacting someone for help. I have worked with teenagers suffering from eating disorders so feel free to get in touch if you feel an emotional coach would be helpful. The coaching I do aims to enlighten, encourage and empower. It’s about asking the right questions, listening to what’s being said, as well as what’s not being said. It’s encouraging the person to find their own solutions, using techniques that empower them to find their own unique path to recovery.