Five big misconceptions about eating disorders

“Eating disorders are just about vanity.”

“If you have an eating disorder you just want to be thin.”

“Eating disorders are a way of getting control.”

Recognise any of these? Heard them before?

I’ve lived with an eating disorder for over ten years now and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard or read comments about my condition which are simply untrue.

I don’t blame the people who made them; it can be hard enough understanding such complex disorders when you have one yourself, let alone when you don’t. But it strikes me that many people without lived experience of ED’s simply don’t see the full picture.

Whilst everyone has their own individual opinions or pre-conceived ideas of what eating disorders are, the following are just a few I’ve heard that I’d like to try and correct…

“People with eating disorders hate food”

One of the most common misconceptions about people with ED’s is that we all hate food and having to eat it – but this is really not the case.

I’m not doubting that at times we’ve all believed our lives would be easier if food didn’t exist, but it’s not true that we hate food. If anything, it’s our enjoyment of food, and the feeling of deprivation this brings, that gives us our biggest challenge yet hugest high.

If we truly hated food it wouldn’t mean anything to us to control our intake in one way or another and we would all be using a different coping strategy to deal with our emotions. We use food to manage the difficulties in our lives and as an attempt to feel safe and more able to cope – not because we hate it.

“People with eating disorders just want to be thin”

Absolutely not. Very few sufferers set out to be thin or look unwell, it’s an unfortunate by-product of the disorder.

Quite often, something has taken place in our lives that we struggle to deal with so we use our food consumption, and sometimes exercise levels, to manage our fears, anxieties and emotions. It’s almost like a crutch or a comfort blanket to turn to whilst life is rocky and uncertain and can also be a great distraction.

Whilst it’s not the intention, it can be impossible to avoid looking different in one way or another at this time. If you feel the need to restrict your food intake or eat excessively, it will begin to alter the way you look. We don’t necessarily want to impact our appearance – it’s just unavoidable when carrying out these behaviours.

That’s certainly not to say we don’t find it incredibly hard to see the scales change or watch our bodies fluctuate but it’s not the case that eating disorders are all about looking thin.

“People with eating disorders are just doing it for attention”

More often than not, the opposite is true. A person may be struggling with the attention they are receiving or a difficult situation they might find themselves in and cling to disordered behaviour to manage the anxiety that this brings.

Many people with ED’s report wanting to ‘disappear’ and hide themselves away, feeling inferior to others or like they don’t want to be seen. Confidence is usually very low at this time and it’s common for sufferers to become introverted and struggle to socialise.

I know when my difficulties have been at their peak, I’ve found it easier to push people away for fear of causing upset, disappointment or conflict. It can be a very lonely and isolating condition.

So it really isn’t right to believe that those of us with eating disorders are doing it to get the attention of others because it’s actually one of the most secretive and private mental health problems you can have.

“People with eating disorders are either underweight or overweight”

One of the biggest difficulties with eating disorders is that so often if you can’t see the problem you assume it isn’t there.

Although it can be incredibly hard to identify what exactly a ‘normal’ body looks like, many believe that unless you look too thin or too large, you can’t possibly have a problem with food. Or at least not a very serious one.

Sadly many of us struggle to get the support we so desperately need because our difficulties don’t sufficiently affect our weight or BMI.

Just because you can’t see a problem it doesn’t mean it’s not there so please listen to what we say and try to understand. The mental struggle can be unbearable without it affecting our appearance too drastically but that certainly doesn’t mean we’re not suffering.

“People with eating disorders can just snap out of it”

When my eating disorder first took hold, I genuinely believed that I had the power to stop it whenever I wanted.

I thought I was in the driving seat and completely in control of my food intake and exercise levels. How wrong I was.

I spent over a year months becoming deeply engrained in my strict and ritualistic behaviours, centering each day around food restriction and achieving physical activity goals. It became a way of life that proved impossible to stop and almost two years on I still battle the urges everyday, going a few steps forward and then a few back.

It’s a very slow process and one of the hardest challenges of my life. I wish more than anything that I could snap out of it and just eat normally without the constant dialogue in my head making me feel guilty.

I have hope I will get there, and I’m accessing support which is slowly altering my mindset. However it’s certainly not something I nor anyone I know have found easy to put an end to or felt able to snap out of.

Education is the key to helping so many people feel more understood and hopefully this blog will help those caring for someone with an eating difficulty to think about it differently.

G x

Five great things about support groups

“I think a support group could help me but I’m too scared to go” thought I, in the run up to attending my first ever group for support with my eating disorder.

Some friends had told me about this brilliant local charity that helps those with disordered eating so I researched them online and, whilst they looked like exactly what I needed, I still had doubts.

“Will they understand what’s happening to me?”

“Is my problem severe enough for me to go?”

“Will it be like Alcoholics Anonymous?!”

Yes, I genuinely did think that last one! But I needn’t have worried – it was all I could have hoped for and more and remains one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

As soon as I walked through those magic doors, I felt instantly welcomed and included. I had never been in the company of so many people who not only understand my difficulties with food, but who have actually experienced them first-hand. It was like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

Five years on and emerging from Covid restrictions, our face to face groups are gradually returning which is so good to see and incredibly reassuring. Some are still taking place virtually which is helpful as it makes for a good mix and something to please everyone.

Here are my top five reasons to give group support a try if you think you or a loved one could benefit…

The staff

Each group I have attended was run by a member of staff who has first-hand experience of eating disorders or caring for somebody with one. Their expertise shines through all they do and they are the best people to listen, understand and advise those in the group. Peer support is incredibly key and visible in this environment and it really helps us to feel less alone.

The topics

Each group topic is selected by staff, volunteers or service users themselves and is a relevant, important factor in the eating disorder recovery journey. They focus on goal setting, identity, emotions and relationships amongst other subjects and really help us to understand our situation more deeply. We also do fun activities like crafts and quizzes and occasionally go out to nearby parks and events.

The people

Not only are the staff great empathisers but the other attendees in the group are some of the most understanding and supportive people I have ever met too. We all listen to each other without judgement and offer tips and advice from our experiences. I’ve learnt so much from the people I have met at the support groups and best of all, made friends for life.

The positivity

You would be forgiven for assuming that an eating disorder support group could be a pretty dismal place but that could not be further from the truth. The staff ensure the mood is light and whilst each topic is delivered sensitively, they appreciate we all need some light relief from our difficulties sometimes. We always leave on a positive note, feeling motivated to try something new and really glad that we came.

The feedback

Most organisations run regular feedback sessions to make sure the support groups are in line with the service users’ needs and requirements. These can take place in the groups themselves and evaluate everything from the topics covered, the timings, the delivery and format of the groups. The staff leave the room to allow everyone the opportunity to discuss freely and without hesitation, ensuring the true feelings of the service users are aired and acted upon.

It’s completely understandable to feel daunted but I would urge anybody struggling to consider group support as an option for recovery. It may be the most reassuring, heart-warming and inclusive thing you ever do.

G x

Keeping motivated in recovery

They say patience is a virtue and you certainly need it in spades during eating disorder recovery. 

I recently attended a workshop where the facilitator announced that the average recovery time for an individual with an eating disorder is seven years, making them one of the longest lasting mental health conditions. 

It’s common for us to suffer both physical and mental hardship, with the challenging symptoms and effects needing a great deal of time and commitment to improve. 

When someone experiences a restrictive disorder, there’s a high chance they will need to spend months weight restoring before they are healthy enough to engage in a structured recovery programme. Lapses and relapses can also sometimes occur, meaning the sufferer goes through a setback and must spend time rebuilding to get back to where they were before. 

It can be a cyclical process that demands endurance, resilience and bucketsful of love and support from those around us. 

Of course, each set of circumstances is unique and not everybody will spend that amount of time in treatment, but how can we keep positive through the ups and downs? How can we stay on the right track if our brains are screaming at us to revert? What are the most effective ways to remain motivated during recovery?

Remember the reasons you started 

It can be really helpful to make a list of reasons to recover and use it as a reference point when you feel like pulling back.

You can include the negative impact your eating disorder has on your physical health, the space it commandeers in your head and everything that it prevents you from doing. It might also help you to write down what you would like to do once you have progressed on your recovery journey and the things you can enjoy more if you weren’t being restrained by your condition.

Surround yourself with positivity

It can be hard to stay motivated when there are negative people and influences around you. These can be friends and family members, colleagues and online channels.

Whilst it’s very difficult to distance yourself from people, you can choose which profiles to follow on social media and who you engage with digitally more easily and ensure your down-time is not spent being drained by unnecessary comparisons and feelings of inadequacy. If your networks aren’t uplifting and inspiring you, it might time to seek some healthier ones.

Incentivise yourself

It can really help to have an incentive or something to reward your progress with if you start to feel directionless. Whether it’s material like a new item of clothing or gadget, or an experience such as a holiday it can really boost your morale and keep you on the right track. 

You may also benefit from planning to undertake a new qualification or make a lifestyle change like a different career path once your health improves. Whatever feels exciting and motivating, try and factor it into your recovery goals. 

Keep talking 

If you’re finding it all too much or dipping in motivation then it’s key that you confide in someone you trust.

Whether it’s a friend or family member, colleague or medical professional, they can support you to stay on track and remind you of the benefits of recovery. Talking can take the power away from the temptation to revert and this could in turn help to prevent a relapse. 

Self-care 

It’s a massive change that you’re undertaking, trying to improve difficult thoughts and behaviours that have become engrained over the years, so it’s important to look after yourself.

Try to factor 20 minutes into each day to do something for yourself that you will enjoy. It could be a gentle walk outdoors, colouring or crafts, reading, listening to music or a podcast, or taking a warm bath. If it resets your mind and makes you feel calm then that’s going to really help you when it all gets too much. 

Hopefully you can take something away from this blog and use it on your recovery journey.

Remember – resilience is key, setbacks are temporary, and a better life awaits you on the other side.

G x

Happy Volunteers Week!

Without a doubt, First Steps ED has played a huge role in my journey to recovery. 

From attending my first support group five years ago to today, I have so much to thank them for and can’t imagine where my path would have led without their help. 

I’m not quite where I need to be yet, but I’ve come a long way and First Steps has changed my perspective for the better whilst showing immense compassion. 

I owe them such a lot.

It’s this unwavering patience and constant support that inspires me to give something back. It’s hard to thank an organisation that have helped you turn your life around and at times nothing I could think of seemed enough. 

What I do know though, is that First Steps really values their volunteers and the contribution that they make, so giving my time to support such a worthy cause feels like a fitting way to say ‘thank you’. 

It’s not only them that benefits, volunteering has a hugely positive impact on me too in various ways…

It’s so rewarding 

I’ve had several jobs over the years but none have been as fulfilling and rewarding as the voluntary work I’ve done for First Steps. It makes me feel a sense of pride that I’ve spent my time improving peoples’ lives or educating them about eating disorders and the associated mental health difficulties. Not many of my paid roles have offered this same level of satisfaction and left me feeling like I’ve made a difference. 

I’ve made lifelong friends

My voluntary work has brought me into contact with so many fantastic, likeminded people, many of whom I now consider my closest friends. Most of First Steps’ volunteers have lived experience of an eating disorder or caring for somebody with one meaning we share a strong common bond that’s quite unique. I’ve enjoyed countless coffee dates, nights out and even a baby shower and wedding with my fellow volunteers and feel confident that we’ll all be friends for a very long time. 

I can do something I’m passionate about

Volunteering for First Steps has really ignited a passion in me to work in mental health and I doubt I would have realised it without them. When your life is touched by something for such a long time it helps you realise what truly matters to you and for me, it’s improving the lives of fellow sufferers. I love that my work with First Steps allows me to do this and when I can see the impact my efforts are making, it’s incredible. 

It’s a positive distraction

Volunteering to help others is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your own wellbeing. Studies have found that when you stop thinking about your own problems and focus on someone other than yourself, your stress levels start to decrease. I really believe that helping to empower people who may be less fortunate than myself is a great way to calm my busy mind. 

It’s given me great opportunities 

I have no doubt that without First Steps I would never have been offered the amazing opportunities I have. I’ve been entrusted to facilitate my own support groups, input into new services, write blogs and educational materials, be interviewed on the radio and speak to room-fulls of university students, mental health trainees and medical professionals. It’s been remarkable to not only experience these wonderful things but gain confidence and skills from them that will benefit me in both my career and personal life.  

If you’ve been inspired, why not consider volunteering for a charity or community group close to your heart!

G x

How nature helps my mental health

If ever there was a time to feel grateful for nature, it’s now.

If it wasn’t for being able to walk outdoors, breathe in the fresh air and feel the sunshine on my face I don’t know how I’d have dealt with lockdown. Embracing nature has been a saviour.

Being outside has long been championed to reduce anxiety and boost mood, and many mental health advocates recommend it to help people feel better. It’s been proven to lower stress, blood pressure and heart rate and encourages physical activity which, when done in moderation, is really good for us.

For me, it makes all the difference. It’s a brief escape from my daily stresses that forces me to appreciate the beauty all around and put things into perspective. I love it.

There are a great many reasons to get outdoors and become one with nature, and I’ve listed the following as just a few of my personal favourites:

Reset your outlook

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been worrying about something and going outside for a walk has lessened the problem. It’s acted as a pleasant distraction and readjusted my mind frame to allow me to view it differently and put it into perspective.

It could have been breathing in fresh air, appreciating the scenery or moving my body – perhaps a combination of all three, but I’ve returned to the original concern and found that it’s loosened its grip.

Boost serotonin and endorphins

Exposure to sunlight is said to increase the brain’s release of a hormone called serotonin which is associated with boosting mood and helping you feel calm and focused. Similarly breathing fresh air can raise the amount of oxygen in your brain, which in turn also increases the levels of serotonin and positively alters your mood.

Meanwhile engaging in outdoor exercise, such as hiking, running and cycling enhances the production of endorphins – a chemical produced by the body to relieve stress.  A completely free and accessible way to make yourself feel better.

Increase Vitamin D

When your skin is exposed to sunlight, it makes vitamin D – a vital nutrient to enhance bone and muscle health and boost your immune system.

It’s been well documented that patients with Covid-19 possessing high levels of vitamin D in their systems have fought the virus more successfully than those lacking it, so it’s important to keep up your intake!

Sun exposure is thought to be the best way to increase vitamin D levels because very few food and drink supplements contain significant amounts, making getting outside even more important.

Escape the daily grind

I’m working from home and it can get very monotonous sitting in my house most days and nights. Ensuring I get that lunchbreak outdoors and a post-work walk is essential to lift my mood and get me away from my screens.

It’s also important to move and avoid being static for too long and to me there’s nothing better than walking amongst the trees, flowers and birds to get me away from the mundane and reset my mind.

Appreciate nature’s beauty

When the technological world gets too intense and complex, I love nothing more than surrounding myself in natures simplistic beauty and escaping it all.

Sometimes my problems and anxieties feel overwhelming and far bigger than I am, but then I spend time in a beautiful place and I get the perspective I desperately need.

The intricacies of a flower’s petals, a pretty blossom tree, hills and peaks or rivers and reservoirs…I just love it! It takes me away to a special place where I see a world outside of my worries and feel much freer.

Nurture something to life

As well as appreciating what already exists, I love channelling my efforts into creating something new.

I spent much of lockdown growing sunflower seeds while my friend started her own vegetable patch and herb garden and we enjoyed it so much. It gave us an additional sense of purpose and felt like we’d nurtured something that either looked or tasted lovely. It was like such a positive and worthwhile use of time, I really recommend it.

Hopefully you can get outdoors this week to celebrate Mental Health Week 2021 and the topic of nature. Why not see if it improves your mood and how it helps you to change your outlook on the situations you find yourselves in.

G x

It’s OK not to be OK…

Today. Tomorrow. Any day.

This week may be mental health awareness week but that doesn’t mean we should stop speaking out when it ends.

The louder the conversations, the more likely we can incite positive change and make mental health services more accessible to the many not the few.

Keep talking and spreading the word.

G x

The very unglamorous and expensive side of eating disorders…

It’s not easy having an eating disorder.

For many of us sufferers we lack certain nutrients that we don’t get from food so supplements are the best way to keep as healthy as possible.

I’ve lost count of the different types I’ve tried over the years and this photo is just a snapshot of what I’ve got on the go at the moment.

There are vitamin drinks, calcium and magnesium tablets and probiotics to help keep levels high.

Digestion can commonly be all over the place too so having high fibre supplements and colon cleansers is essential. Oh the joy!

If that’s not fun enough, there are tablets and soothers for tummy cramps and bloating and some hormone regulation meds too. Not to mention the classic Fortijuices which are pretty unpleasant tasting high calorie drinks to help with meal replacement.

I dread to think how much I’ve spent on stuff like this over the years. I know it’s for the best to get in the key nutrients I don’t always get from food but not ideal or particularly sustainable.

Great motivation to get better though!

Why I love to journal

Going to therapy introduced the need to start a reflective diary and three years on I still love it.

Journaling is a complete blank canvas, there are no rules and you have the freedom to make it whatever you want. The only condition is…it has to benefit you.

I use mine for a range of things. Reflecting on thoughts or behaviours, noting my achievements, marking progress and struggles and jotting down things I need to improve on or reminders for appointments.

It helps me to place order on everything going on and is useful for tracking what is happening now and also learning from events gone by.

Here are a few ways I use my journal that might inspire you to do something similar…

Memories and achievements

I like to remind myself of happy times, positive memories and things I consider achievements when I’m feeling low, so I keep my books up-to-date with as many photos as possible.

Thoughts and emotion tracking

It’s good to track how you’re thinking and feeling and note any patterns that may be significant. If I feel especially upset, frustrated or anxious about something, it can help to write it all down and ‘get it out’ so that I can move on.

Worries

I’m a natural worrier so never short of things to stress about. Jotting them down can take away some of their power and how much room they take up in my head. It also makes them easier to reflect on and discuss if I need to.

Appointment reflections

Therapy sessions fill my head with lots of thoughts and I often feel like my head is full afterwards. Something that helps me with this is writing down any discussion points, progress checks and post-appointments thoughts so I can clearly see what we talked about and what I now have to do during the week ahead.

‘Inner Queen’ journal

I got this separate interactive book at Christmas and it’s fab!

It’s called ‘Inner Queen – No Ordinary Journal’ and it’s all about working towards your highest, most powerful self every day.

It lays it all out for you for to complete step-by-step, detailing your innermost desires, empowering beliefs and the barriers or negative thoughts holding you back. You can then keep a daily record of things like positive affirmations, inspired actions, reasons to be grateful and mood monitors.

I really helps me to learn about what holds me back the most in life, how to find gratitude in the everyday tasks and track any progress I make.

Positivity

Amongst all of the worry, I still like to take time out and reflect on what I’m grateful for. I write down three positive things that happen each day alongside achievements and gratitude lists so I can remind myself that it’s not all bad!

I also love wise words, affirmations and motivational quotes so print off any I see online that resonate with me.

Is this something you do? Or perhaps could start doing if helpful?

I hope so! Let me know in the comments if you have any thoughts or ideas.

G x

My first Eating Disorders lecture

If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that I want to spend my time doing things that help people and make a difference. Things that are more worthwhile.

This week I got the opportunity to present to a group of Child and Youth Studies students at the University of Derby about eating disorders in young people.

It was brilliant!

I used all of my own experience and resources from the charity I work with and put a presentation together to help the group understand these complex conditions better. I learnt a lot of new facts along the way too.

We covered the visible and less common signs that someone might be struggling as well as misconceptions and created a toolkit of skills to support a young person.

The class was so engaged, asking thoughtful and insightful questions. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

It was such a rewarding experience and the feedback was really positive. Everyone learnt something from my time with them and I really felt like I had made an impact.

I love days like this!

G x

Why we should all #DumpTheScales!

Imagine being told that your leg wasn’t broken enough to warrant treatment, despite you being unable to walk.

Or that you weren’t yet deaf enough to require hearing aids even though you could no longer make out what people were saying to you.

Eating disorders are not just about weight loss and low BMI yet people across the UK are being refused treatment for not meeting the criteria, forcing them to get worse to access much needed help.

It’s not right and action is needed!

When my problems with food started, I distinctly remember my GP saying that usually you have to join long waiting lists for therapy but given that my weight was low they might be able to see me faster.

I wasn’t yet at crisis point but I was underweight, and I had a six month gap between my initial assessment and my first appointment.

Fast forward to the present day when I sadly relapsed and went down that all too familiar path of food restriction and over-exercise, my friends were telling me to get some help quick.

“There’s no such thing.” I said, “it’s all based on your BMI and mine won’t be low enough to qualify.”

Well sadly I was both wrong and right – patients do have to meet an incredibly low BMI criteria and unfortunately I now had, allowing me to access some much needed support in a very short space of time.

Whilst there’s no doubt that the help I am now getting has been invaluable in stopping my difficulties worsening and slowly turning my thoughts and behaviours around, no-one should have to be that thin and unwell before they are taken seriously.

I know people that have long battled their eating disorders in secret and finally plucked up the courage to speak out only to be told their BMI is too high to be eligible for therapy.

Such news often leaves them with no alternative but to lose even more weight, putting their health at further risk and causing potentially irreversible damage.

Thankfully there are third sector organisations that don’t discriminate and help anyone facing difficulties with their ability to eat, body image and exercise levels. They do invaluable work and bridge the gap that NHS services commonly leave.

It goes without saying that physical health is hugely important, and when patients are either at, or fast approaching, a very low weight they clearly need urgent care. But the treatment of eating disorders should not be solely based on someone’s BMI as it so often is at the moment.

Anorexia sufferer and campaigner Hope Virgo has long fought for fairer treatment for those experiencing eating disorders and commenced her ‘dump the scales’ petition three years ago in support of this.

She needs 150,000 signatures to encourage further debates in parliament, asking the government to ensure that nobody is turned away purely on the basis of their weight.

I fully support Hope’s endeavours and encourage others to do the same here.

Please consider signing her petition to make a difference to those suffering eating disorders.

G x