The A-Z of eating disorders (part one)

Eating disorders are commonly defined as a group of psychological conditions characterised by abnormal and disturbed eating habits.  

Although the term ‘eating’ is in the name, these disorders are always about more than food. They’re complex mental health conditions that often require the intervention of medical and psychological experts to alter their course.

I have struggled at the hands of eating disorders over the past ten years and although my difficulties have evolved and manifested themselves in different ways, my issues are still quite prevalent.

So in the interest of raising awareness of these debilitating difficulties in an easily digestible and light hearted manner, I thought I’d present my A-Z of eating disorders…

A – Anxiety

Eating disorders are riddled with anxiety. Whether you already struggled with it before the ED or if your eating problems cause you great anxiety, the two are very closely linked and treatment will focus on ways to calm your mind and anxious thoughts.

B – Bloating

One of the trickiest elements to increasing food intake after periods of restriction is the challenging bloating. It feels uncomfortable, looks unsightly and makes you even more body conscious than you already are. I try to remind myself it’s very common when increasing consumption and doesn’t last forever. It’s also vital to note that no matter what my mind tells me, it isn’t fat. Bloating is not fat!

C – Calories

Sadly, very few eating disorders would be complete without a daily obsession with calories. It can take years of treatment and therapy to allow sufferers to eat intuitively and respond to natural hunger cues with zero regard for the calories that are in their meals. A key part of ED treatment is relinquishing control over calorie intake and working to a point whereby eating becomes instinctive rather than regimented.

D – Diet

I’ve heard it said that ‘diets are just socially acceptable eating disorders’. If your friend tells you they are dieting, you probably wouldn’t be alarmed, but if they said they felt they had an eating disorder, you’d have a much bigger cause for concern. Diets can commonly lead to disordered eating habits so try to remember that if the dieting behaviours are the same as the ED behaviours, it is not just a diet. It’s a disorder.

E – Exercise

Exercise and restrictive eating often go hand in hand when suffering with an ED. For me, it’s about controlling my size and weight with food and exercise routines that mean I am burning off a high percentage of what I take in each day. I have an app on my phone to tell me how many calories I have burned and that makes me feel ‘better’ although can be quite obsessive to check. Therapy often tackles this level of compulsive exercise by slowly reducing it and understanding the cognitions behind the urges.

Young woman running in wood, training and exercising for trail run marathon endurance in morning sunrise.

F – Family and friends

Those around you play a massive part in your recovery process. I’m very lucky as my family and friends are incredibly supportive and I know I can rely on them to help me both practically and emotionally. My immediate family are caring and loving and would do anything they could to make me feel better. I also have a strong circle of friends who are understanding of my difficulties whilst challenging me in equal measure. An absolute lifeline!

G – Guilt

There is an incredibly high level of near-constant guilt involved in day to day life with an eating disorder. I feel terribly guilty when I eat what I deem to be too much, or more than I would normally have, and that can lead me to be restrictive for the next few days, or to over exercise to compensate. I will then usually feel equally as guilty for giving in to the urges and not tackling them for the good of recovery. It’s a relentless battle, and pretty exhausting.

H – Hope

No matter how tough the going gets, you must remain as hopeful as possible that much better times are just around the corner. I still consider myself to be a long way from fully recovered, but when I look back at far I have come it’s astonishing to think of all of the improvements I’ve made. I have learned so much about myself and it’s helped me to rebuild time and time again. Keep going!

I – Insecurity

Eating disorder sufferers are often riddled with insecurity and have low self esteem and confidence. Feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness are very commonplace and that is all too often where eating disorders begin. One of the best ways to combat this is to remind myself of all of my achievements, the compliments I’ve received in my life and the impact I’ve had on those around me.

J – Justification

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to justify myself and my actions over the last few years. Whether that’s trying to describe my behaviours to my family who weren’t familiar with ED thoughts and feelings, or worming my way out of trouble with therapists who saw straight through my excuses…I’ve had a lot of explaining to do!

A plate of food being consumed in a restaurant.

K – Kindness

They say a little kindness goes a long way…and they’re not wrong. The only way to recover from an eating disorder is to be kind to yourself and accept kindness from others. That means forgiving your own mistakes, accepting your struggles but resolving to push through them anyway and being patient with yourself. Similarly, when others show you care and compassion, remember to accept it with grace and use it to your advantage.

L – Laxatives

Not a very pleasant topic – and certainly not an easy one to discuss, but alas most of us have had experiences with laxatives. They weren’t usually very positive experiences either! My therapist told me that they don’t actually lead to weight loss or make you lighter, but for me the reliance on them was to do with feeling empty. I had a desire to feel internally empty each day and if my body wasn’t able to do that naturally – because let’s face when you mess with your eating you play havoc with your digestion too, I needed something to make that happen! I’m less reliant now, but can’t go cold turkey just yet.

M – Measuring

Whether it’s measuring your food or body, eating disorders are massively consumed with various numbers and sizes. It’s common to measure amounts of food and calculate calories on a daily basis alongside a deep urge to step on the scales and weigh yourself too. True recovery lies in the freedom to eat and exercise intuitively with no regard for the numerical value of everything.

Come back next week for part two…

It’s a long road but it’s worth it…

Saying yes to recovery

‘Do I actually want to get better?’

A question that has occupied most of my thoughts for months now as I’ve batted from one side of the argument to the other.

I’ll be honest, there are times when the answer is a firm ‘NO!’ because the idea of it is just too hard to comprehend.

‘I can’t go back to how I was.’

‘How will I cope with the physical changes?’

 ‘If I alter my routine I’ll lose control!’

Sound familiar?

That’s where I am right now.

I’ve started the process but it’s been very challenging to accept the necessary adjustments.

I know I have to increase my daily food intake and then try to cope with that full feeling I would usually avoid.

I also have to literally ‘take steps’ to lessen my exercise levels and stop burning off calories as I have been doing, making me really anxious and like it’s too huge a task to even attempt.

But I have also had some glimmers of positivity.

Let’s face it – I can’t go through the rest of my life like this. Depriving myself of food, feeling moody, weak and completely obsessed with food and exercise, damaging my health, relationships with family and friends and never getting another job.

Whilst it gets me through the days and is a source of great comfort to me at times, it’s also made me feel more angry, hopeless, paranoid and sad than I’ve ever felt in my life.

I don’t want to feel like this any longer!

Genuinely I don’t. But trying to change feels so hard too.

So I’m breaking it down into what seems like smaller, more manageable steps.

I was the most reluctant driver you could ever have come across. Whilst all of my friends at sixth form were excitedly getting driving lessons and cars for their 18th birthdays – I couldn’t think of anything worse.

I waited a further three years before I felt capable of even booking a lesson. I was fed up of relying on buses and lifts from my parents (as were they!) and desperately needed to get myself to work and uni.

I just thought: ‘what harm can one lesson do? If I don’t like it I won’t book another’ and that’s what got me to make a start on the lengthy process that was learning to drive and passing my theory and practical tests (on the first attempt in both cases I’d like to add!)

It’s possibly an odd comparison, but starting the road to ED recovery is kind of the same. You have to break it down into smaller steps, using suggestions like the below, so that it doesn’t feel like a mountain to climb. 

Seek help (preferably professional)

My family and friends continue to be wonderful pillars of support to me but ultimately I need to work with a professional team to make the main improvements that I can’t do alone.

A local mental health charity have been key in this by providing regular support groups and one-to-ones with likeminded and empathetic people and the referral to an NHS service where I am now attending weekly appointments that are beginning to make a difference.

Confide in people

There will be always be those individuals who neither understand our struggle nor care to try, but I feel absolutely blessed to have close relatives and a handful of amazing friends who are truly there for me. They listen to my woes, cheer my achievements (however small) and I know I can confide in them whenever I need to.

If you really feel alone with no one to turn to then services like BEAT have a web chat service and online groups to support people with concerns about themselves and others.

Look online

Whilst I’ve found myself relying on the internet for all kinds of destructive information lately, it’s also a brilliant tool when used properly.

There are some great blogs and articles, forums, websites and really positive social media channels out there. And if you can’t find the right one for you – why not start your own?

Self-help books

In this digital age, it’s easy to forget the value of reading a book – especially a well-written self-help guide that explains how to recover and lays the steps out clearly for us to follow.

I’ve always believed we have to cleanse our minds before we can start on our bodies and so have one or two great books on the go at the moment that were written by sufferers and experts and really help me to understand why I feel the way I do.

Find another focus

When we consider the amount of time, headspace and energy we devote to our eating disorders, it’s amazing to think what other more productive things we could channel all of that effort into if we tried.

So I’m striving to fill my time with other things; little distractions and new focuses like photography, blogging, colouring, volunteering and hobbies/interests and I have to say it really helps. It broadens the mind and makes you aware of how much more there is to life besides worrying about food all of the time.

Get an incentive

We all work better if we know we’ll be rewarded for our efforts, so I’m trying to find incentives to help me improve.

These could be things you might treat yourself to if you increase your intake or BMI a little – I really want an Apple Watch but at the moment I’d misuse it so I need to get a little better first. I’ve also promised myself I’ll finally get a tattoo when I’m healthier so watch this space!

As well as tangible things, you could endeavour to make some lifestyle changes too. I’ve toyed with doing a master’s degree and possibly going into a different line of work for a while now and that’s a great goal to work towards when I’m back on top form. 

I hope you can find some motivation in there and something strikes a chord with you.

Keep going – it’s a long road but it’s worth it!

G x

Guest writing for Sistem Magazine

This week I wrote a blog piece about the government’s new plans to tackle obesity and how these will have a detrimental effect on people with eating disorders.

It’s a cause close to my heart, and I felt compelled to try to educate people on how the printing of calories on menus will negatively impact many people’s recovery. It even stands to create disordered eating in those who did not previously have an issue around food.

It’s just all kinds of wrong and I don’t even believe it will help to curb the rising levels of obesity in the UK.

If you’d like to read my article, please do so here.