“1.25 million people in the UK are living with an eating disorder right now. Yet behind every one is a network of friends and family supporting them. This adds up to 5 million people struggling to cope with eating disorders. Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses and those caring for someone with an eating disorder are too often left without the support and information they need to help their loved one towards recovery. I stand with Beat to demand the best care, support and information for people with eating disorders and their friends and family.” Beat’s 2020 EDAW Pledge.
For a number of years, around 3 years in total, I was under the control of an immense darkness. The darkness was different to other darkness I experienced and would experience. I was conflicted by this darkness, and when I first was surrounded by it, I believed it to be light. It tricked me into believing it was my friend, bathing me in love and promises, leading me down a path which I thought would make me become the person I wanted to be. That I thought others wanted me to be. So I tried to float in the light until it revealed itself and tried to drown me in the darkness.
That darkness became an unwelcome member of the family; a member, which my mother did not know how to tackle. In fact, she didn’t know exactly what she was dealing with. Unfortunately, she believed the eating disorder to be just common teenage hormones. I was quite a tempremental teen, very upset by everything, and full of low-self esteem. If things didn’t go right, didn’t align with the pressures I put on myself and my life, then I would become very distressed and would cry and cry and cry until I couldn’t breathe. In reality, this was a combination of hormones and the beginnings of anxiety manifesting in me. I was very vulnerable to an eating disorder because I was unable to deal with my emotions and my shortcomings, whether these shortcomings were a fiction of my imagination or my reality. The eating disorder could see me coming a mile off. But, to my mother, to my brother, to my father, as I sank further and further into an eating disorder, I just remained to appear as the moody, hormonal teenager. A normal teenager.
I have never blamed my family for not noticing the eating disorder. That is the trouble with eating disorders. They are such incredibly secretive and clever illnesses. When I decided to become vegetarian, my mum went along with it; not choosing to question it. The eating disorder didn’t let my mum have the opportunity to think I was unwell. It preyed on the fact I was already a healthy child and it used this to its advantage. Health kicks were seen as regular for me. Exercising a lot was normal. I liked to be active anyway. When I would get upset over things, particularly surrounding food, it was shrugged off as hormones. And the more and more withdrawn I became, it was put down to being a teenager.
So, when my mum told me she found post-it notes with scribblings centred around a certain “Ana”, she didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t believe she missed all the signs. Everything I did she put down to being a teenager. She thought that because I wasn’t telling her anything that she would respect my privacy. I was an independent person and she knew that. She didn’t want to damage that. But finding the post-it notes made her realise the way I was acting fit into an eating disorder. And, in her words, she felt she had failed as a mother.
And, I want to say that she did not fail as a mother. In fact, she was failed as a mother. As a person who supports a loved one. With little to no information made available to her, she could not recognise the eating disorder so I lived with it for more than two years and through a 6-month relapse. And this is completely understandable. Due to the secretive nature of an eating disorder, the sneaky way it operates, it can be hard to spot at times, especially in the early stages or when the person does not look like the stereotypical image of someone with an eating disorder. I was already a skinny girl, so I did not automatically cause concern with my appearance. I also had the ‘issue’ of carrying muscle in some areas such as my legs, so I did not look like the shockumentary style individual with an eating disorder who my mum was exposed to. I did not look necessarily unwell, and, because there was (and still generally is) such a strong focus on the physical appearance of an eating disorder, my mum believed she was just dealing with a typical teenager. And not mental illness. My eating disorder rejoiced at this.
After the post-it notes were found, she still didn’t know where to turn. When she discussed it with me, she said she could not remember when she found them so who knows if I was in the beginning of my eating disorders or approaching recovery?! But, all the same, she did not know what to do. There formed a difficulty in which there was no support for my mum. She was worried about approaching me because she didn’t know what to say. She didn’t want to make it worse. She didn’t want to do it wrong. And, like many parents, they leave well alone, because they are scared of pushing their child away. They know there is something wrong, and it is so big and unknown to them. But how do they help their child when they don’t know what it is exactly they are facing?
My mum did not hear the words come out of my mouth: I had an eating disorder, until I was 19 and recovered. She simply said she knew. Initially, I was hurt. How could she know and not say anything? How could she let me suffer under the control of such a monster? But, as the years went on, and our conversations surrounding mental health developed: my anxiety, my suicidal thoughts, my depression, my eating disorder… she admitted that she did not know what to do, and it hurt her to see me struggle, and it hurt her to know she could have done something had she realised sooner than finding the post-it notes. However, she didn’t know what to do.
Before I wrote this post, I spoke with my mum about what she would have liked to have to support me if she could go back. For her, it was the knowledge of eating disorders and their presentations. She wanted to know what to do. Whenever I do eating disorder talks, one of the most common questions is: how do I approach them? And, truthfully, it is difficult. I have been in situations where I’ve been in the gym and seen a woman who was quite clearly unwell and I was so annoyed with myself because I was worried to approach her in case I offended her or pushed her away. And I’ve been an eating disorder recovery advocate for 5+ years. So, I know how hard it can be. But you have to do it. You have to disrupt that darkness before it is the only thing left of your child.
Eating disorders don’t just affect the individual who has it. It affects the entire support system. An eating disorder wants to tear families apart. It wants you to lose friends. It wants you alone. It preys on you being alone. It is at its most powerful when you are in this state. Being surrounded by support is one of the most powerful defence mechanisms you can have. You need your army there.
If my mum knew what to do, if my mum felt supported, I am certain the eating disorder would not have lasted as long as it did. And even if it did, she could have helped to fight it with me.
You support the family. You support the friends. You support the colleagues. You support everyone. If you do this, you support the person with the eating disorder. If you do this, you cut the eating disorder off at the source. And, in doing so, it will shrivel in its own darkness and any attempts to regrow will be stopped.
This year, Eating Disorder Awareness Week centres on the support network around an eating disorder. We are demanding support services be made more readily available to families and those who support someone with an eating disorder. In doing so, you will help them to cope with the devastating effects of an eating disorder and help them to support their loved on. Sign the pledge here to show your support: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/edaw . Together we can beat this. #LetsBeatThis