Being a Human of Scotland #ALLIANCEConf20

Outside of my blog, I have been a featured writer/contributor for some organisations involved in mental health, and overall health and social care. One of which is the Humans of Scotland series for Alliance Scotland. After writing an opinion piece on Pro-Ana content for Alliance, I was contacted to be part of this series to talk about my mental health journey with an eating disorder. Then during the beginning of the lockdown in Scotland, and the UK, I was asked to write another piece about my anxiety and how was being impacted by the restrictions.

Alongside my story were the stories of other people in Scotland who are often the unheard members of society such as unpaid carers, chronic illness, people affected by suicide, people on the autistic spectrum, visual impairments, hearing impairments etc., This series gave a voice to people who were demanding to be heard and are often the ones to suffer when there are slashes to government budgets. There are a wide variety of contributors from all walks of life. It has been so well received that thirty stories were collated last year and put into a book which is available in libraries around Scotland. Scotland’s First Minister even wrote the foreword for it.

Following being part of this series, I contacted by Angela, who is the creator of the Humans of Scotland series, to be part of a Humans of Scotland panel as part of the online Alliance Scotland Conference this week. As with most conferences, and events in general, things have moved and adapted to online. So, I was to be involved in an event for Alliance wherein some stories were read by the contributors and then myself and two other contributors were members of the panel discussion where we discussed our own stories, the impact of COVID on our lives, and how we navigate day to day life. Adding to this, we discussed the power of telling our stories.

The contributors involved were:

  • Celia: an unpaid carer who looks after her son twenty fours a day seven days a week.
  • Gary: the founder of a male suicide prevention support group, Mind the Men.
  • Twimukye: a woman with multiple conditions such as being hard of hearing, diabetes, and Retinitis Pigmentosa
  • Michael: a freelance journalist who lives with a disability.
  • Ryan: an athlete who has a diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome.

I was there to represent my story of anxiety and an eating disorder.

It was a completely wonderful and inspiring event for me, and I was so happy to participate. Listening to the stories of these contributors and how they interact with everyday life, how they have had to make accommodations to ‘assimilate’ to a world that has not accommodated to them. It also made me realise that I, perhaps, have not been so accommodating myself, and it has given me things to think about.

And, this is, ultimately, the importance behind this initiative, behind telling these stories. This is why listening to lived experience is essential to building appropriate care and helping everyone. We listened to stories of people who were in financial trouble, because they were unable to work, because their son required full time care. A group that has had to be set up because of the epidemic of male suicide, particularly within Scotland. Myself, who went through years with undiagnosed anxiety, which was lengthened by a dismissive GP, and received no support or treatment for an eating disorder. Lived experience is where we see the downfalls of our society, the failings of our government, our health care, and our social care. By telling our stories, everyday people can hear how we have had to shift our lives to fit in and yet still struggle and suffer, and ultimately the people who can make the changes can actually made a change, instead of quick fixes that don’t cost all that much and actually do nothing.

A lot of the time, decisions are made by organisations, local authorities, and governments, which are incredibly harmful, and this is purely because the individual in which the decision has been made for, is not involved. As a result, the decision does more harm than good. For instance, the recent decision by Public Health England and the British Government to label calories on restaurant food and weigh school children. This initiative was created without even a consultation with individuals with disordered eating patterns and eating disorder diagnoses. And, as you expect, there was immediate outrage when this announced to the public with fears of a rise in eating disorders, which would stretch an already stretched healthcare system, or leave hundreds, maybe thousands without support and care. Yes, it may be easier for the people in charge to make these decisions without having these ridiculous barriers in the way that are the people the decisions affect.

This is why it is highly important the government take our stories into consideration. Engage with our lived experience. It is a great wealth to you, and should result in far greater changes that will pay off in the long run.

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The power of storytelling is expansive. Lived experience demonstrates the great variety in people. But, it brings us together. I have noticed that when I share my experience of mental health that I get people reaching out to me to share their own experiences, with the majority of these wonderful people expressing the same feeling of: I am not alone. That statement in itself shows the real power behind features like Humans of Scotland. It is not uncommon to feel like you are alone in your experience. When you feel that way, it can be lead to social withdrawal, a fear in reaching out for help, and feeling like you are abnormal. If there is trauma, then you can feel more to blame or that you are weird or something is wrong with you. However, hearing the story of another, a similar story, a similar circumstance, then you feel less alone. It doesn’t take away your trauma, or your difficulties, but it lessens the burden on you. I know that when I was unwell I felt like I was going mad. When I began to experience an eating disorder, I felt so incredibly alone and I felt like no one could understand me or help me. However, when I joined Beat, I heard the stories of so many people around me who also had histories of eating disorders and other mental health difficulties and diagnoses. In doing so, I felt so comforted. I felt part of a community. I didn’t feel alone. I didn’t feel so strange anymore. I didn’t feel so ashamed.

Sharing your experience, when you are ready, can lessen the impact of the difficulty. As they say, a problem shared is a problem halved. Listening to others lived experiences can be beneficial in your recovery and how you cope. I know that volunteering in support services for Beat and offering what has worked for me in my recovery is very beneficial. If you see that something has worked for someone else then you may be more likely to try it, which is helpful when you are facing a new treatment, or reaching for financial help, or speaking up for injustice for you, or simply trying to disrupt a maladaptive practice you have dealt with. When I wrote a recent post on my experience with sertraline, it reached out to people who have had the same experience, and they were thankful that someone was speaking so frankly about it. In a way, that reduces the stigma. It reduces the shame, and normalises the experiences. And that’s the most important part. Normalising experiences can lead to more people coming forward with their stories thus creating a stronghold of people. No one wants to be the first person to speak up, as it’s an entirely terrifying thing to do. But, when that one person steps forward, it can start a domino effect, and it’s the kind of domino effect that is fantastic and uplifting to see.

There is strength in stories. There’s strength in experiences. Being a Human of Scotland has been fantastic in sharing my own story, but also introduced me to so many unheard and dismissed voices. They are voices of hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland and they should be recognised and they should be heard. It is so wonderful to be a Human of Scotland, and I’m glad to be part of the experience.

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If you would like to watch the full session, you can here.

You can read all the Humans of Scotland stories, including my own stories, here.

Humans of Scotland Logo courtesy of Alliance Scotland’s Humans of Scotland feature.

Five Years Later

I finally got some paint and began to refurbish my room. This meant a lot of looking through bags of old university things and other miscellanous items, and deciding if I should keep them. Yes, I did give the Marie Kondo if it sparks joy approach, and it turns out a lot of the stuff I kept for years did not spark joy. Anyway, I discovered a bag full of Beat materials, and amongst the materials was a certificate from my induction training. I’m not great with dates, and I tend to generalise how long I’ve been a part of organisations, groups etc., However, this certificate brought to my attention that I have been ambassador for Beat for five years, as of today. Wow!

Although I had known of Beat for years before, I didn’t become an ambassador until I was just a few months shy of being twenty years old. It was actually a customer in the restaurant I worked in that told me about the Beat ambassador programme, as he discussed my studies at university, and my intended career in mental health and clinical psychology. A few days later I googled Beat and noticed they had openings for the Young Ambassador programme. I sent away an application, and within a few weeks I received an email from Sara, the participation officer, who informed me of the training dates available. Come the 13th of June, I was welcomed into a training room in Edinburgh and within the day I was inducted as a young ambassador for Beat.

Over the years, the charity has changed its branding, and the Young Ambassador programme has now become the Ambassador programme, with many of the young ambassadors reaching the age of twenty-five (the last year of the Young Ambassador programme) and requesting to stay on. Things have changed, but the message and objective of the ambassadors has remained the same. Recovery from eating disorders is possible.

Throughout my experience, as an ambassador, the opportunities to spread this message has been limitless. My first opportunity to do so was for a group of women involved in Apex Scotland where I talked about my journey with orthorexia and anorexia. After this, I spoke at schools, in hospitals, eating disorder units, universities… I spoke to nurses, teachers, dietetic students, people in recovery from eating disorders, Childline operators… My message maneuvred through small crowds to bigger crowds. My voice found it’s way onto the radio, on TV broadcasts, livestreams, in news articles. Within my role, I have worked both on my own and with fellow ambassadors. I have connected with people in support groups, using my experience as someone in recovery from an eating disorder to offer advice and hope in reaching said recovery. My role has allowed me to speak about my experience with an illness that dominated my late teens and become an example of recovery, having people come on that journey with me and explore what happens after the fact. All the ins and outs, ups and downs.

However, this experience has done so much more than I thought it would.

I knew I had experienced eating disorders, and I had a sense of what the eating disorders were. But, I didn’t think I was unwell enough to talk about, because I didn’t go to hospital. I hadn’t received psychological therapy. I didn’t look like the typical version of someone like an eating disorder, such as the ones glorified and exploited by TV and media. When I joined, I still held this concept in my head, but as I continued on as an ambassador I began to understand my eating disorders, and that my story was actually quite similar yet so unique to others. I found a commonality with the people I worked alongside. I felt a validation in what I had gone through. I discovered so many stories, and so many build-ups to eating disorder developments, and how they were maintained. I learned how eating disorders manifested in so many.

Being an ambassador has allowed me to understand and explore the space in which one has an eating disorder. I truly understand my mental health far better than I did when I was a scared and angry teenager. I have been given back my voice. I always knew that I had one. It was a loud voice, and it was quick in its cadence, but I was always frightened to really talk without anxiety and self-hatred bearing me down. I’ve gained a perspective and I’ve become okay with learning and expanding what my story is, finding little bits of my story that slot in ways I didn’t think they would before. This role has allowed me to, not only spread a recovery-focused and, often more concise, message, but I have the ability to talk about what is important in my journey; what makes me different and what makes me the same as others.

And, that’s what being able to express your lived experience does. It not only opens up the eyes of others, but it opens up your own. It’s remarkable the power behind the ability to share your story. People have begun to rely on the experience and knowledge behind ambassadors, as our stories are key in helping others understand what it’s like to have an eating disorder. My role has allowed me to teach so many people and to inspire so many people. I don’t like to say I’m inspiring. I don’t think I am, but I feel I can leave a good mark on the world with my work. I never in my life thought I would be interviewed by radio stations, featured in health and social care articles, have a small segment on ITV Borders, be interviewed by newspapers and the National Lottery Community Fund. I have been able to carry out research in eating disorders while at university through my work at Beat, because their resources are simply incredible and so helpful. I have been able to share my story to so many different audiences who all want to listen. I spent so much of my life wanting people to listen to me and retain what I was saying, not brush me off, not look passed me. I feel Beat has given me that opportunity. Who knew any of this would happen?

Moreover, it has helped me to maintain a level of recovery; one, in which makes me feel strong and generally content in coping within myself. I have been able to understand not only my illness, but what recovery means to me. We have this idea that recovery is dichotomous and that we are either recovered or not recovered, but in reality, it should be considered ‘in recovery’, almost like a continuum. I have been given a platform to reflect and maintain my recovery. It’s like I am being held accountable, and I know being in a good state of recovery carries a lot of weight behind it, so to speak.

Beat has provided so much for me. It has kept me on a good path. I have seen eating disorder awareness and support grow over these five years. I’ve seen opportunities to speak about eating disorder recovery go from very little to thick and fast. Eating disorders now get frequently spoken about in Scottish Parliament. Beat has now expanded to a team in Wales, which I was so grateful to be a part of when I lived there. I have felt so inspired with how Beat has impacted the public’s view of eating disorders, and how they have impacted my own view of my eating disorders. I have met so many amazing, amazing people. I’ve got to work with fantastic, inspiring individuals, and I have now found somewhat of a comfort in my voice and my being.

Here’s to another five years.

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This week has been Volunteers Week, which celebrates all volunteers. Please donate to charities like Beat who are in need of funding during the Covid-19 crisis. If you would like more information about Beat and how to donate, then check out the website here.

The Relapse

Disclaimer: this post details eating disorders and the behaviours that surround it and may be particularly graphic. Therefore if you feel you may be triggered by this then either avoid this post or view at your own discretion. I also speak about purging behaviours such as vomiting, therefore people who have emetophobia or an adversion to vomiting then please avoid or view at your own discretion.

The hunger didn’t feel like hunger anymore. I lay in bed all day in an effort to avoid eating, or invitations to eat. Come nighttime, I made my way downstairs, feeling slightly disorientated, and ordered fast food; an order that vastly outweighed how much I’d eaten, or not eaten, all day. I devoured as much as I could, and went upstairs shortly afterwards, lying in bed again with a bloated distended stomach. As the food began to digest, I quickly picked up a pen, one without a cartridge, and made my way to the bathroom. I gave it a wipe to sanitise it. I turned on the taps. Then, I purged. Eventually, I made a strangled choking noise, my throat burning, and my eyes stinging, so I panicked, let go of the pen and stopped forcing myself to vomit. Woozy, lightheaded, but rushing with adrenaline, I stood and propped myself up to look at my reflection in the small mirror in the bathroom. Behind me, I could see the makings of a shadowy figure. I darted my eyes away, recognising the figure but daring not to look further. I inspected a familiar sight in the the mirror. Bloodshot eyes. A running nose. A swollen face. The figure stood closer, and I felt myself being pulled into her grasp. I forgot how powerful she could be.

Days followed, and I began to fall back into a routine that I thought I had long since banished to the back of my mind. I missed meals, and vomited every night after dinner. I went to the gym and to the track without eating anything, pleased at the fact I did not pass out, and got through the workout in one piece. Despite the fact that every time I let go of a weight I thought I was going to crash headfirst into the mirrors. But, still, I could hear a familiar voice in my head, convincing me that I could continue to act this way. I felt a sense of control I had not felt in a long time coming back to me. I knew I had fallen back into my eating disorder. I felt both Herculean and weak. She told me it would get easier like it did last time, and I could do it properly this time. She reminded me of all the times I failed, in her eyes, to adhere to the eating disorder, and this time I knew better so I could do better.

I could do better.

However, she filled me with dread this time around, not comfort. The anxiety didn’t go away, as I thought it would. The negative thoughts and emotions remained, still. Something didn’t feel right. She didn’t feel the same as when I was fifteen. There was some part of me so completely disappointed in that I had returned to my eating disorder. It was a part I had with me last time, but this time it was stronger. She filled me with false promises, telling me that I would get back to those euphoric feelings and moments when I was teenager. I just had to work a little harder this time around. I had to do better. I had to catch up.

One evening came, and I had brought out a wooden coffee stirrer that I took from Costa, thinking it was a better tool to use to really reach the back of throat. I went to my room, waited until my mum was asleep, and then made my nightly trip to the bathroom. I leaned over the bathroom, seeing the shadowy, looming figure leaned over me, watching as I knelt over the cold toilet bowl, and jammed the stick stick down my throat, triggering my gag reflex after a few moments of me begging it to do so. I vomited, until I began to panic again, as I started to uncontrollably vomit. It hurt me so much. The acid burned and I choked slightly. The figure bent further over me, and I felt her touch my back. But, her comforting touch was no longer warm. In fact, ice cold and it made me flinch. I no longer recognised her warmth.

I placed the coffee stirrer by his knees and got up to sit on the toilet. And, there she stood. My eating disorder faced me. I faced my eating disorder. This was the first time I had ever looked her in the face, in her deep, hypnotising eyes. And, she was not as frightening as I imagined. Now looking at her, she shrunk to my height. She was small. She didn’t have the power to stand over me. She fell to her knees, as though weakened by my observing of her. She created this concept in my head of a terrifyingly beautiful and dark creature; one, in which that would protect me, yet I was scared to look her in the face. As long as I didn’t confront her, as long as I didn’t look at her, I was promised happiness and sanctuary. But, now seeing her for what she was, she didn’t appear to be able to promise me anything, let alone make it happen. I could see her for what she truly was for the first time since I first developed an eating disorder. I recognised the falsehoods of her promises. I knew that my instinct, in which I believed that things were not as I believed they were beforehand, was correct.

She was no longer a person, but a horrible and devastating attempt to control me. All the feelings and thoughts I experienced when I was unwell, and during my second relapse, were now coming upon me as untrue. I was never in control. I could never have control. Not when the control belonged to the eating disorder. Getting to see the eating disorder for what it was, while the acidity of my purging stung still, and my eyes were bleary, my ears ringing and blocked, it was interesting, it was eye-opening. Almost like an epiphany. The low mood, the low self esteem, the anger, the anxiety, the insecurity, the suicidal thoughts; they always remained when I was unwell. The relapse taught me that. Restricting my eating, attempting to get back on track with purges, it solved nothing. It did nothing. I still felt the same. Actually, I felt worse than I did before.

She couldn’t terrify me any longer. Because I acknowledged her, she couldn’t hold me down. As I returned to normalcy, a state of recovery, I saw brief glimpses of her out the corner of my eye, particularly if I doubted eating something or I purged. And, each time, I caught her. I would look her straight in the eye, and she would shrink again.

I didn’t belong to her anymore.

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If you need support, and are affected by this piece, then please contact Beat for further support and advice. If you would like more information and advice about emetophobia, then please read this article.

Mental Health Literature: A Review of “Seconds To Snap”

Just over a year ago, I attended and spoke at a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Taskforce as part of their lived experience panel. This is where I met Scottish author Tina McGuff, and learned about her book: Seconds To Snap. A native Dundonian, she is a mental health campaigner who spreads awareness of mental health diagnoses such as anorexia nervosa and psychosis, and has featured on Lorraine and Jeremy Vine. I knew from the moment I met I had to buy her book.

Unfortunately, I have just bought the book due to a lack of money and having only recently kicked back into gear my love for reading. Better late than never, I guess? But that’s beside the point.

Seconds to Snap is a detailed description of Tina’s experience with mental illness after exposure to a suddenly very traumatic childhood, which resulted in a development of anorexia nervosa followed by stays in the psychiatric unit of Ninewells hospital in Dundee. She takes you through the moment her poor mental health was set off into action and the downward spiral into mental illness.

Now, I mentioned that I have only recently got back into reading properly. It’s been a slow process. It took me nine months to finish Nuremberg Diary. It took me three months to finish Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? And, it took me four months to finish Dune. I was getting ready for another couple of months of reading. This turned out not to be the case. I finished this book in two days. This was a miracle. The minute I opened to the first page I was genuinely hooked. I get so easily distracted, and nowadays I struggle to read if someone is watching TV or talking in the background, but with this book I was shut off to the world, gripped by every word.

Seconds To Snap was just so real. It broke my heart when Tina began to experience her life falling down around her, and I was begging her to stay in the psychiatric units and to drink her Build Up drinks. I was cheering her on when she began to willingly restore her weight. I wanted to hold her when she had setbacks. I was enthralled by every part of her journey, because of how real it was. She didn’t paint this picture of recovery being linear. It didn’t all just happen at once and then, boom!, she was in the hospital on her to normality. No, in fact, her mental health difficulties slowly mounted up and up and up and she sunk further down and down and down.

Reading the book made me experience feelings of hopelessness and sorrow and I was pleading someone to just help her. But that’s what made her story, and the way she told it so compelling, because that’s the reality of mental health when it becomes poor. Yes, sometimes it can happen suddenly. But usually it’s the little adjustments or missteps in someone’s life that we miss. A missed meal here. An extra run there. A few days of being tired. An altercation brushed off as teenage hormones. But, then, the way someone has been feeling and behaving based on these feelings just becomes that person’s new normal. Eventually the person’s way of life is seen as “she’s always acted this way.”

I think this book is a very valuable piece of mental health literature because it highlights how things can so easily build up yet go unnoticed. People don’t realise the ways in which trauma can impact someone’s life, especially if that person is a child who has take the brunt of the trauma. There is insight given into how it’s not just one type of trauma that can trigger a mental health difficulty and it’s not always the same mental health diagnosis or difficulty that is produced. This is shown by Tina’s development of anorexia nervosa and then psychosis induced by anxiety. She brilliantly explores the confusing entanglement of co-morbidities, especially those which feature in anorexia nervosa, and how these can ebb and flow throughout the process of eating disorder development, recovery and relapse. It is a very well put together yet raw piece of work; one in which allows the reader to hear the reality of poor mental health as unfiltered as possible. Many shows, films, and books commonly romanticise illnesses, leaving out all the messy details within mental health in particular.

I noticed as I read the book I felt a large pit open up in my stomach. I felt a level of shame and discomfort with every word concerning her eating disorder. The discomfort I felt reading these portions of the book was because I was being reminded by what I did during my eating disorder. There were many things I could relate to. The reliance on diet drinks. I drank a lot of them during my eating disorder. The dangerous diets she followed to lose weight dramatically to satisfy her eating disorder. I did this. I drank common weight-loss products that were similar to the ones she used. Crash diets. Diets meant for patients in hospitals. What she did, I did.

I felt ashamed reading her words, because I felt exposed. I remembered the shame I felt when I spoke about my eating disorder for the first time. Eating disorders spark such strong feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment as we know what we are doing is considered bizarre, abnormal and plain wrong. We know it’s dangerous what we’re doing, and we know people wouldn’t react well if we told them. We don’t want to feel those negative feelings so we often spare the details of our eating disorder or don’t tell anyone even after we’ve recovered. Yet, for Tina to put down exactly what happened, every little dark detail, the details often glossed over in the movies in favour for the so-called pretty, fragile side of eating disorders.

We need to see the harsh reality of eating disorders. The side that shows all those dark, distressing and negative emotions that emerge during an eating disorder. Reading her words made me reflect on what I did, and how terrible my eating disorder was and the behaviours that were involved. It reminded me just how much harm I put my body through. It reminded just how powerful an eating disorder is in making you think that, despite all these horrific things, there is nothing truly bad about what you are doing. I grimaced several times when she went into detail about her purging, her restrictions, the way the eating disorder clouded her judgement. But, at the heart of it, I grimaced as the person on the outside looking in, but, during the time I was unwell, I remember how much my judgement was clouded. My eating disorder made me think all of the restrictions and purges were positives and were part of my journey to being the best person I could be. Or the best anorexic in the world, as Tina says.

This book is a heartfelt window into the world of someone who has anorexia and other mental health difficulties and diagnoses. It highlights the shame and embarrassment an individual feels when they go through and also reflect on their eating disorder. These feelings should be taken into consideration when discussing eating disorders with someone who has personal experience as they may have these feelings, which can make it harder for them to be honest. They feel they are going to be in trouble or treated like a horrible and wasteful person. I was reminded of those thoughts and feelings when I read Seconds To Snap. It made me realise just how crucial it is to challenge these feelings and take special care in dealing with them. If you want to understand an eating disorder; if you want to understand trauma and its negative effects, then read this book. If you want to see that your way of thinking, as someone with an eating disorder, is common within others; if you want to know that you are not alone; if you want to know that you can recover and have a happy life without your eating disorder, then read Seconds To Snap.

I feel really privileged to know Tina and she’s a fantastic woman who fights tirelessly in mental health and a real role model for recovery.

You can purchase Tina McGuff’s book, Seconds To Snap here.

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If you are affected by an eating disorder and want further advice and support, please visit Beat.

Timing Your Calories

A quick disclaimer: this is perhaps a more emotional and quick post; a rant, if you will. This post will feature triggering language centred around exercise, calories, ‘offsetting’ your calories with exercise, and pro-eating disorder information. I wanted to get my feelings and thoughts out there, because this has really angered me.

Have you opened up a newspaper recently, while you’re sitting down with your morning coffee, to be greeted with the sentence: Yes, you can have your cake, as long as you run upstairs? Well, I had this experience a few days when I opened up Twitter to see a photo of The Times’ article with a barrage of calories, food, and an incredible amount of toxicity, shame and guilt surrounding your consumption of this food. Within moments of my eyes laying on the article, I was transported back to my days where I would spend hours scouring and trawling Pro-Anorexia sites. As I zoomed in and inspected every item of food featured in this article, I had to check time and time again if this wasn’t straight from an eating disorder site.

Under each food item was their calorie intake and the number of minutes you need to exercise in order to have that food. To earn that food item. Because that’s how we have learned how to treat our food now: as though it’s something to be earned. The diet industry and the fitness industry have duped us into believing that we have to feel guilty or ashamed of any food we eat. And, I mean, any food. Throughout this article, the foods mentioned moved from the stereotypically unhealthy foods like cakes and crisps to foods recommended within healthy diets like a boiled egg or a handful of almonds. Foods that are already used as a substitute for the former are being laden thick with guilt and shame. If you want any food it seems like, you need to exercise off the calories before you can eat them.

The diet industry has ingrained in us this ideology that we cannot simply enjoy our food. We have to instead feel rubbish about ourselves for enjoying a piece of cheesecake or even a banana. The attention brought to exercising for prolonged periods of time isn’t a method to get you to exercise and keep fit. It’s a method to make you feel ashamed for eating at all. How dare you enjoy your food?! You’re going to have to do a HIIT class to eat that piece of red velvet cake, so you might as well not eat it all together, and just choose to have a pot of natural yoghurt. But, wait, you need to exercise for 15 minutes first before you can eat it.

What’s worse is this article, and many others like it, have developed this association between general everyday activities and burning calories. There is a genuine suggestion of “putting your kids to bed” so you can allow yourself to eat two celery sticks and some guacamole. What a fantastic way to take the act of caring for your children and turning it into a way to earn your evening snack.

Oh my God, I can’t describe how beyond dangerous this rhetoric it is and how frustrating it is that no matter how much you shout about this the media don’t seem to want to learn!

For a bit of clarity for the media, this is why it is dangerous. This article by The Times will have the high probability of being weaponised by Pro-Ana sites. I can guarantee it will find its way onto these sites and it’ll be used to normalise the behaviours in eating disorders, because hey, look a mainstream newspaper is giving all this calorie information and how to burn it all off! Save these foods and their calories in your journals so you can track it easier. It is an informative graphic that contains a menagerie of healthy and unhealthy foods that will teach people with eating disorders to fear any and all foods. These pro-eating disorder sites will convince people that any food is dangerous because it requires exercise for you to have it. For someone with an eating disorder, exercise is a counteractive action to food you eat. If you dare to eat food, you have to exercise it off immediately. I don’t know how many times I saved workouts, dangerous, dangerous workouts, that were centred around how many calories I could burn and what that was in the equivalent of food. I was taught that exercise was solely to burn calories and to counteract the food I ate. It took years for me to relearn the benefits of exercise, and I am still trying to undo that damage. That infographic would have been like a Bible verse for me. It’ll become a well-used tool on a pro-anorexia site.

By having this information in mainstream media, people with eating disorders or disordered eating will internalise this that their difficulties are, in fact, justifiable and appropriate. Growing up with this sort of information would have made me believe that if the media is pushing this agenda then what I am doing is completely normal and I shouldn’t be concerned about the damage being done to my mind and my body, and neither should anyone else. Our eating disorders are continually trying to convince us that what we are doing is normal, and they use this propaganda as evidence that our restrictive or purging behaviours are okay, that our punitive acts are fine because look the newspapers and magazines are saying that it’s recommended that you should run 5 miles to have a bag of crisps. As though it is some relatable and quirky thing.

People with eating disorders struggle to equate exercise with anything other than weight loss. We know the number of jumping jacks we need to do to eat a sandwich. We know that fidgeting and shaking our knees will burn calories. We know about negative calories. But, this has helped our eating disorder to create the impression that it’s actually alright to continue to exercise only for weight loss and to earn the right to eat.

Mainstream media, and even social media, needs to redefine the need for exercise. Exercise is not all about weight loss. Unfortunately, it’s a driving force for many people, but exercise can provide so much more. Exercise is so incredibly beneficial. There are a million other reasons other than being allowed some pizza. There is no need to focus on weight loss, particularly completely outrageous and disgusting guilt tactics to make us think we need to achieve a workout of some sort to nourish our bodies.

This pandemic has shown that people crave being active because it gets them fresh air and gets their legs moving. People are going out on runs to feel a moment of freedom. We are stuck in our houses, trying to protect ourselves from a disease, and you are trying to make us become laden with guilt and shame because we want to eat, because we want to cook meals we don’t normally get to cook, because we want to be nourished. Exercise can help keep the blood pumping around your body. Exercise can stimulate the brain and help to prevent the development and prognosis of diseases such as Alzheimers. It can alleviate the strain of sedentary behaviour on our muscles. It can strengthen our bodies from injury. Some consider it a mindful and meditative process.

Exercise is not, and never should be, something to give you permission to eat.

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Check out Beat for information and support on coping with an eating disorder whether it is yourself or someone you care for. Please consider donating to keep their services running as during this pandemic they are experiencing an increase in their need for support services while a simultaneous drop in their income.

Just Five More Sets: The UK Lockdown and Eating Disorder-Related Exercise

It’s been over a week since the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown for 3 weeks to combat the coronavirus. The lockdown rules dictate that you cannot leave your house unless it’s for medical need, exercise, caring for a vulnerable person, and food shopping (but as infrequently as possible.) In other words, stay at home.

The purpose of this lockdown is to slow the spread of the virus, reduce the number of deaths, and alleviate the strain that is on the hospitals. It’s a desperately needed measure and very overdue. However, while it is helping the physical health of the nation and the hospitals, it is putting an increasing pressure on peoples’ mental health and wellbeing. There has already been a great level of self-isolation for many people as they have been working from home since the end of February. Now, we have entered lockdown, the self-isolation has grown. Several people are living by themselves and in further isolation especially as the lockdown prevents us visiting other households so to not spread the virus. It is a necessary evil, but one which we should aim to develop more adaptive coping strategies to support our mental health.

I recently published a blog post on the effects of panic buying food on people with eating disorders. However, we may experience the negative impact of another aspect of eating disorders: exercise as a method of controlling weight.

People with eating disorders report excessively exercising as a way to appease the eating disorder, and maintain their weight, or to counterbalance any binges or overall calorie intake. They can develop an addiction, and will seek any way to fulfil this addiction. Often, that leads to a lot of secretive and extreme sessions of exercise. But, in a similar fashion to other addictions, the high of exercising would dissipate quicker and quicker so the intensity and duration is increased to retrieve that high again. It takes over your life, and you are desperate for the chance to exercise in peace.

The lockdown is the perfect situation for this, particularly if you live alone. Particularly with the influx of home workouts and a strong concentration on maintaining your weight loss on mainstream media. Particularly because one of the reasons we can get out is to exercise. Your need to exercise has now become a new normal. Your eating disorder can use this to their advantage. So to the average person, you look like someone just trying to get your lockdown frustration out with some exercise and fresh air. Excessive exercise can be easily concealed.

I know there has been times where my eating disorder has tried to get to the front of my brain. It has loaded my brain full of negative words that it knows will get to me. It will tell me I’m lazy, that I’m going to put on weight and lose my muscles, that I’ll look ugly, that I’m disappointing people by not showing how healthy and fit I am… And there’s been times where I have had to sit down and rethink why I exercise now. My reason to exercise now is very different to what it was when I was unwell.

I am a track and field athlete. I train to be fast. I run to get better. I lift heavy weights to get that rush of ‘wow this feels amazing that I can lift so much.’ I exercise to be a good athlete. While there still remains those thoughts of my eating disorder, I have been able to reestablish and relearn why I exercise. I no longer don’t do it for my eating disorder. I don’t do it to lose weight. To be as skinny as possible.

So, in this lockdown, ask yourself, why are you exercising? And really give yourself the time to think about. Because your eating disorder will try to do it for you. If you feel you are exercising in order to control your weight and size, or to curb your binges or even counteract them. If you feel you are exercising to establish some level of control in your life. Instead, think about exercise and how it supports the function of your body and mind. Restructure the motive behind exercising. Can yoga be a good way to stretch your muscles and wake up in the morning with an added bit of meditation? Can walking up and down the stairs get your legs pumping with blood again after sitting down in front of your computer if you’re studying and working from home? Your body needs a chance to get the blood pumping and to feel energised. A bit of exercise and activity will do that. When exercising, try to think about the strength needed in your legs to carry you from room to room and to go out and get things like food and medication. Try to think about the fresh air in your garden that you fill your lungs with and the energy that will allow your brain to keep working throughout your WFH environment. If you are exercising for the eating disorder then you will not be letting your body function.

But, only exercise in moderation.

A good way to exercise in moderation is to set a timer. Often in eating disorder-related exercise, it is common for the individual to over-exert themselves in terms of duration. Some people may exercise for hours at a time. Some people may not allow themselves to take breaks between sets of exercises. Now we have a lot of technology at our hands, it is easier to time things. I recommend setting up a timer for your exercise session; aiming to keep it around 30-60 minutes at the most. You are home right now so you are limited in what you can do. Most exercise you can complete at home can be done within 30 minutes without over-exertion. Keep your sets to around five at the most with reps up to twelve. And remember to have at least a minute to two minutes of recovery between sets. Keep it all timed, something you can stick to, and you may experience that feeling of control you would normally have from eating disorder-related exercise.

Many of our eating disorders will be rejoicing in the fact you are being forced to self-isolate and remain at home. Particularly if you live at home alone. As a result of self-isolation, no one will disturb you and you can exercise excessively without any interruptions or concern from others. If you live with people who are also now working from home, you may find you are staying up later or getting up earlier to exercise without anyone around. That was something I loved to do when my parents would work or go to bed early and I was able to exercise without any disturbances and without any judgement from others. Note to younger self: it’s not judgement, it’s legitimate concern that you have been exercising for hours and now can’t actually get up because it’s 11PM, you’re very hungry, tired, and spent. And you’re sixteen.

As hard as it is, if you want to exercise, try to not do it alone. This is when our advancements in technology become a handy tool in reducing levels of loneliness and isolation. It may be an option to join online classes on video call-type sites such as Zoom and Instagram Live/IGTV. Several yoga and fitness instructors do not have the resources they used to have and are now turning to online resources to make some money or encourage others to join. CAMYOGA is holding a variety of online yoga classes and these range from morning flows to pilates to strength and stretch and so on. However, if you don’t feel comfortable doing it in front of a group of strangers, video call your friend and do your circuits with them. Or join in on a class such as Lina Nielsen’s IGTV yoga classes. Now, more than ever, you have the dangerous temptation to use self-isolation to your eating disorder’s advantage, but exercising in a group or with someone will alleviate that temptation and help you to stick to safe levels of exercise.

But, ultimately, this is a virus, so if you are unwell then please, please relax and spend this time getting better. This chance to rest and stay at home can also offer you the opportunity to connect with others who are struggling with their mental health and their eating disorders. This is the time to nurture your health, both physical and mental. It’s a very, very busy world out there, and you’ve been given the chance to sit down, breathe, and get on with some hobbies or watch some TV. Sure, it’s not in the best circumstances, but seize the opportunity. Your body, right now, needs to be functioning and needs to be healthy. Your body needs you to rest and it needs you to focus on recovery. If you are required to stop or reduce your exercise per treatment guidance and advice, then take heed and put your feet up for a bit, or have your morning coffee on your balcony or garden step. Sleep, meditate, draw, knit, read, do whatever makes you feel focused but also feel at peace. Now is the time to reset.

And, finally, my note to the social media influencers and diet industry: please stop and think about what message you are projecting and onto what audience. This is the perfect opportunity for you to jump on that promo for diet teas, intense exercises, and methods to curb binges. Don’t do it. No one, and I mean no one, needs to hear the jokes about COVID-19 being the new Freshman-15. We don’t need to hear why we should be feeling guilty for having a bar of chocolate. It isn’t the time to fill peoples’ head with toxic language towards their bodies. Because several of us already have an inventory of toxicity filled to the brim with it anyway. People want to exercise to keep fit. People want to exercise to keep healthy. Yes, some people may want to lose some weight, but it is not your job to encourage that to dangerous levels, which may result in disordered eating. We exercise to stay safe, stay healthy and keep our bodies and minds functioning. While we are changing our attitudes towards why we exercise, you should too.

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If you have experience with an eating disorder, and are having anxieties and worries surrounding coronavirus, please click these links for some advice from Beat as well as support groups available. Check out this Friday’s The Sanctuary forum (3rd April) where I will be speaking as part of my role as an ambassador to offer advice and answer questions on recovering from an eating disorder and how to cope in the pandemic.

Here are some other resources to help you cope during this time.

NHS Every Mind Matters: Mental Wellbeing While Staying At Home

SAMH

Student Minds

Rethink Mental Illness: Temporary changes to the Mental Health Act

Mind

Information from Gov.uk for supporting your mental health during the outbreak.

And here’s some cool distractions:

Literally any Jenna Marbles video. Here’s a random one.

Scottish Wildlife Trust webcam where you can watch an osprey and her nest. She’s very cute and very noisy.

RSPB webcam for the nest of a Peregrine Falcon. They also have a feeder cam.

And, as always, stay at home, stay safe and wash your hands!

Stockpiling, Sickness, and Safe foods: Eating Disorders in a Pandemic

A few months ago, the first case of COVID-19 (or as it’s more colloquially known: coronavirus) was discovered, and since then, it has spread like wildfire. So far, nearly 250,000 cases have been reported with just over 10,000 of those cases resulting in death. Fortunately, there are more survivors of the illness than deaths, but, all the same, the illness is a serious one and should not be taken lightly. And one of the ways we can cope is to continue to behave sensibly and with consideration of those who may be in the percentage of more serious and critical cases. But, as you have seen in the media and in person, this has not been the attitude of many, many people. Walk into any supermarket and you will struggle to find just about anything. Toilet paper, hand wash, hand sanitiser, aloe-vera gel to make hand sanitiser, shower gel, tissues, paracetamol… and, most importantly, food. The shelves are cleared, and within moments of them being stocked up, they are cleared again.

People don’t know what’s happening. And when people don’t know what’s happening, they panic and they do everything they can to prepare. Unfortunately, as we live in an individualistic society, our preparedness comes at a price. We become selfish and inconsiderate and we do not prepare appropriately. As a result, people are affected in ways that others do not realise.

One of these groups of people are people with eating disorders.

Recently, I wrote a tweet that discussed this very fact and within the day I had amassed some traffic with people reaching out through direct message and through replies about their concerns in how to support someone with an eating disorder during this time. Many also drew attention to the fact that others who are not so affected by eating disorders would not realise the rippling effects of panic buying or, a pandemic in itself, on people with eating disorders and their support network.

Put simply, eating disorders heavily rely on disturbances within an individual’s life to thrive and manifest. A pandemic is the perfect situation for an eating disorder. It will use this to its advantage, knowing full well that a pandemic and the societal behaviours that exist within a pandemic will play on the mental health of someone with an eating disorder. Every day, we are consuming climbing figures of coronavirus cases, the pressures on the NHS, deaths, the people who are now being made to work at home. Our social medias and our mainstream medias are continually reporting on the virus and it’s affecting everyone else. So, as an individual with an eating disorder such as one that follows a restrictive eating pattern, already so consumed with the idea that we are worthless and nothing, our eating disorders allow us to come to the conclusion that we are not allowed to eat because we are not deserving of food. We see empty shelves and we think that people need this food more than us therefore we are better to go without. We do not deserve the food. We do not deserve to look after ourselves. We are not worth a thought. We are not worth any support or consideration. We don’t want to be a burden. So, we go without.

Not only do we go without food, but we also go without discussing our anxieties and our eating disorder-related thoughts and feelings. For many with an eating disorder, we are now laden with the idea that we are not worth your time and there are worse things out there right now. Sure, the coronavirus is probably one of the worst things out there right now. But our feelings are further invalidated by the toxicity of our mental health disorder and we are made to feel that we should not talk about our illness. We’re full of guilt for even thinking about our eating disorder. Yet, that’s what it wants. It wants us to feel guilty. By feeling guilty, we don’t talk about it and when we don’t talk about it, it grows more powerful because no one knows it is there. Our eating disorders make us feel ridiculous for reaching out. For looking for support. You’re looking for support about a silly little problem like this when people are literally dying. Eating disorders are taunting you with this. They make you doubt the sincerity and severity of your illness. They shrug off your illness as something small, something menial, something not worth thinking about.

As I mentioned, panic buying leads to empty shelves. Staples such as bread, eggs, fruit, veg, and soup are gone. We include them in our weekly shops without a second thought. To someone with an eating disorder, they are “safe foods.” When I was unwell, I had a list of safe foods. Foods I could be sure would grant me the control over my weight and would appease my eating disorder. And for many in their path to recovery, they are essential in maintaining their weight and in helping them to relearn to eat. Therefore, safe foods are a welcome ‘fall-back’ for someone in recovery. In this pandemic, many are facing the situation of no safe foods being available. As a result, they are overwhelmed with anxiety and feeling beyond vulnerable. So, they will cope by going without any food. Their eating disorder remains in their mind, and it will attempt to reintroduce that coping mechanism that was used before: if there is nothing safe, nothing that your eating disorder thinks is safe, then you may go without. Your eating disorder knows it can offer that feeling of control, that when things are unusual and things are difficult, then you can control it through your food.

And, on the other side of the eating disorder spectrum, those with binge-eating difficulties may find that they are worried they may panic-buy out of fear, just like others are doing, and then due to the lack of control within their lives throughout this pandemic e.g. self isolation, working from home, being in environments which illicit anxiety, so they may cope by overeating/binging. For people with purging involved in their eating disorder, they may then attempt to regain control by purging. It is difficult with any eating disorder to feel like you are in control, or any appropriate amount of control. So with an excess of foods or no food at all, the individual will fall into a way of disordered eating again to cope. To get any form of control or alleviate any anxieties.

People with eating disorders are so overwhelmed with the prospect of trying to cope and recover already so throw in the element of a pandemic, which is causing others to react in a panicked state, often leaving our most vulnerable even more vulnerable. This may lead to an increase in behaviours and a decrease in reaching out for help and general self-care of themselves. Many are stuck, and simply don’t know what to do.

Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, has put together advice from a team of clinicians on how to cope with coronavirus if you have an eating disorder. It’s a phenomenal resource, and one I recommend taking the time to read. However, as someone with lived experience, I am putting together some advice myself. I’m hoping to put some resources out myself with Beat and another health care resource I work alongside called Alliance Care Scotland.

What can you do as a person with an eating disorder or as a carer? There is a large quantity of problems that you may find surface as you go through these next few weeks/months of the pandemic. But, always know there is something you can do about it. And that something does not involve your eating disorder taking over. Know that it will try, but you are stronger than this, and if you have a plan then you can keep the eating disorder at bay, and you can maintain recovery.

First things first, forgive yourself for the feelings you are experiencing. The world is in a chaotic stage, and was in a chaotic place beforehand. Your eating disorder does not stop for this. It is always fighting for control of you. You cannot help thinking about it, and in this time, you are going to feel out of control. Your eating disorder loves this and it will try to jump on this panicked time. Your eating disorder will try to riddle you with guilt. Why are you focusing on yourself? Why are you being so selfish? You shouldn’t be thinking about yourself. It doesn’t want you to focus on recovery, or speaking about it. It just wants you to not focus on yourself, and effectively not care for yourself. It’ll want you to fall back into your old coping mechanisms, because it’s something you are used to and it’s “easier” to deal with than trying to manoeuvre recovery. So, I want you to forgive yourself for focusing on your eating disorder and wanting to remain recovered. It was there before the pandemic, and it’ll still be there. You can still focus on your recovery. And you should.

In the midst of the panic buying, you may feel overwhelmed about the prospect of going out to the shops. So, now is the time to collaborate. Carers of someone with an eating disorder may find that this is a great opportunity to work alongside the person and even learn more about how the eating disorder interacts with their loved one. If you want to go to the shops then go with someone who can help keep you focused and work through your anxieties. If you cannot go with someone, then communicate on the phone. Send them a list of what you are buying so they can collaborate with you and keep you focused. If you decide to do online shopping then do it alongside someone or communicate via FaceTime, Skype or a phone call. You may feel it would be easier to go alone, or to go without food altogether, but this will give the eating disorder the opportunity to have control. If you work in a collaborative approach then you will share responsibility, while also having a chance to have a level of control. You should be involved in what you eat, but should not give your opportunity to your eating disorder to establish full control.

If you are missing safe foods due to panic buying, collaborate with others in your lives to share what they have in terms of food (safely and with consideration of their stocks too.) Do they have some fruit they can spare? Do they have a loaf of bread? Can they batch some meals or prepare some meals/snacks and prepare some extra which you can take? If this is proving to be difficult, sit down and plan out some meals and snacks, make a list of your safe foods, and then plan some alternatives. This is when collaboration could come in handy. Carers may find it helpful to work with the person to think through alternatives, as they may feel overwhelmed by the prospect of introducing relatively new foods or different versions of safe foods into their lives. They may feel stressed by this and it could result in a lot different negative emotions coming to the forefront. As a carer, you have to be prepared for this and understand that this is a complicated and distressing situation for someone with an eating disorder. Have breaks, work through the list as slowly as they feel comfortable, think about each food carefully, and remind them that you can get through it together and the eating disorder does not have a say but rather they do.

Some people feel that self-isolation may give them the opportunity to not eat, particularly if they live alone. Some feel they can’t eat at home and prefer to eat out, because it encourages them to eat. An idea may be to set time aside to eat your meal, and FaceTime or Skype someone to have your meal with them. It allows you to talk about other things that aren’t focused on eating. It may also give you the chance to speak through anxieties you are experiencing right now when you are eating. It may be fun to treat your meal time like a restaurant or a cafe. We’re all having to social distance right now, so treat your environment like a cafe. Eat together, but maybe not right next to each other. But, don’t eat in separate rooms. You wouldn’t eat in separate rooms in a cafe. This allows you to eat in company, but perhaps not provide the same amount of pressure a family mealtime may have.

On the other side of the eating disorder, it may be a good opportunity for you try new foods. If you feel comfortable, and are struggling to find your safe foods, introduce a new food whether this is an alternative to a safe food or a brand new food. Do this where you are comfortable. I acknowledge that this may cause a great deal of anxiety, so make the small steps that are necessary for you to do this.

Most importantly, now is the time to talk to people. We are in self-isolation, so it can be a very lonely time for us all. We are social creatures by nature, and having social interactions are very important, if not essential, to maintaining good mental health. We are social distancing, but not socially withdrawing. We are in an age of AI and assistive technology so we should use it. If you can’t see someone, pick up the phone and talk to them. FaceTime or video call to have or prepare a meal. Have you just watched a show and want to discuss it with your friend? Go ahead and phone them. Give some designated time to discussions around the virus to get it off your chest and then end all discussion around it. Keep up with your therapist if you are seeing one; enquire if they are doing telephone support, which many are likely doing. If you can, visit online forums on places like Beat. They have just launched The Sanctuary which is a daily service, running between 12-8pm. They have a variety of chat rooms and online support services. This will allow you to stay connected and give you the opportunity to talk about your eating disorder, whether it is anorexia, binge eating, bulimia etc., Join a Facebook group that is relevant to your area, and seek out help if it’s needed. It may seem like the world is incredibly selfish right now, but there are people out there who want to help. A lot of people are turning to online resources to broadcast their services such as yoga classes, drag quiz shows, cooking classes etc., If you are on social media, investigate your community or check out new communities. There are people there who want to connect.

Remember, don’t feel guilty for worrying about your eating disorder in this crisis. Don’t feel like you are selfish. Right now, your eating disorder can thrive in this situation. It will try its hardest to take control of you. Try to not give it the chance to do so. You are stronger than it, even if you don’t feel that way. You are deserving of recovery. You are deserving of food. You are deserving of good things. Have a plan, reach out, and you will get there.

Keep safe. Keep healthy. Wash your hands.

The Monster’s Post-It Notes

“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.

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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

An Experience With The Pro-Ana Nation

Disclaimer: This posts deals with eating disorders, eating disorder behaviour and Pro-Ana/Pro-Mia sites. I understand that some people may find a comfort in these sites, but this is my personal experience, what research I have completed in my masters and my perspective of what I observed and consumed on these sites.

I am alone in front of my brother’s computer. I open up the internet and type in a familiar phase into the search engine, as I watch hundreds of results flash up in front of my eyes. I click on a link, permanently purple in colour, and it takes me to a blog. Images ensnare me. Words, commandments, rules reel me in with grip hook reminders of what I have become consumed with. I scroll endlessly, pausing over certain photos, tracing the outline of the subject with my cursor. I can feel a high building in my system. It’s a strange sensation. One that both fills me with light and fills me with darkness. I am being simultaneously pulled down and lifted up. Hope yet despair. I find some text on the page with comforting words and instructions, a guiding star, and I feel … safe.

After a time, I exit this page as the high is waining and I need something else. I open YouTube and look up a favourite video. It’s a picture series video. A lovely, very pretty song accompanies it. I click another and another and another and another until my search history has an evidence trail of what I am. Eventually I leave and return to more blogs where I meet supporters who unwittingly entice me with their efforts; breeding a competitiveness I have only seen in sport. They are like me so they don’t know. I read the details of their day in the format of food and exercise. I learn their ways as they learn from mine. We goad each other to do better. To submit entirely. And soon, once I am absolutely sick and heavy with my consumption, I retire for a few hours until I return that night to do it all over again.

I was involved in the Pro-Ana Nation.

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While there is not evidence in the number of visitors to these sites, or frequent users, there are likely hundreds or thousands of people that visited Pro-Ana sites. It’s a formidable habit. A dangerous one.

So, what is Pro-Ana?

Pro-Ana is short for Pro-Anorexia. It is the promotion of behaviours that align with anorexia nervosa and restrictive eating patterns. Its counterpart is Pro-Mia, or Pro-Bulimia. Its main method of dissemination is online through websites and social media channels. When I followed Pro-Ana, I used the websites.

Pro-Ana/Pro-Mia is a community, which spreads the message of maintaining your eating disorder. It’s portrayed as though its a religion. Most sites, if not all, have their staple posts: the thin commandments, the Ana Creed. Of course, it’s a total parody of Christianity and Catholicism – this irony was not lost on me, being a born and raised Catholic myself. It’s like a religion and you become its follower.

Pro-Ana is seen in written blog posts, photo sets, photo edits… There are tips and tricks on how to hide your eating disorder from your family, how to lose weight, dangerous crash diets, tricking your GP or the staff in the inpatient clinic… There’s diagrams, thinspiration videos, safe foods – which, I might add, become less and less safe the further you delve. Pro-Ana is vast and detailed, leaving no gaps for you to escape from the grasps of your eating disorder. From Ana. From Mia.

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My journey with Pro-Ana began when I was 15. I was already developing orthorexia, and in a very vulnerable place. I was in English class and we were going over our argumentative/persuasive essays. I was doing something on meat consumption or the fashion industry’s creepy sexualisation of child and adolescent models. You know, something light-hearted. Reading over my endless pages of notes, trying to construct some kind of plan, I caught sight of my classmate’s pages printed from the internet. It was a lot of articles and some screen grabs of something called Pro-Ana. She was discussing it with the rest of the table and I asked, innocently enough, if I could look at what she was doing. I was genuinely curious.

My eyes were glued to the page immediately. It was probably in that moment that the personification of anorexia manifested and began to hang around me. I just didn’t realise it. I handed the pages back to my classmate, making a mental note to research what this Pro-Ana thing was. And that’s where it started.

I got home, and got onto my brother’s computer, as he played football or golf that night. Within minutes, I was in deep. Admittedly, I was horrified by what I was seeing. I couldn’t believe that people ran sites like this and that people actually followed it. But, I wasn’t closing the page. I couldn’t close the page. I was horrified, but I was intrigued. This was a place that could promise me it all. The truth on how to really get to where I wanted to in life. Most of these people had lives similar to mine. They had mental health difficulties. Anxiety. Depression.

They were lonely and lost and trying to figure out why they felt like failures. And so was I.

So, I stayed. And, Pro-Ana had me.

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Pro-Ana became a part of my daily routine during my experience with orthorexia and anorexia. You’re already living, according to a very regimented and highly controlled routine, so the addition to Pro-Ana became an essential part to my experience with anorexia nervosa. I would spent days trawling through blogs. At times, I would be so un-energetic that I would mindlessly watch videos called Thinspiration videos. This is essentially videos full of extremely slim girls and ‘inspirational quotes’ such as that infamous Kate Moss quote. I wasn’t even taking in the images when I felt this weak, but the fact I knew they were there was good enough for me.

It was a comfort blanket.

The only way I could appropriately describe the grip Pro-Ana had on me was like having an addiction, which is perhaps insensitive to those who have drug addictions. But, it gave me a real high. It gave me a short burst of excitement and belonging. So, when I was hitting real lows of depression, exhaustion, and self-hatred, I would go on the Pro-Ana sites and find solace, a justification for what I was doing. It was like the anorexia was trying keep me on track, keep me trapped, within the suffocating walls of an eating disorder. One trip to these sites would remind what I could achieve if I just maintained my eating disorder.

Pro-Ana portrays these slim girls as very successful in their social circles; so gorgeous that boys fall at their feet and see them as these ethereal creatures. This is absolute gold for young, impressionable adolescent girls; particularly those with such low self-worth and low self-esteem like me. I grew up hating the way I looked and the way I acted. I didn’t understand myself. I didn’t know my identity. I was cannon fodder to these sites. My eating disorder knew it could have me hook, line and sinker with the details of a successful and happy life if I just kept starving myself.

But here was the problem.

There were lots of us in these Pro-Ana communities, whether they were active and contributing members, or silent consumers like me. And, we were all feeding and being fed the idea that being the epitome of what an eating disorder wants is exactly what we should strive for. So, often there were detailed accounts, and sometimes nonsensical, starved accounts, of our failures in restricting and purging. Anytime we binged we felt like we failed and the purge that followed made us feel dirty. We were being promised that the eating disorder was the key to our happiness but we were all so deeply unhappy and deeply unwell. Even when we were ‘doing well’ according to Pro-Ana and our eating disorders, we were failures to ourselves as whatever we did was not good enough. No matter whether we could see bones, or we had to five layers to keep warm, or we weighed a certain amount, ate a certain number of calories, fasted for a certain number of days, we still felt like failures. These Pro-Ana sites trapped us in this cycle of feeling like a failure with the small, fleeting yet instant hit of hope that we could maybe be what Pro-Ana promised. As long as we stayed on the sites, used them, and continued to follow the dangerous diets, and restricted and purged.

The additional danger that came with the community was the support we gave each other was quite superficial and actually spurred on subconscious competitive behaviours. It was almost a ‘best in show’ and Ana and Mia were the judges. Not only were you learning tips and tricks in how to maintain your eating disorder, but you were also trying to outdo each other. Be the best at your eating disorder. You are special and that’s why Ana chose you so prove you are the best. Prove it!

You are in competition with each other and you can record your attempts via these posts. How long you fasted for. How many calories you didn’t eat. How you can purge so easily now. And on the other side, you are reading these posts, soaking in the words, thinking I need to do better. I need to prove to Ana that I am worthy. If you see someone who is eating 400 calories a day, and you are eating 500, you instantly feel like a failure. You must do better. Must try harder. This leads to an increase in your disordered eating. I would eat less because I felt I had to do just as well, if not better, than others. I would restrict further in my eating disorder because I was seeing evidence plain as day that I was not good enough. Not only was my eating disorder telling me I wasn’t good enough, and I had to starve myself more, but I was reading the words of the others ‘successes.’

And there I was, crying because I couldn’t make myself sick like they could, and instead was cutting up the back of my throat with whatever utensil I was using and hurting my stomach and chest with the gagging and coughing with no result.

I was heavily addicted to the these sites, and it was very hard to withdraw from them. It was very obviously important to my recovery that I did, but I would miss the feeling it gave me. The hit of adrenaline. The strangely warm and longing feeling that I was making myself better and it would all be worth it. I could be like these girls on the Pro-Ana sites. I could be happy. I could have the life I wanted. I could have everything Pro-Ana promised. As long as I did what she told me to do.

And the more I consumed on the internet, the less I consumed in real life.

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Nowadays, these sites are a lot more heavily policed. But social media is ever evolving and there are ways in which Pro-Ana can operate her sick little games to warp people within the eating disorder community. Code words, private accounts, censors; all masquerading in a much cleverer and sneakier way than when they were quite brazen on these old blogging sites. But, then again, that’s the nature of an eating disorder.

I have never attempted to seek out these sites again. Because I know how powerful they are. I remember how they sucked me in. I remember how they trapped me.

I’ve found my way to the surface again and I don’t want to go back. Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia are powerhouses, and not the good kind. They are evil, destructive things that steal your identity and make you feel like you are being supported, when you are not. You are only being plunged into their world; never to be your own person again. You are theirs.

Never again.

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If you are struggling with an eating disorder, or concerned about someone who is, then please contact your GP, or visit Beat for helplines and online support forums.

I understand some of you might find this language or content inflammatory and untrue. We all have different experiences. These are mine and, as you can tell, I am not a fan of Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia sites. However, if you have any other opinions, or a different experience with these sites, leave a comment below. I always love learning about other peoples’ experiences and reading your perspectives.

I Am Not My Eating Disorder.

Disclaimer: This piece discusses eating disorders.

An eating disorder is a powerful thing. It can ruin many years of your life. It can take away your joy to eat. It can damage your body nearly beyond repair. It can leave lasting physical problems. It embeds itself in your mind like a parasite. It is consuming. It is enduring.

And, it can rob you entirely of your identity.

During my MSc, I completed a dissertation that focused on the perspective of those who considered themselves non-stereotypical in their experience of an eating disorder. I interviewed them on said experience and how it compared against those who were more stereotypical. Although it did not emerge as a main theme, many of the participants spoke of issues with their identity. In other words, their eating disorder became an important, if not total, part of their identity.

However, there is a deeper idea behind the identity issues with an eating disorder. While there is the stereotypical concept of what someone looks like with an eating disorder, there holds a concept of an eating disorder taking over a person’s original identity. The eating disorder becomes the individual. The more it consumes the stronger it grows and the further and further away from the light you get. Once an eating disorder gets in there, it’s hard to get it back out.

You no longer exist.

People don’t notice it completely, but they know something isn’t right about you. You don’t seem the same. They know it’s you, physically, but it’s like you are wearing a mask. So clever that it can expertly fool people, but not clever enough that people can see through the cracks. They can see you trying to get out, but the further entrenched you become in the eating disorder, the slimmer the cracks get. It becomes paved over by some plaster. You disappear and a new you emerges. You and the eating disorder have become one and the same, except the eating disorder is the dominant personality.

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When you go through recovery, one of the first things you do, or are taught to do in therapy, is externalise the eating disorder. This is probably one of the hardest things to do. It’s not: I didn’t eat above (insert number of calories) for seven days. It’s: my eating disorder didn’t allow me to do that. Not: I have to binge all of this food and then find a way to purge every bit of it because I am worthless and out of control and disgusting. But instead: my eating disorder has taught me to think these things and have distorted my sense of perception. You have to spend a great deal of time trying to figure out what is you and what is the eating disorder. Which can prove to be beyond difficult when you’ve lost yourself to an eating disorder and don’t really know who you are anymore. It has become so ingrained within you. It has you fully believing that you are your eating disorder and that the old you wasn’t really you. This version of you is a higher you. The one you always wanted to become. Your eating disorder sold this identity to you in all its glory. You’ve practically trascended!

Who in their right mind would want to give that up?

Well, the funny thing is: you’re not in your ‘right’ mind at all when you have an eating disorder. Your perception has become so warped that you’ve forgotten what it felt like to be yourself pre-eating disorder. So through therapy, a lot of time and patience, the eating disorder becomes IT and not YOU.

But where does that leave you?

The fear we experience when we begin the process of of externalisation is just that: what are you once you’ve let go? You’ve spent the whole illness being taught that the person you were before was irrelevant and worthless. Where are you meant to go when what you used to be has been destroyed in favour of horrible maladaptive coping mechanisms?

You’ve been put through this traumatic event. You’ve been restricting, binging, purging, over exercising … whatever pattern your eating disorder fell under. You’ve completely shifted your identity to align with an eating disorder. You know what you were like before it happened, but things – things are different now.

I remember who I was before my eating disorder. I was a confident young girl. I ran and kept fit. I played piano. I sang in choir and regularly performed in school musicals and theatre. I was in drama groups. I wrote stories. I liked to do a lot.

When I had my eating disorder, I was almost transformed; a term it will want you to think is a good thing. My bad qualities were accentuated, as you can often observe in a lot of mental health difficulties. Other qualities emerged. A new identity formulated. I was completely affected by my eating disorder, and the stronger my eating disorder became the more pre-eating disorder me disappeared. That part barely existed anymore and was pretty much there to keep up appearances. If my eating disorder had it its way, it would have created a new identity where I didn’t exist at all.

So, when I went through the process of recovery, and externalisation, I had the impossible of task of trying to scrape together the remaining pieces of my old self. An old identity that had been obliterated by an all consuming traumatic experience such as an eating disorder. I tried for a while to get back to who I was before the disorder. And, in doing so, I avoided the fact I had one in the first place. It wasn’t something to be thought of again. It happened and that’s as far as I’ll entertain it.

However, the fact that I was ignoring it was not going to make it magically disappear. I had gone through some serious years of physical and mental damage to my body. Drowned myself in some of the most intense self-hatred I’ve ever experienced. There’s no way I didn’t alter my brain chemistry doing this. I wasn’t going to be the same person.

So, I had to figure out who I was to be now.

Truthfully, I am still trying to really figure out what my identity is post-eating disorder. But right now, I am no longer someone who is their eating disorder. I am someone who had an eating disorder. I am able to discern what thoughts are mine and what thoughts are the illness. I have achieved externalisation.

But, I am always going to have the experience of having an eating disorder living as part of my identity.

And that’s okay to me.

I can face it now it is not ingrained in me. I can see it for what it is. Knowing I can see it means it is no longer seeing for me.

I have a different outlook on the world and a different experience to offer to it. I am someone who has been affected by an eating disorder and bad mental health, and I have been given the chance to speak about how it affected me. I identified as someone consumed by an eating disorder and now I identify as Adrienne: someone affected but now recovered.

Even if I don’t know who I am fully yet, to be in this position in the first place is an incredible position to be in. I don’t know everything; I am learning a lot about who I am becoming.

But, I do know that I have not become my eating disorder.

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If you are affected by any of the above, please do not hesitate to contact the Beat website for further information and online forums, or contact your GP.