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.

The Emotional Protection from a Pandemic: Looking After Yourself as a Social Care Worker

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of stress and strain has been placed on people considered key workers. These workers are on the frontline and exposed to the pandemic firsthand. Some of them, while not directly facing the pandemic, are involved in providing services to the public wherein if these services were not provided the country would be in complete disarray.

My position is named as one of the key workers. I work in health and social care as a recovery worker for the mental health charity, Penumbra, in the Supported Living Service. In this position, I provide emotional and practical support to people with mental health difficulties and diagnoses within their homes. In my day to day life, I am travelling all over Lanarkshire and into a variety of houses and environments. Therefore, my team are very exposed to the risk of coronavirus. As are the rest of Penumbra workers whether it’s supported accommodation, supported living, crisis centres etc., Thankfully, some of us are getting the opportunity to work from home. While I am able to provide face to face support, I have that opportunity to provide telephone support at my home. Many other health and social care services are seeing a reduction in their services to ensure the safety of the patients and supported people.

However, that doesn’t stop the worries manifesting within the supported people, particularly within my service as it deals predominantly with mental health. The supported people are dealing with unprecedented levels of self-isolation with a lot of their distractions taken from them and a new threat to their safety with no end in sight. It is causing unduly amounts of stress. As a social care worker, we are often the ones to bear the brunt from the people we support. We’re prepared for most, but during a virus like this, it can be overwhelming and there may be the threat of burning out.

While you are providing care and support, at the end of it all, you have to take care of yourself. Their self-care is a reflection of yours. If you are not supporting yourself, then you cannot successfully support someone else. So, it’s important that you know how to cope.

Lone Working Doesn’t Mean All Alone

Many of us are lone workers, spending vast amounts of time by ourselves. However, we may be lone workers but that does not mean we are completely alone. We work as part of a unit overall. Some services have bigger teams than others. My team is relatively small; seven in total, which includes the practitioners and the manager. However, I understand that there may be team meetings, or opportunities for social care workers to meet up and work together therefore you are aware of each other and probably have had the chance to spend time together. Consequently, it’s important to link up with members of your team now more than ever. My team have a group chat. This allows us to keep informed about our situation and our supported people and for the same information to get to the same people at the same time. However, it also allows us to have a joke and a laugh, share good news and vent our frustrations and anxieties. We are now checking in on each other more often. It is important to maintain a level of normality while also understanding how abnormal life is right now.

In this profession, we spent a lot of time dealing with vulnerable people who are very scared and confused with what is happening. Taking on these anxieties can be very taxing for social care workers so having that chance to touch base with your workmates can make you feel less alone and supported. It gives you the chance to check if you are doing the right thing for a person, providing the right information, and it can give you a chance to take a break from the madness going on. A picture of your colleague’s dog can do a world of good.

The Power Behind “I Don’t Know”

If you have been following updates around the coronavirus on the news and the daily government briefings, then you will know that things are changing everyday, and everything remains to be up in the air. We are not getting clear dates, figures, or timelines from our governments. People are beyond desperate for answers. In fact, a common question I get from my supported people is: when will this all end? The Institute of Disaster Mental Health has said that this uncertainty leads to prolonged stress and anxiety as a disease outbreak differs from any other disaster as there “no clear time boundary.” As a result, our supported people may be in a continuous fight or flight response which can be exhausting. And, as support workers, we know that this can cause a rippling effect on their mental and physical health.

Support workers of any kind sometimes do more than they can and we can end up going above and beyond. It’s a natural instinct to want to solve problems and support workers can feel that instinct tenfold as it’s in our job description to provide a level of practical support. And, unfortunately, sometimes people naturally expect too much of us. We want to take away their problems and they want us to do that too. Therefore, the current situation is very stress-inducing, as you are unable to give concrete information. Consequently, you may want to give information that is not wholly correct and potentially vague. It’s not meant from a malicious place, but quite the opposite. Sometimes I have provided information that I wasn’t particularly sure was true because I wanted the person to feel safe and stop worrying. But, the unfortunate side of this, is while it alleviates anxieties, it can harmful. Think about it: you are giving out incorrect information, and effectively you are providing a false promise. If you’ve received a false promise before, you know how horrible it can feel when you realise you’ve been led down the garden path. Moreover, people can be receiving information from different sources whether it is other support workers, different news outlets, neighbours etc., so if your information differs from someone else then this creates further levels of confusion and uncertainty. Then the person may feel even more vulnerable because they don’t know who to trust.

This is when the power of “I don’t know” comes in handy. This simple statement can lead to a feeling of uncertainty from your supported people, but, ultimately, you are not about to give them false information just to make them feel better. Adding to this, you are not opening yourself up to losing that trust. So, I like to say: “I don’t know right now, but I will try to find out.” This has given some of my supported people a feeling of security as they know that I am not going to lie to them, and I will try my best to give them the truth when I can. This gives me the opportunity to go away, check and then answer the person when I have more information. I don’t know gives you the power of buying time so you can help when you are better informed.

A Chance to Chill

Often, in our regular day to day lives, we come home from our job, cook and then go to bed. This can turn your life into working, eating and sleeping. As they say: all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Now, I know the coronavirus is bad, but there’s no reason for us to turn our lives into the Overlook hotel where we are trapped by our work and thoughts minus the creepy ghosts in the bathtub (spoiler alert.) If you are working from home, you might be tempted to do the same as above, or even work through the night to your bedtime. This is not healthy. This is not the time, nor is it ever the time, to become a workaholic.

Give yourself the opportunity to get a break away from your work life and have a moment to yourself. Take this as some time away from coronavirus centred news. After you have eaten, take an hour or so, even thirty minutes, to yourself. Do this before you go to bed. Take this time to do something you love whether this is watch a TV show, knit, read, listen to a podcast… Have a relaxing bath to ease your sore muscles and feet. Do some level of self care.

Maybe open the windows to let the air in, or sit by your garden steps if you have one. Feel some fresh air and listen to the sounds around you to give you a chance to feel grounded. To get that sense of normalcy and be reminded of the things we take for granted such as the birds singing. Take some time for yourself.

Your life should never be work, eat, sleep, especially not now.

Life Admin

Our lives might feel a bit manic and out of control right now as we try to work through the virus especially with PPE shortages, increased need for support, and staff sicknesses. As a result, we begin to let go of other things within our lives to compensate for the energy and effort we are putting into our jobs. We are busy trying to keep others’ lives together that sometimes we can forgo our own. This may feel like a good option at the time, but things will pile up and up and up and the further they pile up the less we want to deal with it. It becomes a big, scary thing to tackle, making us unsure where to start. So, if we try to set aside some time in the day or in the week to maintain our life skills, then we can tackle them in an easier and more approachable manner. Take 15 minutes at the end of the day to look through your mail, or make your lunch. Choose a day to organise a meal plan or give the house a good tidy. If you have someone else at home, team up. Can they take charge of the cooking while you take charge of the cleaning? Can they take the bins out while you make sure the dishes aren’t piling up? Defrost a steak while you action mail? Like in my previous blog on eating disorders and safe foods, collaboration during this time is key to making it through.

If You Feel Scared, Say It

Your supported people may be telling you everyday how very scared and worried they are right now. Because of this, you may feel the need to put on a brave face and push away your worries. While it is recommended you do this, as the support is for them, and not somewhere you bring your problems into, it is not healthy to let this bleed into the rest of your life. Listening to someone tell you how scared they are, seeing the terrifying figures of deaths, feeling that uncertainty… it can be draining and it can illicit fear within you. You can begin to internalise this fear and question whether anything is safe anymore. There has been times where I have been trying to keep on a brave face during a telephone call meanwhile I’m taking a panic attack as I’m talking, my heart hammering off my chest. We are human. We’re not superheroes. We get scared. This is a difficult time. And it’s okay to admit that.

If you are feeling scared, if you are feeling angry, if you are feeling lost, then say it. People on your team are probably feeling the same way. Your personal network of family and friends and colleagues can offer their own support to you and give you a space to discuss and reflect on your anxieties. Bottling up your negative feelings can burn you out eventually. You are going to feel exhausted from time to time. You are going to feel worried and uncertain. But this is okay. You are okay. You have a right to say how you feel and you have a right to feel supported yourself.

Keep Informed But Don’t Become Obsessed

As I mentioned, this pandemic is changing everyday. We are getting a constant steady stream of news and it can be very hard to keep up. At the start of the pandemic, I was watching the news every single day, every single hour, every single minute. Then, I suddenly began to feel dirty and disgusting and very, very overwhelmed. I knew I was watching too much. So, I began to only watch the news for a portion in the morning such as a 15 minute news show on YouTube called The Philip DeFranco Show (which is American centred) or BBC Breakfast and then watch the 6pm news bulletin. I’ll also watch the First Minister and government briefings. I keep myself informed so to keep my supported people informed, but I try not to become obsessed. We are all so desperately seeking out answers that it is incredibly easy to try to absorb as much news as we can. However, we can only absorb so much and eventually we will begin to drown in it. And, you might find that you become mixed up by the changing news and different information being put out there, especially with #fakenews.

The Institute of Disaster Mental Health has a fantastic statement in the report I linked, which has become my mantra during this time: unless you’re actually in charge of the response, you probably don’t need to be monitoring the news 24/7. We are providing support, but we are not the government. We can only do so much.

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Being in social care, particularly in my job as a recovery worker, is such a rewarding, challenging and fun job. We are used to expecting the unexpected. We work with people and people are unpredictable, which we learn to adapt to. However, this is new territory. Our current resources may not always be applicable, but their elements can be useful. This pandemic will end and we can weather this storm, but we have to take care of ourselves.

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Check out the NHS and the government website for further advice on coronavirus. If you work in Scotland, like myself, then check out the Scottish Social Services Council for further information on social care and coronavirus. Keep safe and keep healthy. We can do this.

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

Methods for Mental Health: Wellbeing Counselling

Walking up a flight of beige stairs, my heart beat in triple time with every step, I could feel nausea settling deep into my stomach. I can turn back now and just pretend like I never contacted them, I thought as I stepped closer and closer to the waiting room. I wanted so badly to turn around and go back to the library, hide behind my university work, and push down the anxiety and depression. But, before I knew it, I was knocking on the door of the receptionist, and announcing myself:

“Hi, I’m Adrienne. I’ve got an appointment at 2pm.”

The receptionist smiled, passed over a clipboard with an information sheet, and asked me to fill it out and wait on one of the seats, while my counsellor finished up with her previous person. I took the clipboard, my hands shaking, and found a seat closest to the door. There was someone else waiting for their counsellor. I smiled curtly, and looked away to focus on the posters and leaflets around the room, blue-tacked onto the plain white brick walls. I didn’t want to be here, but I knew I had to be. I wanted to leave, but a weight held me down, making sure I didn’t.

It felt like hours had passed, when really it was only a few minutes, before my counsellor came in and said my name into the air. I smiled at her and she signalled me to follow her a little down the corridor to her room.

That would be my place of solace for the next few months.

*

It was a friend who introduced me to the idea of going to the counselling. She knew I was going through a hard time again at university. My anxiety and depression were getting the better of me. I was in my first relationship, and the beginnings of it falling apart were beginning to show. I was leaving parties early to walk home at night. I was in the middle of a flat-share argument. University work was piling up and up and up, and my self esteem was going down and down and down. Everything was collapsing around my ears.

I was lost. I felt I had no one. I felt I had exhausted my support system. Like in my previous blogpost on Samaritans, I needed someone who didn’t know me. I needed objectivity.

So, standing in our mouldy kitchen, cradling our cups of tea and coffee because it was too cold to sit in our living room, my flatmate said: “I’ve started attending counselling up at the university. You should give them an email and try it.”

I found the email address for the wellbeing services and sent along an enquiry. Within a few days, I was asked to come along to an introductory session the next week. I remember an immediate sense of dread hitting me. I was getting some help. Finally. But, having spent years and years repressing my poor mental health, I was scared of what was going to happen. Similar to my experience with Samaritans, I was scared of being vulnerable.

However, I knew that when push came to shove, there was no chance I could turn this down. I didn’t know when I’d get taken again. I knew how precious a commodity mental health help is. And this being my second breakdown I needed someone to speak to. I needed to figure this out.

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My introductory session lasted 30 minutes. I remember there was a soft, artificial smell of lavender, which would automatically set me at ease in my following sessions. I was so incredibly nervous. And my counsellor knew that. Counsellors know you are nervous. They know what goes on in these sessions. They know the general script. You may not. I didn’t.

This introductory session was to help me figure out what I thought about counselling and why I was there.

It gave my counsellor the chance to get me to know me generally, and then get to understand why I came to her. I came to her because I was struggling with university, my anxiety, and I wanted it all to stop. I wanted her to give me ways to make it stop. I don’t want to be stressed anymore and I want to stop crying all the time, I said to her within the first 15 minutes. She soon made me realise that part of counselling is exploring the why’s, not the how to’s.

Because that’s the thing with counselling, and something I didn’t expect: a counsellor, a therapist, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or whoever it is, will not just tell you what to do. You are a vital and essential part of your journey to recovery. If you do not understand your core beliefs, your reasons for why you feel the way you do and why you have learned to cope the way you do … then some breathing techniques are going to be absolutely useless to you.

Additionally, similarly to how I felt with Samaritans, I found it startling that the counsellor allowed me to talk without interruption. There was a lot of silence, because I was waiting for her to jump in with advice in the first few sessions. I was waiting for her to add in her opinion. But that’s the thing: they need to know more about you before they can add in their opinion. They need to understand where you have come from. It is not their job to jump in with solutions straight away, because those solutions may not be tailored to you if they have not heard what is going on in your life. Not every problem needs to be solved right away, particularly the big, messy ones. The opportunity to talk is something I had to adjust to. I had to force myself to talk. I was filling the silences with everything in my life. This is a technique they perform to get you to empty out your emotions and your frustrations and your thoughts. And it is uncomfortable. But so is mental health. This feeling is temporary and shall pass. You just have to roll with it. You just have to talk.

So, that’s what we did the first couple of sessions. I talked and talked and talked and she listened. The smell of lavender drifted around the room and the timer for the session ticked on. She and I got to know me. We explored my family, my relationship with parents and peers and all its dysfunctional parts, my relationship with myself… And this helped her to help me to understand why I would freak out at the slightest hint of failure. It helped me to realise I held onto criticism throughout my life and let it play into my self-esteem and self-worth. And the interesting thing was it helped me to open a dialogue with one of my parents; one, in which, I avoided talking about my emotions, in a proper way, with. I was able to see the issue after the high intensity emotions cleared and this meant I could address this issue and thus open a new area of discussion with this parent and help them to realise how they had hurt me and how the other parent made me feel too. My counsellor was aware that I could address my emotional difficulties with one parent, but due to some particularly difficult reasons, I was unable to get to that level of communication with the other. This was a recognised barrier that my counsellor knew was difficult to break and therefore helped me to get around it in a way that would ease my poor mental health. A good counsellor should know your boundaries and your barriers and will try to help you get through or around these barriers in a way that is more adaptive than your current methods.

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The second time I attended counselling, my counsellor was familiar with who I was, but she still had to understand why I had come to her for a second time. It had been around a year. I was there because I was having an extremely difficult time in a relationship, my anxiety was way worse, I was being bullied by someone in my social circle, I was isolating myself, the list could go on. Some of these problems were explored in the first round of counselling but had featured in different ways. So, she spent a session re-familiarising herself with my difficulties, and then began to help me speak through what was going on in my life at that point.

A few sessions in, I had attempted to complete suicide, and I told her. Because she felt to be the only person I could tell without judgement even though I was suffocating with shame. She spoke this through with me and we reflected on the impact of my suicide. I remember crying for one of the first times outside of my bedroom, because she told me how much I mattered and how much my death would affect others – more than I thought. And, while I still struggle to believe I am wanted and that I matter, it startled me to hear that my counsellor would have been affected if I had taken my own life. I had never thought of that. Whether this was the right thing for her to do, I don’t know, but I appreciated it. It felt different to be sure that someone was in my corner and helping me to find my voice. I can’t usually speak about my emotions and how I think and feel with family and friends because I feel guilty and stupid, but with my counsellor I felt like I was speaking to a blank canvas who was there to soak up my words and then use what I created to help me see what was going on; giving me the support I really needed at that time.

Most counselling sessions typically last for a few months, which is largely to do with the funding and waiting lists; particularly in universities and with poor mental health becoming a very common factor in today’s society. I went to counselling for around 2-3 months at a time. Thankfully I did not have to wait long each time, but I know that is not the case for many people. Counsellors and wellbeing staff are never annoyed that you have returned to receive more help. They understand, or they should understand, that poor mental health can be chronic for some, and 6 weeks of counselling does not undo the damage of years and years of maladaptive coping strategies. So, they will try to fit as much as they can in the time that they have with you.

Some people don’t enjoy counselling, whether this is due to a bad counsellor, or their sessions being terminated due to waiting list demands. However, I would encourage you to go again. It may be different the next time. If it’s not, then this method for mental health is not for you.

Counsellors are objective support systems in your life that you allow you to talk about what has happened and what is currently going on. It can be really hard to cope sometimes and you sometimes need an extra pair of ears to listen. I don’t often like talking to others who are close to me because of trust issues and feeling like I’m a burden. I will offer bits and pieces, but with counselling I was allowed to offer all of me, and that was really something.

There should be so much more funding in counselling. Large, extensive waiting lists shouldn’t be there. There should be more expansive and better funded mental health resources in general. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to get their help. You have a right to help and you have a right to have a voice and sort through your difficulties. You have noticed you are struggling and now you deserve the help that is available to you.

I am grateful for the counsellor who helped me when I was in university. I always will be.

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

Methods For Mental Health: The Good Samaritan

Disclaimer: This post involves a conversation about suicide, suicidal ideation, and suicidal thoughts and actions.

Around 3am, my knees hugged tight to my chest, the small of my back pressing against the frame of my bed, I stared at the number I had just dialled into my phone. My fingers trembled over the green call button. I willed myself to press call. My breath was caught in my chest as though my lungs were being crushed by my ribs. I pressed the call button. The dialling tone rang in my ear, daring me to hang up, but before my nerves got the better of me, the call connected.

Hello, you’re through to Samaritans. How can I help?

This is my experience with the Samaritans helpline.

*

While the number of completed suicides has generally decreased, there are still increases within the male demographic and across different cultures and countries. Samaritans launched their freephone helpline in 2015. Over 5.7 million people called Samaritans within a year. This number has been increasing steadily throughout the years. People are reaching out for support more and more, but there remains a stigma, and a genuine fear around calling a suicide helpline.

For me, the fear and anxiety lay around: I am going to have to admit that I am seriously struggling; struggling so much that I want to end my life. You don’t want to be that person who calls a suicide helpline. It makes you feel nuts and helpless. But, I was helpless and I was feeling completely out of my mind.

I was at a point in my life where my mental health was so bad, and I was so, so alone that I felt the only way for the suffering to stop was to kill myself. To make it all go away by making myself go away. Essentially. I couldn’t breathe for suicidal ideation.

However, there was something in me trying to swim to the surface to save me. And that’s when I googled the number for Samaritans.

When the call connected, a soft and polite female voice greeted me. I don’t know what I was expecting exactly when I rang. But, I didn’t expect to connect automatically. I mean, there was nothing else it was going to do. Did I think it was going to take me to a menu? Press 1 if you want to kill yourself now. Press 2 if you don’t know if you want to kill yourself. Did I think I was going to be put on a waiting list? You are number 7 in the queue; please hold if you want to talk about the fact you are very suicidal and thinking of the ways you end it. Nope, it connected pretty much automatically.

This jarred me. I had built up all this courage to phone and, within a few minutes, I was faced with it. On the other side was someone who was waiting to hear about my suicidal thoughts. I didn’t know what to do. What could I say?

I had run the word suicide through my mind several times so much so that it was just another word. However, thinking a word and saying a word can carry very different weights. Additionally, saying a word out loud to yourself and saying a word out loud to someone also carry very different weights. The fact I hadn’t said it out loud either to myself or to anyone else… that rested very heavily upon me the second the phone call connected. For many, this is the first time they discuss their suicidal thoughts and feelings. Connecting straight to an operator, therefore, can be extremely surprising.

However, while it frightened me, it didn’t give me the option to hang up. If there was an exceedingly long time to wait, you’d probably have a lot of people overthinking their decision to phone and soon hanging up the call. You can’t ‘run’ if the call connects straight to an operator. You have to face the suicidal thoughts head on. I had to speak about it. This was the moment I had chose to speak out against my suicidal thoughts. Sure, you can hang up if the call connects and you really don’t want to talk about it, but, for me, it created a sense of: you can do it now or you can continue to let the suicidal thoughts torment you. So, I stayed on the call and spoke about the fact I was considering killing myself.

*

It wasn’t until I did an elective class in clinical psychology when I was in my fourth year of university that I learned about the power of silence. However, I was first exposed to the act of using silence in counselling and in Samaritans. Samaritans use it very effectively. The woman I spoke to was very calming and patient. And she used silence as a method to get me to talk. Silence is used in therapy and in psychological practices to do exactly that. Think about times where there were awkward silences in your life. You may have felt obliged to keep talking to fill the silence up. This is the idea behind leaving an intentional and deliberate silence within conversation. However, it’s not a deceitful and wholly ‘manipulative’ act. It actually benefits the individual on the other side of the phone.

When I called Samaritans and was faced with a lot of silence, it gave me an enormous opportunity to speak. That was what I needed. Samaritans is a helpline that gives you the chance to talk. And that is one of the most important steps towards improvements and a better understanding in your own mental health. A lot of people involved in my life did not want to listen to me at that time, or they would jump down my throats with well meaning but ill timed solutions. At that point, I just needed someone to listen. For me, someone dismissing me or trying to solve my problem only made me feel that no one cared, wanted to listen, or give me the time of day. It’s not that I didn’t want to solve the problem. I just wanted to talk about my situation and how it was making me feel.

For someone to give me a chance to talk, give me a chance to vent… it was unnerving, but it was welcomed. Initially, I didn’t know what to do. I was waiting for the worker to butt in, to offer some kind of solution, but it didn’t come. I’m not going to lie, I was confused and I actually became a bit frustrated. I remember thinking: just have an input, moan with me, please talk back… But now when I think back on it, I can see it was because I was so used to people butting in and offering me solutions that I was not ready to commit to. Plus, Samaritans was not going to bitch and moan with me over one of my issues that was amounting to my suicidal ideation. Because that’s not what they are there for. They were there to give me a safe space so I could finally let everything out.

Although I was hesitant, especially with the silence, in speaking out loud, I eventually began to let everything out. I didn’t cry. Mainly because of the environment I was in when I was on the phone. I was whispering the full conversation. However, throughout I carried feelings of embarrassment trying to tell the worker I was suicidal. Because I was so naturally ashamed I had been feeling so incredibly down that I was almost ready to take my life. Because I had people dismiss me and tell me I was overreacting so I convinced myself that maybe I was overreacting and maybe I was the bad one. I should be ashamed of myself. Why don’t I just get rid of myself because I am so embarrassing? Then the more I wanted to speak about it the more I remembered how embarrassed and ashamed I felt about wanting to kill myself. See, the vicious cycle…

I apologised several times and continued to tell her: “this is really stupid… Please don’t think I’m an idiot… I’m really sorry… I know this is daft… I sound so ridiculous and stupid … maybe I’m the idiot… I know I shouldn’t act this way…

I made every attempt to downplay how I was feeling. The worker did not agree. She highlighted how important it was that I was speaking about my feelings. She created a sense of trust and made me feel appreciated and like what I was saying mattered. Someone finally heard me and someone finally put me in my place. And that was place was: you are phoning this number because you are in a crisis and I want to help you. She finally made me understand that what I saying was important and it was serious. And that my life mattered. Even if I didn’t think so.

*

They have a lot of people to speak to so you can’t really stay on the line for hours. However, I think I was on the phone for around 30-40 minutes. They don’t aim to have you on and off the phone within a certain time. But they have a lot of people who call them. Particularly at the time I called, which was at 3am. They have to get these people on the line. They have to catch them before they hang up. That being said, if they feel you are still at risk at the end of conversation, they will phone you back.

Samaritans did this for me.

I was going to a party the next night, where there was going to be alcohol and there was also going to be a few reasons that triggered my suicidal ideation to begin with. I had talked out all my problems, and was in a stage of repeating myself therefore the conversation was becoming ‘stale.’ And that’s my opinion. Not the Samaritans worker. I knew myself that I had talked myself out, and I was getting tired. She would check in occasionally to see how I was feeling now throughout the conversation and when she got the feeling that I was getting tired and feeling at least a degree better she believed it was a good time to bring the conversation to a close.

Because I was going to this party, the worker asked my permission to have someone phone to check in and see how I was feeling. The next night, I was getting ready at a friend’s, and an unknown number came in. My friend suggested it may be Samaritans. I answered and a soft, male voice asked: “hello, is this Adrienne? This is Samaritans calling. Is it a good time to talk?” I disappeared to another room, and spoke quietly to them. This worker asked me how I feeling, did I get a good sleep… They also reassured me that I had done the right thing to phone. They asked where I was, how I felt about going to the party, and who I was going to the party with. The worker relayed the importance of my feelings and my safety. He helped me to understand that I should remove myself from a situation if it was bringing up these suicidal and bad thoughts. I should have a good support system around me. By asking me who I was with, and who I was going to the party with, he told me that I should reach out to these people (if I felt comfortable to) and ask them to keep an eye out on me. It was a short call. It was only meant to be a check up. But, it made a world of difference.

The fact they kept their promise to call me the next day made me feel incredibly safe and appreciated. It made me feel important. I rarely feel important. It validated my feelings. It made me feel like I mattered. I don’t often feel like I matter.

Later that night, I attempted to kill myself. I was stopped by a friend. My friend saved me physically. I was still very suicidal. But, Samaritans allowed me to open that gate. Just like therapy, you will not be cured immediately. Everything will not be magically made better with one discussion. But the minute you talk you begin your journey to recovery. Samaritans is not just for crisis’ moments. It’s a first step. It’s a way to understand your feelings and feel listened. Feeling listened and opening a dialogue is an important start. Samaritans was a first step for me. They took hold of me when I reached out for help.

Samaritans helped me to start my path to saving myself.

*

Whether you are in crisis or just need to talk to someone, whether you are lonely or your mental health has become too much, Samaritans is a step in the right direction. I know the NHS is bursting at the seams. I know mental health help is so hard to come by. So, try your very, very hardest to utilise Samaritans as a resource. I know how hard it is, especially when you’re in the depths of despair and so trapped with feelings of suicide and hopelessness. But trust me, ring that number, and hold on. They are patient. A patient ear is what we need at that time.

They are listening.

If you are feeling suicidal, or need to talk, ring Samaritans on 116 123. If you don’t want to talk and you’re in Scotland, Breathing Space are piloting a web chat service. Their phone helpline is also available Monday to Thursday 6pm – 2am, and weekends 6pm – 6am. Call them on 0800 83 85 87.

I’m Still Standing

Discretion advised: brief discussions of eating disorders, self harm, and suicidal ideation/intention.

There’s something of a Halo Effect that surrounds those who are recovered and those who are mental health advocates. While we are very open and generally quite raw about our mental health journeys, it is suggested that we are almost invulnerable to new stressors and upsets that precipitate into our environment. Any other reaction to these stressors is seen as a state of mind in which you’re not really recovered.

I think this is particularly true when you have recovered from something so viscerally physical in its presentation and manifestation as an eating disorder.

Being recovered from an eating disorder myself, I often feel that people get highly concerned if I express a distaste for the way I look or I feel particularly low in my self-esteem. There’s a real expectation from those around me, whether this is someone close to me or someone I’ve just met, unconscious or not, that I have to be a beacon of self love and confidence and be comfortable of every aspect of myself in order to reassure others I am recovered.

Well, let me tell you something: that is truly, truly exhausting to force yourself to feel that way. Especially on days where you are wallowing in your self-hate and you’re just trying not to be swallowed up by it all. It’s difficult to sit with lies.

So, here’s the truth.

I’ve been recovered from an eating disorder for 5 years and I still hate myself.

I’m choosing to use the word hate; a particularly strong and nasty word, because that is really how I feel. And, you don’t realise how much the realisation that I still hold a very deep hatred for myself lifted a weight off my shoulders. Sounds strange, doesn’t it?

You would probably expect someone who advocates for eating disorders and mental health recovery to be comfortable within her own skin and not wholly unhappy with herself. Well, guess what? I am not.

Hear me out. I don’t condone hating yourself. It’s not a fun state of mind to be in. It’s not cool. It’s not edgy. Hating yourself is one of the worst feelings out there. Hating yourself is like falling into a hole in the ground and, while you are trying to find a way to crawl out, someone is pouring concrete into the hole. It’s pure suffocation. I don’t know how many times I have had self-hating feelings loom over my head all day and drag me down. I wouldn’t be able to hold myself up straight. I’d curl my arms around my body, making myself smaller, shielding my frame from the public. Already so poisoned by the hate in my head, I didn’t want to face anyone looking at me. I didn’t want to give them ammunition. Even though, the ammunition probably didn’t exist.

I still carry these feelings with me. I have days, a lot of days, where it’s all I can think about it. Any social interaction that goes wrong results in me blaming myself. Any time I’ve dated and it’s ended negatively (which is every boy I’ve dated) I have fired off a list of hateful things about myself … why did I think that was ever going to work? I’m so annoying, and boring, and plain, and uninteresting, and too nervous and I’m not worth a chance… see how exhausting that is? That’s what goes on in my head nearly every day.

So, to try and convince the world that I actually love myself in order to prove I am recovered is hard work. As I said, we’re meant to be beacons of self-love, and any sort of self-hatred and low self esteem sound alarm bells. There’s no way we can be recovered if we still hold a hate for ourselves. Recovery isn’t low self esteem. Recovery isn’t overthinking every little step you do. Recovery isn’t anxiety. Recovery isn’t feeling seriously down about your body, your personality, your being, yourself.

Recovery is love.

So, what happens when you don’t fit into this mould of perfect recovery? For me, I feel like an imposter. Do I really have a right to say I am in recovery, and recovered, if there sits an underlying hatred within me? A hatred that lies there, sometimes dormant, and sometimes extraordinarily active.

For a long time, I shoved away those feelings, because I wanted to present as this picture perfect form of recovery. Because I felt that if I actually spoke about the fact I remained to hate myself, and I had not yet broken the hateful thoughts, then people would think I was a failure and didn’t deserve the carry the I’m Recovered badge. I have ignored those feelings and thoughts because I didn’t want to deal with them. They were not a sign of recovery.

Recovery had to be about loving yourself, and blocking out all hate. But, doing so was the equivalent to me shutting my eyes tight, sticking my fingers in my ears, and screaming to shut out the hatred.

It was only recently that I realised I was actually doing better than I thought. And, by accepting the fact I still bear a lot of hate for myself, this has opened up a lot for me, in terms of what recovery actually is. And not what I think it should be.

I have a hate myself, but, here’s the catch, I accept it. I deal with it.

And that’s a level of recovery.

That is growth.

A few years ago, my hatred resulted in incredibly maladaptive coping mechanisms. It played a huge factor in the development of my eating disorder. My eating disorder attempted to control that hatred whilst simultaneously pushing me to hate myself further through the punishment of restrictive eating, purging, and binging. I developed further maladaptive coping mechanisms that extended passed the physicalities of an eating disorder and self-harming. My anxiety intensified and I would sabotage situations. The minute I would sense a change in the vibe in a romantically inclined relationship, or even a platonic relationship, my self-hatred would step in and I would withdraw myself from the situation. Why would anyone want to be with me? Why would anyone be interested in liking me or being my friend? They clearly don’t want me around so I’ll do everyone a favour and leave.

My self-hatred and very low self-esteem affected me so much I almost completed suicide.

Nowadays, I still bear my self-hatred within me, but I deal with it differently. A lot differently. I have been able to reevaluate what recovery is, and where I stand along that line of recovery. Because I previously did not understand that recovery is not the complete absence of your mental health difficulties, but learning to cope and grow with them. Learning that recovery is not dichotomous, but a continuum. And, we can still experience self-hatred and low self esteem, yet consider ourselves recovered.

For me, I have learned that my self hatred has evolved in its expression. It is better controlled. As I mentioned, my self hatred led to eating disorders, to self harm, to isolation, to a near-attempt of suicide. Now, my self hatred sits there with no physical repercussions. I have learned to fight these feelings. Whenever a hateful thought or emotion creeps into the forefront of my mind, and tries to begin its consumption, I don’t let it work its way like it used to. If my hate tries to interact with my disordered eating thought patterns, I break the connection. I don’t use starvation and purging as a method to filter out the hatred. I try my hardest to stop using isolation as a method too. That one I’m still working on.

Right now, I accept that my self-hating attitude needs to diminished. It needs to be smaller. My hatred, no matter how I accept it, is always going to be an anchor that stops me moving forward. I have accepted my hatred, and now I am trying to progress from it. Deal with it in absolution and with conviction. I am actually more disgusted with how much I hate myself rather than disgusted with myself full stop. I experience an almost outer body experience when I see my hatred descend upon me. I’m on the outside looking in and I’m begging to stop hating myself. Simply stop. Love yourself fully for crying out loud.

But it’s not always going to be possible to love yourself fully. Especially when you spent years regularly bathing in doing the opposite, watching your self esteem drop and drop and drop. Until you were at your lowest point and couldn’t stand to even see yourself alive anymore.

My self-hatred is still here. But, so am I. I can outlast it. It will go away. I just have to keep moving forward. Continue to no longer welcome in the maladaptive coping strategies. Thank myself for those moments where I see love in my eyes and feel it in my heart. Allow myself to experience that love, that respect, that happiness. To continually be proud of the fact I am recovering, and no matter how long it takes, I will get there.

I hate myself, yeah, but I’m still standing.