This is Mental Health Awareness Week, which this year focuses on the role of loneliness. My personal experience of eating disorders over the last 20 years has shown me the painful depths of loneliness that living with an eating disorder can involve. Eating disorders don’t exist in isolation from the pressures of society, or our wider food environment and culture. But those who suffer from eating disorders often do.
The kinds of problems that people with eating disorders experience are inherently lonely. Whether someone’s eating disorder involves binge eating, vomiting, and compulsive exercise – or avoiding food, missing social events and feeling ashamed about their body – all of the symptoms play out in isolation from other people, behind closed doors. Too often, that’s where they stay.
When I became so unwell with anorexia that I couldn’t go to school, the only connections I had left were with the doctors and nurses keeping me alive. The idea of doing what I thought everyone else my age was doing – drinking, going out for food, or using their bodies in new and exciting ways – all seemed out of reach. As my body started to shut down, the gap between myself and others grew bigger and bigger.
A big turning point in my recovery was when I realised I couldn’t get better on my own; that I needed other people to help and support me. But this was the harder path. I had almost forgotten how to be around other people my age. It was harder to ask for help, and scary to have to be in touch with my body after it was shut down for so long. I turned to food in a different way.
Bulimia – which for me involves binge eating and vomiting – provided a short-term solution for my difficult feelings, but became a long-term problem that’s stayed with me ever since.
If anorexia is mistakenly characterised as glamorous and self-controlled, then bulimia is its ugly, messy, out of control sibling that nobody wants to talk about. Bulimia is a pattern of periods of binge eating (consuming an abnormally large amount of food over a certain period of time) followed by a compensatory behaviour such as vomiting, compulsive exercise or fasting.
Bulimia isn’t just finishing the whole packet of biscuits and hitting the gym hard the next day, although that might be a precursor. In my experience, bulimia can involve consuming 30,000 kcal of food over two hours; eating until you are in pain and lose continence – and then vomiting until you’re exhausted.
It can be spending half of your entire income on food, because you have to shop specifically for binge eating behaviours. Bulimia can mean being stuck on your own for six hours, every night, in a cycle of Deliveroo orders while your friends carry on with plans without you. And perhaps worst of all, nobody would even know about what you’re going through, because you might appear fit and well.
As a campaigner, I believe we need to give voice to unspoken experiences and bring the hard realities of eating disorders to light. If not, we leave people struggling alone and unable to connect with the support they need. That support and treatment won’t speak to their needs, either, if healthcare professionals don’t comprehend the realities of eating disorders beyond an outdated stereotype.
I’ve often been ignored by doctors because of my gender. As one GP put it, “why would you want to lose weight, that’s what girls want?” On the other hand, I’ve been fetishised as a rare specimen of a male patient, even though men make up one in four people with an eating disorder. I was either left to struggle alone, or gawked at by medics – one in five of whom receive no training at all in eating disorders.
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But most eating disorders are invisible, with only eight per cent of people experiencing them being underweight. People with bulimia or binge eating disorder outnumbering those with anorexia by five to one. Poverty, race and ethnicity have been shown to play a role in increasing risk and making it harder to seek help for eating problems in the first place.
These factors together shatter the myth that eating disorders are just about restrictive dieting, or only experienced by white, middle-class teenage girls. Behind these statistics are people whose illnesses take place behind closed doors, without access to treatment; hidden from those around them.
To change this, we must change our collective idea of who experiences eating disorders and what exactly they might be experiencing. Sometimes the barrier to asking for help with mental health is not reaching out in the first place – it’s then having to explain your problems to someone who has no idea such things could affect someone like you.
This can be exhausting when you are already struggling. By not shying away from challenging or diverse stories of mental health, we can help people who appear to be OK to tell us how they are, really – and to feel less alone.
For anyone struggling with the issues raised in this article, eating disorder charity Beat’s helpline is available 365 days a year on 0808 801 0677. NCFED offers information, resources and counselling for those suffering from eating disorders, as well as their support networks. Visiteating-disorders.org.uk or call 0845 838 2040
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