I don’t really want to write this, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while and I think it’s important. I have to practice what I preach, and one of those things is speaking out truthfully and openly about mental health.
It’s so much easier to write retrospectively, to look back at my past and remember the bad times and tell people what I have been through and what I have learnt. It’s much scarier to write about the now, but I know for a fact that there are so many people in my position or similar who keep quiet, hide away and cover up their ongoing battle with their own mind. I always go on about honesty being the best policy, but recently, I have left a lot of things unsaid.
In my early twenties, I was discharged from my second and last inpatient stay where I’d spent months being treated for anorexia and bulimia. For some, that meant I was better. Far from it. The body recovers before the mind; discharge is just the beginning of an upward hill, not the light at the end of the tunnel that everyone wishes it could be. Despite knowing this, as I packed up my belongings, I promised myself that I would not be back. It felt wrong at the time, but as a young woman in that hospital, I’d look at the older patients – married women, men with PhDs in Biochemistry, women with children and careers and people who depended on them – and I’d think to myself ‘I don’t ever want that to be me’. I did not want to be struggling with an eating disorder in my 40s or 50s, I wanted to live, not just exist, really live. I wanted to leave that ward never to return, I wanted to be completely recovered by the age of thirty.
At thirty years and fifteen days old, things could be worse. I haven’t been hospitalised since I made that promise to myself. I’ve eaten foods I never thought I could eat (and digest), I’ve travelled, ran marathons and worked full-time without having take to take any breaks due to illness or exhaustion. On the surface, I’m fine. But that’s what I want to talk about, and it’s something that we all need to talk about. It’s still there.
It’s 2016 and still so many people don’t acknowledge an illness unless they can see it, or at least see symptoms of it. Despite huge steps forward in mental health awareness, invisible illnesses are still ignored or missed or misunderstood. Mental health is still not seen or treated on the same level as physical health – and it’s having a detrimental effect on too many people.
The thing with eating disorders is that when we read about them or see them represented on TV, we usually see the extremes. We see skeletal people in saggy underwear, skin and bone, grey skin, hair falling out – and at the other end of the scale, morbidly obese people, immobile, being cared for 24/7, incapable of washing themselves without help, or even having walls of their homes knocked down to get them to hospital. They weigh either 4 stone or 40 stone. We see these because they are shocking, and shocking sells, and money makes the world go round.
When we hear ‘eating disorder’, because of the way they tend to be portrayed by the media, we automatically associate them with those extremes. What we don’t see is what goes on in the middle – the ones of us who suffer and struggle and live with eating disorders every day, yet manage to blend into the background.
People with eating disorders can have families and social lives and careers, they can be organised and high-achieving and pro-active, they can keep fit and look healthy and enjoy the odd treat… they can, and do, appear ‘normal’ (whatever that is). There are people with eating disorders who aren’t on death’s door, who don’t need or can’t access proper treatment because they aren’t severe enough. They have lives. They do function.
You’ve probably heard of functioning alcoholics and functioning drug-users – who do enough to get by but not necessarily enough to get caught out or for it to have a substantial impact on their life. It’s like that, the same even. There are people who restrict their calorie intake or overexercise or overeat or binge and purge, who impose rules and restrictions on themselves, who feel misplaced guilt and punish themselves for eating. Most people with eating disorders sit between the extremes and have to live and survive in a society which itself has an unhealthy obsession with weight and image, where food is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, where the only mental arithmetic we do is count calories and where we can’t get through a day at work without having everything we eat picked apart and analysed by everyone around us.
It’s no wonder why recovery from an eating disorder is so hard when you look at how screwed up society’s relationship with food and weight is.
I can’t say that this hasn’t had an impact on me and my recovery. I have slipped backwards and I do struggle with anorexic thoughts – not helped by incessant office talk – but I can’t blame that and I know I have to fight against this once again. Relapse isn’t failure, but I don’t want to be a functioning anorexic forever.
What am I saying? I don’t really know. I guess I’m asking those of you who don’t have eating disorders to be aware, be careful about the way you talk about food – it has a negative impact on more people than you would think, including yourself. And to people like me, who aren’t on death’s door but aren’t fine and dandy or ‘body confident’, you’re not alone, and I’m sure, I hope, there is something better for us to fight for. Don’t give up.