Category: Advice to Loved Ones


As something of an ED veteran, I feel somewhat obligated to add something to the enormous swell of posts and articles prompted by Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2018. It’s ironic that the very thing that stops me from writing about Anorexia is the Anorexia itself*… but I’m here now, tucked in a corner of Costa, so I may as well give my tuppence worth on the topic.

Eating disorders must be one of the most complex areas in mental health and it’s for this reason that they are also one of the most misunderstood. Incredibly difficult to treat, they confound and defy loved ones and doctors alike, resulting in horrible recovery stats and mortality rates. The fact that 20% of sufferers die of this illness weighs particularly heavy on me today, as this morning’s Facebook newsfeed informed me that March 1st is the birthday of a lovely young lady I was once in hospital with… Tragically, it’s a birthday that she isn’t here to celebrate.

I’m not sure that people really understand the gravity of this illness, possibly because it’s given quite a lot of coverage which seems to mark it as a teenage phase, and possibly because it has been so closely linked to models and media. Whatever the underlying message, I speak from bitter experience when I say that Anorexia can be fatal.

And not fatal in the casual way that people use the word. Y’know, like, “Ooooh! Don’t buy the Amazon Dot! Starting a conversation with Alexa is fatal..!” Not THAT kind of fatal. I mean the kind of fatal that leaves loved ones reeling, practitioners; gutted and blamed and helpless; figures on charts revealing that 20% of Anorexics will die prematurely because of their condition.

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A couple of points for sufferers

1.  Getting help early is absolutely KEY. I know many people who have recovered because they got help quickly and did so when they were young. I get that you’ve probably heard it before, and I know it might feel terribly difficult but seriously, if you think you might be struggling with an Eating Disorder, get help NOW.

I also want you to know that although many people understand their condition, you may be one of those who don’t really believe you’re ill. It’s a tough one and it requires you to be very, very painfully honest with yourself (even if you can’t admit it to anyone else yet). Eating Disorders can be like child abductors. They can wheedle and whine, coax and cajole, smile sweetly… and then, when they’ve got you, they turn. It’s a horrible analogy, but its a horrible illness.

You might hear thoughts telling you that you’re just on a diet; you just need to lose some more; you just need to have some control; it’ll be okay if you get rid of everything you eat…

It may be an increasing set of rules. You can’t have anything unless you’ve been to the gym… Your friends and family are lying to you when they say you’re looking thin… You don’t deserve anything good… Your body is something you’re deeply ashamed of… You must get fitter and faster and achieve more and more and more and eating is the only way you can be successful…

Get help. If this sounds like you, it’s not. It’s the whispering abductor. Please get help.

I’m hoping that you hear the urgency that I’m writing with. Getting help today rather than next month could be the difference between a year battling Anorexia, or a decade. And yes,  it might go against everything you think you want but believe me, there will come a time where you will thank your self for refusing to listen to the manipulating voices in your mind.

2. Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder, Other Non Specified EDs are not something to be ashamed of.  It’s not your FAULT and you’re not to blame. People who love you might not understand yet, they might be angry and frustrated, but that doesn’t make you wrong. It’s an illness and it needs medical attention. Don’t think that you CHOSE this. It targets its victims and then preys on their minds.

Take some comfort from the fact that what you CAN control are the decisions you can make to help yourself. You can get help, even though it’s a frightening thought. You can be brave enough. You can take tiny steps. You can be gentle with yourself and kind to yourself by allowing someone else to support you. Pick someone who might understand something about it… a kind teacher, pastor, wise friends…

Eating disorders aren’t choices. Recovery options are… or should be so long so long as provisions are there.  (That’s a whole other post!)

Let me know how it goes.

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*If you don’t understand this, I need to explain that Anorexia impacts the mind in a multitude of ways, most of which, you’d never know unless you’ve suffered it. It’s not possible to go into more detail now, but I’ll do a post on it sometime!

https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/support-services

https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/screening-tool

 

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#difficult

Without wishing to sound all bah-humbug about it, I REALLY can’t share the sentiment of the song that blares as I push my trolley up the soft drinks aisle in my local supermarket. I realise it’s not supposed to be taken too literally but honestly, the sheer inanity of some idiot’s wish that ‘it could be Christmas every da – aaay” is, at best, teeth grittingly stupid, at worst, utterly irresponsible. (I know for a fact that occurring even once a year increases overspending and subsequent problems with debt for some of the poorest families in the UK.)

The song continues to blare across the store and I swing into the middle aisle in time to catch one woman (who apparently has some inside info about a nationwide dearth of flour that the rest of us aren’t privy to) almost mow down an older lady in her path. Glancing round for someone to share her indignation, she looked at me shaking her head and starting to mutter something. Not really wanting to buy into this her fury, I just smiled sympathetically and shrugged offhandedly. “Christmas, hey?” She grunted disconsolately. “Really does bring out the best and the worst doesn’t it?” For a second, she eyed me with uncertainty and then snorted. “Bloody right” she said.

Thing is, and I bet my stocking this is true; most of us over a certain age would hate the thought of Christmas everyday! The shops are rammed, roads gridlocked, transport more squashed than ever, people more harried and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Even some of my most togetherest friends (poetic licenses granted for Christmas period Ts and Cs apply) struggle at this time of year. Christmas for those affected by any illness can be especially difficult, perhaps because the pain felt by sufferers and their families is brought into such stark contrast by the sense of festive merriment.

As a seasoned Anorexic, I find this time of year to be particularly torturous, so much so that almost every Christmas for the past five years, has in some way contributed to my ending up in inpatient treatment. I can only write from my personal experience, but I want to explain why Christmas with an eating disorder can be so difficult.

1. The fist reason seems obvious. Food is suddenly everywhere. It’s inescapable, and far more so than usual. Supermarkets are cram full of luxury items; not just your standard ice cream. No. The very finest ice cream made with fresh, sweet strawberries, rich chocolate or vanilla pods hand picked by velvet – furred monkeys living in luxury Madagascan tree houses. Shelves are lined with glistening golden wrappings, the finest of wines and giant tubs of cheap chocolates hang out, competitively priced, attractively arranged.

But Anorexics hate food right?

Wrong! But you could be forgiven for thinking so. After all, who in their right mind would starve themselves to within an inch of their life if they enjoyed food?

Well. This is why an eating disorder isn’t the lifestyle choice or the vain whim of a silly young girl who wants to look like a model, although the media have often billed it to be. An eating disorder is a mental illness, and a complex one at that. With the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, Anorexia needs to be taken more seriously by the media and by the fashion industry. It is still so misunderstood.

Back to the food thing… Contrary to popular understanding, Anorexics don’t dislike food. They love food. They long for food. If you are the loved one of a sufferer who swears they don’t like it, don’t be fooled. It’s the illness lying. I’ve known Anorexics who confide that they lie in bed at night, planning meals in such detail, that they feel as though they’ve actually eaten three courses by the time they fall asleep. Others cut pictures out of food magazines to stick in scrap books, watch food programmes and obsess over recipe books. I’ve even heard one clinician refer to this as ‘food porn’.

And all this time, with all this longing, the Anorexic starves.

Doesn’t make sense? That’s because it’s a MENTAL ILLNESS.

2. The second reason Christmas can feel like torture is because many sufferers spend a lot of time and a lot of energy on NOT thinking about food. Personally, I’m one of these. I do a lot to distract myself from a hunger that can sometimes be so raw that it terrifies me.

Because it’s a holiday, often mealtimes become the main source of structure in our unformed days. With all the added drinks and nibbles, the festive period can feel like one, perpetual banquet. This can be terrifying for an eating disorder sufferer because it means they may FEEL as though they have eaten far more than they normally would, and mostly, far more than they actually have (reality is generally very distorted).

I want to explain more because there is so much more to write about, but I fear this is in need of more structure as it is.

I suppose what I really want is to reach out to those unfortunate others who find themselves feeling so desperate and out of control over the next few days. I want to say, “hang in there. the days will pass. It’s not as long as it feels. You are not alone”. I want to speak to families who, through no fault, don’t understand. I want to encourage them to be gentle, not to lose heart, to seek support. A young anorexic / bulimic can’t be shouted / coaxed / bribed out of a mental illness.

And I want to say that somehow, somewhere, Christmas takes place irrespective of our state of health. Christmas takes place regardless of our state of belief even. It takes place for Him, and yet it began for us. In this, and in this alone, I find a flicker of hope.

If you’re reading, believer or not, sufferer or not, I pray you find the peace, health and touch of sparkle that the gift of the Christ child can bring at Christmas. If you’re finding it tough, please, reach out. You don’t have to be alone.

The following post is something I already published on a different blog. Call me lazy, but sometimes I’ve simply explained something as well as I can. No point reinventing the wheel, right?

Anorexia is a shapeshifter of an illness, deceptive in more ways than amyone could imagine. Don’t be fooled by the media perspective. Although anorexia makes its victims LOOK the same, the ways in which it infects each person, the periods of infliction and the ways it gets into someone are never the same. 

As some readers may know, I’m in a ten bed specialist unit and each person here carries their very own strain of Anorexia. 

Ive always been a fan of analogy. What follows is the story of how the illness got to me…

A small, blue clad child stands in the grey playground; back turned from her playmates; tiny hands pressed tight against her eyes as she chants numbers in a voice higher than it is loud.

Behind her, a group of dishevelled children move with silent, exaggerated care; the thrill of tension bursting from concentrated rosebud lips and then, delicious stifled screams as the blue child swings round, sudden and bellowing and the clenched stealth and stillness break, pouring a cool, white rush of pure delight over each small figure, even as they fight to keep the tension in their form.

Grandmother’s Footsteps.

The aim of the game was for the players to manage to creep up behind the person who is ‘it’ without being seen to be moving. ‘It’ could turn around at any point and the other players would have to instantly freeze. Those who were still moving when ‘it’ turned around were immediately sent back to the starting line.

Why am I writing about an old playground favourite?

You may well ask.
And quite simply, it is what came to mind when a despairing loved one asked me how on earth it got to this point.
Perhaps Anorexia’s approach is different for an adolescent or college student, perhaps it walks with a different gait, I can’t really speak for others. I can barely even trace its steps towards me. What I do know is that the illness wears many masks and easily poses as the smallest giggling schoolgirl until you turn away, reassured that it isn’t getting any closer.

For a 31 year old woman, Anorexia began as a wonderfully refreshing experience of exercising after giving up smoking. It’s steps were light, triumphant and exciting. Continuing to feel healthy, my body began to tone up and I lost a few pounds.
It doesn’t hurt to cut out a few foods in the name of being healthy, right?
Less bread, less cheese, less meat, less pasta.
Next time I checked behind me, Anorexia was a few steps closer and although a part of me knew it, another part didn’t really believe it would be interested in me. I was too old for that sort of thing. I was too ‘sensible’, too grounded, too self aware.
I turned my back.

No red meat. Only a few mouthfuls of pasta or rice. No bread. No cheese.
I swung round. Anorexia froze. I couldn’t tell if it had moved or not.
No meat. No carbs. No dairy.
Low calorie fish, salad leaves, fruit and water.
And where once I thought 6 stone would never be possible, now I dream of 5 and a half.

And Anorexia is playing. Oh definitely. It’s creeping now and it’s not bothering to freeze and I’m not bothering to turn my back.

Its steps, so quiet and so disguised at the start, are heavy and quite careless.

I can no longeer stop them in their tracks by turning around. I can’t make the fearless freeze.

Now my mind is full of the footprints and although I know tracks can be covered over, I’m not sure how and so the game has become a dance. My shapeshifting partner, both a close friend and a worst enemy, simultaneously giving and stealing life. One moment its steps bring elation, the next, bottomless despair. One day I dance with fluid grace, the next with lead-soled boots.
One thing I do know is that in reality, Anorexia Nervosa is about as much of a game as Russian Roulette. It has a higher incidence of death than any other mental illness and has clamied countless lives over the years.  Treatment is more effective the earlier the illness is caught but getting GPs to to take it seriously can be a problem (though why this is still the case, I don’t know).  You would think that in today’s social climate, any hint of onset of Anorexia, Bulimia or any other ED would be treated as serious enough to warrant immediate intervention. 

There can’t be many instances where your loved ones raise a glass to toast your  mental torment but then again. there probably aren’t that many cases where eating a beef sandwich is an achievement worthy of celebration.

Perhaps those in the loop will actually understand the bizarre situation I’m writing about, but if you’re a ‘normal’ person, you might struggle.

Wait..! Did I just use the term ‘normal’?

I can hear some of the cries of protest. “…But there’s NO SUCH THING AS NORMAL…” Protestations jet from all corners of the philosophical, semantic and *wince* pedantic realm. No such thing. Everyone’s weird. Everyone’s normal. There IS no normal.

But there IS. There IS in the tangled, screwed up world of we Eating Disorder folk. If you disagree, you might want to read on because I’m going to tell you about what normal is, often by arguing the case for what it’s not.  (If that goes over your head, don’t waste mental energy on it. Reading on will give you a clearer idea.)

“Normal” is our friends who happily pick a sandwich in a deli without an onslaught of mathematical conundrums running riot in their brain. “Normal” can actually have ANY kind of drink they like without even a whisper of a ‘value for calories’ haunting their thoughts.

Normal can choose food to satisfy their taste buds and not to keep them as light as possible. Normal doesn’t even think twice about adding one extra raspberry to their (carefully weighed) bowl of lowest calorie cereal.

Normal doesn’t consider black coffee a ‘snack’ or stir-fry an indulgent meal. It wouldn’t cast a suspicious eye over the size of a tangerine, or swear that an apple has the potential to be fattening. Nor would it question the amount of calories / fat / carbohydrate in a carrot. It wouldn’t distrust the carefully stated amounts of these ‘anorexic-life-threatening’ printed on each product, or regard cauliflower as an enemy to be avoided at all costs.

You see..?

Normal doesn’t experience eating as a trigger for a sort of inexplicably acute mental pain. It doesn’t really begin to understand that ‘food’ is merely an assortment of numbers. (Despite our health conscious Food Standards people’s best efforts!) It doesn’t ‘get’ that a carrot is 35, a berry, 2 and if you throw in a spoonful of yoghurt you’ve exceeded the limit. (Scrape half away, then share some with the sink…)

Normal might be conscious of the numbers, but it’s not ruled by them. It doesn’t carefully bite each Malteser in half to ensure it has exactly half the stated amount. It doesn’t have to ignore the body’s cries for rest in order to complete the requisite amount of high intensive ‘burn off’ exercises before or after a calculated amount of food.

Normal doesn’t FEEL fat growing ON them if they eat something frightening. It doesn’t feel the rush of shame and disgust if they slip up and allow too much food to enter the forbidding mouth. It won’t suffer an onslaught of blind fear, the compulsion to induce vomiting or crapping or even the wild urge to cut fat OFF any given part of themselves.

I realise there are degrees of ‘normal’; a continuum even. This illness, any Eating Disorder, defies all concept of normality and in doing so, isolates sufferers in a sadistic and divisive way.

As someone who, for almost thirty years, was pretty ‘normal’ about food, I feel somewhat justified, perhaps even qualified, to attempt to explain that there really IS such a thing as ‘normal’ in the world I, and so many others, inhabit.

The next nine years of my life have literally been stolen from me.

I find it incomprehensible that for almost three decades, I could actually EAT a meal without attaching any feelings or significance to the food at all. Nor can I recall how I might have RELISHED the chance to actually SIT DOWN and watch a whole film without the raging impulse to burn off calories, the torture of that insane edict.

It’s too hard to properly explain how Anorexia has unpicked and rewoven my ‘normality’, but I hope, in some small way, I’ve conveyed the havoc it wrecks upon its victims, some too young to ever have experienced the luxury and freedom of normality

I hope these descriptions may bring some small solace to those who don’t feel understood and information for those who want to understand.

There’s no such thing as normal, but there is ‘abnormal’, and this illness is one example of that.

Someday, I hope to eat again, with the freedom of that first part of my life.

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Doesn’t do a lot for my point, but I do love a bit of Edward Monkton…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Redefining ‘Normal’

world-mental-health-dayOctober 10th 2016: a day designated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as one of those awareness type days where everyone is meant to have their mind jogged about the existence of mental health and the kind of struggles people can have.

I had no intention of writing, but the surge of mental health promotion that hit me when I turned on my laptop was so ‘full frontal’ that I almost feel I have a sort of obligation to this little gathering of mental moaning and metaphor that is my blog.

The public frequently hear the term ‘mental health’ and, despite the best efforts of organisations like WHO and MIND, there are still a variety of stigmas (what’s the plural of stigma? – Clumsy phraseology, I apologise) attached and often, that stigma either shrinks from it, or tuts at it dismissively, cos who hasn’t had a mental health problem nowadays? Who hasn’t seen someone exonerated on the grounds of ‘ mental health’.

Where am I going with this you ask? (I’m not entirely sure myself)

Thing is folks, we all ‘HAVE’ mental health. It’s true!  The term is used imprecisely (a fine one to talk!) because we often use it to refer to a person’s POOR mental health, their mental ILL health, I suppose.

Many people I know think ‘mental health’ is something they don’t have, because it’s Anorexia or Schizophrenia or any of those crazy things.. Actually though, I’d argue that there isn’t this clear line dividing mental health and mental illness.

Mental health is a continuum. It’s a gauge which can be set higher or lower in particular individuals; higher or lower at certain times in each and ever one of us.

I think what I’m saying, in the most convoluted way possible, is that I sometimes sigh and roll my eyes at all these awareness days… I sometimes tire of hearing ardent advocates shouting and waving banners about one thing and another… (I am hanging my head, a contrite cynic – if you’ve ever heard of such a thing!) BUT, this mental health awareness stuff IS something worth stopping and thinking about. It’s worth it because it is something which affects us all, no matter the extent. Mental HEALTH is something we all possess and something we need to nurture in ourselves and in those around us.

Looking after a person’s mental health isn’t something that comes naturally to all of us. Days like today give us the opportunity to have a quick look at ways we can make it possible to reduce the rising percentage of people struggling with mental illness.

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/world-mental-health-day

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I don’t really know who Lamott is, or where hope becomes important in her story, but once upon a time I copied this out and popped it in a back pocket where it remained until I fished it out some months ago.

I don’t have too much to say, except that to me, hope is one hell of a risk. It seems to require me to swim against the tide of mental reasoning and learning; perhaps in different seas altogether.

I admit, I find it exhausting. I think that I find it easier to throw my hands up in the air and quit, than to hang on to the cliff edge with torn up fingernails.  Funny that Hope is so often thought to be light, so feathery and fragile, so beautiful, so pure.  Stark contrast then, that the hope in me is a ripped, time worn, tear stained,  piece of paper pulled out of my old jeans’ pocket.

Hope is a risk. It might fail me. It might demand too much, grow too big, get too brave. It might start to grow secretly, against my own will…

… but if I don’t have any, my life will always look the same. The world will always look the same. My body will always feel the same.

Hope is a harbinger of change. Without it, we stop swimming altogether. The only alternative to swimming against the tide is to stand in stagnant pools, or to drown.

I don’t intend to do either.

Re the quotation that I carried round so long;  I’m still here in hospital (I showed up). I’m eating (trying to do the right thing).  I’m waiting and watching and working.

I’m just hoping to see the sun rise as I fight the tide.

You know “the grass is always greener…”?  It’s a common enough expression.

But when you think about it, it doesn’t make sense.

WHY green when it’s actually red?

The grass outside my window is no more green than Bob’s my uncle.

I can hear your confusion and I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering where the hell this is going…  A puzzle. You’re frowning. Figuring out the point.

My point is this: that every time you look at that park, or that garden… you’re thinking that the grass is green. You’re SEEING it with your own eyes. ACTUALLY SEEING it.

So you believe it, right? You can see the grass is green so you believe it. Perhaps you’d even swear to it.

But you are, quite simply, wrong.

It’s not green.

You’re still frowning… or your lip has turned up slightly at the very edge…

What will it take to convince you that grass, as a natural product of this beautiful earth, is bright red ?

Stop and think. Just for a few seconds. What would it take?

Because that’s what everyone else sees.

Everyone else knows it’s red.

 

Have they just been agreeing with you?!

Going along with you… Not daring to challenge your view.

Nice one.

That’d be why you still believe it’s green.

 

I know and understand that you THINK this is madness. I know you SEE green… But it’s red.

FACT: Everyone else knows and sees red. You alone see it as that bright green colour.

red-grass-

Stay with me. I’m trying to make sense (despite all evidence to the contrary).

It can be argued that a certain degree of body dysmorphia is part of the human condition.

However, whilst for many of us the distortions in our perceptions are not significant enough to cause distress, it’s very difficult to gauge just how accurate our perceptions are, particularly when they involve our appearance. Hence, a person may grow up with a mole on their cheek and barely see it, whilst another with the same mark, may grow up feeling ACUTELY aware, paranoid even, that it’s all anybody notices. Certainly it may be all THEY themselves notice.

Although each case is different, Anorexia and Bulimia often incur constantly shifting distortions in the sufferers perceptions of their body. the extent of this may depend on the individual’s mood, the amount that they’ve had to drink, the whispering voice of their illness, or how full / empty they feel at any given moment. It doesn’t appear to matter whether the ill person is a  tortured artist or a brilliant scientist, the degree to which they are susceptible to absolutely absurd thoughts about food and the body’s relationship to it, remains the same.

For example, as a level headed and rational being, I know that I CAN’T be big in any way because the measurements, weights, body mass I am faced with are completely accurate. The ratio is too low for my body to be fat; too low for my body to be healthy.  The figures are scattered on the green grassy earth.

As a sufferer though, I look in the mirror and that grass is DEFINITELY RED. I can SEE it. DAMN IT! IT’S THERE IN FRONT OF MY EYES

AND YOU’RE STILLSTILL trying to tell me it’s green!

I’m fine! There’s nothing wrong with me! I look normal… healthy.

Some days, my arms look chubby… and my thighs often look massive towards the end of each day… but generally, I look perfectly normal.


Arguing with an Anorexic can be hugely upsetting, incredibly perplexing and downright frustrating. You see one thing, they see another.

Families in particular will suffer the agony of watching their loved one deny the truth; a blank refusal to hear the other side of the story. It’s painful to be stonewalled or to have your words hurled back at you. Few can identify with the desperation and helplessness experienced by screaming at a skeleton whose rock solid belief is that they are ‘fat’ or ‘fine’. Not everyone can trace the ridges of the bone along the clavicle of a loved one who refuses to eat because they think they’ve got plenty of fat still to lose.

My message is convoluted. It’s a poor attempt to somehow explain the complex illusion / delusion experienced by the victim of an Eating Disorder like Anorexia.

I know many, many women who dislike parts of their body, or at least, are dissatisfied with particular aspects of their appearance. When someone develops an ED, that dissatisfaction, becomes a rigidly held belief which apparently robs them of a realistic view of themselves. Much like joining an extremist party or cult, Anorexia transforms the mind in such a way that makes reasoning with them, impossible and unrealistic.

Hopeless as this sounds, my final message is to anyone who is having to watch a loved one starve .

Don’t give up.

It can be heartbreaking and it’s often a long, tiring path, but if there’s one thing that will help to save them, it’s a quiet, pervasive message that it’s the ILLNESS that’s lying to them and not the rest of you. If you’re met with a brick wall, don’t employ a bulldozer. You’ll flatten the person rather than the illness.

Remember the quiet echo of the drip that splashes against a stone surface. Gentle but unswerving,  the message will sink in, and though they may always see a tinge of red, at least they will accept that, mostly, grass is green

water on stone