My Disordered Eating & Toxic Relationship With Food | Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2019 - MY STORY


TRIGGER WARNING: EATING DISORDERS. I distinctly remember the time I first became aware of my weight. I was seven years old. My class at school were doing a science experiment which involved all of us weighing ourselves to collect data for some calculations. Everyone, specifically every girl, would be sharing what their weight was and I automatically dreaded it being my turn.
When it came to me weighing myself, I found I was heavier than many of my classmates. I wasn't overweight, I was merely a few pounds heavier because I was one of the tallest in my class so, naturally and logistically, I was going to weigh more. However, my brain wasn't able to register this and I found this to be the turning point for me in terms of how I viewed myself. From this point on, I became absolutely fixated on my body and, more specifically, its size. Up until this point, I had been a carefree child, going about my life free from the shackles of society's beauty myths and ideas on what a girl should be. But, it seemed all of a sudden, I was very conscious of how I looked. It really did happen just like that, like flicking a switch. I was seven years old. I can't really remember what my life was like before the age of seven, I doubt many people can, other than reliving memories retrospectively through the stories your parents regale around the dinner table and photos they dig out of the attic every now and again. But, most specifically, I can't now remember what life felt like without this constant hatred for myself that developed deep in my bones from such a young age. I can't remember what it was like to not pay so much attention to my body shape or size, not to compare myself to other people or want to be skinnier.

This week, 25th February-3rd March, is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Therefore, I want to open up and share my own story, one I've never told before and barely spoken about with those closest to me. I'll keep it as brief as possible and only mention the important bits. It's so difficult for me to even just be writing this, alone in my bedroom, reflecting on past behaviours and mentalities. However, I believe putting this out into the world, shaping it into a tangible account of something that I went through, like a slice of my life story, besides just adding to raising awareness of eating disorders, is a form of therapy for myself in terms of letting go, even just a tiny bit, of these dark feelings. I haven't filled this blog post with photos, so apologies if large chunks of writing aren't your thing. I don't wish to trigger anyone reading this who also suffers with body image or disordered eating, but, also, old photos are extremely triggering for me. Even looking at photos of myself as a toddler makes me really emotional because I'm reminded of the freedom and innocence that consumed my life as opposed to the inner turmoil, self hatred and horrific relationship with food that went on to consume my life as I grew older. Looking at photos of myself during the worst times of my disordered eating, which was during my high school years, triggers me and makes me so uncomfortable and forces old emotions to resurface.

From that point at aged seven, my entire perception of myself flipped and I no longer felt as though my purpose was to achieve in school, (even though I did) and go on to do big things, at aged seven I came to believe my whole existence was defined by my weight and my soul purpose was to be thin. I was constantly referring to myself as "fat" and "ugly," comparing myself with my friends and which bits of me wobbled when they didn't wobble on them. I begged my mum to buy me some new P.E (gym) shorts because I hated how the ones I already had made my thighs look. I went on holidays with my parents and refused to take my shorts off on the beach, not wanting anyone to see me in just a swimming costume, despite being under 10 years of age and not having any part of me that wobbled in the slightest. I was a perfectly fine weight, I ate well, my parents weren't concerned with my size... there really was no reason for me to be so focused on my size. Even if I was overweight and unhealthy, there wouldn't have been a reason for all this self-hatred I felt, because no one ever deserves to feel like that, however, my self-loathing was so great and seemed to increase daily as I found new things to despise about my appearance.
I remember when I came out of hospital, aged nine, after a month in there following having my appendix and some of my small intestine removed. I lost a lot of weight after not eating due to only throwing it back up anyway. I practically had lost a stone. I was ecstatic. I put most of it back on, of course, after getting home and eating regular meals again, but for a short period, I felt so much more worthy. I was skinnier and it felt great. There was something in me telling me that being so sick, and practically almost dying, had been worth it. Yeah, we're going to get dark in this blog post. Warts and all.

Another reason why looking at photos from my childhood is so painful, it makes me realise my dysmorphia. That I was seeing things that weren't there. I remember looking at my reflection in a mirror and seeing a huge blobby monster who was so ugly and worthless in comparison to her friends. But, in photos, the things which tell the truth, I looked pretty much identical to my friends, just a little taller.

After leaving primary school, aged 10, and entering high school at 11, my relationship with food deteriorated as I gained more control over what I was consuming. It's really difficult for me to actually articulate the feelings and behaviours I adopted during this period of my life, because firstly, it was a semi-blur because that's a side effect of mental health problems, and secondly, because they are feelings I harboured for so long without expressing them to anyone, knowing the right way to put them into words now is almost impossible.
High school is a tricky time for most people. You're entering adolescence, faced with so many new challenges and pressure to both discover and create yourself simultaneously. It's a scary time and, with that, comes outside forces inflicting certain beliefs onto you as you become more exposed to the world. It's also a time many struggle with both their internal identity and external appearance and, for me, the ages of 11-15 were some of the worst years of my life.
Excluding the enormous academic pressure and exam stress, plus all the other chaos that was ensuing in my life at home, my disordered eating was essentially born whilst I was at school and I allowed it to flourish and continued to breathe life into it as I began seeing my toxic relationship with food as my friend, and food itself as the enemy.

It started with me recognising how much control I now had over what I was eating, something that eating disorders really centre around, a penchant for control. First, I stopped eating breakfast as I figured that I could lose weight if I just cut as much food as possible from my diet and breakfast seemed to be the thing really getting in the way. So, I got rid of it. I would get myself ready for school and eat breakfast alone at home, so it wasn't difficult to just not eat it. When I worried my parents would notice the amount of cereal still in the box, every so often, I'd wrap some up in tissue or a bag, place it in my school bag and throw it in the bin when I got to school. This continued and, now, to this day I can't remember the last time I actually ate a proper breakfast.

Once I had cut out breakfast, I developed a liking towards not eating and I loved having this control over what I was eating. It almost felt exciting. I completely glamorised starvation in my head by perceiving it as my own little secret that I was getting away with, like a secret mission. So, once I felt like cutting out breakfast was having an impact but not the full impact I desired, I started cutting out more foods, including lunch. I took a packed lunch to school every day and it started with me not eating my sandwiches that my mum made for me. Then, I stopped eating less and less, which eventually resulted in me throwing my entire packed lunch into the bin, or giving bits of food to friends. Before I knew it, I wasn't even drinking during the day at school out of fear of even juice or water containing evil calories that would bloat me or make me bigger. It all just came to feel so normal, part of a routine and just something I did. No one ever knew how I was feeling or the reasons behind what I did.
Whilst I was surviving on one meal a day, five days a week, I felt terrible because my mum went to the effort to buy and make me lunches, completely oblivious to the fact that I never had the intention of eating them. We weren't financially well off and I knew I was throwing perfectly good money into the bin as we struggled... but I couldn't stop. Exactly why isn't something I could ever explain, no matter how hard I tried, and it isn't something you could understand unless you've been through it. Whilst I felt guilty for wasting money unbeknownst to my parents, the guilt of even the mere thought of actually eating was overpowering and controlled me, compelling me to do things I didn't want to do but felt obliged to.

I went most of my time at high school without eating breakfast or lunch, dreading going home and having to eat an evening meal but, at the same time, shovelling it down me in record speed because I was so hungry. I began dreading weekends when I'd be spending time at home and, consequently, would be forced to eat by my parents who were none the wiser to my awful starvation habits. I feared the school holidays even more, when I'd have to spend a week or two or, in summer, six, with a regimented meal plan whilst trying to avoid what I could and conceal the fact that I felt disgusted with myself every time a food entered my mouth, as if I was failing and letting myself down. On Mondays after a weekend or the first day back after school holidays, I would feel gross. I'd feel as if I'd doubled in size and that everyone was staring at me in disgust, purely because I'd been eating normal meals over our time off. But, also, I would be excited to go back to school, not for the academic aspect but because it was a place of freedom for me when it came to eating. I wasn't with my family and under their loving gaze, so I could throw my food away and blissfully listen to my stomach growling for the rest of the day whilst feeling like I'd achieved something because I was famished. I was, basically, addicted to the harm I was doing to myself, taking it further to the point of being obsessed with exercise behind closed doors, waking up early before school to get some squats and sit ups in or doing intense workout videos when I was home alone. Not only was I depriving myself of sweet treats (even the ones from my Nan, and no one says no to sweets from Grandparents, right?) and pretty much every other normal food, I wanted to burn off calories that I hadn't even consumed to begin with. I was exhausted all the time and just felt like a shell of a human being, of the person I once was.

I suffered massively with food guilt. After every meal, with every bite, I would feel so ashamed. But, I would try to reason with myself, telling myself I could eat this sandwich because I was going to walk it off later, telling myself I could have a chocolate bar because I hadn't had one so far this week. Going out for meals was a whole other hellish ordeal also. I'm a picky eater at the best of times but going to a restaurant and having to select a meal from a menu of only a few things I liked struck such fear inside me. I'd choose one option I liked and then eat that at every outing because it was a safe bet. If that wasn't on the menu, though, it was a massive panic for me. Going out for meals in large groups and even just eating in front of other people on a daily basis was something I found very hard.

I hated everything about myself. I felt like the 'ugly friend,' the 'fat friend,' the one who always stuck out. I felt like people were constantly looking at me and thinking the same. I spent so many nights sobbing when I should've been sleeping and so many nights crying on the bathroom floor after a bath. I would look at my reflection and, whilst being almost obsessed with it to the point of wanting to look at myself in every reflective surface when out and about to ensure I was constantly aware of how others were seeing me, I was also sickened by it. I would pinch my thighs and grab at my hips, imagining what I'd look like if they shrunk. I'd take photos of my body and try so hard when looking at them to find something to love, but I just could not. I had my school years and my entire teenage years stolen away from me by ugly thoughts and mental demons, which now makes me so angry.

After starving my way through high school and sitting all of my exams on an empty stomach yet somehow still managing to achieve high grades, (after several mental breakdowns) I was 15 and off to college. My terrible relationship with food continued throughout my A-Levels, aged 16-18, as did my reluctance to eat and actually nourish myself during such a crucial development stage of my life. Things hadn't improved for me mentally, either, meaning I basically still despised myself and spent every waking moment desiring to be thin and look like a runway model. Comparison stole so much time from me and so much joy, as I wasted so much time gawking at other girls and wanting legs like theirs or to be as confident in my own skin as them. My home situation continued to worsen, amongst other things, so I turned to disordered eating for companionship and because, by this point, I didn't really know much different.

It was at the age of 17 that I went to see a counsellor. I had been to counselling once before and no good came from it but, this time, I was older and more determined to make it work. The counselling wasn't for my disordered eating originally, however, that became the thing I spoke most about with my counsellor. Still unable to full indulge her with all the details, I began to open up a little and surprised myself with how much just talking could do. I told her how I felt and how I viewed myself and she told me what she saw, what was actually there, but still didn't invalidate my experiences. We spoke in depth about body dysmorphia disorder and how my perception of myself wasn't matching up with the reality. Throughout years of self-hatred, I had completely wrecked my opinion on my self-worth, distorting it so much to the point of feeling like I didn't have even the slightest amount. Years' worth of behaviours and ideas were engraved into my brain to the point where I no longer knew a life without them. Even though I wanted to heal and get better, I still didn't feel like I was worthy of recovery.

Not because I don't believe in recovery, because I do. Recovery has happened to me and I'm at a place of being able to actually realise that now. When I compare where I am today with where I was even just three years ago, the astronomical difference is something I try to be proud of. However, I have struggled greatly with feeling worthy of healing because I never felt like I was sick enough in the first place, which is ludicrous. What does 'sick enough' even mean? To me, it was that I wasn't thin enough. I was thin, but I wasn't skinny enough, at least my dysmorphia didn't allow myself to realise it. I was constantly striving for more, to be smaller, to further shrink myself, to get compliments on losing weight - honestly, when someone told me I was skinny, it kickstarted an internal engine in me to keep pushing, to get even thinner because the compliment felt amazing and as though everything was worth it. Looking back on that feeling now, it's crazy, of course, but that's how my brain made me feel. I never reached out to a professional or got medical help, or even help from my loved ones, because I had convinced myself there wasn't an issue to be addressed. I was still getting high grades at school, keeping up appearances and living my life as normally as I could, so, in my eyes, I was doing fine, I wasn't, of course, but society's myths and stereotypes of eating disorders led me to believe that what I was experiencing wasn't 'bad enough' to receive attention.

Despite being lied to by my mental health and having it contort my mind to believe things about myself that aren't true, I'm also an extremely self-aware person. It's probably one of my most prominent traits. Even though I didn't feel sick enough to get help as I was starving myself at every possible moment, I was still aware of what I was doing to myself. I knew I should've been eating when I was hungry, I knew it was so damaging to be starving myself and that it could have detrimental ramifications, but I still sat back with my feet up and watched myself self-destruct, I still gave out uplifting and reassuring advice to friends and family members but refused to take it on board myself, I still held open-minded views on beauty and weight and passed positive compliments onto others about how their weight doesn't define them but still saw myself as vile and ugly.

So, where are we now? Fast forward to present day and I'm 19 years old. What's changed? Well, physically, not a lot. My body now in comparison with a few years ago is barely different, despite the inevitable changes that occur as one matures, my size, shape and build are pretty much the same. Oh, and I'm still as tall as ever. However, internally, there have definitely been changes.
I'm now able to look back on the past few years and think about them rather than ignoring them and the harm I was doing to myself. I'm able to better understand what I was doing and recognise where my feelings derived from. I can recognise that eating disorders aren't weight disorders, they are behaviour disorders, and that I was never unworthy of help, part of me seeing that comes in how my eyes have opened to the world around me as I've grown older and I've become privy to other peoples stories who've suffered in millions of different ways. My relationship with food is better in the sense that I'm definitely eating more and I eat regular meals. I'm not throwing things in the bin secretly or avoiding eating because I would much rather hear the sound of tummy rumbling. Whereas, when I was 15, my favourite sound was that of my stomach and I only felt happy when I was hungry, now, I can recognise that I need food to be nourished and that eating is such an integral part of life.

However, there are things that haven't changed and that I still battle with. I've come a long way in a short space of time in terms of my mind and body and I know recovery doesn't happen overnight - it's very much a lifelong journey. I still couldn't tell you the last time I ate breakfast because I went all those years without it that, now, not eating breakfast is practically a personality trait of mine and it's something I still choose to avoid. My food guilt is still terrible and I feel bad for indulging and awkward and uncomfortable eating in front of others. I still feel like I can eat certain things if I'm going on a long walk afterwards because I'll be 'walking it all off' and I still have a very twisted view of my body and struggle to love and accept myself as I am. Any conversations about weight and diets make me so uncomfortable, even when harmless, and I feel triggered by other people discussing body sizes or complimenting another person's body.
I didn't weigh myself the entire time my eating was at its most disordered. I avoided scales at all costs and never wanted to know how heavy I was (or wasn't). Since then, I have recently weighed myself a couple of times and the numbers terrified me, not because I'm overweight or underweight, but because they were real and weighing myself takes me back to being seven years old and that feeling I got when I had to weigh myself in that science lesson.
I still value myself with my size. I still base my worth on the size of the gap between my thighs and by how much my ribs stick out. I still measure my beauty with how much my collarbones protrude and the flatness of my stomach. I still value myself with how easily I can wrap my fingers around my wrists with them forming a complete loop and with how much my spine sticks out when I bend over. These are things I have done for years and, whilst any learn behaviour can be unlearnt, it doesn't happen with the snap of your fingers. It takes a while and I know it will take a while before I can feel fully happy within myself. But I'm trying. Every day I wake up and force myself to be committed to changing my thoughts, language and behaviours concerning my body. I'm trying so hard and, for now, that just has to be enough.
Whether I will ever actually get to that point of happiness, I couldn't tell you. What I can tell you, though, is that I will have these feelings for the rest of my life. For as long as I live I shall feel the full effects of my disordered eating. Whilst some people believe they can be recoverED, I know I'll forever be recoverING. Forever, I will question my worth, compare myself to others, feel conscious of my appearance and size. Whilst the force of these feelings may diminish over time, they'll never fully vanish. Sure, things will get easier and more manageable, but after experiencing something like I did for all those years, I know it'll always be something I will live with, however, I'm on my way to controlling it. Controlling the negative thoughts in a positive way, rather than letting them control me like they did for so long.

In a diet culture like the one in which we live, it's extremely gruelling for anyone who has battled with their mental health or a toxic relationship with food to even just exist. Just going about your daily life is exhausting, physically, mentally and emotionally. I still battle with rejecting diet culture and all the crap it tries to indoctrinate me with because I found comfort in diet culture for a long time. It was a familiar thing. I became comfortable with feeling horrific when looking at a magazine cover, I got used to desperately wanting to cut myself open and remove any food from my stomach when I saw models on a catwalk because I didn't look like them, I became okay with being sold weight loss products because I thought that was what I needed.
With social media being as powerful and influential as it is, it's impossible to avoid talk of certain subjects and triggering images to a certain extent. For me, social media played a massive part in my toxic food and body relationship. I would purposely follow pages online that made me feel awful because I'd taught myself that was how I deserved to feel. I would actively seek out posts which glamorised and romanticised eating disorders and I found comfort in the most horrific images because they justified the harm I was doing to myself. I would follow models and people with body types I aspired to have in a bid to use them as motivation for my starvation. As I've got older, I've learnt to control what I see online better, only following motivational and inspiring pages that empower me to love myself and encourage me to think differently to the way mainstream media often wants me to. I also use art differently, after previously seeking out disturbing images that only made me want to starve myself further, my feeds are now filled with the most vibrant recovery art and stories from fellow ED sufferers. It's still tricky to avoid a lot of stuff and I still struggle to stop scrolling when things get too much, however, I'm definitely better at handling the internet and utilising the internet to make me feel better about how I look.

I still hate myself. Yep, the girl who preaches about self love actually can't stand herself. I'm a massive hypocrite. Although, my opinions and perceptions of other people have never once changed and I'll never stop preaching despite how much I'm suffering myself. I guess all the things I write and say to others are things I need to hear myself, so, the motivational self-love and recovery posts are just as much for me as anyone else, as I try to drill those thoughts into my brain and give them a home in which they can blossom.
I am on a constant, never-ending rollercoaster with my body image. I can feel okay for five minutes as I get ready but as soon as I step out of the door, BAM, say hello to self-hatred! It's an ongoing fight, from waking up each morning to going to sleep again at night. Wishing I looked like someone else and desperately wishing I was thinner. Avoiding certain clothing items that will make me appear larger and feeling so self-conscious around groups of people because I feel like they're all thinking about my weight. Every day I go to war with my relationship with food and have to force myself into thinking and doing things that can feel foreign but because they will keep me alive. Life isn't easy in many ways and I have good days and bad days. I just wish, one day, to be free of the chains that have kept me down for so many years and to be able to breathe a little easier and live a little more fully. Hating yourself is so exhausting and I'm even more tired of the world making me feel as though I ought to.

It's hard writing all of this and my only hope is that some of it makes sense. It's been especially hard publishing this because, as well as comparing my body to other people's, I also compare my own story with those of others. I have to remind myself that, just because I wasn't hospitalised for anorexia, doesn't mean my struggle wasn't, and still isn't, real. Eating disorder stereotypes are soul-destroying and have totally spoiled people's views on whether or not they think they deserve help, I know they did mine. As I'm writing this, I'm convinced people are going to think it wasn't even that bad! Even though I spent every day of my teenage years literally wanting to die - I tried to avoid the D word for as long as possible but yeah I said this was going to get dark, sorry. But I also apologise if any of this has been hard to hear, I do hope though that it's provided someone with comfort that they aren't alone and raised some awareness.

So, this Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and every week, to anyone who is struggling or who has struggled, I extend a heart full of love and support. I know it's horrible. It's so f*cking horrible. I understand how you feel and that you probably wish you could just switch your brain off. I've been there, I've been in that deep rut of depression and experienced those feelings of worthlessness to the point of truly not wanting to exist anymore. And I still get them, probably more often than I would like to admit, but I'm not where I used to be, and that's something I have to remind myself of, even if I'm not at my absolute dream destination currently. Recovery is possible, even if recovery itself tells you you're not worthy of it. Any behaviours you have adopted can be changed into new ones and you can completely alter the harmful lifestyle you're living or have lived, with time and baby steps. Don't be afraid to admit you are finding things tough and never think you aren't ill enough for treatment. LIFE IS POSSIBLE and it's out there both waiting for you to go grab it and create it.

If anyone ever needs a chat, I'm here with open ears and an open heart because, well, I get you. I know. Please never hesitate to reach out.

Beat Adult Helpline for over 18s, parents, teachers or any concerned adults:
0808 801 0677
help@beateatingdisorders.org.uk

Beat Youthline for anyone under 18:
0808 801 0711
fyp@beateatingdisorders.org.uk

Love, Emily

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