For me my problems started during a year studying in America as part of my degree. I put on a lot of weight; too much pizza and beer and not enough exercise meant that I weighed at least three stone over what I would now consider to be my average weight. When I returned to the UK I dieted, exercised and lost the three stone but also found that I liked the feeling of control and achievement as the weight came off. My father died at the age of five and I can see how controlling the weight in part helped me to manage something awful that was out of my control. It also made dealing with being gay easier and the trauma of telling my family and friends.
My last year at University a close friend died which was devastating and after I left university I lived in a new city to continue my studies but had few support systems and was far away from loved ones. I continued to restrict my diet, eating very little at meal times despite my part-time job being very physical; I was now under weight. I can recall looking in the mirror and seeing how over weight I was which seems extraordinary to me now but that was my reality at the time. Work colleagues even made sarcastic jokes about how thin I was and I thought they were joking about how over weight I was. On some level I knew what I was doing but the compulsion to keep losing weight continued, I loved the control and hated my body. Looking back I can see that I was deeply depressed, grieving for my friend and the loss of my university friends. In particular I was obsessed with avoiding fat, I would look at every packet of food to check the fat content and if it was over 1 gram I wouldn’t eat it.
I can now see that I had a severe eating disorder and classic symptoms of anorexia. On the times that I was thinking more clearly I acknowledged that I needed help but I never went to a GP thinking that I would not be taken seriously; this was the mid 1990’s pre internet and finding support services was almost impossible. When I did see family and friends they were deeply concerned about my appearance and was challenged about whether I had an eating disorder; my response was ‘I know what I am doing; don’t worry.’ A couple of times I rang an eating disorders helpline but got an answer machine message and never phoned back. I still have photos of myself during that time and I look skeletal; there is no other word. I look ill, devastatingly thin and unhappy.
Eventually some things started to change. My sister, who is a scientist explained to me about calorie consumption and told me that with the amount of walking and exercise I was doing there was no way I would gain weight and that I was not eating enough calories; having a scientist tell me facts about how my body worked was very helpful and prompted the start of a very slow recovery.
I started to have proper meals at work and could see that I was not putting on weight; I ate one half decent meal a day but still was deeply unhappy with the way I looked and wore baggy, ill-fitting clothes. I was desperate to have a relationship but failed to meet anyone I liked or whom I could be myself with.
I developed physical effects from my eating disorder, stomach problems and I got severe tonsillitis which prompted M.E which I still suffer from. I think my immune system took such a battering through lack of nutrition that it was in no fit state to fight off infections and viruses.
As years went by I started to eat more, feel happier in myself and when I found someone I wanted to be in a relationship with who loved me and my body the real healing process began. The validation of being accepted and loved helped enormously and we are still together after 13 years.
The inner battles inside my head did not and have not gone away entirely; it is just easier to recognise the signs and manage it. I know that my triggers of feeling a bit low, or dealing with stress may result with a voice inside my head saying lose weight, exercise more, keep weighing yourself but I recognise what the voice means that I am having a difficult time or that I am worried. Not eating was my coping mechanism, an appalling, incredibly damaging coping mechanism and now I know to do other things instead. I know that balance is the key to my eating, not taking in too many calories so I put on weight but also having what I call ‘Sod it days’ when I may have puddings or treats and I can even have them without panicking and subsequent dieting.
I am very strict with not weighing myself now, it just results in more obsessional behaviour; I don’t always manage it but I do my best. I don’t own a set of scales and I avoid them at the gym. I don’t over exercise, I go twice a week for about an hour and this helps my mental state as well as maintaining my physical weight. I have had mini setbacks once where I became obsessed with carbohydrates after putting on more weight and starting dieting again but I managed to not fall back into the disorder completely. My partner is also fantastic at knowing my trigger points and if I start to talk about food in an unhealthy way or start to restrict my food intake in an obsessional way he will challenge me.
The real key to my on-going recovery is not just the food nor exercise balance but what I say to myself and how I think about myself. I know now that I can accept who I am, that I may make mistakes but I am valid as a human being. I learnt this through many years of counselling and in particular Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy which was incredibly helpful to me. I now also talk more which has been essential; I talk to friends, family and open up much more; I do this especially when I feel like I don’t want to. I have learnt that sometimes I need to do the opposite of what my mind is telling me to do which sounds a bit odd but often works for me.
I know that I won’t ever be free from my eating disorder, it hasn’t gone away completely but like bereavement I have learnt to manage it and come to terms with it. I still have mini battles and lapses and have to keep myself in check but I don’t believe that I will ever be back in place where I am severely underweight and for that I am truly grateful. I got my life back.