Next week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week. I have really mixed views about it. The sheer nature of eating disorders makes people who suffer from them ultra competitive, often without realising so. You never feel “skinny enough” or “ill enough” to have the label of an eating disorder attributed to you and frequently, people like frauds for having a diagnosis under the eating disorder umbrella.
I have suffered with an eating disorder for a number of years, but only felt able to admit it within the last two or so years. From memory, I don’t think my relationship with food has ever been that good, I have always had a somewhat irrational fear of being fat because I was scared of the consequences to my health. Sitting here with a semi-rational mind, I am more than aware that under-eating and being malnourished can have just as serious, if not more so, health consequences.
The first time I spoke about my eating and “disordered thoughts”, I was in my final year of my undergraduate degree. I was already encased in the mental health system but not for anything related to eating. I told my GP how much I was struggling with food, compulsive exercise and how physically unwell I was feeling as a result. And my GP’s response make me realise how messed up our psychiatric system in the UK is.
“You’re not skinny enough”
And he was right. My BMI wasn’t low enough to warrant treatment.
Fast forward to now and I still struggle with food, eating, exercise, body image and so on. I’ve probably mentioned before that I have a wonderful GP, however the mental health system is less than wonderful and I still cannot receive treatment because I don’t have a critically low BMI. I’m just over five foot tall and there has been times when I have been classed as “underweight” but not in terms of my BMI.
It’s frustrating. An eating disorder, or any variety, is a mental illness. You cannot necessarily see it. Sure, you can see someone’s size, but that is not the only factor in an eating disorder.
A few weeks ago, it was a close friend’s 21st birthday. I had bought a new dress online, it arrived, I tried it on and it was okay. But getting ready on that Saturday afternoon and everything went so wrong. The dress rode up so I refused to wear it. I ended up trying on every single dress and skirt in my wardrobe and the meltdown that I had was immense. I’m not an angry or violent person but I was so repulsed by my own image that objects were thrown, I hit the wall, I screamed at the top of my voice that I was vile and disgusting and then I sat on the floor sobbing. The problem was, I am so used to wearing jeans and a baggy jumper and a scarf, I have learnt to hide away under the layers and that becomes my way of coping. Suddenly, I was in a situation whereby that wasn’t possible and it was terrifying. I felt vulnerable and exposed, even though I ended up wearing a knee length skater dress. My bum length dress days are definitely over.
At that moment, I vowed that I needed to lose weight and so began the latest cycle of truly hating my body and undertaking a punishing routine of effectively damaging my body.
In terms of EDAW, I think that often people of genuinely mean well when they post things on social media, regarding their experiences. In posting this, I’m no different. But I can guarantee that there will be progress pictures, of lowest weight to now and whilst I am proud of people for managing to battle through and get out of the mess that is an ED, seeing emaciated bodies isn’t helpful because it just re-enforces the feelings of not feeling skinny enough, ill enough or frail enough to have an eating disorder.
There does need to be more awareness about eating disorders. They are the most dangerous and fatal of all psychiatric illnesses. Yet people are being turned away from treatment. There’s something going really wrong there. I struggle to understand the logic of turning a person away from treatment on the grounds that their BMI isn’t low enough, when at no point would a person be turned away for treatment for a broken bone because their bone isn’t broken enough.
I don’t have the answers on how this can change. Mental health services are vastly underfunded and too many people are being failed. Too many people could have been helped through virtually non-existent early health intervention, but are being left to become more unwell because their struggles have been unvalidated and ignored. It needs to change. It really needs to change.