Saturday, 1 March 2014

Anorexic to Athlete: Eating Disorder Awareness Week

Not every day, but often enough, I look at myself in the mirror and am reminded of how far I’ve come. 

Quite literally, I’ve moved 600 miles from the quaint Swiss village of Himmelried, to the bustling streets of London – where cows are rarer than flying pigs – but more metaphorically, I’ve finally found comfort within the confines of my own skin and bones. The latter journey, let me assure you, was a thousand times more arduous than the former.


I’ve never been fitter than now. Five weeks until my marathon debut and my metabolism is in overdrive, tirelessly burning the calories I consume and converting them into precious energy to power me through training sessions and equally laborious days in the office alike.

My muscles are firm and my body and I are in harmony,  for I am giving my physical exactly what it needs, and in return, my physical is giving me performance, endurance and priceless pride.

It’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week and for me an apt opportunity to reflect and share my story of suffering and - underneath it all - survival.

I was first diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at the age of 17, in the throes of high school stresses: boys, exams, hormones, fashion, excess. I developed obsessive compulsive habits of weighing everything that I consumed and recording every calorie I expended. Hunger made me feel like I was punishing myself and that in turn gave me a perverse sense of satisfaction. 

Why, you may ask, did I torture myself so?

Amid the agony of my first heartbreak, fears of failing academically and the prospect of being thrust into the quite frankly petrifying Real World, it seemed to be the last things I could control; the only constant in the terrifying world of high-speed change. On top of that, my self-worth had taken a battering meaning that starving myself was a means of self-harming.

FITTING IN

During the first bout my weight never dropped to a critical level, but endless sit-ups and daily runs on a few paltry sticks of celery, culminating in my first half marathon, sent my BMI tumbling to well below “healthy”. It’s a vigilant GP and on-the-ball parents who I have to thank for averting a much more serious crisis, but the situation was grim nonetheless.

While my school chums gallivanted around Europe, sampled the world of work, or simply partied into the wee hours of every morning, I was all but locked up on the children’s ward the summer after leaving school. For ten weeks, I shared a sterile room with five other teenage girls; eating disorders being our common denominator.We cried, and screamed and bickered our way through the days and nights, all of us certain that food would be our mortal enemy for life and that our future would be a bleak fight.

When summer turned to autumn I managed to prop my weight up temporarily, just enough to get me off to university, but I lacked the strength to independently hoist myself out of the horrible disease for good.

A year of forcefully trying to fit in, be a “normal” fresher while constantly trying to silence a sick and vicious alter ego, eventually resulted in a messy relapse. My weight dropped lower than ever, sapping every ounce of personality and life out of me. I shunned company, clambered to my regime of library-gym-library-sleep, until I hit a concrete wall and couldn't go on.

Once again, a scorching summer was spent indoors, this time though, I sat in group therapy sessions shoulder-to-shoulder with all different kinds of patients: drug addicts, those suffering post traumatic stress disorders, borderline patients and manic depressives.

It was there that I realised that the weight-loss was nothing but a symptom and that the illness had much deeper, more stubborn roots. I was treated for depression and felt comforted by finally being able to put a label on my emotions. I learned to put my feelings into words - both written and spoken - and respond to thoughts and impulses sensibly.

Those twelve weeks - my personal Renaissance – were seven years ago this summer.

STREGTH TO STRENGTH

Since then it’s been a bumpy ride, but none of the damage incurred has been lasting. I finished university, conceded that graduating without a first did not mean the world would stop turning, and followed my dream of writing for a living.

For many years I was plagued by an uneasy relationship with my body, but that too improved with every day.

Last year, I qualified as a personal trainer. My motivation was not so much obtaining a certificate to hang on the wall, but much more the opportunity to discover more about the amazing processes that occur beneath our skins - every second of our lives. It made me appreciate my body in all its guises. Naturally, the knowledge I accumulated helped me prepare for the marathon too.

For more than half a decade I was hesitant to talk to about my experiences with an eating disorder, but in recent months I've had an itch to share, hoping that my knowledge will contribute to some sort of healing process within those who are suffering. And unfortunately, if that sufferer is not you, then it’s most likely to be your friend, your sister, your daughter or your son.

Eating disorders affect 1.6 million people in the UK alone and often go hand-in-hand with exercise addictions and obsessive compulsive disorders.  I’m under no illusion that I - on my own – can make a change, but even if my story provides food for thought for a single sufferer, a loved one or a friend, if it encourages just one person to reach out, seek a dialogue and get help, then it was worth sharing. 

It's never too late to seek help. And never to earlier, for that matter, either.

For more information on Eating Disorder Awareness Week or Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia or other eating dsorders click here to access the website of beat, a national UK charity which provides support and help for your people suffering. 

(Image courtesy http://www.mjog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Eating-Disorders-Week.jpg) 

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