In 2013 I was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa. Now, in December 2015, I am just over 27 months into my recovery, that’s over 2 years and yet I still battle with my eating disorder every single day- in fact, until just 4 months ago, I still couldn’t eat in front of anyone other than my immediate family. I have met a lot of people, and have made some very special friends since my weight has been restored, many of who are entirely unaware of my battles with mental health. Why? Well obviously because I haven’t told them (not because I’m ashamed, not at all, it’s just not something that tends to come up in casual conversation, no matter how big a part of me it is), and most people tend to judge a persons health based on their appearance; if you’re a healthy weight then people have no reason to think you have a problem with food, right? Because you have to be underweight to have an eating disorder…
SO VERY WRONG! A person with an eating disorder can be underweight, average weight or, yes you guessed it, overweight! I am 110% certain that I have had an eating disorder, of one form of another, for the full 18 years of my life. You see, an eating disorder is not about gaining or losing weight; it’s about how you feel about yourself, thinking you’re not good enough and wanting to change. At my highest weight I was nearly 12st, I had an eating disorder then. At my lowest I was 5 ½, I had an eating disorder them. Now I am nearing 9st and guess what, I have an eating disorder now. Sure I am managing it everyday but that does not mean the symptoms of my anorexia are not still there. But for those who do not know my story, they would not see these signs, not necessarily because they don’t care enough to notice, but because they do not know what to look for in the first place. These signs are not even hard to spot and all it takes is someone to vocalise them for other people to be able to notice when a loved one is suffering. And, of course, the earlier you spot the illness, the more chance you have at controlling it before it becomes deadly. In this light, I believe eating disorders are a form of cancer; it is very difficult for people to realise a person is ill, even the victim them self, until the illness has become so aggressive that it causes visible destruction to the body. And by this time, the chance of survival suddenly becomes very up in the air. It’s a disease that literally kills a person from the inside out. This is why being attentive to the subtler signals is so very important!
So what are the more understated signs of an eating disorder?
If they slip away to the bathroom or to their bedroom not long after they’ve finished a meal then take note, particularly if this is immediately followed by music or running water coming as this is often used as a way to mask what is going on behind the door. It may be nothing to worry about, especially if they are a teenager as us teens love our privacy. However, I know that even in the early days of an eating disorder coming to light, a person will often slip disappear upstairs to rid their body of what they have just consumed, be it through purging or exercise.
Small digs create the grave
No one loves themselves always and completely. Everyone has thoughts of ‘I don’t like my nose, my chin, my thighs etc.’ However, if someone only ever seems to speak negatively about themselves then clearly this is cause for alarm. Obviously I’m not talking about grand speeches of self loathing because those with eating disorders tend to want to keep that reality hush hush, but little comments, over and over, that is a cause for concern. If a person never has a positive word to say about themselves or their appearance then that’s a little more than a bad body image day. The more negative comments they pile up in their heads, the harder they’ll be to overthrow.
I’m not vain, I’m in pain
Don’t be surprised to hear that people with an eating disorder tend to spend hours upon hours staring at themselves in the mirror, running their hands over their own thighs or collarbones, scrutinizing every aspect of their appearance and often attacking their character as well. I remember, especially in the year of my downfall, being called vain when people caught me looking at my reflection a lot. Now most of the time this was meant as a joke but for someone who loathes the way they look, being accused of vanity is actually far more hurtful than you can imagine.
If someone seems to be a walking, talking encyclopedia in terms of calories in every food and drink under the sun, and other dietary secrets such as water retention, eating slowly to aid digestion and the benefits of wholegrain in comparison to other starches then you should wonder why the sudden fixation? Sure it’s quite possible that someone could just have a fascination with healthy eating and nutrition but for someone with an eating disorder this becomes far more than a fascination, it’s an obsession. Rituals and other OCD type mannerisms are usually a clear sign of eating disorders as they are ways for a dreadfully anxious victim to feel slightly more in control about what they are eating. These rituals can be anything from insisting to eat at a certain time (usually no later 6:30pm), down to a fixation on using a certain knife, drinking from a certain cup or even chewing a mouthful of food a certain amount of time (at least 15 for maximum digestion).
Before my anorexia became dominant, I had a binge disorder. At its worst, between the ages of around 7-11 when I should have been eating around 1800 calories a day, I was consuming anything up to 4500 calories a day. I would come home from school, pile high a plate of food of crisps, cake, ice cream, cheese, fruit, meat etc and gorge on that all before dinner. This would happen everyday for weeks. Then one day I’d just stop. I’d feel so huge and sluggish that I’d not want to eat anything for days. Now this is a more extreme version of the sign but if a person tends to over eat one minute and under eat the next then can most certainly be a cause for concern.
If a person always has a reason to ask for a smaller portion or to escape a meal altogether then it’s time to challenge them. When I was trying to cut down what I ate for dinner, I would use any excuse conceivable to do so. ‘Oh I’m not feeling well’, ‘I ate earlier’, ‘I haven’t done much today to work up an appetite’…I would have a new pretext everyday and not once was I questioned on it until it was too late. Often these excuses involve a strange or sudden change in taste buds as well as people with eating disorders often refuse to eat certain foods, even ones that used to be their favourites just because they ‘don’t like them anymore’.
Those with anorexia or bulimia tend to be cold pretty much all the time, even when everyone else is sitting there in shorts and a t-shirt. Obviously this is partly because those with a restrictive eating disorder have less flesh and flesh is a huge part of insulation so, without it, they’re going to be a bit nippy! But, right now, I’m focusing on spotting the signs that happen before the weight drops off. Constantly feeling the cold is still one of those signs, but for another reason. That reason is the chemicals inside them are all out of whack and their blood pressure and iron levels are low, so it’s likely they’ll always be grabbing an extra layer or wrapping their arms around themselves to keep warm. Along with that, eating disorders and a prolonged lack of nutrition causes a person to have pale skin, dull eyes and develop a condition called lanugo which is basically hair, almost a fine layer of fur, in areas you wouldn’t necessarily expect such as the neck, hands, stomach and face. Lanugo is, again, another desperate attempt from the body to try and maintain heat.
Eager to burn off as many calories as possible, people with an eating disorder just can’t keep still. When seated they constantly tap their feet, jog their leg up and down, move their jaw back and forth and wriggle their fingers. They hate, I repeat, hate sitting still. It makes them feel like a couch potato. They need to be moving in one way or another.
Food glorious food
This often comes as a surprise to people but people with eating disorders are usually real foodies! In fact it’s fair to say that they’re obsessed with food; they love every cooking programme under the sun, they take so much joy in cooking lavish meals for other people, they’re always collecting recipes, reading cookbooks and their social media sites are swamped with shameless food porn accounts. It’s also quite possible that they want to be actively involved in the food shop and meal prep. Sure, a love of food should be nothing to be concerned about and, a lot of the time, it isn’t. You never know, it could just be a budding young chef in the making. However there is a fine line between passion and obsession, and if they’re already showing some of the signs above then it’s worth keeping an eye out.
No more mother nature
Now as we know, eating disorders do not discriminate. However this is one sign that has a clear ‘ladies only’ policy. If you’ve noticed that your friend or daughter hasn’t had a period in a while then don’t ignore your suspicions. When I lost my period I was just under 8 stone and still had a totally healthy BMI. However, my calorie intake was so drastically low that my body went into desperation, shutting down any function that isn’t considered ‘vital’ so that it can gather enough energy to survive. While the weight did start dropping off rapidly, there was still a couple of months between the loss of my menstrual cycle and concerning weight loss.
One reason eating disorders are so lethal is because they are both ruthless and tactile. One of there greatest weapons is isolation. Like cheetahs cutting off one gazelle from the pack, those suffering with eating disorders tend to withdraw from friends and lose interest in the hobbies they used to love. With this often comes changes in personality; they become subdued, quiet, agitated and constantly tired. So if you notice anything of the sort, don’t just pass it off as ‘a bad day’, as their friend or family member, take the time to talk to them about what’s going on inside their head because the longer you leave it, the less likely they are to tell you.
The artful dodgerIf someone is skipping meals, then that may be a cause for alarm. I know that sounds obvious but sometimes people just don’t feel like eating breakfast or they don’t have time for lunch. And while that in itself isn’t particularly healthy, it doesn’t always equate to eating disorder. However, if it’s a regular occurrence then take note before one skipped meal a day becomes two or three…I really mean it when I say it’s the little things that go unnoticed that are actually dead giveaways when it comes to spotting an eating disorder. Eating disorder sufferers become very deceptive when it comes to food, so much so that lying suddenly becomes second nature to them. When I was hiding my disorder I did this in many ways. I would wake up before any of my family so that I could head downstairs, fill a bowl with milk and a few cereal crumbs to make it appear as if I had eaten breakfast. On days that my mother had woken before me I would take my breakfast up to my room before I would simply throw it out the window. I would even take my dinner back out to the kitchen with me, pretending to get another glass of water, when I’d really just wrap a whole hunk of my dinner in kitchen roll and chuck it in the bin. So if you see this sort of behavior in someone you know and care about then you have to ask yourself why, because they wouldn’t have a reason to lie if they didn’t have something to hide.
When those signs are listed down, they actually seem pretty obvious don’t they? Or at least not as hard to spot as you may have thought. However I do understand that when you’re not looking for them, and you have no reason to believe someone you care about is going through such a horrible ordeal, that it is easy for those symptoms to just fly under the radar. This is not a criticism of anyone as we are all human and we can’t be expected to be superheroes all the time. But all it takes is a little extra care to make a lot of difference. Anyone is susceptible to the harsh grasp on an eating disorder so never assume a person is safe. Now that sounds incredibly morbid but only if you choose to look at it that way. If we, as a society, simply acknowledge that, yes, mental illness does exist and is a very real, very possible and very serious issue then already that is a huge step in the direction of overcoming them. While it’s down to the victim themselves to succeed in their own recovery, community support is often a cross junction in the road; if there is love, knowledge and understanding from others on the subject then there is a greater chance of recovery, if there isn’t then that person will just feel even more isolated and there’ll be a greater chance of sending them spiralling further down into the dark place they are desperately trying to escape.
I’ll say it again, mental illness does not discriminate, so neither should support. All it takes is a little extra time and effort to help save a lot of lives.