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Beyond a fear of food poisoning: My eating disorder experience

Thursday, 26 May 2022 Bluebell

Bluebell tells us about living with an often misunderstood eating problem. And how with the right support she's now taking small, manageable steps towards recovery.

When I was 18 I got really bad food poisoning, and it freaked me out big time. For nearly a year I was convinced that it wasn’t in fact food poisoning but the symptom of a much more serious illness that would probably kill me. A quick internet search told me it was likely stomach cancer. It was terrifying because I genuinely thought I had cancer, and incredibly frustrating because nobody else seemed to believe me. I had a stomach ache constantly, couldn’t keep food down, and got super anxious nearly every time I ate.

I finally recognised that the stomach aches, chest pain, fatigue and weight loss were not symptoms of a physical illness at all, they were my body’s response to severe anxiety.

I went to appointment after appointment at the doctors, certain something was seriously wrong. After a long time and lots of tests I finally recognised that the stomach aches, chest pain, fatigue and weight loss were not symptoms of a physical illness at all, they were my body’s response to severe anxiety. I honestly couldn’t bear the idea of having food poisoning again and the thought alone was making me ill.

The unfortunate fact about anxiety and panic attacks is that some of the symptoms are like the ones you’d expect from food poisoning. Here’s how it works for me: Let’s say I eat a sandwich. I think about the fact that the sandwich could give me food poisoning which makes me really anxious. My tummy hurts, I feel sick, I start sweating, but at the time I’m certain these symptoms are confirmation of the fact I have food poisoning. This makes me even more anxious, so the symptoms increase again making me even surer I really do have food poisoning this time… It’s a pretty vicious circle!

I came away feeling misunderstood and upset. The focus seemed to be entirely on health related anxiety; my eating habits and the way I felt about food were never discussed.

So I accepted my fate as a chronic worrier. I was apprehensive about taking any medication and after a very long wait to see a counsellor I had two appointments. I came away feeling misunderstood and upset. The focus seemed to be entirely on health related anxiety; my eating habits and the way I felt about food were never discussed so I assumed they were nothing to worry about.

Over the years that followed my relationship with eating ebbed and flowed. I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated good food, but I got used to having a day, week or even a month where I felt too nervous about the possibility of food poisoning to eat certain things. I obsessively checked sell by dates and food hygiene ratings, and overcooked everything to the point of it being burnt.

After meals out I’d lie awake in the night and worry about how long the food had been cooked for.

I was constantly building up a mental list of foods that were ‘safe’ and foods that were ‘risky’ and I did the same with restaurants and friends and family members’ cooking. After meals out I’d lie awake in the night and worry about how long the food had been cooked for. It seems strange in hindsight, but I never thought of this as unhealthy or unusual because I was largely living a happy life. I rarely expressed the thoughts I was having and the behaviours were reasonably well hidden. Over time though, progressively things got worse.

By this time last year I was feeling anxious about pretty much everything I ate. I was avoiding eating with other people, discreetly getting rid of food I didn’t think was safe, and only eating when I really felt like I needed to because it just wasn’t worth the panic that I knew would follow. When the thing you’re most anxious about has to happen at least 3 times a day (breakfast, lunch, dinner) it is indescribably exhausting. It was impacting my work, my social life, my dating life, my creativity, my sleep, my body image, everything really. I felt tired and flat and so unhappy it scared me.

Eventually I went to the doctors and for the first time ever I had a completely honest conversation about my eating. I told them everything I’d been going through for the last decade (it was a long call) and they told me about the different help that was available. I know this isn’t the experience that lots of people have with their GP, so I’m very lucky, but mine was patient and compassionate and made me feel heard. I can’t express the relief I felt at the prospect of no longer feeling the way I did.

I do food plans, I practise mindfulness, I do lots of drawing. I’m really looking after myself and reaping the rewards.

Since that appointment lots has changed for me. I take medication every day and have therapy every week. I’ve spoken to my closest friends and family about my eating disorder which has been a real weight off. They bring me meals so I don’t have to cook when I’m having a tough time, they’re never annoyed if I have to cancel plans, and they make a darn good job of enjoying beige food with me if that’s all I’m up to. Sometimes they don’t know what to say about my eating disorder and that’s fine because they’re loving and non-judgemental and that’s all I need.

I’ve also talked to my manager at work who was a perfect blend of kind and practical, offering me all the support I needed to work flexibly and take time off when I needed it. I do food plans, I practise mindfulness, I do lots of drawing. I’m really looking after myself and reaping the rewards.

I’ve accepted that recovery isn’t something I can rush through, so I’m learning to be patient and slow down a little.

For me, recovery has been all about learning. I have relapses, but I’m learning to speak compassionately to myself when that does happen which is no small feat. I’ve accepted that recovery isn’t something I can rush through, so I’m learning to be patient and slow down a little. Some things are just too hard to manage right in the middle of recovery, so I’m learning to say no and prioritise doing the things that make me feel good. Not everything I’ve tried has been helpful, in fact some of it has been damaging, so I’m learning what works for me personally and writing it all down.

It’s sure to be a tricky one at times but I’m on the right path. One day I hope to be sat in a fancy restaurant enjoying some decadent and extravagant meal without a care, but for now I’m super proud to be having beans on toast on the settee at home and feeling pretty chill about it.

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Bluebell

30, Sheffield. Creative, charity manager, and aunty to three wonderful girls. Learning to live happily with an eating disorder, OCD, and PTSD.

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