Stand For Me and my eating disorder
Abigail is 28 and is from Neath. She is a successful sports reporter and has lived with anorexia for more than 18 years. As part of our Stand For Me campaign to improve mental health services and support in Wales, Abigail blogs about her experiences.
In 2019, I was discharged from hospital for the eighth – and hopefully final – time. I have battled anorexia for 18 years and, while I am now in recovery, it has felt as if I have been in an abusive relationship with my own mind.
Anorexia Nervosa first arrived on the scene when I was nine years old. My parents divorced when I was very young and I found the new, different dynamic difficult to comprehend. My father maintained a good relationship with my brother but not with me. I soon realised that the only thing I could control was what I ate. Anorexia felt like a companion and a trusted friend. I first went to see the doctor when I was 11. I was told I would need to lose more weight in order to get treatment which of course fed into my disordered way of thinking. I had more weight to lose – or so I thought.
I didn’t realise that other people didn’t have the same voice in their head that I did. “Are you sure you want to eat that?” it would ask.
Just two or three years later, my eating disorder had really taken hold. My trusted friend was now manipulating me. It stopped me from doing the things I enjoyed. But by then, I believed it really wanted the best for me. I was deeply unhappy but because I was controlling my weight, I felt as if I was in control of everything else; I was handling things just fine. My anorexia numbed my emotions and my obsessive calorie counting distracted me from the root problems causing my mental illness. At 12 years old, I started exercising obsessively. The doctors started monitoring my weight every week and I was referred to Child and Mental Health Services in Wales.
It was 2005 and though it was now taken seriously – I had lost enough weight by this time - they just dealt with the physical side, not the psychological. I had no idea what anorexia nervosa was and when I asked, they printed out a Wikipedia page for me to read. Noone was willing to engage with it - or with me. I still feel bitter about it. To this day, I suffer relapses and I still wake up with anorexia in my head.
Early intervention is crucial. If I had been helped at the age of nine, I could be leading a normal life now.
Early intervention is crucial. If I had been helped at the age of nine, I could be leading a normal life now. It is so important that we educate people and that things change. Even today, when we have so much information and so much evidence, I still hear that people are turned away by doctors until their BMI is not low enough. Medical teams still deal with the physical aspects of anorexia and more should be done about the psychological issues that lie behind them.
I wouldn’t even drink tap water for fear that someone had added calories to it. I pushed furniture up against my bedroom door so no one could secretly feed me in the night. I was totally paranoid and I had body dysmorphia. I may have been on the edge of death but what I saw in the mirror disgusted me. Not because there were bones protruding out of my skin and not because my hair was falling out. But because I wasn’t thin enough. I saw something which ashamed and embarrassed me.
I wasn’t allowed new clothes and I couldn’t smile. Anorexia wouldn’t let me.
I felt totally worthless and I was ready to die. Anorexia would torment me every hour of the day. It would wake me up and rage at me for the meagre calories I had consumed. I would self-harm to punish myself for failing.
I wasn’t allowed new clothes and I couldn’t smile. Anorexia wouldn’t let me. My mind trapped and abused me. I had no idea who I was. There was no Abi left. I was 100% consumed by anorexia nervosa.
I was first admitted to hospital when I was 15 when I was warned I would have a heart attack if I stayed at home. By that point, I was taking 100 laxatives a day. I had taken DNP a couple of times (the lethal dose of which killed Eloise Parry in 2015). I had pushed my Mum away and pushed my friends away. I was isolating myself in my room where I would exercise all hours of the day. In hospital, I learned to trade tricks and tips with the other girls. Anorexia is a competitive illness so we would write letters to each other and vie to be the “best”.
I was dosed up on so much medication that I am unable to remember most of my time as an inpatient. I was on anti-depressants that were deemed to be significantly detrimental to those under the age of 18. My medication was only changed when my older sister pointed this out to the staff. I do remember a nurse asking me what I enjoyed doing. I replied: “Calorie counting”. That was it. I wasn’t worth anything else. That is what I existed for. She pointed out that was what made my eating disorder happy, not me. But I had become so entwined with anorexia that we were now one.
My entire Year 11 was spent in hospital and I was schooled there with my Mum travelling in everyday from Neath to see me. I told her I didn’t love her and she still did everything she could to help. But I had no feelings and no empathy. I could only feel torment and the physical pain – the feeling of being ice cold all the time, the feeling of my bones sticking out of my skin. I couldn’t even walk without passing out. I had planned my funeral before being admitted to hospital. Notes to my family were all written. I simply felt there was no escape and I begged the medical staff every day to just let me die.
But one day, while still an inpatient, my uncle asked if he could take me to watch a game. I had forgotten that I loved football but I saw it as a fitting goodbye to him.
Stepping onto the concourse that day saved me.
Stepping onto the concourse that day saved me. It was as if I rediscovered a lost childhood. For 90 minutes, I thought only of tactics and formations. It was freedom. I was Abi again and that evening gave me something to cling onto. The next day, I wrote my first match report from my hospital bed. I wasn’t just my eating disorder anymore. From then on, watching sport was my coping mechanism.
As I focused on recovery, my anorexia battled harder than ever to control me. As I was releasing myself from its grip, it would do anything to keep me. But football allowed me to believe I had a future. At that game, I felt that my uncle saw me and not my eating disorder. My Mum, naturally, couldn’t see past the terror of her daughter dying in front of her eyes. But I needed people to see me and as I sat there, analysing the game, he simply turned to me and said, “You’re really good at this Abi.” It was a huge turning point.
My last relapse was two years ago. It was horrendous to see that things have got worse. There is not enough money for services, fewer beds are available so the wait for treatment is longer and it is more difficult as an adult to get inpatient treatment, even with my well-documented medical history. There is still the stigma that somehow anorexics should snap out of it and stop doing this to ourselves. “Can’t we see what it’s doing to our families? Can’t we see that it’s selfish behaviour?” No one would say that to a cancer patient, so how is it ok to ask that of someone with a mental illness? It furthers the blame and the guilt.
Now the UK Government wants to bring in calorie information at restaurants in its war against obesity. It is important to remember that anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses. I have been in recovery for two years but I have been fixated by the food that passes my lips all my life. How many calories? How many bites? This should not be the norm for future generations. We already have to deal with calorie information on the groceries we buy. If it catches my eye on the supermarket aisles, I can quickly revert back to my disordered way of thinking and it can make me feel very anxious.
But over the last 18 months, I can finally say that I have started to enjoy food. I can go to a restaurant and order what I want, free from information overload about fat content. The Government needs to focus more on nutrition and appropriate exercise and ditch the obsession with calories. I haven’t self-harmed for a year and it has been two years since I tried to end my life. I have developed coping mechanisms - I focus on nutrition and putting the right things in my body to fuel it. I have taught myself Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I have people around me who can watch for signs of relapse. There are still times that anorexia is in control but it is never for too long. We are all worthy of happiness and sometimes our illnesses manipulate us into believing we are less than we are.
I have come a long way since my Mum had to bath me at the age of 15 when my teeth and my bones were crumbling. When my hair was falling out. When I couldn’t stand for long without passing out. I can now see anorexia for the manipulative liar it is.
I have anorexia but anorexia no longer has me.
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