It was September 2018, and I was in A&E after collapsing at work. The doctor said I was severely dehydrated and needed IV of fluids, but he couldn’t explain why – I looked healthy. He was also concerned that my heart rate was extremely low and at risk of giving up, but again, he had no diagnosis.
I wasn’t listening. All I could think about was how many calories night be in the bag of fluids. Was it going to make me gain weight? How could I burn it off? And it was actually these types of thoughts that had landed me in hospital in the first place.
For 14 years, I have struggled with atypical anorexia. Despite having the symptoms clinicians usually look for to diagnose anorexia – restricted eating, excessive exercise and fear of gaining weight - my weight has mainly stayed within the normal range. However when I have been somewhat coping, my BMI normally sits at the high end of healthy and actually the lower end of overweight. I am not a naturally slim person.
I consistently find myself having to validate my illness, my struggles, because I am ‘not slim enough’ – or ‘too fat’ - to have an eating disorder. It makes me feel at times like I never had an issue, and maybe I was just over reacting. Maybe I should just lose weight?
I was only 14 when my eating disorder started to appear, I started my first diet and was constantly comparing my body to others, I had faced many traumas up to this point, including bullying, and I felt it was my fault, my body’s fault, maybe if I looked different I might be treated better. It was also a coping stratergy, it gave me something else to focus on, I could not handle everything that was going on, and controlling my weight seemed to be the only thing I could control.
Every time I was subjected to something traumatic or a life-changing event, I would engage in eating disorder behaviours, measuring out my food and monitoring my weight very closely. When I felt like I had no control, this was what I would resort to - but the sad truth is it actually had complete control over me.
I seemed to have the disorder somewhat under control, or so I thought, I was still obsessing with calories and exercising but not exsessivly. But then I had a year where everything that could go wrong, did seem to go wrong, I also lost three people very dear to me within a very short period of time, and as a result went back to my disordered way. By the time I was 25 years old, I was exercising excessively and within a few months of turning 26 I started to abuse laxatives, as well as use diet pills I had brought online.
Weight loss became addictive – but my BMI remained normal, my weight was dropping but I was receiving compliments for how well I was doing on my latest “diet” . Soon I was isolating myself from friends, because if I dared to go out, to enjoy myself, I would come home and the scales would tell me I had failed and didn’t deserve to eat. It tore my self-esteem apart.
When friends did notice that I had lost a bit of weight, however, they congratulated me and asked for tips. Which made me feel a bit like a fraud, I told them I was just eating well and exercising more, I did not dare say just how much I was restricting and just how much I was exercising, the comments only affirmed my core belief that I had been fat in the first place.
And because I didn’t ‘look sick’, no one suspected that I had been up all night thinking about food, torturing myself by looking at recipes and memorising the calorie content in foods.
By May 2018, I was unable to work and getting crippling chest pains. When my periods stopped and I finally plucked up the courage to visit my GP.
I told him everything, and he confirmed what I had started to suspect. ‘This sounds like an eating disorder. Let’s check your BMI and go from there.’
He weighed me, and measured me, and concluded, ‘You aren’t slim enough for an eating disorder. Drink a full fat can of Coke a day to stop you from collapsing.’
I burst into tears but he shrugged his shoulders, adamant that I didn’t need help. Believing that nothing was wrong, I spiralled and upped all my efforts to lose weight.
My husband was so unhappy at the outcome of the GP appointment that he contacted the eating disorder charity Beat and they clarified that you do not need to be underweight to struggle with anorexia.
Beat helped me seek a referral and I entered treatment, eventually having cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for over a year and a half, and entering a day programme three days a week, where I was taught how to handle the ED voice, and worked through past traumas.
Initially it was hard to accept that I was ill. The BMI chart told me I was healthy - so surely I was fine? But I couldn’t have been further from it, both healthy physically and mentally.
Having treatment helped me gain acceptance but since opening up about my illness, I have been greeted with the same damaging phrase time and time again: ‘But you don’t look like you have an eating disorder.’ It is invalidating, harmful and wrong and makes me feel again like maybe I did not have a problem, maybe I was really ok and the specialists had made some sort of mistake, was I really ill or could I have kept going?
I’ve had to explain to so many people what atypical anorexia is, including nurses and doctors. When I was having tests for long term damage on my heart and fertility, my diagnosis was met with confusion. One nurse looked me up and down, and said, ‘You clearly don’t have a problem now!’
These sorts of comments can be extremely triggering, and invalidate the battles ED sufferers go through.
I nearly lost my life due to my eating disorder but I was never taken seriously because my weight was ‘healthy’. If I had been smaller, and lost weight more quickly, I suspect there would have been more alarm but I was missed, congratulated and praised instead of receiving help.
Whilst I am mostly recovered my ED had destroyed my reproductive system, I was on medication and hoped that one day I could carry a child. I now have a 4 month old Daughter, our little miracle.
We have an image of what eating disorders look like: the painfully thin, drawn and usually female stereotype. It’s dangerous because those that may be struggling may held back from getting help due to not looking like they have a problem.
On my journey through recovery I have met just as many men with EDs, as well as people of all shapes and sizes. Everyone’s struggle is real, valid, and can be fatal.
People need to realise that any gender, race, age and size, anyone can struggle. Eating disorders do not discriminate. Whenever eating disorders are talked about in the media there is usually a young very slim girl used to portray it, I was guilty of believing I did not fit the stereotype, so delayed getting help. More stories needs to be shared, to shatter that image we have.
I wish I had known you do not need to be underweight to have an eating disorder, maybe I would have reached out for help years ago, instead of suffering all this time, my weight yo-yoing every time I was struggling with life, and not been left with these long term effects. I wish I knew that others struggle with atypical anorexia and OSFED (other specified feeding eating disorders), I may not have felt so alone.
I am in solid recovery aiming to one day be fully recovered, Yes, I am aware of the voice, however I know how to cope and handle it. I am aware of my actions and understand my thoughts and feelings towards myself. It is not my body's fault, it never was. The problem lies inside my mind...