I read a deeply saddening and somewhat startling article the other day about how health professionals are causing catastrophic failings in those suffering from eating disorders. It’s a highly controversial matter, and one that most of us feel uncomfortable talking about. None of us can deny that we are incredibly fortunate to have our wonderful, free National Health Service at our disposal. It’s no secret that healthcare professionals up and down the UK work tirelessly around the clock to make us as comfortable and as reassured as possible, no matter how severe or minor our various issues.
But are our healthcare professionals equipped to deal with the sudden influx of mental health problems that seem to be spreading like wildfire? Of course, everybody will have their own opinions and stories when it comes to fighting either corner in relation to settling this argument, but the fact of the matter is that, whether we like it or not, there are failings in the system.
As we are becoming increasingly aware, mental health is not a ‘one size fits all’ diagnosis, which makes treating its array of strains so difficult.
No-one is to blame. How are professionals expected to understand symptoms, inner feelings and abnormal behaviours that we don’t even understand ourselves? All we know is that when we are suffering from a mental illness, we are not ourselves, and try as we might, we have no idea how to claw back our happiness, our sanity, and our former self.
We’ve all seen the TV campaigns about eradicating silence in advert breaks. We’ve read celebrity accounts of mental illness in a bid to inspire and kick-start our own recovery. We’ve offered advice and a shoulder to cry on to a friend in need. We can say what we like about mental health becoming less of a taboo, but the heartbreaking truth is that we are all so in the dark when it comes to understanding. We try and puddle through the labels, the list of symptoms, the diagnosis, but every case it so different, and therefore meaning that every treatment, every way of approach, and every expectation when it comes to recovery is so diverse.
Eating disorders need more ‘airtime’ – that is a fact. Depression, bipolar, anxiety, male suicide – we inadvertently know the harrowing facts and stats, reeling them off like our weekly shopping list.
But did you know that less than half of those who have previously suffered from eating disorders will go on to make a full recovery?
Did you know that out of ALL mental health conditions, eating disorders have the HIGHEST mortality rate?
Did you know that 3.7% of women will suffer from anorexia in their lifetime – clinics have reported new cases in children as young as six, and adults as old as 70?
When it comes to eating disorders, there are failings in the system.
The thing that stands out to me the most is the fact that generally, one has to be a certain [dangerously low] BMI in order to qualify for referral and help from professionals. I’m sorry, but bullshit. You can be 55 stone and be slowly dying from anorexia, just as you can be 6 stone and struggling. It is a MENTAL ILLNESS, and the sooner people realise that anorexia is NOT defined by its physical symptoms, the better chance we have of saving lives!
Although stereotypically categorised by a skeletal physique, for the most part, the symptoms are actually under the surface, which is what makes it so dangerous and hard to spot until it’s too late.
Having an eating disorder is honestly hell on Earth, and that is the only way I can describe it. It crushes every single morsel of what makes you you, intent on ruining friendships, relationships, and any lingering shreds of happiness. The flames of intensity close in like a burning building, trapping the sufferer and smothering them. Totally consumed by its control, there is no way out. It’s torture. The fact that people are battling with the mental effects of eating disorders without being granted help because they fall short of a certain number on the BMI scale is a complete disgrace.
As sad as it sounds, and as much as we yearn to help and comprehend, it really does take an eagle eye to spot the ‘hidden’ signs of an eating disorder in another person.
I’ve posted about awareness before, but I’ll post it again, and I’ll keep on shouting this out until I’m blue in the face. Alternate signs to look out for include: a sudden obsession/ fixation with exercise, withdrawal from social situations, silence, cancelling plans, making excuses when it comes to eating, excessive calorie counting, downloading fitness apps, being secretive, refusal to eat in-front of others, becoming defensive when pulled up on new behaviours, extreme fatigue, snappiness, low mood (think about how you feel when you’re very hungry - try feeling like that all the time!). The sufferer will make out that they are making ‘positive changes’ for the benefit of their health, and will strive in doing everything in their power to thrown you off scent.
The period of in-denial rapidly spreads into the realisation that they have a problem, and the fear of admitting to others what they are going through. Many sufferers think that if they alert others, they will try to intervene and interfere, which triggers a dread of having their control taken away. More often than not, control is what anorexia boils down to.
Reverting back to the article I mentioned earlier on, there was a line that especially stuck out to me: ‘It leaves patients relying on GPs who lack the skills and training to help.’
I can definitely vouch for this being true.
Last year, my doctor - having full access to my medical records and my struggle with anorexia in the past - told me to ‘watch what I ate.’
A trained clinician or therapist would not have made that comment. It was a throwaway statement relating to an incorrect PCOS diagnosis, my stress levels, and the need to look after myself and my wellbeing, but from the whole conversation I had with her, that was the one sentence I took away with me; quite open to misinterpretation when played into the hands of someone who has battled with an eating disorder.
Her comment came after I had told her that I was finding the wedding triggering in terms of a potential relapse, and had digressed that I currently weigh around the same as I did when I was ill (more so stress induced due to running around like a headless chicken for the last six months). Let me add that I have always been naturally underweight; something doctors have raised with me during every consultation, no matter the reason for my visit. So as you can imagine, to someone who is naturally underweight, intentionally or unintentionally losing any more weight is not a good sign, and not something that should be encouraged.
A flippant comment such as ‘watch what you eat’ may seem totally irrelevant to some, but to those vulnerable and susceptible to eating disorders, this may be extremely triggering and detrimental.
The triggers of both eating disorders and eating disorder relapses are many, and as I have said many a times, more often than not, the onset is not characterised by a desire to lose weight. Until we enlighten ourselves to this fact, we don’t hold much hope in taking steps towards eradicating these diseases.
Wedding planning is stressful, and I watched as a whole list of things went horribly during the months leading up to my big day. High-pressured, miserable situations were a trigger for my anorexia back in 2014, when I was largely unhappy with certain aspects of my life, and used a new-found passion for exercise to rid my mind of any outside negativity. This ‘passion’ and the escape it provided me with soon spiralled into an extremely unhealthy weapon of self-destruction, which signalled the birth of my eating disorder. It was the control that I thrived upon, and the fact that, no matter what I had going on in my life, I could go out and smash a 10k run in record time and feel good about it. It was the only thing that made me feel good, and yet, behind the scenes, it was stripping away every other aspect of my existence, from my friendships to my overall happiness. Before I knew it, the voice in my head had turned on me, and had completely taken over. I wasn’t in control as I had so blindly thought; I was crashing through the realms of despair, sinking further into the impending darkness, threatening to disappear.
In winter 2019, I found myself sliding rapidly towards a relapse. Wedding stress, coupled up with the fact that my seamstress warned me not to ‘fluctuate my weight’ for 8 weeks, were all massively triggering for me. I had to remind myself to dig deep to find the inner strength that pulled me through last time.
Since my initial recovery, I have always said that I will be completely honest and open about my anorexia. This is so important, I can’t even stress. Of course, I can only comment on my own experiences, and my own triggers, but be aware that there are thousands of different stories out there, and I can guarantee that each one will enlighten and surprise you to the ocean of complexity when it comes to eating disorders.
My point remains the same: eating disorders run a whole lot deeper than just a diet gone too far, or a yearning to shed a few pounds. Eating disorders are not always visible; one should not have to appear frail with protruding bones to be gifted with the help that is so urgently needed. Eating disorders are not something that people can just ‘snap out of’ – while the process might seem irrational to those on the outside, the principle is this: you wouldn’t tell someone with depression to just ‘cheer up,’ and you wouldn’t tell someone with, say, kidney failure, to not have kidney failure anymore, so don’t think by losing your temper and telling someone to ‘just eat for God’s sake!’ will have any form of positive impact on their wellbeing.
Eating disorders, like any mental illness, need to be approached with delicate caution and an open mind.
Cara Jasmine Bradley ©