Our first guest blogger, Emily, shares her experience with an adult-onset eating disorder…
I’m now 33 and in early 2019 I started getting more comments on my body and what I looked like than I think I ever had in the nearly 32 years up to that point. Wow, you’ve lost so much weight! You’re so tiny! You must be, what, like a size… now? You look incredible! What’s your secret?!
Well, I’ll tell you my secret… I was in the early stages of an adult-onset eating disorder, which over the last 16 months has steadily increased its strangle-hold over me to the point where I haven’t had a period in over a year and I experience intolerable anxiety when I get anywhere close to feeling ‘full’, ‘bloated’ or – heaven forbid – ‘fat’. I pretty much spend every waking moment thinking about food and my body (and sometimes my sleeping moments too – I’ve had some out-there dreams about food!)
Let me get this straight, I love food. Like, seriously love food. I love cooking food, reading about food, sharing food, trying new foods… but you know what, for me, food was never really about hunger or fuelling myself. It was about connecting with people, experiencing new things and feeling good about myself. I could eat way past (and I mean, way past) the point of feeling full. I could also go for several hours without eating if the time ‘wasn’t right’. I hated the idea of just quickly eating something on the run – no, food was to be enjoyed and shared, and I’d wait until later.
I can say hand on heart that I want ‘get better’…I want my relationships to be happy and healthy, and for those I love not to have to worry about me anymore.
This didn’t prove too dysfunctional for me over the years (or at least I don’t think it did) until I started changing some of my behaviours around food last year before getting married (because of course, it’s apparently just totally normal for soon-to-be-brides to want to lose weight). I wanted to start managing my portion sizes (which have always supposedly been out of whack) and get myself ‘in shape’ for the wedding. Enter a FitBit, some food weighing scales, regular bio-metric testing at the gym and incessant (and I mean incessant) calorie-counting.
What did I end up with less than twelve months later? A diagnosis of ‘atypical anorexia’ (atypical meaning that I have all the symptoms of anorexia but with a body weight/BMI that floats around and just below the cut-off point – don’t even get my started on this fixation with weight in statutory eating disorder services. I’ve been weighed more times in the last year by doctors than in the previous 32 years combined!) and a target weight/body fat % for my periods to return but that feels completely impossible and undesirable to achieve.
I can say hand on heart that I want ‘get better’. I want my periods back, I want to have a normal relationship with food (whatever that means) and I want to nourish my mind and body and give it all it needs to have the happiest, healthiest life I can. I want my relationships to be happy and healthy, and for those I love not to have to worry about me anymore.
But you know what…? I want to do all that without putting any weight on (that diet and fitness narrative around ‘maintenance’ is just so not helpful). If I’m honest, at this stage, I think I can. I have genuinely convinced myself that, somehow, I can sort all this out without my body or my shape changing. What happens? I try to eat ‘normally’ for a couple of days, I feel ‘wrong’ in my body and I go back to restricting. I sought out help about six months ago (thanks, Covid-19 for throwing a spanner in the works by causing all services to shut down!) and, surprise, surprise, my health is exactly where it was six months ago. That’s because it’s nonsense that I can get back to health without putting on weight. I know that deep down, but it terrifies me more than I can say. I hate myself that it terrifies me, but it just does.
The thing is, I haven’t convinced myself that I don’t need to (or ‘should not’) put weight on. It’s the eating disorder voice. I am desperate to expose and banish that voice for the charlatan that it is. Don’t get me wrong, I have felt my best self at times over the last 16 months or so. Controlling food can be a real buzz – I’ve literally felt high once I know I haven’t gone over my ‘allowed’ calories for the day. But it’s ridiculous. No ‘real friend’ (because that’s what the ED voice pretends to be and sometimes feels like) would ever make you destroy your own body or convince you that people who care about you are the enemy because they insist that getting back to health involves changing how you think about and behave around food and your body.
“For me, this eating disorder is about a complete disconnect between my mind and my body…In order to recover, I essentially need to go against everything our society celebrates.”
I know all this. Like a lot of people with eating disorders, I’m not an idiot and I can think logically about how screwed up it all is. My journey now is about the connection between ‘logic’ and all those unbearable complex emotions and feelings I have about food and my body (by which I really mean, myself and my life). I don’t think this is all too different for adult-onset eating disorders than it is for people who fall victim to this when younger. However, I’ve found that a lot of the resources and materials on eating disorders are geared up more around early-onset disorders (whether the person is still currently young or not). Based on my experiences getting this at the age of 32, I feel that:
- Eating disorders, like any mental health condition, can strike at any time if there are the right combination of stressors. You can go the majority of your life falling just on the ‘functional’ side of things, but it can be a slippery slope if life starts to push you beyond what you can cope with.
- It’s not an ‘over-night’ disorder. Those little buzzes you get from controlling food inevitably reinforce what you’re doing and cause you to slowly decline into a situation where you now longer feel in control but you can’t see any way out. It’s a slippery slope and, for me, once I realised how bad it was, I was deep in it.
- It’s not about wanting to be ‘thin’ or about how you look per se. But then again, it kind of is. It’s more that when you feel that everything else around you is going to pieces, at least you have ‘that’. People are complimenting you on what you look like and celebrating your weight loss, which can be very powerful at the best of times, let alone when you feel that other parts of your life are becoming intolerable. Giving up the one thing you feel you can control (even if it’s a lie that you’re in control) can feel impossible.
- Eating disorders can have immeasurable impacts on your relationships. I think there are perhaps some unique aspects to this when dealing with an adult-onset eating disorder. You’ve established ‘grown up’ relationships, but suddenly you’re vulnerable again. It is understandably very tough for those around you to see you go from being ‘capable’ and ‘functional’ to behaving very oddly around food. Resentment and anger can build up and it may be case that your relationships won’t go back to how they used to be (and maybe that’s a good thing, depending on the factors that underpin your illness).
For me, this eating disorder is about a complete disconnect between my mind and my body. That’s why I made the decision to ditch my FitBit. It’s just not helpful to be constantly tracking yourself and to make decisions about how much to eat, whether you’ve exercised enough and so on based on the feedback from a device rather than what your body is telling you it needs. It’s also shown me that we need to really reflect on the cultural messages out there about our bodies and diets. ‘Disordered eating’ and both body shaming and valorisation (toward ourselves and others) is rife in our society. In order to recover, I essentially need to go against everything our society celebrates. When I was getting ill, I apparently looked ‘amazing’; what does that tell us about what we class as ‘amazing’? Clearly it isn’t health and wellbeing. It was only those closest to me that realised that something was up because they could see how my state of mind was being affected.
None of us are immune to cultural conditioning, however rational we may be in trying to disregard it. I’ve been shocked to learn just how easy it is when life gets tough to think, well at least I’ve lost weight. As I’ve learnt, that can hit at any time in life and doesn’t discriminate by age.