As we come to the end of Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I’ve decided to have a look back on my own struggles with eating and food.
Anxiety and depression can affect our bodies in very different ways. Whilst there are common symptoms, everyone’s experience is unique. We each need to find our own ways of coping.
For me, the most difficult element of my mental illness was how it made it me feel about food.
Before I really understood that what I was experiencing was a mental illness and the result of extreme stress, I had countless trips to the hospital for tummy-related upsets. Every few weeks, I would become violently ill and vomit for sometimes up to 12 hours. It would start with stomach pain then develop quickly into something much more unmanageable.
Of course, every-time I went to the hospital they told me there was nothing wrong. More often than not, they would give me strong painkillers (in America, they gave me morphine) and I would eventually calm down and the symptoms would subside. Further tests back at the doctors echoed this ‘nothing’s wrong’ diagnosis. Yet why did I feel so crap?
Because things like a big meal and rich food seemed to make me worse, I began a very toxic and unhealthy relationship with food. At first, I altered my diet and made simple lifestyle changes. It seemed innocent enough and I thought it would help. It didn’t.
It was about this time that I was diagnosed with extreme depression. I was also put on medication for the panic attacks I could not control. I then began to make the links between what was happening to my mind and my thoughts towards food. My struggles with eating, my persistent vomiting, the nervousness I felt when having to eat in front of others – it was all a horrible response to the mental stress I was going through.
At my lowest, I barely ate. I became very skinny and I hated my body. Contrary to popular perceptions regarding some eating disorders, I didn’t want to be thin and didn’t count the calories when I ate. In fact, I would often consume a whole packet of cookies in the hope that I’d get a little bigger. My diet was an unhealthy one.
I became terrified of supermarkets – going food shopping was an ordeal that I rarely got through without a panic attack. I began seeing a therapist, but she mainly just thought I didn’t know how to cook. In fact, I loved cooking and would sometimes spend ages making a lovely meal. But then I couldn’t bring myself to eat more than a few mouthfuls, and even less if someone else was there too.
Thankfully, it did get better. And to be honest, I’m not sure how or what exactly happened. Eating healthier helped, as did managing my stress and accepting my mental illness as a part of me. The weight has come back and I haven’t had a vomiting episode in well over a year.
Learning to manage and accept what my mind and body wants, in terms of food, has also helped. I still get nervous when I go out to eat, or when a large meal is placed in front of me, but I don’t let it ruin my dining experience. I avoid rich/spicy foods and have cut down on dairy. My boyfriend and I have recently turned vegetarian, and whilst this was mainly for ethical/environmental reasons, I have noticed that I can eat non-meat dinners more easily.
I don’t eat much whilst I’m travelling, and even sometimes for the day after when I’ve arrived at my destination. I don’t drink alcohol with dinners and always make sure I have breakfast.
On the flip side, food has been a great enjoyment of my life. My love of travelling means I enjoy trying new things and exploring the local delicacies. My greatest memories involve food, and my boyfriend and I regularly cook new recipes. I love going food shopping again and nabbing those bargains.
So, I guess what I’m trying to say by writing this post, is that eating disorders can hit us all. I would not have considered myself to have an eating disorder – I wasn’t strictly bulimic, anorexic, or – a newer addition – a binge-eater. But, like most mental illness, a lot of people don’t fall into these rigid categories. In fact, I experienced certain elements of all three.
This is my weird and wonderful relationship with food. Battling through it all has made me a stronger person and allowed me to understand – and appreciate – my mind and body more. Anyone experiencing any kind of mental illness and eating disorder, I salute you. And you are not alone. The food aspect of my depression/anxiety was by far the hardest to overcome, and luckily I experienced it nowhere near to the extremities some people face, but I got there. These debilitating, controlling behaviours, can be beaten.