Up until the age of 15, I had never thought of food as anything other than tasty fuel. It was something that I got to enjoy every day, but something that also kept me energised at school, playing sport, and being out with friends. Which is why being diagnosed with severe anorexia nervosa eight years ago came as such a shock to everyone – including me.
‘Ana’, as she became known in our house, crept into my life at a point in my teenage years when things began to feel out of control. It turns out that this is quite common when it comes to eating disorders. A combination of exam anxiety, insomnia, and the passing of a beloved dance teacher (all while unknowingly having glandular fever) were the elements of a perfect storm. Unfortunately, this storm didn’t blow over as quickly as we had hoped. In fact, we had no idea what we were in for.
I was under the grip of anorexia for six long years. During that time, I battled depression (a bi-product of having an eating disorder), suicidal thoughts, and was hospitalised multiple times. At my worst, I was fed through a tube in my nose, which gave me the calories I needed to stay alive. This was just before my 18th birthday.
There is a happy ending though! Two years ago I kicked anorexia out of my life, and I have been happy and healthy ever since. That’s not to say that I don’t have difficult days, or hear Ana’s dulcet tones every so often. But those negative thoughts now leave as quickly as they come, and I no longer feel the need to use food restriction as a way to make me feel better.
People often ask what helped me recover from my eating disorder and, as with its arrival, it wasn’t just one thing, but a combination of a few different factors.
Firstly, I have an incredibly strong and supportive network. My father had been to the ‘dark side’ (as we call it) of a severe depression 10 years prior to my illness. Therefore, he could empathise with me in a way that most couldn’t. My mother found it much harder to cope with my eating disorder but, with time, learned to speak the language of mental ill-health, which was the only way to help me fight against the demons. I am also fortunate to have a circle of truly wonderful friends who never gave up on me, even in the darkest of times. They still support me to this very day.
Secondly, I strongly believe that learning to be honest, and express my negative thoughts and feelings, was my saving grace. Opening up to those closest to me about my struggles, both big and small, not only helped me kick anorexia out of my life, but it has also kept anxiety and low mood at bay over the past few years in times of stress.
Christmas and New Year were always the trickiest times when I was in the depths of my eating disorder. A holiday focused around food, followed by a month of diet plan suggestions everywhere you look, is hardly the best environment for recovery. One thing that helped to keep me on the right path was a piece of advice I received from a very wise friend. “Don’t let others derail you in your tracks. Everyone is different, and every single body is unique, so all you have to do is look after yours.” It may have taken some time, but that is exactly what I did, and what I have continued to do these past few years.
Unfortunately, the number of young people suffering from this merciless eating disorder (with the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses) is greater than ever. This comes as no surprise to me, with a pandemic that is disrupting the way we live, and multiple lockdown rule changes throwing regular routines and stability out the window. It has become a feeding ground for Anas everywhere, allowing them to sneak into people’s lives to try to ‘help’ their victims out.
“I strongly believe that learning to be honest, and express my negative thoughts and feelings, was my saving grace”
Over the past few months, my parents and I have unwittingly become a support system for a number of families who are struggling to cope with an eating disorder in the household. We have regular phone or Skype conversations with parents or daughters, and simply speak about what helped us in a similar situation, in the hope that it may benefit their own.
The silver lining is that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting (virtually) and helping a beautiful young girl on her recovery journey. Although there are still a few hurdles to overcome, I know that she can beat her demons for good.
I have also started a page on Instagram dedicated to mental health and recovery, in the hope that I can keep the conversation flowing and growing through these difficult times with a wider community. As I said, talking is the key, and if I can help even one person believe that they can live a happy and fulfilled life without anorexia, then it will have been worth it.
I will always be grateful for the professional help I received, which undoubtedly aided my recovery and kept me safe when I was on the very edge. But at times during my illness, what I really wanted was some reassurance from someone who had actually been through it themselves. And for that person to tell me that they really understood the thoughts circling around in my frazzled mind. That I wasn’t alone in my fight, and that I would live to tell the tale. I’m hoping that I can be that person for another sufferer – because you don’t have to fight the monster on your own, and you can recover with the help of others around you.
Emily’s heartwarming story truly highlights the difficulty of living with an eating disorder, and the damaging impact it can have. A strong support network and developing the ability to express her feelings has been key for Emily; creating space for positive change and growth.
With this strong foundation of awareness, Emily now inspirationally supports others, and is able to draw upon her experience as a source of strength.
To speak with a counsellor about an eating disorder, visit counselling-directory.org.uk
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