Talking about the sh*t we don’t want to talk about

The other day I watched the documentary I am Maris on Netflix. It’s about a young girl and her journey to recovery from an eating disorder through yoga.

She writes a blog on her website and, like many of us with our online personas, when she started out she was writing about all the positive things she was doing in her life now – not the dark stuff that brought her there.

But then a friend said to her: “write about the sh*t you don’t want to talk about” and so she did. Getting honest and real about her struggles is what has made her blog one that’s touched a lot of women going through the same things.

Starting my own blog

When I started this blog, it was for many of the same reasons that Maris started hers. I wanted to write about the things that had helped me to overcome my own personal battles with mental health issues and the ongoing spiritual practices I use to manage them. However, thus far I’ve been very reticent to talk about what those mental health issues actually are in much detail and there’s a number of reasons for that, but mainly it’s fear. Fear of what people will think of me. Fear of what people will say about me. Fear of exposing myself. Fear of saying too much and not being able to take it back once it was “out there”.

As a journalist, I believe that the most powerful stories are those where people have overcome adversity and come out the other side. Those are the stories that stoke the fires of passion within me as a writer and stir empathy and emotion in me as a reader. Those are the articles that have helped me on a personal level.

So, with that in mind I’m going to talk openly today about one of my biggest personal struggles and the one that has been in my life the longest – food.

My battle with an eating disorder

I have struggled with food since I was 15 and I first developed an eating disorder in the form of bulimia nervosa. I was quite shy and sensitive when I was younger and I was also a massive perfectionist in terms of my school work. I developed breasts quite young and suddenly became self-conscious about my body in a way I never had before, like many teenagers do. A boy at school said I looked like a beached whale in a swimming costume. I felt overwhelmed with the pressure of wanting to do well but also wanting to be liked and with all those other emotions that go hand in hand with adolescence. Up until then I’d had a very normal relationship with food. I don’t know at what point that changed but I tried to diet and lose weight but I was no good at it and couldn’t stick to it so that made me feel even worse. And then I read somewhere about girls who made themselves sick after eating so they didn’t get fat. This seemed like the perfect solution. Oh how I wish I knew back then that it really wasn’t!

Short term it worked. I gained a sense of control over my life by controlling my food and I lost a lot of weight. And then it got bad and after getting too drunk on an empty stomach at a school party and not being able to get up off the toilet floor, it all came flooding out about what had been going on. I was 17 and this was the first of many times I had treatment for bulimia. 

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Left to Right: At 14/15 before my eating disorder took hold and at 17 in the grips of bulimia. The terrifying thing about bulimia in particular is that it can go undetected for so long. I look happy in this picture and although I was slim, I wasn’t underweight. This helps you to hide it from those around you. 

I’m 40 years old now and in the last 25 years, despite having had many periods of time where I’ve felt like I was in some way free from my eating issues, I never really have been.

My eating disorder has taken many forms and has manifested at various different levels of severity, but it has always been there lurking. I’ve been a perpetual dieter. Food and my weight have always been on my mind. It has swung from extreme dieting and restrictive eating interspersed with binging, vomiting and laxative and appetite suppressant abuse, to not giving a f*ck about myself and stuffing anything I could into my face just to stop how I felt, and everything in between. 

As such my weight has gone from 8st at my lowest to 13st at my highest. By outward appearances and according to my BMI, I’ve never been obese and I’ve never been underweight, but I can honestly say I have never been a healthy weight despite what the number has said on the scales. 

My eating disorder was at its worst in my 20s. At the time this picture was take, the only thing I would consume without vomiting was Starbucks coffees, which I was obsessed with. I was on holiday here and had to go to the hospital. I probably should have had a good meal when I got out, but I went for a Starbucks instead
Above: At the time when I looked at this picture all I could think about was how my stomach did not look flat enough and Below: I hated the “fat” under my armpits here. I was able to shop in the teen/kids sections of shops at this time, but I still thought I needed to lose more weight. This is the warped thinking you have in the grips of an eating disorder

Above: At the other end of the scale during a time when alcohol abuse and over eating were at the forefront of my illness.

In recent years I felt like the grip my eating disorder had on me had lessened to enough of a degree that I could live with it. I got sober. I went on a health and fitness regime and I have been practising mindfulness and living a more spiritual life, which has increased my self-esteem significantly. 

However, eating disorders are insidious. You kid yourself into thinking you’ve got it licked and then it comes back and bites you on the arse 10-fold. No matter what I did, there it lurked in the background, waiting in the dark doing press ups until I tripped and fell and it could catch me once again. And it did.

A year ago I thought I’d finally reached weight utopia through healthy eating and exercising but that little demon inside of my head didn’t want to stop once I got to a nice healthy weight. It wanted to keep going. It wanted protruding hip bones and clavicles again. It wanted to be just one dress size smaller. Just one more stone bracket down.

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This is the madness of it and it takes up a lot of space in your mind – the plotting, the planning, the swinging between desperately wanting to just be healthy and normal and desperately wanting to press the self-destruct button. 

And so when I hit rough patch in the road and I couldn’t cope, the inevitable happened – I fell off my incredibly strict diet plan and my eating disorder came back with a vengeance. At 39 years old my body couldn’t take it anymore and with three years sobriety under my belt, neither could my mind or my spirit.

My crutch that had given me a sense of control over my life when everything around me was chaotic had stopped working. Emotionally this sent me off the deep end. I knew that abusing myself and trying to change how I felt with any substance (in this case food or lack of it) was not the answer to anything but I didn’t know what the answer was and so I did what had worked for me when I got sober. I asked for help.

I was referred to the Vincent Square eating disorder clinic at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London where I went on a weekly basis for outpatient treatment. I was discharged two weeks ago.

The devious mind

Going back to I am Maris and what inspired me to write this post was that when I was watching it one of the things that really struck a chord with me was when her mum said that while Maris was in treatment in hospital she did everything she was told to do in order to get discharged. Like me, and like most people with eating disorders, she was a high achiever and a perfectionist and wanted to be the “prefect patient”. 

My discharge letter from the hospital arrived in the post last Thursday and I read it like it was a school report. I’d ticked all their boxes and was released back into the world. Pat on the back for me. But how many times had I done that before and then gone right back to my old, comfortable, albeit self-destructive ways of behaving?

Like I said, eating disorders are insidious and mine has been lodged in my head for 25 years now so it has become my default way of thinking. I will nod and comply and tell you what you want to hear and then go away and do what I’ve always done, because that’s the only way I know how to cope. The only way I know how to eat. Its such an unkind and exhausting way to think about yourself. 

And this is the utter madness of it. My treatment at the clinic had left me feeling more positive, confident and happier. People keep telling me I “look well” (which by the way I have always taken as code word for “fat” but these are people who love me so I’m pretty sure that’s not what they mean!) But it’s that horrible little three letter word that has been playing on my mind since I was discharged. Over the course of my treatment I have gained weight. About a stone over all.  And herein lies the rub.

My clothes are feeling a bit too tight and the number on the scales is a bit too high and I keep telling myself that what I could do is just get rid of that weight first and then go back to doing the recovery programme. 

This has never worked. EVER. In all the years I’ve been trying to overcome my eating disorder there has never been a perfect number on the scales that would make everything ok.  

Living with an eating disorder is like having a continual negotiation in your own head between madness and rational thinking; between being kind to yourself and not; between perpetual dieting and wanting to just eat “normally” (whatever that is).

And so after three or four days of indulging in a number of the behaviours my doctor and I had agreed I should not do in my relapse prevention plan (weighing myself every day; stopping regular eating; obsessing about carbs and thinking about diets) something interesting happened. I stopped. I stopped because, unlike the other times I’d had treatment, this time it was my choice – I hadn’t been forced to do it by anyone else. I stopped because today I do realise at my core that it couldn’t be more true when they say the definition of insanity is going the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome.

I stopped because fundamentally I don’t want to hurt myself any more.

I stopped because I reminded myself what my doctor said to me the other week when she weighed me and I was upset about having put on weight. She said: “At what cost?” At what cost is being a certain weight? At what cost to my health, to my mind, to the space in my life for other things? At what cost?

One of the things my treatment had given me was a sense of freedom and, for the first time in a long time, had allowed me to let go of control, not just around food but around a lot of other things in my life too. Eating disorders are all about controlling something when you can’t control anything else and I hate, hate, hate losing control. Letting go of that is not easy. It’s uncomfortable as hell. I’ve simultaneously enjoyed it and absolutely loathed it at the same time.

Making friends with my body and discovering mindful eating

Eating disorders disconnect you from your body in every way. It’s like your body is a separate entity to you that you live with but that you don’t like very much, which is incredibly sad because our bodies are truly amazing!

Making friends with my body is something I’ve been working hard on over the last four years since I got sober and I think that’s one of the reasons I just couldn’t continue struggling with food anymore.

When I was about two weeks into my sobriety, I went for a Rasul spa treatment with the girls from work. The treatment is basically like being washed and cleansed. It was the most gentle and loving thing I had done for my body in a long time. Everything was tired. Everything was waking up from the numbness of addiction and everything ached. I sobbed the whole way through the treatment because I realised how much I’d been abusing myself and it was a very difficult pill to swallow. 

Then I started doing yoga again. I hadn’t done it for about 10 years but, like Maris, I have found yoga to be a wonderful way to re-connect with my body and with my spirit. When my bare feet are flat on that mat, I feel connected. I love yoga because its not just about physical movement its about the mind and spirit too and its non-judgmental, loving and kind, and this was just what I needed. 

Fitness in general has really helped me to develop more of a connection with my body but I have to work hard at making sure that the exercise I do is not punishing or about getting rid of calories, but about being healthy and vibrant. 

I love to run. It really helps my mental health, but I have to turn the volume down on that competitive voice in my head that wants to push me harder and compares me negatively to others. This morning I did Park Run in Folkestone. I am usually somewhere in the middle near the back and that’s fine by me. Some days I can go further and faster and other days I can’t. Today running uphill into the wind I just felt grateful to be alive and that I was out there moving my body on a Saturday morning with no hangover, no matter what time I got round in.

I’ve also just started doing a mindful eating programme called Eat Right Now with Dr Judson Brewer, an addiction and mindfulness specialist who is also a thought leader in the field of habit change. I did a mindful eating programme on the app 10% Happier which was led by him and it has really helped me. I’m now trying to tune into my body and differentiate feelings of real hunger from those triggered by stress or emotions. I’m eating when I’m hungry and not trying to starve myself. I’m sitting down to eat every meal consciously without the TV on or any other distractions. And I’m eating slowly. This is probably the hardest part. As a lifelong binge eater, my tendency is to shovel food into my mouth as quickly as possible, so eating slowly and mindfully has been painstaking. It’s not easy overriding that deeply imbedded internal programming. That being said, it really is helping me to begin to improve my relationship with food and to tune in to my body and to listen to what it needs. It’s also helping with my self acceptance. 

The other night I was getting ready to go out and I put on a shirt that no longer fits properly. The buttons gapped and I caught a side on glimpse of myself in the mirror and felt that familiar twinge of disgust and the thought popped up that I “looked fat”. And so I put on a different shirt. One that does fit. One that looks nice. One that I’m comfortable in. And then I sat down and I started to write this. I did what I love. Spilling my head onto a page because that is what soothes me. That’s my release. It’s not in the bottom of a bottle of wine or at the end of a line of cocaine or hidden in a shopping bag full of clothes or in the bed next to some guy.

Today it’s sitting at my desk in the window looking out over the sea with my classical chillout music on writing. Writing it all down, getting it all out. It’s going to the supermarket this morning and, despite myself, putting things in my basket that I’m inspired by and not because I think they are the least fattening or the lowest carb. Its allowing myself to be just the way I am today. It’s making being healthy a priority. If I’m meant to be a different weight to how I am now it will come with loving kindness to my body, it won’t come with perpetual dieting and it certainly won’t come with starving myself or making myself sick. 

After Park Run this morning

After 25 years this is just the beginning of the road to change but I’m finally ready to tread that path. Whose with me?  

Vicky

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