How I overcame anorexia

Emily, 19, is on a gap year before going to university in the autumn to study English. She talks to The Mix about her experience of having an eating disorder.

True Stories

friends eating ice-cream

"I now feel good about my body."

When I was younger I thought women were supposed to be thin. It was probably because I was obsessed with princesses, Barbie dolls and my Mum – all of whom were slim. I was always quite skinny, so I didn’t really worry about my body in a big way until I was a teenager. That’s when I got a lot curvier, and I thought it was the most terrible thing.

I think my problem with body image was part of a bigger issue to do with low self-esteem. It doesn’t help that our society is so preoccupied with weight loss and dieting. The real problems started when I decided to go on a diet in a bid to feel better about myself. Like a lot of people who develop eating disorders, I’m a perfectionist, so the diet soon turned into a total obsession.

I became completely obsessed with numbers and would spend all of my time calculating calories and grams of fat. Even when I was in lessons at school or having conversations with people I’d be frantically working out how much I could eat, how much weight I could lose, and over what period of time. I’d do the same sums repeatedly just in case I was getting them wrong. I’d re-read nutrition labels that I knew off by heart, just in case food companies had introduced more calories. It completely took over my life and I’d weigh myself several times a day.

What I weighed completely dictated how I felt about my whole life. I used the scales not just to establish my weight, but also for measuring my self-worth.

Seeking help

Quite early on my Mum pleaded with me to go and see someone, but for a long time I was in denial and didn’t really think I had a massive problem. It was probably about 18 months after it first started that I actually decided I wanted to get better. Recovery is a massive challenge and you have to be really committed to it. It was only going to work when I was interested in doing it for myself.

Eating disorders are incredibly isolating. It’s partly because you’re so weak – you’re tired and hungry all the time, so you lose all interest in spending time with other people. Also, since nearly every form of socialising involves eating or drinking, I was reluctant to go out.

I wasn’t able to concentrate on any conversations I did have because my mind would wander off to think about food. I was irritable and cranky and generally became a fairly horrible human being. It was really hard for my friends and family to see my personality slowly draining away.

My wake-up call

I was aware that I looked unwell but, although it had all started with me wanting to look good, after a certain point my eating disorder stopped being about vanity. I was managing my food intake as a way of feeling in control of my life in general.

If I wasn’t eating very much and I was spending all of my time worrying about my weight, then I didn’t have the energy to worry about other insecurities. Although there was a rational part of me that was saying, ‘You’re too thin,’ and everyone was telling me that, I didn’t really care that much because I was clinging onto my anorexia as a way to cope.

The turning point came when my sister and best friend sat me down and told me that they were really worried about me. Seeing how much I’d upset them helped me realise how serious things had got. They were a connection back to my former normal life, so speaking to them about my eating disorder helped me look at the situation more rationally and objectively.

The recovery process

It was scary when I started eating normally again. I suppose it’s the equivalent of someone telling a normal person to quadruple what they eat each day and it felt very unnatural at first. The cliche that anorexics have voices in their heads telling them not to eat was very true in my case.

A therapist once told me to try and think of my body as an instrument rather than an ornament, which I think is quite a positive message. I now feel very positive about my body – more than I did before the eating disorder. I thought I’d be happier if I was thinner and felt guilty about eating properly. Now I know I’m far happier living in this body than I ever was in the thinner one and I’m a lot more relaxed about food.

Interviewed by Julia Pearlman

Photo of girls with ice-cream by Shutterstock and posed by models

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Updated on 29-Sep-2015