Working as an eating disorder practitioner is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.
This is mainly due to seeing the progress and the positive outcome clients benefit from either one-to-one support or taking part in the Restored Eating Disorder Peer & Recovery support group.
But also it’s hugely helpful for me personally. It reminds me how far I’ve come in my own journey from having an eating disorder. And my belief that you can recover drives my passion to help others with their eating related issues.
So you’re probably wondering how this all started for me…
I think like many girls and boys growing up and hitting puberty, I saw changes in our hormones that affect us not just emotionally but physically too. I struggled a lot to look at myself and as a young child would override my insecurities over my body through striving for being perfect in hobbies, which were performing arts or sports.
However the perfection I would say was not helpful as I was often left feeling disappointed, missed out or not acknowledged when I didn’t get the part in a show I wanted or didn’t make the a team in school.
The pressure of being ‘the best’ or me believing I should be the best in these things (I think this was more to prove to myself I was worth something) was impossible to maintain. My only way of confirming I was the best was the validation of others. This of course wasn’t always the case, as for me after many years of working on myself I’ve had to realise there is no such thing as perfect.
At the time, this was something I just simply could not accept. The more I pushed to be perfect, the harder it became to feel that worth. This left me feeling worthless.
This started to effect what I saw in the mirror, constantly staring at area of my body and being so critical. I thought I looked ‘odd’ or ‘weird’ and would often refer to myself as unqiue, which in my eyes was a softer than me saying I look strange.
With all this in my mind, I couldn’t to help but compare myself to others around me the constant questions going around my head.
Why am I not like them?
Why don’t I look like that?
The list went on.
Isolation and bullying
This left me isolating myself from others, scared to make friends. I spent years of my childhood being tormented and bullied, either because I kept myself to myself or because I continued to be that perfect person.
The years went by and I found myself being accepted into a prestige performing arts school. My dream had come true. A place where I’d be with like-minded others, who have a love for all things singing, dancing and acting.
Never did I know this would be the place where I met my Eating Disorder.
My mentality was still the same going to this school as a boarding student. I remained the quiet one but with the focus in mind to be the best.
I quickly realised I was not that very thing. The standards in the school for performing arts was exceptionally high and I started to doubt myself. To me this was soul destroying.
I did make friends – I made a best friend at that. But she was in the dance vocational course whilst I was in musical theatre, so I never saw her except between lunches, the odd academic class or at night-time before lights out.
However with being a dancer, who was petite in structure, I couldn’t help but silently comparing myself to her. After months of attempting to make new friends, something happened. I became friends with the most popular girl in the whole year. This girl was PERFECT (well in my eyes she was at the time). She was the one that everyone loved, she had the best singing voice, she was top of the class for everything and I couldn’t help admire her and think ‘Wow! I’m her friend.’
As we started to get closer, I started to notice behaviours in her that I didn’t quite understand, as to me she was that very person I wanted to be. Long hair, slim waistline, busted, pretty face – I felt she had it all.
But she would stare at herself in the mirror in our dormitory, which I did too, but then she would start to push hard on her stomach. She would hug her waist so tight her hands almost joined and she would breathe in to exaggerate the ribs that were already so visible. It would happen for quite a long time, I told her to stop but she just ignored me.
At our school because we were boarding students, we were registered going into breakfast, lunch and dinner. The queues were always long, but I notice my friend would go in and within a couple minute be straight back out the door. When we did sit down she would have a plate of vegetables, and push them from side to side, looking unsatisfied. I started to look down at my own plate at this point and thought ‘is what I was eating wrong?’
I never had a problem with food and my mum said I was always one for trying things.
The months went on and I watched more behaviours unfold. She would always be early to classes, missing meal times and would spend her evenings in one of the studio stretching and exercising. I thought ‘well in order to be like my friend, or just as good as her maybe I should be doing the same.’ I started to workout most nights. When the studios were in use I would work out on the staircase just below my dorm room.
I started to reduce what I ate; often watching in comparison and every week the choices I could have were less than less.
Then one day my friend told me she was leaving the school. At this moment my heart sank, the girl who was considered to be my best friend, who I tried so hard to be like, is leaving me. I was left feeling like she didn’t want to be my friend anymore and that I wasn’t good enough.
Whilst all these emotions over flooded my body, one of the last things my friend said to me was ‘Romy, don’t become like me.’ I remember thinking ‘what is she talking about?’ I instantly shook my head in disguise and my response was ‘don’t be silly I like my food too much.’ knowing I had been restricting.
I still said this almost in embarrassment that she noticed what I was doing, and that I was copying. This left me so confused. And with feelings of hurt and disappointment, I started to feel that my control over what I ate and how much I exercise would get me through. It would take away the pain and make me perfect. As to me being perfect means there’s nothing wrong with you.
I started to make rules for myself to do a certain amount of sit ups and crunches every night and I wouldn’t stop until I had completed them. The exercise continued to be more frequent, as I would workout in between classes, or whenever possible.
On the other hand, restricting started to become difficult. Being on a vocational course of dancing every day and exercising I found myself starving. I often felt agitated, exhausted and sick.
But I also felt ashamed about going into the canteen and eating all the foods I denied myself. So I would pick out foods that I could easily separate. But really I would wait until I was back up to my dorm to secretly binge on the food left in the common room for all of us.
This started to become a repeat every day after every meal.
Cycle of control
Consuming large amounts of food in short space of time left me feeling bloated and uncomfortably full. Completely opposite to what I felt before.
I started to panic that this would make me fatter and I started to note my stomach swelling. So I ran to a bathroom that nobody knew about and started to purge. I had a sudden thought of ‘I can eat what I like but not have the feeling of starvation or uncomfortable fullness.’
The purging started to happen, a few times a week and it gradually increased to 3 or more times a day. I felt that anytime I ate something, I couldn’t have it in me. This combined with the thought that it would make me gain weight and look fatter than what I believed I was.
Returning home for the summer, it was harder to binge on foods as I felt the guilt of eating everyone’s food in the house. And yet I couldn’t cope when people tried to help me decide what to eat. I often got frustrated and irritable when any focus was around food or simply asking me what I would like. This was the time that it started to affect my relationships with those closest to me, being moody and snappy with everyone I came across.
I felt like I was in a bubble, the bubble I thought that was protecting me from the words, the comparison, and the judgement and the lack of acknowledgement.
But really I was using my eating disorder as a way of coping with my emotions.
It wasn’t until I went back to boarding school, in my first term of year 10 that I started to notice problems as a result of my behaviours. My heart started to pound and ache, my teeth started to turn yellow from the acid, my vision started to go funny and I constantly felt sick.
At this point nobody knew what I was dealing with. I continued to act as this perfect person, when really I was a complete mess trapped in my own mind of unrealistic expectations and unable to accept the reality of what was happening to me.
I got bullied at this school too, same reason as before probably. And despite this affecting my mental health, my way to push through was to focus on my weight, food and exercise.
This is all that consumed my thoughts until even my love for performing started to disappear.
I cared more about making sure I stuck to rules and I didn’t mess up. My eating disorder enjoyed the buzz of being a secret.
It wasn’t until an incident occurred where I couldn’t use my secret bathroom. I had to openly lie, saying I was unwell to another girl in my year after hearing me in the bathroom.
I realised I couldn’t do this any longer and confessed to my Mum one evening over the phone whilst I was at school about what I had been doing.
That night I left the school, I packed up what I could and that was that. My dream of being a leading actress was destroyed because my eating disorder got to me.
I returned two weeks later to pick up the rest of my belongings. Some of my teachers were upset to find out the news and I found out I was one of the top in my drama GCSE class.
I couldn’t believe it, it made me realise how my eating disorder and my mental wellbeing really took me away from knowing my worth. If only I could have seen what my teachers saw in me.
I came home and had to return to a school I had previously been to. This was difficult, but over time I started to develop friendships. Because this was a boarding school there wasn’t food available in common rooms to binge on, but I still had the tendencies of being selective with food and went through some strange eating plans.
Due to being at home it was harder to workout. I made the excuse of living by the beach in a beautiful area to get out every day. My obsession for exercise hadn’t stopped, but changed into running.
It wasn’t for enjoyment. But because I felt I had to justify the fact I wasn’t able binge or restrict as much.
A difficult recovery
It was out in the open with my family about what had been happening. This felt so raw and uncomfortable that at first I was in a state of denial that there was something wrong.
I would still find ways to purge after meals; even if was wasn’t so quick afterwards. But after accessing treatment over a 10-month period, I made a promise to my family I wouldn’t do this again.
As changes in my life happened and I was working on recovery patterns, changes made the process not easy. I think a lot of people could relate to saying change can be overwhelming and daunting. But now I know it can also be positive.
I did elapse after my therapy around 8 months later. It involved falling back into restriction, over-exercising and comparing myself to others around me. I felt the guilt of letting my family down. But I knew this was my battle to win and wasn’t fixed by making promises for others.
In the summer of 2010, I found out I had been accepted onto my childcare course, starting in September. I started to believe in myself and know I am going into studying something I have a love for.
The turning point…
I used the summer to prepare myself for college. I started to focus on what was expected of the course, going to open days. The excitement of it started to make me enjoy life again. And just like that I had a light bulb moment – or maybe I would say my bubble popped.
I was on my way out my back door ready to push myself running as far I could physically go. But I realised I didn’t have to do this to myself. What I needed more than anything was to know I am enough. I turned around and I didn’t look back.
I started to work on self-help tools, making choices on meals and being more open to food groups. Because I want to rather than because I have to, I now exercise in ways that are healthier.
I can honestly say I haven’t looked back at my eating disorder. I gave it a name – it was called ‘the destroyer’ and it tried to do just that: destroy my life. But I didn’t let it defeat me.
I’ve worked on my perfectionism and now work on being the best version of myself. Whatever that may be is good enough for me.
I now know what it feels to believe in myself and I want others to know their worth. And that they can overcome anything they set their mind to. They just need support from others and the motivation and compassion for themselves to change, to make it possible.
This is why I do the job I do and as the saying goes: “change is possible, choose your journey.”
Yes everybody’s journey and experiences are different. But how you respond and react to it will make the difference in your own individual recovery.
Our guest blogger:
Huge thanks to our blogger Romy for sharing such a powerful, hopeful lived experience. Romy continues to inspire people as our Senior Support Worker for Restored Eating Disorders, details below.
If you are struggling to cope with the issues mentioned here, talk to your GP as a first step.
National charity BEAT operates an helpline: 0808 801 0677 (adults) or their youth line on 0808 801 0711. Lines are open 9am-8pm Monday – Friday and 4pm-8pm on Weekends and Bank Holidays.
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Dorset Mind is a self-funded local charity that helps people in Dorset experiencing mental health problems access the vital support they need. The charity is at the very heart of our communities shaping futures, changing and in some cases literally saving lives.