Trigger warning: This post discusses sensitive issues around eating disorders and mental health.
I guess I’ve always had low self-esteem. I just never realised that it was a problem and I certainly never envisaged that it could have a serious impact on my mental wellbeing.
Quite the contrary actually. I always believed in my own negative perceptions of myself and saw my perceived flaws as problems that I needed to fix in order to be happy or more acceptable to those around me. I didn’t see that it was actually the thoughts themselves that were the problem.
I’m sure my self-esteem issues were obvious to those around me, but they weren’t to me. They flew almost completely under my radar until less than a year ago, when my previous therapist discovered that low self-esteem and negative core beliefs about myself were actually at the very heart of all my problems with depression.
As I progressed further with my treatment, now with a new therapist, I realised just how deep those problems run. Just how toxic those unconscious thoughts actually are. And as we dug deeper we discovered that the real heart of the problem was actually an eating disorder.
When I was first diagnosed with an eating disorder, I didn’t feel upset or stressed. I just felt a deep sense of relief. Relief that all that angst I felt for my entire adult life is not actually normal. Relief that I might be able to live a life free from self-loathing and a constant obsession with weight.
There is definitely a stigma surrounding eating disorders; I think more so than for other mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. I also think that there is a deep misunderstanding of what an eating disorder is and what a person with an eating disorder actually looks like. This can make it difficult to diagnose, especially seeing as they can often be comorbid with other mental health conditions.
I certainly don’t look like the stereotypical image of someone suffering from an eating disorder and it was only 3 years into my battle with depression that the underlying eating disorder was discovered. Weight loss and dieting have become so normalised, even celebrated, in our society that it’s hard to recognise when someone has developed a problem. That is exactly why it is so important to talk about.
My own issue with food and weight is a complex one. Formed over many years as a result of many different influences. It hasn’t always taken the same form. Instead, it has ebbed and flowed in both form and severity.
I’m currently heavier than I would like to be and I can’t honestly say that I feel happy with my appearance. As someone who has been obsessed with weight for my entire adult life, it’s a difficult position to find myself in. And it’s hard to avoid falling back into old habits.
But at the same time, I can feel myself slowly starting to heal. All of those old beliefs and prejudices are slowly starting to unravel and morph into something new. I feel confident that I am at least moving in the right direction, towards a point where I am able to feel happy and fulfilled regardless of my weight.
You see, my body image issues have been going on for at least 20 years. Weight loss and dieting were a constant presence in my house growing up and it’s pretty safe to say that every member of my family struggles with body image issues and food to some degree.
That influence didn’t stop once I left home. Over the years I encountered numerous people, mainly male and mainly friends, who felt it appropriate to comment on my weight. As though I wasn’t already acutely aware of my size and shape and needed them to remind me that I was, in fact, not built like a supermodel.
I first remember feeling out of control with food when I was around 12 or 13 years old. At that time, I would wait until my parents left the house before heading straight to the kitchen to binge on bread. I would eat all the bread I could get my hands on and then sink into a pit of self-loathing. It was probably less than two years later that I discovered purging and I spent the years between 15 and 18 alternating between vomiting and taking laxatives (sometimes both). Heavy stuff.
When I left home to go to university, I piled on the weight. I spent my new found freedom bingeing on food that I previously wouldn’t have dared eat at home and drinking copious amounts of alcohol. I don’t remember actively trying to control my weight during this period but I’m pretty sure I was still purging at the time.
When I left university and up until just a couple of years ago, I predominantly controlled my weight through restrictive dieting and a lot of exercise. I cut out fats, carbs, sugar, alcohol. I went vegetarian for periods at a time. I spent a month training six hours a day in a sodding Thai boxing gym in Bangkok. I love Muay Thai, but that wasn’t why I was there. I was there to lose weight.
Unsurprisingly I still binged regularly during this period, which I have learned is a pretty standard side effect of restrictive dieting. I would also still purge on occasion. I was slimmer then, but a pretty normal size so my disordered eating behaviours went unnoticed, even to me. I actually considered them to be normal. If anything, I still thought I was eating too much and not exercising enough.
Even then, when I was at a weight that I considered more ‘acceptable’, I was crippled by low self-confidence. I missed trips and nights out with friends and instead sat on the sofa or in my bedroom hiding away from the World.
And then I developed depression. With depression came inevitable weight gain as it became more difficult to control my weight through my usual means. I still started a new diet each week but I struggled to motivate myself to cook and my activity levels dropped significantly. I sometimes barely left the house for days at a time. I sometimes still barely leave the house for days at a time.
As my weight crept up, my mental health began to suffer more. I entered a crisis (at least that’s how my therapist describes it). All the rules and assumptions I had put in place as to how I needed to look had blown up in my face, my entire self-worth left crumpled on the floor. And it was at that point that I took one giant leap back into some of the more bad and dangerous weight control methods of my teens.
Which brings me to where I am now. Newly diagnosed with an eating disorder and about to embark on my latest round of psychiatric treatment; a multi-disciplinary treatment plan consisting of therapists and nutritionists to help normalise my eating habits and work on improving my mental health.
But although I’ve been diagnosed with an entirely new condition that I need to start treatment for afresh, I feel confident that I am moving towards a new chapter in my life, one that takes me further towards recovery. I feel optimistic and downright excited about a future free from all of the bullshit that has so characterised the past two decades of my life.
If you think you might be suffering from an eating disorder contact your GP, or visit the BEAT eating disorder helpline.