I had an eating disorder for close to 20 years before it was eventually diagnosed. For that entire time, it went unrecognised by medical professionals, those around me and even by myself.
Over the years, my weight fluctuated more times than I can remember and my attitude towards food became more and more obsessive. I would often avoid social events and spent every spare moment counting calories and planning my meals.
I never realised that my behaviour was disordered. In fact, I considered it normal. In a society where dieting and weight loss is celebrated, it’s hard to recognise when you have taken it too far. My behaviours and beliefs became more entrenched each time I received praise for losing weight.
Recognition of Eating Disorders
Part of the problem was that I had a very narrow view of what an eating disorder looked like. My own disorder did not fit into the strict parameters of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder and so it went unrecognised.
We also live in a society where weight stigma runs rife and dieting is part of the norm. At my absolute slimmest I was obsessively counting calories, practising Muay Thai and overdoing the early morning runs. Yet my BMI told me that I was obese and the doctors told me that I needed to lose more weight.
Eating disorders are serious illnesses that impact the physical and mental wellbeing of their sufferers. An estimated 1.25 million people in the UK are living with an eating disorder right now. Yet we still lack understanding about this particular group of illnesses. Surprising really, given the openness with which we now discuss other mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
It is not always easy to identify an eating disorder. Sufferers can exhibit a wide range of symptoms or very few at all. Weight and body shape can vary significantly from person to person.
Without greater recognition of the signs, many eating disorders can go undiagnosed, sometimes for years. This prevents people from accessing early, appropriate treatment and therefore reduces the potential for a fast recovery.
I personally never attempted to access treatment because I didn’t know that there was anything to seek treatment for. The longer my eating disorder persisted, the more it harmed my mental health, eventually culminating in years of depression.
“Early identification and treatment improves the speed of recovery, reduces symptoms to a great extent and improves the likelihood of staying free of the illness”
READ MORE: On Being Diagnosed With an Eating Disorder
Ability to Access Appropriate Treatment and Advice
When I eventually did seek help, I found that the standard of care and general awareness of eating disorders within the medical profession varied wildly.
Whilst there are some excellent therapists, it is not easy to gain access to them through the NHS. Eating disorder services are woefully underfunded and the current waiting list for treatment in my area is 20 months.
Outside of specialist services, some of the advice I received was far from helpful. There was the medical professional who told me that I should start the Slimming World weight loss programme, completely unaware of how harmful a comment like that could be.
I later mentioned this to a specialist eating disorder therapist within the NHS. She explained that they would never recommend Slimming World to anyone because such programmes can often encourage disordered eating.
“Stigma is by far one of the biggest threats to the wellbeing of someone when they are experiencing a mental health problem as it impacts on their likelihood to seek help, their physical health, and has even been identified as one of the key reasons for attempted suicide”
It’s not difficult to see how my many experiences left me feeling stigmatised and isolated. I have often felt as though there is an almost constant focus on my weight. The stigma I have felt only made my eating disorder worse and made it difficult for me to seek help.
There needs to be more empathy around weight and eating disorders. More awareness of what they look like and a realisation that not all sufferers fit the stereotypical image of someone with an eating disorder. More training and more funding to ensure that people are actually able to get the help that they need.