Dear My Previous Self…

Dear my previous self – getting personal

– Ruth Beacon

The post you are about to read is a little different from the rest. This is a letter that I wish I would of read at the beginning of my recovery. It is written to my former self, not knowing where or what was happening. These are things that I now know and have learnt.

This is for all those in recovery- inpatient, outpatient, discharged from adult eating disorder specialist, those freshly diagnosed with an eating disorder; at university or home.

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Dear my previous self,

You may feel completely lost, confused and lifeless. That is the reality of an eating disorder. It isn’t a glamorous illness. I know you are cold (from the bone), constantly hungry, and lonely.

I want you to know that the pain you cannot describe does fade. The bigger your life gets, the smaller anorexia becomes.

There are a few things that I want to tell you, remember:

  • Recovery is worth it: Every tear, mouthful and psychology session is going to be worth it. Once you experience life again you will realise that there is more to life than anorexia. Having the freedom to think beyond rituals and rules feels liberating, living a ‘normal’ life seems in reach.
  • You are amazing just the way you are: Think about all those people that love you; send you encouraging texts, messages and cards. They love you for your personality and all your quirky bits. Inner beauty shines out.
  • Scared? Nervous? Fearful? That is ok: These feelings are natural and are to be expected. Change is scary! Change means facing your fears, talking about feelings that you want to hide and gaining weight. Recovery is worth it! as who wants to fear food?
  • Listen to medical professionals and those around you: Medical professionals have had years and years of training, they know what they are talking about. LISTEN and TRUST them. You are not the first anorexic they have seen and the medical professionals have watched people recover and live their lives. Family and friends only want to see you get the help you need, so take on board their advice. Ultimately, it is up to you.
  • You can live without anorexia: Anorexia holds you back, lies, manipulates you, stops you living your life and it dominates completely. You probably think you cannot live without it, but you can, there are coping mechanisms that really really help. It’s power over you diminishes and you become more in control of the eating disorder (and not the other way around).
  • You are not alone: I know you feel alone and the only person there has ever been to suffer with an eating disorder. However, there are lots and lots of people who suffer with eating disorders,  you are not isolated in this (side note: I have made lots of new friends from being an inpatient and there is a bond because we have all been through the same thing and kept each other strong).
  • This experience is not wasted: You may not believe this now but you will be grateful for all you have been through. It has made you realise what is important in life and you can empathise with people who are going through similar situations. You may be the one giving advice in the future!
  • Hope: There is a light at the end of the tunnel, life becomes brighter again. You realise there is hope. People teach you this and you realise this for yourself. Hope is what drives you to keep going. It is a beautiful feeling.
  • You are strong: Only one person has got you through this and that is YOU. You are the one who has worked so incredibly hard, you deserve happiness and you are STRONG.

Love, Ruth x

This blog was written for Eating Disorders Awareness Week. You can find other inspirational stories of recovery on the Student Minds website, as well as information about where to get support if you are experiencing an eating disorder at university.

Anorexia is just about wanting to be skinny…right? Myth Busting

– Ruth Beacon

Eating Disorders Awareness Week is a time to make people aware of the seriousness of Eating Disorders (ED’s) and to give a voice to those who are suffering. To give perspective, this time last year I made the decision to admit myself into an inpatient ward for anorexia. A year on, my life has completely changed (for the better). I am back at university (I nearly gave it up so to go back is a mighty achievement), have a job and am a proud owner of my very own car!

Now that I have had personal experience of anorexia, I decided to combat some of the myths that people may believe or think about ED’s.

To clarify, the conditions under the umbrella of eating disorders are:

  1. Anorexia Nervosa
  2. Bulimia Nervosa
  3. Binge Eating Disorder
  4. Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (ENDOS)

The majority of this post will be from an anorexia view point, but it is applicable to bulimia, binge eating disorder and ENDOS.

EATING DISORDER MYTH: Isn’t anorexia just about wanting to be skinny?

MYTH BUSTER: No… is binge eating disorder just about “eating a bit too much?” or is depression just about “being sad?”… the answers to all these questions is no.

Here’s why: An Eating Disorder is a complex mental illness. Anorexia along with bulimia, binge eating disorder and EDNOS, is a result of many social, psychological and emotional factors in an individual’s life. It does not boil down to “just wanting to be skinny”.

Eating disorders can be:

  • a coping mechanism
  • a way of taking control
  • a way of making yourself feel more positive about your appearance
  • a distraction from everyday life or a negative life event

Anorexia can start off as a “simple diet” but quickly snowballs into a radical obsession with weight and shape. Bulimia and binge eating disorder centre around eating large amounts of food (thousands of calories worth) and with bulimia either: purging, taking laxatives or starving after, because the guilt is too strong. Someone who struggles with bulimia or binge eating disorder can be of a normal weight, and not all individuals with ED’s have lost large amounts of weight.

The feeling of taking control is something that is at the crux of eating disorders. By controlling, often limiting food, it gives the person a sense of control, especially if they feel like nothing is going right or everything is spiralling out of their control. Taking control in this way is coupled with intense thoughts and feelings around food.

Eating disorders are about anything but food, instead they are linked to social, emotional and psychological issues that are deeply ingrained within an individual.

EATING DISORDER MYTH: When you become weight restored (after being diagnosed asanorexic), you are better and fully recovered.

MYTH BUSTER: No, this is not the case. When you have treatment for anorexia, it is two fold:

  1. Physical recovery – this means getting the person’s weight and BMI back in the normal range (which is considered to be 18.5- 25). When a person reaches the correct weight for them, normal bodily functions begin (periods etc). Cognitively, the brain starts to work again and a person thinks more clearly, making it easier to have psychological treatment.
  2. Mental recovery – this is a much longer process and does not happen as quickly as people believe; mental recovery takes time, this could be years. If you think how long someone could have been stuck in their eating disorder ways for, think how long reversing those thoughts can take. It is complex and involves psychological treatment, support, hard work and determination.

If someone is diagnosed with an ED that means body weight is not necessarily affected e.g. binge eating disorder, the “mental recovery” phase is targeted. It various from person to person but psychological treatment for an eating disorder is the route that is taken.

The team involved in treatment of ED’s is multi disciplinary and includes: GP’s, nurses, psychologists, dieticians, healthcare assistants, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, medical consultants, physiotherapists and the invaluable help from family and friends.

The above myths take many forms but the answers remain the same. If you are struggling with an eating disorder and cannot explain answers to questions, maybe you could link this post to a friend or family member. If you are supporting a friend with an ED, I hope this sheds light on the complicating and confusing world of eating disorders.

People may look physically recovered but fighting the eating disorder thoughts is a difficult daily task. I see recovery as being able to live a normal life- working, studying, going out with friends, being independent and not letting an eating disorder dominate your every moment. Of course, the definition for recovery is different for everyone but being able to live a ‘normal’ life is something

In my personal experience and from watching others, as I now get on with my life, the person who is living with an ED has to want to get better and work with the team treating them. It is a tough journey, as are recovery from all illnesses, but the outcome is so worth it.

Eating Disorders Awareness Week takes place 23rd February – 1st March. To find out more about eating disorders, check out our resources. If you’re looking to run awareness-raising events or campaigns during the week, you might be interested in holding a “Love Your Body” campaign, which aims to inspire body confidence in everyone. Campaign materials for Love Your Body can be found here.

Turning Points

I don’t really like to think back to the time when I had anorexia. I don’t like to think about the way I looked, the way I acted and especially the way I thought. However, I think it is something that I have to do in order to really accept what happened and so that I can fully move on.

My mum and I have always been quite close. The kind of close where we go shopping together or watch films together, though not really the kind of close where we would spend hours talking about our feelings. I liked this.

When I got anorexia this changed. When I think back to our relationship during that time I always imagine her with this certain facial expression. I don’t know if I can fully explain it, it wasn’t quite anger, there was an almost vacancy to it. To me it looked like someone on the brink of losing hope, unaware of what to do, but determined not to do nothing. The main emotion though was sadness, absolute and utter sadness. I hate that I did this to her, I know it was not my fault, but I wish that I could take back the pain that I caused her.

We didn’t talk anymore, not properly. Our conversations were her asking me about food and me lying to her. They were about her wanting me to see a doctor and me refusing. Even when this wasn’t what we were talking about explicitly it was always there. We weren’t friends anymore, I don’t know what we were.

The night I told her I knew I had a problem and that I was getting help, she cried. The first time she saw me finish a meal and dessert she looked pleased. When I started to try on clothes and not look like a skeleton, she complimented me. However, I could still see that there was a sadness whenever there was any reminder about anorexia and what we had been through.  She didn’t like to talk about it. She never said, but whenever the conversation came up, she would become teary or move onto something else. That was ok, I understood, I didn’t blame her.

Then there was another turning point. A little while ago I wrote a status about having had anorexia and I have been working with mental health matters to try and raise awareness of mental health. When I first told my mum about this I wasn’t sure what she thought about it. I thought she seemed a bit upset or reserved.

Then one evening last week I got a phone call. It was my mum phoning to tell me that she was proud of me. There were no tears no sadness, just happiness.

Getting over anorexia was difficult, but that phone call made that struggle worth it. What’s more, her acceptance of me and what happened has helped me to accept me and what happened and move on.

Charity Feature: Body Gossip On Tour

Body Gossip

~ Charlotte Gatherer, Body Gossip On Tour

Body Gossip challenges common perceptions of body image, promoting the recognition and acceptance of natural bodies. We encourage people to think more about their bodies so in the future they will worry about them less. Body Gossip on Tour follows the same philosophy as the central campaign but takes it into university settings offering students a platform to share their body stories. The writing competition gathers a truthful picture of how individuals within the university view their body; these stories are then recited by actors in a performance. The campaign engages students in many ways as writers, actors and audience members.

Body Gossip on Tour events give students the opportunity to reflect on their life and values whilst being more open about their experiences. It empowers students to make positive changes in their life and gives new insights into the issues and stigmas surrounding body image.

The first Body Gossip on Tour event was held in Bath in 2011 and since then students from across the country have engaged in this essential campaign.

To find out more, go to www.bodygossip.org/what-we-do/body-gossip-tour.

Students Get Eating Disorders Too

~ Hugh Smith, Men Get Eating Disorders Too

We all know what eating disorders are, who gets them, and why. They’re extreme diets used by teenage girls who want to look like supermodels.

Right?

Wrong.

Just as we at Men Get Eating Disorders Too are working to raise awareness that eating disorders affect men as well as women, we also work in alliance with other organisations and activists to shine a light on the reality of eating disorders as severe mental illnesses that take on many different forms ranging from binge-eating to excessive limitation, and can affect anyone, regardless of age, race, class, or sexuality.

You can read about the true nature of eating disorders at any number of blogs or in a library’s worth of books and journals, but we’re here today to focus on students.

If eating disorders can affect anyone it follows logically that they can affect students, and they do. But a male student with an eating disorder doesn’t fit the student archetype of the hard-drinking, kebab-gorging, perma-snacking man-child. Just as the public perception of eating disorders is too simplistic, so too is the idea of the 18-year old who goes to uni, discovers take-aways, and casually puts on the ‘freshman 15’.

To understand the ‘student experience’, it’s useful to look at it in context. Being a student is a lot of people’s first experience of living away from home, which coincides with a lot of life-changing opportunities and pressures: to cultivate a new personality, to make new friends, to compete with peers, to get a good degree, and even to choose a direction in life. All this at a time when most students have only just got out of the most volatile period of adolescence, are far from completely mature, are immersed in a highly stressful environment, and – for most – have substantial financial concerns.

So there we have stress, anxiety, neuroses, isolation, pressure, self-doubt, and a whole host of other conflicting feelings flying around. Is it any wonder that while some people take it in their stride, others need mechanisms to cope?

I developed an eating disorder when I was a student. I discovered that self-discipline in what I ate and how much I exercised was a shortcut to achieving an illusion of control over my life at a time when so much around me seemed so chaotic.

What do eating disorders in students look like? Honestly, a lot like eating disorders in anyone else. Look up the symptoms of anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder, orthorexia, or obsessive exercise disorder, and you’ll find behaviours that students exhibit as much as any other part of the population. The only difference will be in the detail: the methods used to hide food, the excuses made for skipping meals, the times and places used to binge, or the facilities used to exercise.

The most important thing to understand is not what eating disorders look like, but why they’re there in the first place. Then it’s possible to address the causes of the disorders rather than the symptoms.

So what can you do if you think a student – classmate, flatmate, friend, sibling, son, daughter, tutee – has an eating disorder? Here are a few golden rules:

  1. Conduct any conversation in a non-confrontational manner. It won’t help anyone if you scare them away.

  2. Try to understand how they feel.

  3. Be aware that the conversation will be very difficult for them.

  4. Only explore possible solutions once you’ve taken some time to empathise.

  5. Tell them that you don’t think less of them.

  6. Acknowledge how difficult it must be to admit to having a problem.

If you know someone who has an eating disorder, or if you have one yourself, there are four main ways to get help: your GP; your university’s student support service; your local peer-support group; and online peer support through websites such as Big White Wall.

Finally, a quick message to any student struggling with an eating disorder: getting this at such a pivotal point in your life can feel like being dealt a rotten hand in a high-stakes card game. Just remember there are always people willing and able to help. In spite of everything you can achieve remarkable things. This doesn’t have to define you. It’s within your power. Good luck.

How to improve your body image

~ Abigail Legge

An Australian study conducted in August found that 80% of women are unhappy with how they look and it seems that the same number of men (80.7%) talk disparagingly about their own or others’ appearance. If you have struggled with body image problems in the past, you are most certainly not alone; and a healthy, positive body image can seem like an unattainable goal at times. But it’s not. Learning to appreciate yourself and your body is a life-long process, but it’s an exciting one, too: trying out new hobbies, forming relationships and learning what matters to you will all help you to grow as a person and develop a positive outlook towards almost everything — including your own body. Here are a few ideas to point you in the right direction:

GET ACTIVE!

Exercise is an amazing way to get in touch with your body. When you exercise in moderation, you have the opportunity to release stress and focus on building yourself up — and the post-workout endorphin rush can’t be bad for you, either!

Yoga in particular centres around the idea of balance and acceptance, making it an ideal form of exercise for anyone struggling with their body image. One study of women new to yoga found that, while 74% of the women reported some type of body image issue at some point in their lives, 75% reported improved body image after beginning yoga. Another great ‘mind-body exercise’ is pilates, which is also reported to have a positive effect on body image in many cases.

Yoga-Mats

A slightly different form of exercise, which I also recommend looking into, is strength training. Instead of concentrating on reaching a certain milestone in terms of physical measurements, or basing your progress on what you see in the mirror, you get to focus on building strength — a totally different kettle of fish. And if you feel like you’re physically strong, you’re likely to have a more positive body image, as this study shows.

GET ENOUGH REST!

We all know that feeling of being over-tired, and how it tends to make daily life more of a struggle than when we’re well-rested and energised. University of Pennsylvania researchers found that subjects who were limited to only 4.5 hours of sleep a night for one week reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad and mentally exhausted than usual. When the subjects resumed normal sleep, they reported a dramatic improvement in mood.

Relax Image

Excessive worry about body image can lead to the temptation to over-exercise, or to neglect your body’s need for rest and sleep. Always remind yourself that resting is not the same as being lazy; it’s a basic human right! Try to make sure that you:

  • Get as much sleep as you need (usually between six and ten hours a night)

  • Allow yourself to relax and unwind. If you find it difficult to sit still without fidgeting excessively, try some relaxation exercises or meditation

  • Limit your daily exercise: it is recommended you don’t exceed 90 minutes a day of high-intensity exercise

  • Give yourself at least one day’s rest from exercise a week — you deserve it!

REMEMBER THAT BEAUTY SHINES FROM THE INSIDE OUT!

If you do good deeds, chances are you’ll feel pretty good about yourself as a result. A recent study conducted in the US found that 76% of volunteers have felt physically healthier as a result of volunteering. They identified four key benefits of volunteering that have a positive impact on the volunteers’ health:

  • Health: volunteers say that they feel better physically, mentally and emotionally

  • Stress: volunteering helps people manage and lower their stress levels

  • Purpose: volunteers feel a deeper connection to communities and to others

  • Engagement: volunteers are more informed health care consumers, and more engaged and involved in managing their health

So consider volunteering at your local charity shop, or getting involved with volunteer campaign projects.

If volunteering isn’t for you, don’t panic: look into picking up a new hobby! Ever been tempted by life drawing classes? Music lessons? A language course? That obscure society you signed up to at freshers’ fair, but keep forgetting to go to their meetings? Hobbies can be a great way to relieve stress, particularly when you’re studying at university — luckily, uni is also one of the best places to try out all sorts of new things! Clubs and societies are also a great way to meet new people and widen your friendship circle 🙂

Piano Lessons

The important thing is to keep yourself busy and interested in what’s going on around you. That way, you’re less likely to get bogged down with negative thoughts about yourself. The more you ‘practise’ getting involved in things, the more natural it will become — and I speak from personal experience!

STOP COMPARING YOURSELF TO OTHER PEOPLE! STOP IT!!

Comparing yourself to people around you is a really destructive habit: you shouldn’t have to prove your self-worth by looking better than other people. Instead, try to remind yourself that a positive body image can only come from your own mentality — what other people look like is totally irrelevant! Catch yourself the next time you notice you’re comparing yourself to others — it’s really, really not worth it. It’s also worth remembering that everyone has insecurities of their own, even if they seem perfectly content with themselves. Don’t let jealousy stand in the way of your own happiness and well-being!

Stay Positive

Lastly, never feel guilty about having a positive attitude towards yourself. You are your own life-long project, and you deserve to be proud of everything that you are and everything you hope to become!

Invisible Illness Week

~ Hannah O’Brien

Invisible Illness Week

The 25th-29th November marked a brilliant awareness campaign. The campaign looked at both mental and physical illnesses that often go unnoticed and that you cannot truly see without knowing more about the person. This included eating disorders, anxiety and depression, which is what Swansea Mental Wealth Society and Student Minds focused on.

One of the main aims of the campaign was to get people talking about mental health, and to challenge stigma attached to mental illnesses, because they are more common than people think. In fact 1 in 4 people will experience mental illness within the course of a year, with the most common being anxiety and depression. The main reason these illnesses tend to go unnoticed is because those suffering often do not feel able to talk about them: they may be embarrassed or shy, or it might be that they don’t want people to worry or don’t know how to bring up the conversation. That’s why invisible illness week brought the conversation to you, and offered anyone the chance to speak up about their illness. It was surprising, encouraging and inspiring how many people took the chance to talk. They were extremely positive about the campaign, our peer support group, and the power of talking.

Because talking changes lives.