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My experience of disordered eating – blogpost from a recently graduated Trinity student

My experience of disordered eating

I started to engage in disordered eating when I was around 13.  I'm only aware of my bad habits now that I'm out the other side. Aware of every calorie I ate, constantly looking for the key to unlock “skinny.” Really, I associated skinny with the feeling of being good enough.

I had habits that weren't "bad enough”, but all of my thoughts and efforts were put into.  I drank endless green tea and black coffee, neither of which I have ever enjoyed. I confused calories with health. It all seemed superficially fine, and as a once off my habits were not bad, but, like any addiction, it takes over your life and rids it of joy and opportunity. 

Not eating breakfast or refusing a snack are all perfectly normal things, if you genuinely just don’t feel like it,  but the struggle starts when you want it with every ounce of your being but you aren’t allowed to have it. Or when you accept the snack and are riddled with guilt and “make up for the calories”, through purging, over exercising or not eating.

College gave my bad eating habits a platform to be louder and clearer in my head.  One strategy I used was hiding in bathrooms for different reasons; a spot I could rest when I felt faint, a place I could hide when I gained weight, a place people couldn't judge how & what I ate, a place where people couldn’t see how I downed litres of liquid to feel full. 

It took me years to realise not everyone goes around trying to eat as little as possible, I would never have said I considered food bad, but I very much did. The internet now does have more positive messages; there’s more body positivity and communities that encourage the eating habits I was engaged in tend to be shunned. But there’s still not enough education around the topic.

How education can help

The only education I got growing up was to eat my 5 a day & to exercise, and I think this is the same education a lot of people received. This isn’t even the tip of the iceberg of how to care for yourself. A lot of people are lucky enough to have been brought up to have a healthy relationship with food and to know how to care for themselves.  These same people tend to not understand why people would be funny about food; “just eat less and you’ll be healthy” or “Just eat” are quite common statements. I feel I’m a lot more aware of my diet and health at present, I learned from my mistakes and came out more self-aware, but not everyone comes out the other end. People suffer lifelong damage and die from eating disorders. If your mind turns against you it’s very hard to help yourself.  Your tool for decision making is telling you to hide away and damage your body. I learnt a lot after the fact, I learnt through my mistakes. I think telling people to eat well and to exercise is not enough education to teach someone healthy behaviours. 

Disordered eating during COVID-19 Restrictions

Under normal circumstances, even extreme eating disorders often go unnoticed. I believe that’s more true during COVID-19 restrictions, when contact with people is minimal. Whether that be overeating or undereating or anything in between. 

A few scenarios I imagine people are experiencing:  

  • You have no sense of fulfilment or success so you start purging because it feels right & it gives you control of your body. 
  • You put your everything into undereating, it’s a time where you can focus on losing a bit of weight & take it too far. People will be so impressed when they see you after a year and you look so thin. And you won't have to deal with people’s concerns while you do so.
  • Nobody is going to see you so it doesn’t matter what you look like.  What’s the point? You overeat a few times, gain a bit of weight, try to lose it, it’s really hard so you give up.

I include these scenarios because they are the three different voices that used to haunt me. I disagree with all of these mindsets and think anyone who thinks even remotely like this should ask for help, the sooner the better.

Talking about Disordered Eating

I think some people don’t talk about disordered eating out of fear, sometimes out of fear of saying the wrong thing and sometimes just because it seems to make them uncomfortable & if they ignore it, it will go away. I think there’s nothing wrong with staying quiet if you don’t know what to respond and it is probably preferable if you think you saying something might make things worse. But again, I think education could help solve this problem over time. Even if educations just takes someone to the point that they can comfortably say “I'm not sure what to say because I don’t understand but I think you might need to talk to a professional. Let me know how I can help.” Here’s some things people should keep in mind:

Nobody has any business talking about anyone’s body: If addressing disordered eating with someone, their weight is not relevant. It can easily fuel someone to lose more weight if their weight loss is noticed, or to hide away if their weight gain is noticed. As a general rule, I think nobody has any business talking about anybody’s body. 

Food is a symptom of something bigger: Food is merely a symptom of something bigger going on. Nobody actually has a personal vendetta against food, they don’t need you to force them to eat- it’s very emotionally distressing. The mindset needs to be tackled and sometimes people need to fuel their minds with the right foods in order for their brains to process the message. This is why often for inpatient treatment of anorexia they will focus on making you eat first, they need you to be healthier. And it will seem like they don’t care about the underlying issues, that they are just stuffing you with food, but it tackles fear of foods.  Also, you’ll be able to think much more clearly, allowing you to better identify the real issue. 

Disordered eating at all weights: I had someone tell me I wasn’t thin enough to be anorexic, this comment was unprompted as I’d been talking about health, not weight. This comment fuelled me, it not only meant my food intake wasn’t an issue but it also meant I wasn’t thin despite trying so hard, I needed to eat even less. There were other comments like this, but I think this one is the clearest to understand. The message doesn’t have to be this clear for someone with a disorder to twist your words. It’s toxic to tell someone they seem fine if they seek help. I only have experience with this from being underweight but that’s because I never tried to get support at any other weight, though I believe it would’ve had the same effect.

Intuitive eating works for me: Don’t let food take over. We need food to allow our body to thrive, our bodies are amazing and should be cared for. The brain is very complex and sometimes it needs a bit of help to put it on the right path. A better diet supports a healthy mind, they go hand in hand. I’m a firm believer in intuitive eating- eating what your body wants and needs when it asks for it, but it can be hard to train your brain to recognise this.  If someone had said that to me when I was at my worst I would have nodded along enthusiastically, I only ate when I absolutely needed it. This is another example of healthy and unhealthy mindsets overlapping, they seem similar on the surface but are very different underneath. Intuitive eating isn’t analysing everything you eat, it’s correctly responding to your body’s signals. What I was doing before was playing a game of “what’s the least I can eat before passing out.” If I needed something I would over think it, tricking myself into believing I was just being mindful. 

Coming out the Other Side

The more I talk about my struggles the less I’m able to ever go back to a place where food is anything but a key to experience life to its fullest. Deep down it irks me, because the part of me that wanted to lose all that weight is still there but that voice is more and more drowned out by coherent thoughts about food. It’s important for disordered eating to be something we let exist. That it’s a topic we let people talk about and don’t turn a blind eye. I truly believe that awareness, communication and support is the answer. 

It’s exhausting, living your everyday life with all the responsibilities that already entails and planning your entire day around food. I learned from my mistakes, but it would have been even better to not have to go through the process at all. Don’t let it take your time from you   Like any addiction it consumes time and negatively impacts your life. Seek help and speak out, you’ll never think you’re thin enough to seek help, there’s no time better than the present to help yourself. 

Life is too short to count calories. I lost a lot of time throughout college, I missed out on friendships and fun experiences. I don’t look back on any of those years with regret as they led me to where I am today, it was my coping strategy and I was lucky enough to come to my senses when I hit rock bottom. But maybe if I’d got help sooner I would have got here sooner with less damage. I can’t get that time back, I can only live in the present but if you are currently struggling, make that change now to preserve your future. You can’t do anything more than your best & the best you can do is to be kind to yourself. Ask for support and surround yourself with the right people, be your own best friend. 

For support

Check out the Silver Cloud programme provided by Student Counselling or email student-counselling@tcd.ie