We need stories of hope in the midst of the mental health epidemic we are facing.
One in four of us is likely to suffer from a mental health illness each year; with anywhere between 1.6 million and 4 million people suffering with an eating disorder in the UK alone. Such illnesses are debilitating and controlling, and so many sufferers feel unable to talk about what they are going through. But eating disorders, like any mental illnesses, do not have to last forever. Having suffered from anorexia myself and having experienced full recovery and freedom since, I believe it is so important that we open up the conversation surrounding mental health problems and spread the message that there is hope for full recovery.
There is so much pressure at schools, at university and in the workplace to be OK, be coping well and have it all together. When things aren’t OK we feel like a failure and are afraid to admit it and share our worries. In the year after I left school I felt purposeless, alone and totally unworthy in everybody’s eyes. I seriously felt pointless and I just wanted to fade away. Anorexia had taken hold and it was so hard to see why anyone would notice if I just disappeared. Over the next 18 months the support of my family meant I was able to find the determination to start the long fight. With medical help and my mum making me feel loved and worthy, I was able to walk the whole journey to full recovery. I am now able to share this hope with those around me and help others who are suffering.
I caught up with Pippa, a fellow survivor of anorexia, to discuss her experiences of dealing with the illness.
How long would you say you have been suffering?
I was diagnosed with anorexia in October 2010, but I would say I was definitely suffering long before that diagnosis. It’s hard to say, but I would guess at least 8 years.
What has your experience been like over those years?
It’s been a long hard journey with lots of ups and downs. When I was first diagnosed, I was very resistant to anyone trying to help me; a job which fell to my parents and family. I used to scream, shout, argue, yell, cry uncontrollably and throw things at anyone who tried to make me do things I didn’t want to do. That time was horrible for my whole family, but for me was deeply frustrating and terrifying; seeing myself act in ways I didn’t want to, and watching myself hurt my family so much while feeling powerless to stop. One minute I wanted to change, the next minute I was paralysed by fear. Anorexia is exhausting and relentless. It doesn’t give you a day off, a minute off, a second off even. Just when you think you’ve finally shut it up, it’ll come back to bite you. The constant stream of thoughts, constant analysis of every single behaviour, constant planning of future food and exercise – I just want to put my hands on my ears and yell STOP!!!
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What gave you the motivation to begin to face your fears and find the determination and desire to fully recover?
In Easter 2016, my illness got so severe that I was admitted to hospital whereupon I was attached to tubes and drips which kept me alive as my body completely gave in. That was probably the most terrifying experience of my life – realising that the illness had led me to the point where I was so weak I couldn’t lift my head, turn over in bed, go to the toilet … let alone walk and study and enjoy life. My family spent every day by my bedside, and the only thing I can remember doing, in between sleeping, was praying and thinking.
If the God I believed in had the power to raise a man from the dead, He was the only one who could help me and give me the strength that I needed to recover. So I told him I would try and keep trying, and that He would have to do the rest.
I thought that once I’d seen myself at death’s door in a general hospital, that would show anorexia once and for all and it would all be up from there. Sadly, this was not the case. The hardest and biggest battles were faced in the next few months once I was transferred back to the specialist unit and forced to face my fears – control taken completely away from me; lonely, lost and struggling to find my place in the world.
Again, my only refuge and comfort in that time were my prayers to God, and my friends. And slowly, as I submitted to God and understood that I could trust Him with my life, I began to learn that gaining my life back meant letting other people in, and allowing them to help me.
For Pippa, faith played a significant role in her recovery. However, regardless of whether you have a faith or not, anorexia (like any mental illness) must be treated as such: an illness needing professional input. Having the right people around you whom you can trust and feel able to open up to about your struggles is vital for a positive recovery. It is 100% a team effort with the trusted friends and family and the professionals working together with the sufferer. Taking the time to understand what is going on inside the head of someone with anorexia not only builds trust but means the right help can be given in the right way.
I asked Pippa to share more about the professional support she received:
What sort of help did you receive in order to start this journey?
I was in hospital, so I had the support of a dietician, a therapist, a consultant and many others; I’m really lucky that way. Before I was admitted though, my outpatient support was sadly not very good. I had very spurious appointments and they definitely didn’t understand the severity of my condition. I relied very much on the support of my closest friends to get me through that time, and it was only once my university and family intervened that I received the help I needed.
What gives you the motivation to keep moving forward every day and to not look back?
I think the main thing is realising that there is so much more to life. Through my journey of recovery over the past year or so, I’ve begun to properly enjoy life. I feel like I can give so much more to other people, and life seems so much brighter! It sounds like a cliché, but I honestly feel like I’ve been given a second chance in life, and I know that I am made for so much more than this. So it’s remembering those things; where I was compared to how I am now; and where I want to be, that keeps me going in the right direction.
Would you say being honest with yourself throughout recovery is important?
Yes, 100%, but sometimes being honest with yourself isn’t always enough – because if you know it but you’re hiding it from everyone else, no one will be able to help you, and it’s impossible to reach recovery on your own. So being honest with other people is really important. It’s so so important to me that I can trust my closest friends with anything, and can tell them honestly what I’m struggling with. I guess it’s an accountability thing – and it’s one of the most valued and significant things during my continued recovery.
What would you say has been the best thing about recovery so far and what are you most looking forward to in the future?
There are so many things – I can’t choose! I guess going on holiday again was great, and properly enjoying everything we did, meals out included! But it’s the little things too- being able to be spontaneous with my friends and try new things and have the energy to do all those things. Everything about life is so much brighter and enjoyable, and I know there’s more of that to come; that’s another change, being excited about the future! Also, at the moment I still stick to a meal plan because it’s safer for me to make sure I’m giving my body enough. So I’m looking forward to the days when I trust myself enough to listen to my body and eat intuitively, without having to plan everything – then I can be truly spontaneous!
What would you say to those who are really struggling to see a way out?
Just that there IS hope, I’m living proof of that. There is so much more to life then obeying the demands of anorexia. Recovery may seem impossible and you probably don’t know where to start. My biggest advice is to use all the support around you as much as you can, trust people who are trying to help you, and be honest with them. Other people are probably better judges of what you need than you are right now, so let them guide you, and you WILL find a way out – it just takes time and a lot of perseverance. I’m not there yet either, but it does get easier!
Like me, Pippa has come out the other side of anorexia with a positive story to tell and the desire to use it to help others. Right now there are at least 1.6 million people directly affected by eating disorders in the UK alone – and this is widely believed to be an underestimate. Many of those suffering are struggling to get the help they so desperately need. This is true not just with eating disorders, but with mental illness as a whole – people so often feel that they are unable to reach out to their loved ones and ask for help.
It’s time to change the culture around mental health. Instead of allowing people to suffer in the dark let’s share our stories of hope and bring this issue into the light.
If you have stories to share please comment.
If you know anyone who is or might be suffering please refer to BEAT’s website for information on how they can get help and how you can support them.
Another incredible young woman who has shared her experiences very publicly is Maddy Austin, do watch her documentary below which looks at what services are available for those who need help.
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