I don’t know if we’ll ever write another post about Eating Disorders or other mental illnesses and this might be a bit random. I am also not going to add pictures because I think this issue is too serious for that, sorry. Also please don’t read it if it may trigger something in you.
In my first year at university I was living with a girl who is to this day struggling with anorexia. And I want to share my experience. Beat, an organisation set out wanting to help people with eating disorders, defines anorexia as follows “Anorexia is a serious mental illness where people keep their body weight low by dieting, vomiting, using laxatives or excessively exercising. The way people with anorexia see themselves is often at odds with how they are seen by others and they will usually challenge the idea that they should gain weight. For example, they often have a distorted image of themselves, thinking that they’re fat when they’re not. People affected by anorexia often go to great attempts to hide their behaviour from family and friends”.
I had read a lot of fictional books about anorexia before I met my flat mate (for the purpose of this I am going to call her Anna), but I had never met anyone who was actually dealing with anything like this. Anna told me and my other flat mates in halls within our first week that she had previously struggled with anorexia, but that she was in treatment and recovered.
In these first weeks, even months she seemed to be adjusting well, the only trace we could see was that she weighted what she ate, measured the amounts of alcohol she consumed and that she always planned every event she would be exposed to food or drink in advance. We also didn’t worry too much, in fact the only times I honestly worried a bit more is when she threw up from alcohol, because she would refuse any form of food to get back the lost calories. To me, she seemed like she was enjoying uni life: she liked her classes, she had friends and towards Christmas she even started seeing someone. She seemed happy.
After Christmas was the first time I actually noticed that she was doing worse. For weeks she didn’t buy any food and if I saw her eating it was things that had little calories, at first soups and then baby food. I started to worry, I talked to my other flat mates who were closer to her and they had noticed the same. They sat her down, talked to her, I didn’t want to be a part because I didn’t feel close enough to her to intervene.
Despite the realizing of that this was happening I remember one night when we were having drinks at our flat and plans of going out when I saw her for the first time without a huge, thick cardigan or a blanket around her and how shocked I was as to how thin she had been. One of my flat mates who is fairly skinny herself stated quite perfectly that she was shocked as to how Anna’s ankles seemed to be smaller than my other flat mate’s wrists and how Anna’s legs were as skinny as my other flat mate’s arms. It was a scary thing to realize how bad it is. So what we did was sit her down again. We didn’t have any form of being able to contact her parents or anyone else in her family and we soon realized that even between 4 of us it was incredibly hard to get her to have meals in front of us or attempting to help her in any other way.
She had been in medical care and she got told several times, that if she doesn’t improve she’ll have to go to hospital. Which eventually happened. It was weird to see something happen finally after months of trying to figure out ways to help her, she had to go to hospital. I don’t credit us at all, because I know that if we had suggested it she would have never gone. Because she didn’t have a chance to go back to her room to get certain things and she didn’t want her parents going through her things she asked us to get things like her diary, her food diary, clothes and other personal things out of her room. Three of us did it together and while we all agreed that we were highly curious as to what was in the diary as we wanted to understand, we all agreed that it would be an invasion of her privacy and that we would never do so. But we had a look into the food diary. And it was horrifying… There were days when she ate less than 300 calories a day. It was a surreal way of understanding how severe it was. I don’t know how to explain how weird it felt seeing it on paper. Like we had seen her eat little, we had seen her lose weight and we had seen her get worse, but it never felt as severe as it was seeing those numbers.
That night I came home and the fourth girl, I am going to call her Laura, knowing how bad it was, came to me being upset and mad. What for us three had been an absolute no-go, she had done. Read Anna’s diary. I was shocked that she had gone that far, but she claimed that as her friends we had a right to know. She then went on saying how upset she was about what she had read, and despite me telling her I didn’t want to know what was in the diary, in fury she kept telling me about how Anna had described how proud she was whenever she was able to deceive us, by leaving food on the plate, by eating small portions, by exercising, by eating in her room. Laura took all that Anna did personally and she went on talking about how Anna should have just stopped it, because it wasn’t some kind of chemical in her brain.
That shocked me even more than her reading the diary. I had thought that we all had understood that it was an illness, that it is not something Anna could have just stopped if she just wanted to and that it was a thing that went way beyond trying to deceive the people around her and that she needed serious and professional help and that with the unconditional support of friends and family. But her reaction is part of the reason of me writing this. If someone around you shows signs of anorexia, don’t blame them! Be supportive, inform yourself and try to be of as much help as possible.
I don’t live with her anymore, I have never been that close to her and all I know about her condition is from mutual friends and her tumblr. After her first hospital treatment she came straight back to uni and despite being better for a while she relapsed. Since we moved out she has been in hospital twice. The last time she went in was in December and she was on the verge of death. She is still in hospital after nearly 6 months. She was granted to go home one night a week after nearly three months in hospital and she is still only allowed a couple of nights a week. From her tumblr I can see that she is starting to understand how much her illness is affecting her and how much longer, even after leaving the hospital, she will have to deal with it. But she is still struggling so much and it seems like the tiniest things can trigger her.
One problem I see is that she is going back into an environment where she is confronted daily, not just with her illness but with the oblivion of so many people as to what mental illnesses are and how hard they are to overcome. I know for someone who has never had one it is a hard concept to understand, but that doesn’t make it less real. We need to educate people so that people like Anna have a safe environment to turn to and are not faced with idiocy when they are trying to find help and support. I understand that it is hard to be there for someone when you feel helpless and you feel like there is nothing you can do, but people with Eating Disorders and/ or mental illnesses are worse off and for them recovery is an incredibly hard process that may never actually end and therefore they need all the support they can get no matter how small and unimportant it feels to us.
I wanted to share my story because I feel like a lot of people have given up on Anna, and I cannot even begin to imagine how that feels. I want to show the importance of educating subjects like this because I feel like if any of us would have known more signs and earlier we might have had a chance of talking to her earlier or when she got back from hospital to address it differently. I know that it is unlikely but maybe if people in general are more educated it becomes easier for people to seek help and to not feel ashamed of having a disorder.
I am going to link below organisations that are trying to help and to raise awareness for the big variety of eating disorders that are out there, so please have a look at them.
B-eat: https://www.b-eat.co.uk/about-eating-disorders/types-of-eating- disorder/anorexia?gclid=Cj0KEQjwjIy5BRClh8m_9Zu64d8BEiQAtZsQfyD2SOpvuFX3- rAWqUdu5OENJMAZmXxKUnN1DinEMd4aAvML8P8HAQ
YoungMinds: http://www.youngminds.org.uk/for_children_young_people/whats_worrying_you/anorexia? gclid=Cj0KEQjwjIy5BRClh8m_9Zu64d8BEiQAtZsQf_1WfNuq0GwaZSpQiZdUV- eY0U0wogeBh2lNwpiPidgaAonu8P8HAQ
Eating Disorders Support: http://www.eatingdisorderssupport.co.uk/help/helpline
Bundeszentrale für gesundheitliche Aufklärung: http://www.bzga-essstoerungen.de/