Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Archive for the ‘Eating disorder’ Category

The fat and the furious

Trigger warning: self-harm

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that I’ve had problems with food since childhood.  26 years of bingeing, self-loathing & dieting have led me to the point where I am the heaviest I have ever been and so ashamed of my body that even the school run is a self-conscious gauntlet that I dread. I know that there’s more to life than just physical appearance and that my self-consciousness is probably vastly disproportionate. But what is undeniably true is that my body, already damaged thanks to degenerative disc disease, cannot withstand many more years of abuse.

I’m furious with myself for letting things get this far. For losing control so badly, for ignoring the damage I was doing and for setting such a poor example to my children. They don’t see my bingeing, nor hear my sobs afterwards as I emerge from the fog and realise that I’ve lost control yet again. But I can’t hide this from them forever – I need to stop before they’re old enough to realise what’s going on.

In a way, I’ve been here before. I used to self-harm; I used to cut myself as a way of coping with life. When my daughter was born I decided that I needed to stop because I didn’t want her to ever think that it was normal or ok. It took almost 2 years but I managed it, and haven’t cut myself since March 2011. I’m proud of that. But now I seem to have come full circle and once again I need to fight against my urge to harm myself, although this time it’s with food rather than a blade. I firmly believe that my bingeing is another means of abusing my body in order to retain control, although it’s not a conscious desire the way cutting was.

A little over a year ago a psychiatrist told me that I have binge-eating disorder (he described it as being like bulimia but without the purging, and that’s definitely how it feels to me) but he didn’t consider it a big enough problem to necessitate referring me to anyone. Since my crisis a couple of months ago I’ve been seeking help for my eating problems but without success. My GP said she couldn’t do anything but to ask the psychiatrist I was seeing after admitting to suicidal thoughts. I spoke to the psychiatrist and she said she couldn’t help but to talk to my GP. I reached out to an eating disorders charity but they too told me to speak to my GP, who is still regretfully adamant that there isn’t anything she can do (it seems there are no appropriate services in my area). So I’m on my own.

Well, not completely alone. I have a very supportive husband, family and several friends whom I can be totally honest with. But at the end of the day, this is a battle that I have to fight myself. Against myself. And just as before I have to do it slowly, one day at a time. One hour, one minute at a time if need be. Having got through one day, I tell myself that I can get through the next. And the next. And the next. And I desperately hope that this is a fight that I can win because losing is no longer an option.

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Sugar and spice and all things nice…

My daughter is 4 years old. Because of her age she receives a free drink of milk at school each day; once she turns 5 DH and I will have to pay if we wish this to continue (only 22p a day as it’s subsidised). I don’t know what the take-up rate for this is but today the company that provides the milk (Cool Milk) held an assembly at the school. From what DD tells me it was a fun assembly with singing and a bit of dancing. At the end of it each child was given a sticker to wear and a booklet was put in their bookbags for them to take home. The booklet had a comic strip in as well as a quiz, poem etc.

However, at the back of the booklet was this:

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Now, you and I know that too much sugar isn’t good for us. And I’m all for encouraging healthy eating in childhood. But do 4 year olds really need to be worried about how much sugar is in their drink? That’s for parents to worry about, surely? As a result of reading this booklet DD is now convinced that consuming sugar will make her fat. DH and I have tried to reassure her, explaining that our bodies need sugar for energy and that some sugar is ok. This is the stance that we’ve always taken, that everything is ok in moderation, but I don’t know whether we’ve reassured her or not.

I’m livid about this. Children live in a society where appearance is valued above all else and this has enough of an impact on them. A survey carried out last year by GirlGuiding UK found that 71% of girls aged 11-21 would like to lose weight and that a fifth (a fifth!) of primary school girls have been on a diet. I have no doubt that similar pressures are felt by boys as well, though probably to a lesser degree. Children need to be encouraged to value who they are as individuals, to value substance over appearance, and yes they do need to learn about healthy, nourishing food. However they do not need to be fretting at the age of 4 about whether what they eat and drink is going to make them fat. They certainly don’t need to be told things like that by a company who are merely trying to increase their profits by encouraging children to keep drinking their milk. (I concede that there may be a genuine desire here to help and educate children stay healthy but my cynicism leads me to suspect that money is the overriding concern).

Statistics from the Health and Social Care Information Centre show that in 2010/11 more than 6,500 children were treated for eating disorders (up from 1,718, in 2007/8). This includes 79 who were less than 10 years old when they began treatment, and 56 children who were aged 5 or under. Of course the causes of eating disorders are many and nuanced, but idiotic marketing ploys like Cool Milk’s certainly aren’t going to help matters.

I appreciate that these children are far from the norm, and I also realise that I may be over-reacting a touch here. But I was one of those children who don’t make it into the HSCIC’s statistics, the ones who have an eating disorder but remain undiagnosed. I’m not sure when it began but I clearly remember secretly bingeing at the age of 7, gorging on any kind of food I could lay my hands on. I also remember tightening the belt on my school dress until I could barely breathe, convinced that I was fat. I don’t want my children to walk the same path as me and if that makes me over-sensitive to things like this booklet then so be it.

Do you love yourself?

My daughter asked me this last night as I was tucking her into bed. We had been talking about family and love and she was earnestly insistent that everyone should love themselves as well as other people. I smiled and replied “Of course I do!” and she went to sleep happy.

I lied, of course. Not a little white one either but a big fat whopper of a lie. Some days I loathe myself to the point of repulsion; some days I merely dislike myself. But I certainly never even come close to loving myself. I just don’t want my children growing up to feel this way about themselves and the longer I can hide my self-loathing from them the better.

So what’s so bad about me? To be honest the reasons are pretty feeble. The first one, always top of the list, is that I am fat. But then I have always hated my body and been convinced that I was fat, even when looking back I can see that I plainly wasn’t. However these days I really am. Measuring in at around a UK size 20 I have rolls and flab and looking at my body fills me with revulsion. For a variety of reasons losing weight isn’t easy for me but the 2 main ones are that exercise is difficult because of my back pain, and that my eating habits are disordered to the point of possibly having an eating disorder (I’ve written about this before). I don’t really believe that though – I’m just greedy and have no willpower. My size is my own fault.

Moving on, another reason I dislike myself is that I am needy. I want others to approve of me and other people’s opinions, even those of strangers, matter to me. That’s why the previous paragraph was so hard to write – I don’t want online friends to know what I look like below the neck, I don’t want them to know how awful I look. I crave friendship (after the events of the last few years I have few real friends left) but I struggle to bond with anyone offline, perhaps for this reason.

There are yet more reasons and I can’t go into them all. But off the top of my head? I despise my inability to cope with normal, everyday life when I used to be highly successful at a complex job. I hate what I’ve become & hate that I seem unable to escape this fate. I loathe my anxiety because I know that I am being irrational. I detest myself for not being as good a mother as I want to be, as I had always assumed I would be. In short I am ashamed of both who I am and what I look like.

And yet…

And yet there are things about myself that I quite like. I am intelligent. I have a great sense of humour. I like my green eyes. I may not be as good a mother as I thought but I’m not a bad one either. I like my breasts (even if they do make buying clothing tricky!). I’m not bad at baking. I am a good friend. I care about people.

So maybe I should try to stop focusing on the negatives and recognise the positives. This may sound easy but it is a daunting prospect – even writing down those few good things took me ages. There’s a constant little voice in the back of my mind criticising and rubbishing and belittling my every attempt at positivity:
“You think you have nice eyes? It’s a shame the rest of you is so hideous”.
“You’re a good friend? That’s easy to say when most of your friends have vanished from your life” and so on.

But I am going to try to drown out that little voice and attempt to like myself a bit more. I would hate to see the sadness and disappointment on my daughter’s face if she ever learned how I really feel about myself so I need to change that. I need to learn to like myself despite my faults and flaws instead of focusing on them to the detriment of everything else.

It seems an impossible task but I have to try.

I am, therefore I eat

Fat. Greedy. Obese. Disgusting. Pathetic. Ugly. Stupid. Weak. These harsh, hurtful words are all hurled at me on a daily basis. Not by family, friends or even strangers in the street but by me. My self-loathing spilleth over. Two of these words are incontrovertible – I am fat and I am obese. There is no proof for the accuracy of the others but I know that they’re true. Well… I have always been convinced that they’re true but lately chinks have begun to appear in the armour of my certainty.

I wrote here about the discovery that I apparently have an eating disorder, specifically binge-eating disorder or BED. At the time I was reluctant to apply the label of having an eating disorder to myself but I was able to admit that my eating is definitely disordered. I think about food all the time, from the moment I wake to the moment I go to sleep. I eat 2-3 meals a day and I graze in between whether I am hungry or not. Sometimes I will invent an excuse to go to the shops just so that I can buy chocolate or biscuits, either to eat in the car before I get home or to hide away and eat in secret where no-one can see. If there isn’t anything sugary or fatty for me to graze on I begin to panic and until I find something acceptable to eat I am unable to focus on anything else. If there is food around I’ll be picking at it.

So why haven’t I admitted that I have an eating disorder? Because I honestly believe that I am just greedy. I’m deeply ashamed of myself for this and for my lack of self-control but to label it an eating disorder seems an overreaction. Even considering the possibility makes me feel like a fraud, as though by comparing myself to people who really do have eating disorders I’m belittling their struggles. It feels like attention-seeking.

And yet… Friends who are far more knowledgeable and experienced in this area than I am are adamant that I have an eating disorder. A psychiatrist said that it was BED. The NHS website has a section on binge-eating which says:

In diagnosing binge eating, your GP will ask you about your eating habits and look for three or more of the following signs:
1) you eat much faster than normal during a binge
2) you eat until you feel uncomfortably full
3) you eat a large amount of food when you are not hungry
4) you eat alone or secretly due to being embarrassed about the amount of food you are consuming
5) you have feelings of guilt, shame or disgust after binge eating

Three or more? Well I tick all five boxes. So why am I still so reluctant to acknowledge this?

I’d like to say that it’s due to a lifetime of internalising society’s disdain for the supposed weakness and greed of the overweight and obese. I’d like to say that years of seeing people mocked and targeted purely because of their size and presumed inability to eat healthily has had a profound effect on me and left me able to only blame myself for my problems with food. And there may be some truth in that. But in reality I had issues with food long before I became aware of these things.

I wasn’t an overweight child but I was convinced that I was. I remember crying in the playground because I didn’t want to be fat any more. I remember binging from the age of 7 or so and guiltily hiding the evidence. I remember almost flooding a childminder’s bathroom once when I panicked and tried to flush a handful of chocolate bar wrappers down the toilet. I remember my first year at secondary school, when I would barely eat Monday to Thursday but on Friday spend my entire week’s lunch money on a mountain of food. After one of the staff told my mum about that I began taking packed lunches and supplementing them with food from the canteen when I wanted to binge – a much more subtle approach, I felt.

I have no idea what caused my problems with food (I had a happy childhood, I was well-fed, looked after and loved) but I doubt that the emergence of these issues at around the same time that I began to self-harm is a coincidence. Whatever the reason, I have been doing this for about 25 years and it is time to face up to this, to allow myself to admit that this problem may be greater than I have believed for the last quarter of a century. I need to be kinder to myself and recognise that perhaps I am not as weak as I think, that maybe the root of my obsession with food is related to my mental health rather than a character flaw.

My name is Sam and I have an eating disorder.

Food glorious food…?

This post follows on from My big fat problem.

I have had issues with food for almost as long as I can remember. When I was a young child my mum kept a large tupperware box of chocolate biscuits (Club, Viscount, that kind of thing) on top of one of the kitchen cupboards. I used to wait until I was the only person downstairs then drag a chair into the kitchen, clamber up and get down the box. I would rummage through to find my favourites; sometimes one or two, sometimes half a dozen. It was a fairly big box so I knew I was unlikely to be discovered. At the first opportunity I would sneak my pilfered biscuits upstairs and hide them under my bed. Then after bedtime, when I should have been sleeping, I would sneak them out again and scoff them; I can vividly recall the glee, delight and guilty pleasure I felt. Then I would hide the wrappers in my shoes, and bury them at the bottom of the kitchen bin at the first opportunity.

I don’t know how old I was when I began doing this. I suspect it began around the same time as my self-harming so I would have been about 7. It makes sense to me that these behaviours probably began together as I have long suspected that my binge-eating is merely another manifestation of my urge to self-harm. Certainly the urge to binge and the urge to cut are both triggered by strongly negative emotions such as anger, despair, grief, unhappiness, frustration etc. Since I finally managed to stop cutting in early 2011 my binging has become more and more of a problem.

I’ve mentioned before that the psychiatrist I saw a while ago told me I was a compulsive binge-eater. After talking with some very kind and knowledgeable Twitter friends recently I found myself googling binge-eating today and was directed to this page on the NHS Choices website. It’s extremely informative and eerily familiar – every aspect of binge-eating that it describes applies to me. Eating excessively quickly, eating large amounts when not hungry, eating alone or secretly, feeling out of control, experiencing feelings of shame, guilt and disgust after a binge… This is what I do. This is me.

Despite having been given a good (and kind and helpful) talking-to by my knowledgeable friends on Twitter (you know who you are!) I still don’t feel that I have an eating disorder. Eating disorders are serious illnesses, while I just have no willpower. No self-control. I am greedy. I don’t have an eating disorder. Except… These experienced, knowledgeable, lovely people say that I do. The NHS website says that I do. The psychiatrist said that I do.

So. I may not be ready to admit that I have an eating disorder but I know that my eating is disordered. The difference just be semantics but for now that’s as much as I’m comfortable with. I’m waiting for a referral to a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist for my anxiety and I will definitely be mentioning my problems with food.

In the meantime I am not going to follow any faddy diets, no Atkins or Slimming World or 5:2 or anything like that. Partly because I can’t afford to but mostly because I know that they will not help me stop binging. I need to focus on my binging, not my diet as a whole. I need to arrest the impulse to binge before I act on it and I need to get into the habit of examining why I want to binge each time.

I’m not going to set myself any big scary weight-loss targets, even though that is a major part of why I need to get my eating under control – I am 5 stone overweight and that’s affecting my health as well as my happiness. For now though my only goal involving scales is to weigh less each week than I did before, even if it’s just a few ounces less.

I expect I shall blog about this again in the future but for now this is it. I know what I need to do. I know why I need to do it. I think I know how to begin doing it. So here I go…

My big fat problem

I was always a very active child – dashing all over the place, climbing trees, cycling, digging holes. I took numerous dance classes including ballet, jazz and contemporary modern. I was a Brownie and then a Girl Guide (as they were known then) and loved the camping, wide games and hikes. In my first couple of years at university I did a lot of extreme sports including skydiving, white water rafting and bungee jumps.

When I was 15 I started getting occasional twinges of pain in my lower back. By 17 I’d had to stop dancing. By 20 I needed to use crutches every now and again. At the age of 23 an MRI showed that I had 2 prolapsed discs in my lumbar spine. I was told that surgery was not an option so I tried all sorts of treatment, from painkillers and pain management clinics to various kinds of physiotherapy and acupuncture. Nothing helped and I was starting to gain weight.

It didn’t bother me too much. I was still fairly mobile and active and although my pain was constant I was able to ignore it most of the time. However as I got older my mobility decreased and my pain increased. By the time I was 26 the only exercise that didn’t exacerbate the pain was swimming and walking. So I did those; I swam twice a week, a mile each time, and walked whenever possible. Still my mobility gradually decreased though, and my girth increased.

I am now 32. I have been diagnosed with degenerative disc disorder; I still have 2 prolapsed discs but now my lumbar vertebrae are calcified as well. I use a walking stick most days or crutches if it’s really bad. And I am obese. Really, properly obese – about 5 stone over a healthy weight (according to BMI). I’m seeing a spinal surgeon next Friday and I know that one if the first things he’ll say is that I need to lose weight (as though anyone could be this fat and not realise!).

But how do you lose a large amount of weight when you can’t exercise? By eating less and eating healthily, of course. But (there always seems to be a but and I feel like I’m just making excuses) I can’t afford lovely healthy food and my mental illness is yet another hurdle. I comfort eat when I am stressed, unhappy, tired or in pain – so a lot. The psychiatrist who recently diagnosed me with cyclothymia and generalised anxiety disorder also said that I am a compulsive binge-eater. I merely nodded my head in agreement – I’ve been like this since childhood.

I know what I need to do. I need to stop bingeing, eat less and try my hardest to exercise when I can. And at night I lay awake plotting how to do this – I’ll only snack on fruit, I’ll eat mints when I get the urge to binge, I’ll stop baking with DD for a while, I’ll really cut down on portion sizes. Hopefully as I lose weight my pain may decrease, allowing me to exercise more.

But the next day I wake up and my first thought (after “Why is my 16 month old blowing raspberries on me at six in the morning?”) is always of food. I think about it all day. I think about what I want to eat, what we actually have to eat, whether I can bake anything today. While writing this I am mentally going through the kitchen cupboards to see if there’s anything I can snack on. I am obsessed with food and I have very little self-control. I know people who can open a packet of biscuits, eat one or two and put the remainder in the cupboard. I admire these people with something akin to awe. Because I can’t – I have one more, and one more, and one more, and then they’re gone. This applies to any junk food – sadly not to anything helpful like fruit!

I know what I need to do but I self-sabotage. You know the cartoons where someone has an angel on one shoulder and a demon on the other? That’s me. I am constantly torn between what I know I should, must and need to do, and what my treacherous bingeing self wants me to do.

I can’t carry on like this. I am in constant pain, I struggle to lift and play with my children, I can’t remember the last time I cuddled up to DH on the sofa because it just hurts too much. I don’t want to have this relationship with food any more but I don’t know how to change. I don’t know how to quell the demon and let the angel win for once. I don’t know how to not be this person.

Why we should pity Samantha Brick, not revile her

Samantha Brick is a columnist for the British newspaper the Daily Mail. She’s known for writing aggressive and confrontational columns that provoke lots of outrage, and therefore lots of publicity both for her and the newspaper. There is some debate about whether her columns reflect her true personality and opinions or are merely provocative parodies intended to increase revenue for the Mail.

Today’s column (I’m loathe to give the Mail traffic but it’s reasonable to assume that you’ll want to read this for yourself) was about women and weight. Specifically how Ms Brick has been on a diet for most of her life and disapproves of any woman who doesn’t do the same. Some memorable quotes from the column in question include:

For three decades, self-denial has been my best friend. And one of my biggest incentives is that I know men prefer slim women. I have only ever dated men who kept a strict eye on my figure. My partners are not only boyfriends but weight-loss coaches. My first love continually reminded me that one can never be too rich or too thin, and my husband of five years frequently tells me that if I put on weight he will divorce me.

…in my mid-teens I decided to lose my puppy fat, transforming myself as I lived, for the best part of a year, on Marmite on toast (no butter).

At college I invented the Polo diet. Eating a pack of mints for breakfast and another for lunch, I could make each one last hours. I am 5ft 11in and slimmed down to a size 8.

As I see it, there is nothing in life that signifies failure better than fat.

Predictably there have been howls of outrage across the internet as both women and men react with outrage, anger, insults and mockery. But does Ms Brick really deserve the vitriol flung her way?

Read the quotes above again. Read (if you don’t mind giving the Mail yet more traffic) the column. According to her own writing Ms Brick seems to seek out controlling partners who reinforce her belief that her worth is measured by bathroom scales and tape measures. At the age of 14 she apparently ate only bread and Marmite for a year – and presumably nobody noticed. At university her disordered eating continued and today she equates fat with failure.

Like many Western women I have body-image and self-esteem problems. However I am fortunate and have no idea how it must feel to assess your value as a woman purely by whether you are able to wear a certain pair of trousers. I can’t imagine how terrifying it must be to know that if your body changes the person you love will walk out on you. That you are only worthy of their affection under certain conditions. That even if it’s not your fault, even if you develop health problems or need medication that causes you to gain weight, you’re on your own.

I had a friend once who was prone to attention-seeking behaviour and boasting about how beautiful and clever she was, how amazing her life was. Then one night she drunkenly confessed that she was utterly miserable, that she was deeply insecure and loathed herself. Ms Brick reminds me of her. Whether she is a caricature, a parody or genuine, she deserves our pity not our insults.

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