My experience of misconceptions with Eating Disorders and PTSD…
You’re not slim enough to have an eating disorder? You have never been to war, how can you have PTSD? You are too bubbly to be suicidal! Hmmmm
All of these misconceptions have one deadly thing in common. They have all nearly cost me my life.
Secondary school is when it started, my descent into mental illnesses. I grew up in a very unhealthy environment and then I was also bullied, very badly. I mean I played flute, had braces, wore glasses, hormones made me very spotty and to top it off I was a Goth. Looking back I had no chance really…
P.E lessons I would fear, no one could see what was going on at the bottom of the playing field. Bullies also got hold of my phone number, so the constant torment followed me home. But the worst episodes of my bullying were on the bus to and from school, from a group of boys. I always tried to put on my mask and show my brave face.
For years I accepted this is how I should be treated…
…but one day I snapped. One of the bullies got hold of my flute, and start smashing it in front of my very eyes, while someone else held me down. They had taken the very thing that I needed the most, my only escape from this world and destroyed it. I decided enough was enough and I tried to tell my form tutor, I did not want to be known as a tell-tale, but I could not go on like this. A tear rolled down my cheek as I started to explain what had been going on, the constant torment I was receiving each and every day. The fat jokes, the name calling, being threatened and made to feel completely worthless, getting told I was a waste of space and that the world would be better off without me.
I was miserable, struggling to cope and I had started to self-harm. Once I started to talk, I found that it all started to pour out, I could not stop. After I had told my tutor everything, I looked up expecting a response, something, some hope that this abuse would stop. He had taken a few notes and said the names back to me and said, “These do joke around a lot, boys will be boys, are you sure it is not just that you are being a bit sensitive?
I was told to learn to take a joke, it was banter. So, I continued to wear my mask, and wear it well.
Then something amazing happened. I met someone, a boy. Popular, fit. He seemed to show interest in me. I had no self-esteem, I hated myself, years of bullying and torment had left me broken, so when he showed interest, I felt so lucky, I was blinded. I did not see the danger I was in. This boyfriend was a few years older than me, but when the emotional abuse started, I saw nothing wrong with it, this had become normal for me, calling me worthless, waste of space and so on. I had heard it all before, throughout my childhood, I was numb to it. He told me to diet and change my shape, so I did as I was told to please him, I started exercising more and restricting heavily at mealtimes when I could.
What haunted me…
I did of course lose weight, but the abuse still happened. I was still called names and teased, eventually the physical and sexual abuse followed. It was one of those incidents that went on to haunt me, and lead to me developing my PTSD. We were watching a film one afternoon and he turned to me with a familiar look, by now I knew what was about to happen, he started to tug at my clothes and leaned in kissing me, I asked him to stop.
He called me pathetic, worthless, reminded me he did not have to be with me I was unlovable. He ignored my requests to stop and continued, I wanted to run, I knew what was coming but I completely froze, I was literally frozen with fright. He tore my clothes off of me and I found some strength to push him off and shout, no!
He fell to the floor I pleaded with him this was not what I wanted… please! But this outburst of mine seemed to only anger him, he was outraged I had disobeyed him that I had fought back. He grabbed me by the wrists with one hand, and with his other hand grabbed me by the throat. He was a lot stronger than me and I was unable to comprehend what was happening. He ignored my pleas; my begging for him to stop only spurred him on. Strangling me I was unable to breath, and in that moment, I really thought I was going to die.
He eventually finished and I was “gifted” with love and affection, told how incredible I was. But it was followed up by him telling me how lucky I was I had someone love me. I was confused, hurt and so warped; I did not know what to believe anymore.
But this was not love, nothing about this was love. I was in pain, humiliated, and worst of all, he made me feel as if this was all my fault. He completely manipulated me and I was no longer living my life, I was so scared, and when I did cry, show emotion and plead with him, I found that the physical abuse became worse. If I said no to his sexual advances, he would do it anyway but with force, and he laughed and teased me if I cried. I learnt it was a weakness to cry. And I became numb from my emotions, unable to feel anything.
Eventually I managed to get out of the relationship. I can’t tell you what gave me the strength, but one day after again being abused and beaten again, I managed to dig deep,
I got dressed and left….
I just walked away, then I started to run, running faster and faster away from him, away from the abuse, away from everything. All of these un-wanted emotions flooding my brain, all the feelings and self-hatred were filling my body.
I threatened him with police and blocked him on all media platforms, I refused to speak about him, and he seemed to get bored of pursuing me and eventually did leave me alone. I felt like all of this was my fault, my body’s fault, if I had been fitter, more attractive, been who he wanted me to be, maybe just maybe, it would not have happened. Not just this abusive relationship, but the bullying and constant teasing that followed me everywhere.
The damage had been done, the torment, trauma and abuse had led to me developing this life changing illness, the illness that controlled me for years, this illness that saw me fighting for my life.
I had developed an eating disorder…
From that moment on, every time I felt anxious, scared or any negative emotion it would catapult me back to that relationship. I did not want to be reminded of these events, I did not want to feel weak and was frightened of what would happen if I showed my real emotions so refused to let my mask slip.
I originally did try drugs to numb the pain, I wanted to get rid of the memories, forget them, the problem with drugs is they wore off too quickly, and were expensive. Once clean I turned to controlling my food instead.
I had no control of what had happened, but I could control this, and I found that restricting and obsessing over my weight, numbed out the painful experience better than any drug. What is more interesting, is for me, it was a lot more addictive than any drug. I found myself dipping in and out of disordered eating for fourteen years before eventually everything I was running from caught up with me.
You see you can only avoid things for so long, imagine a balloon, every trauma I avoided every grievance ignored and every tragedy undealt with, added to this balloon. Until eventually it popped.
I had one of those years where everything just went wrong. I lost two people very dear to me in the space of a month, and just as I had started to grieve, I then suddenly lost my best friend. I was in a management role at work so under a lot of pressure, unable to take time of and working overtime, trying to juggle all this whilst also being a carer for my mum and nan, This time when I turned to my eating disorder as a way to cope, it took over, my balloon had popped and I couldn’t stop, I was addicted.
Eventually I couldn’t cope….
My eating disorder grabbed hold of me with vengeance, however because I was in a larger body, instead of people becoming concerned, I was praised, my behaviours seen as a good thing. My efforts and commitment to the gym celebrated and my weight loss complimented. Only adding to my core beliefs that my body is the problem. My mental and physical health, in tatters. Until eventually my body could not cope anymore.
June 2018 I was in A & E after collapsing at work. I was restricting heavily, abusing laxatives, purging, exercising to the point of exhaustion, checking my body and measuring it in every way possible and had become consumed by my eating disorder, but still a healthy weight. I was in a small room just off a and e.
My husband had met me there, I was hooked up to an IV. My body was struggling and starting to shut down, the doctor explained that they were really concerned about my heart rate, it was far too low; it should be around sixty beats per minute, mine had dropped to thirty-five beats per minute, even with the fluids.
They needed to do more tests to see what was going on and why my body was fighting so hard. I looked healthy, but my heart was failing. This could be life threatening.
But I was not listening, all I was thinking was, “I wonder how many calories are in this bag of fluids, is this going to make me gain weight, what can I do to burn this off?” Regardless of the fact that it was this train of thought, this pattern of behaviour, which had put me in this situation in the first place.
The doctor left the room and I immediately took out my phone to Google what was in this bag of fluids, to start working out what I needed to do. I looked over at my husband, who I had been with for over thirteen years, and had never seen cry, he was a broken man, he snatched my phone out of my hand, and in tears said,
“Do you not see what you are doing to yourself, can you really not see that this is going to kill you?”
In that moment, looking at my broken husband, I started to recognise my thought patterns and recognise maybe, just maybe, I needed help for this.
However, accessing treatment was not easy. I poured my heart out to my doctor, explained everything I was doing, explained the thoughts I was having and my behaviours and what was going on with my body. He straight away said the words “eating disorder” and I felt like everything started to make sense, he then asked to do my BMI. I agreed and allowed him to weigh and measure me, and then his whole attitude changed.
I was told I was not slim enough to have an eating disorder, and to just drink a full fat can of Coke a day, to stop me from collapsing. At this point I was broken even more inside, because what he was asking me to do was too much, I knew the calorie content in that drink and I could not possibly do that!
He then said there was nothing he could do for me and asked me to leave.
I went home and really upped my efforts to lose more weight. I spiralled more and more into my disorder.
My husband is a very logical man and knew what the doctor had said was not right, but I was in no frame of mind to be argued with, he then did a little research and found the UK’s leading eating disorder charity BEAT. They were able to advise him on how to get me a referral, he pleaded with me and eventually I agreed to enter treatment, and it was just in time. My heart scan results came back, in September 2018 I was told I would not live to see Christmas if I continued.
I was diagnosed with atypical anorexia, which meant I displayed all the physical and mental elements of anorexia, but my weight was normal, thanks to a hormone imbalance. I worked very hard to heal my mind and body. Undoing all the damage I had done, I realised you do not need to be underweight to have this illness, yes I was a healthy weight according to that BMI chart, however, my behaviours, my way of thinking, the fact I was dying, nothing about me was healthy.
I had been in treatment for over six months, eating well exercising but no longer excessive and quit using laxatives and purging. But my periods still hadn’t returned. They had to investigate if the behaviours had left me infertile.
I was referred to a specialist, a family is what my husband and I both wanted in the future, I went to my appointment and they wanted to do some tests to see what was going on, I asked outright if I was infertile, the specialist looked me in the eye and said, “there are things we can do for you, we can look at IVF once you are more recovered”
That did not answer my question; however I knew what he was saying, I was heartbroken, flooded with guilt, I couldn’t give my husband the one thing he wants too, I’m depriving him, he could do so much better than me, he could be happier with someone else.
Having our own family had become my focus on recovery; this was my main goal, What was the point in carrying on if this was not even possible? I felt like my heart had been broken into millions of pieces and all hope I had for recovery was lost.
In the same week of finding this out, I was also officially diagnosed with PTSD. In therapy we were unpicking the events that lead to me developing my eating disorder. However, recalling all these memories, I had spent years avoiding, years supressing, had an explosive reaction.
I started experiencing horrific nightmares and flashbacks, every time I closed my eyes, I would see him again, re-live the trauma, and re-live the past. It was not me not wanting to let go of the past, but the past refusing to let go of me. I became scared of sleeping, so ended up staying awake for days at a time.
I started spiralling and felt I had no control over the flashbacks and nightmares anymore, it seemed everything triggered them. I got into trouble at work, as I couldn’t function, and the thought of being infertile was too much. I had no control over any of these things and I needed some control back in my life, so once again I found comfort in my eating disorder and snowballed back into old habits.
My husband was trying to nudge me back in the right direction, he had noticed what I was doing and was growing concerned and every day hinting that I was letting the disorder back. However, I was pushing him away, he could do better than me, he deserved better.
One evening we had a massive argument, I could not eat; I was done with recovery, too tired to fight, I walked away from the dining table into the kitchen, he followed me and began to get angry, I accused him of wanting someone better, shouting back at him.
I began to disassociate as arguments and these sorts of environments reminded me of the abuse, trying to stay in the present moment I was not answering back, he thought I was ignoring him. Angry that I was trying to block him out ignoring what he was saying he grabbed my wrists and forced me to turn around.
In that moment he knew he had done wrong. I fell to the floor screaming as I entered a full-blown flashback. Reliving one of the times I was grabbed by the wrists pinned down and abused. I was re-living it, in detail.
Eventually I came around, my husband was sat on the floor next to me in the kitchen, I was crying, shaking and unable to move. He came towards me to comfort me, but I had become scared of him, I was frightened of him grabbing me like that again, scared what it could lead to, my PTSD was telling me I was in danger.
I stopped at a friends for a few nights, however, did not like to impose on them, so found myself sofa surfing. Every night I did not seem to know where I would be stopping, feeling more hopeless every day. I tried time after time reaching out to the crisis team, only to be told, I didn’t look depressed I was too bubbly, well dressed and try mindfulness.
I tried asking for help, the problem was I was under the ED services so crisis team assumed they was sorting this and Ed services thought crisis team was helping, when the truth was, no one was. I was literally being passed from pillar to post, while they decided who was doing what, and I continued to deteriate rapidly.
Some nights I ended up sleeping rough, convinced I was this burden, and if I did manage to fall asleep it wouldn’t be long before horrific nightmares would awaken me, my past was stopping me from having a future, I was convinced my relationship was in tatters, I was not eating and obviously could not work, a burden on my friends and society, crippled with self-loathing. I had nothing, I had been prescribed sleeping pills, I decided I really needed some rest, in my own bed, I went home and I fiddled with the packet as my mind started to wonder.
What will happen if I take too many of these? Will I drift off to sleep and never wake up? I knew these alone would not be enough. I did not want to end my life but wanted desperately to end this pain.
I grabbed a bottle of wine, some Paracetamol and my Zopiclone, completely numb from what I was doing; it was like I was on auto pilot.
I started to take them, eating them like sweets and drinking the wine straight out of the bottle. I needed to stop these voices in my head once and for all. Suicide seemed the only way.
The next few days were a blur. All I remember was waking in a hospital bed. Confused, dazed, receiving treatment through a drip and not sure what was going on.
I lost a few days of my life, as I battled with suicide. My friend came to see me and was able to fill me in with how I got there, it seemed he actually saved my life and got me to the hospital just in time. He went on to tell me I tried to end my life twice, I was discharged after the first attempt, but was still very unwell, so as soon as I could I tried again.
That is all my friend could tell me, in that moment I was too exhausted to try and gather my thoughts, I allowed myself to rest and continued receiving treatment for my overdose.
Once medically fit I was discharged, back into the care of the eating disorder service, but my PTSD was not calming, nothing was getting any better, I spoke with my psychologist who suggested one way for closure, to help the past finally let go of me, was to report my abuser to the police.
So that is what I did, it was time, I had suffered long enough. Once again though, by reporting the incident and going through the process and going through every detail, it only heightened my symptoms, and suicidal thoughts crossed my mind hourly. I couldn’t keep myself safe, this time the crisis team listened to me, It was agreed I would move into a crisis house.
My first day in this house was strange all of a sudden, I had around the clock staff support. I was shown my room and remember just sitting on the bed in tears struggling to take in what was happening. At nights there were staff around to help with my nightmares, teaching me strategies to deal with them, and during the day, I would have support where we could focus on specific things that had led to me being there. It all seemed so much, but I had to accept I needed extra support.
I worked on my relationship issues, and self-esteem too, we resolved the issues I was having with my husband, and I learnt he is nothing like my previous abuser, the flashback incident was an accident and he is not a bad man. I was able to communicate with him again.
I was working with a specialist whilst giving anonymous intelligence information to the police, and once again the crisis house was able to support me through this. That finally left my eating disorder, however now it was not that difficult to get back under control.
I had been trying to juggle too much, self-loathing, infertility, relationship breakdown, PTSD symptoms, work stresses and reporting the trauma to the police, add that to an eating disorder and no sleep, its no wonder I crashed really? One by one these issues dissolved, I just needed help prioritising the tasks, I did not know which to focus on first, and got overwhelmed.
By the time I was discharged from the crisis house my trauma had been fully reported, I had done something about it, no longer afraid and somewhat proud I had spoken up.
My time there also really showed that my eating disorder provided me with a distraction it really was a coping strategy, a good one, I will give it that, but not helpful., when all of this was going on, instead of dealing with it, I tried to mask it, by using the disorder to numb everything, avoid the emotions, distract me from what was happening and just trying to carry on. I was in treatment for another year following this episode, but was eventually discharged.
I look back at my time being in crisis and feel uneasy, I will be haunted by some of the things that were said, yes I always appear bright and bubbly, but that does not mean I am not struggling inside. It just meant I had learnt how to wear a mask far too well, I even convinced myself I was ok.
I was belittled with my PTSD, no one seemed to understand just how intense those flashbacks were, when talking about these symptoms in the past I have been greeted with phrases like, but its just a bad dream, we all get them.
While this is true, the intensity of those dreams, are real, my body thought and acted as though I was in danger, they are physically as well as emotionally draining, I just needed to talk things through and be reminded, I was safe.
And finally, my eating disorder. So many times, I was told to try and eat something. Yes obviously part of an eating disorder is about food, however, for me it was a coping strategy, a distraction and a way to avoid my emotions. Before eating I needed to dig deeper. we forget that they are mental illnesses, with so many different elements. Simply eating something, will not make this magically go away.
So a few years later, where am I now? I would love to say I am fully recovered however I am not, not yet anyway, but I will be. I have learnt so many helpful coping strategies, for when things are tough. The importance of self-care, giving myself compassion and allowing time to actually feel my emotions.
I use music as my main therapy. I often can’t quite work out what I am feeling, I spent so long avoiding my emotions, when asked how I am I’m often not sure. But I can play it to you. Release my emotions that way. I still get the eating disorder thoughts however, they are just thoughts, I no longer have to engage with them.
My PTSD has calmed, I have nightmares but I can manage them, I am no longer scared of sleep. Do I still get suicidal thoughts? No, I have created a wonderful life for myself now I am in solid recovery, however those feelings did not just magically go away, I worked on them for many years, I understand how my past experiences altered my way of thinking.
I am now using all these experiences as a positive, I am a mental health advocate and also training to be a counsellor. I understand what it feels like to hit rock bottom only to discover a basement. I am determined to help others.
I have been labelled as mentally unwell for so long I forgot who I was. Who I really am, I am actually a surfer, a tedx speaker, musician and author. A wife, a mother and a friend. Yes I live alongside mental illnesses, they are part of me, but they are not who I am. Never judge a book by its cover, you never know someone’s full story, but in regards to my story, I do indeed live happily ever after.