“I was diagnosed with anorexia eight years ago. Looking back, I know I’d had it a lot longer. When I was a teenager, I’d always compare my body to other girls’ bodies, and I had poor body image as a teen. I’d say to myself, ‘You are so FAT,’ and would criticize myself constantly. I danced competitively, so I had a lot of muscle in my legs. I would say to myself, ‘Your legs are covered in FAT.’ Obviously it was muscle, but I couldn’t see it because my body dysmorphia was so strong. Although I had these constant thoughts as a teen, I didn’t act on or engage in the behaviors until my early 20s.
I started taking diet pills I’d buy from random people, and when I could no longer source them this way I began ordering them from China. I had no idea what the ingredients were! All I knew is they made my heart race. Later, I learned there is a substance in them which is actually banned in many countries. Back then, they caused me to lose a lot of weight very fast, so I was happy. They made me feel weak and extremely thirsty…basically they completely suppressed my appetite. This, in turn, caused increased anxiety and irritability. The pills even made the news, as a girl in my local area who was also taking them ended up with a colostomy bag because of side effects. This didn’t scare me, as I was losing weight at a fast pace, and the eating disorder voice told me, ‘The risks are worth it, and the numbers on the scale trump everything.’
Family and friends did start to notice I was losing weight, some even complimented me at first. Later, because I wasn’t overweight and didn’t need to lose any more, they quickly became concerned. They would say, ‘You need to stop losing weight! You didn’t need to lose any to begin with! Those pills are dangerous!’ Sadly, by then I was completely addicted to weight loss. I pretended for a long time I was no longer taking the pills but was secretly ordering them online. I was in complete denial I had a problem, and my eating disorder fully convinced me what I was doing was okay, despite what anyone else said.
It became more difficult to source the pills, as they were illegal in Ireland, England, and America, because they contained a substance banned in those countries. As a result, I was desperate to continue to lose weight, so my eating disorder behaviors escalated. I began severely restricting my food, even fluids (water was even scary to me). I was counting calories, compulsively weighing myself sometimes ten times a day or more, abusing laxatives… the list goes on. Writing this now is scary, because I could have easily died; however, when you’re in the grips of an eating disorder, NOTHING scares you. If someone had said to me, ‘If you do what you’ve been currently doing you will die,’ I’d still continue. The control makes you feel like you are invincible, like nothing bad will happen to you, and stuff like death only happens to other people. My body can surely cope, the rules don’t apply to me.
During this time, a lot of difficult things were happening. There was a lot of death in my family, and a lot of illness. I lost five family members in a short space of time: aunts, uncles, and my grandmother who I was very close to. My dad was also unwell and I was in the middle of my degree at university. So many things seemed out of control, and my anxiety was spiraling more and more by the day. In 2015, my dad passed away and I couldn’t cope. Eating disorders manifest in many people as a coping mechanism, and I believe this is how mine gained its full control of me. I couldn’t control what was happening around me, so I needed something take charge of. This is when anorexia became my safety blanket.
I was already connected with community mental health services for anxiety. However, I was protecting my eating disorder for as long as I could. I wouldn’t mention it to my psychiatrist. I didn’t feel it was ‘significant enough’ to bring to their attention. After a while of going to the mental health clinic, I could no longer hide it. The weight loss was obvious and anorexia was clearly controlling me. I finally told the team about my relationship with food and behaviors and I was diagnosed officially with anorexia. I was continuing to go to my mental health clinic, but I didn’t work with anyone who specialized in this specific illness for some time. I was eventually connected to an amazing therapist, and I was happy as I needed someone to help me understand what was going on inside my head.
It was important my therapist fully understood eating disorders, and it was then I learned WHY I was engaging in these behaviors. It was a means of controlling my emotions. One hour a week therapy was not going to be enough for me and I declined further. It was evident I needed more intense support. By then, I had quit my career as a social worker, which I had studied hard for four years to achieve. I could no longer work because the eating disorder was so bad and my increasing anxiety was debilitating. It was from the advice of my GP and other professionals I leave work. I was scared about the thoughts of being unemployed, but I also knew my career was causing me added anxiety and stress, so in a way it also came as a relief. I had conflicting feelings, but overall I knew it was the right decision.
We looked at different treatments, and it was obvious I needed an inpatient admission. I needed a safe environment where I could get my eating disorder under control. At this stage I was very high risk for refeeding syndrome, which is a complication when a person begins to eat again and their electrolytes can go out of balance. This can lead to cardiac arrest, so it needed to be monitored closely by professionals. I said, ‘I don’t believe I need inpatient treatment because I am not THAT sick!’ I had many arguments with family and professionals, as they believed I definitely needed it. In fact, I would die without it. It wasn’t that I didn’t want the treatment, it’s that anorexia didn’t want me to leave her, so she would convince me I was only safe if I followed her rules.
In Ireland, there are three public beds for eating disorders in the ENTIRE country. This is shocking, given an estimated 200,000 people suffer with an eating disorder here and they are THE most fatal mental illnesses. The Health Service Executive, or HSE, are in the process of rolling out a five-year plan. It’s currently in year two of development, so there’s still a long way to go. There are private, inpatient units for eating disorders in Ireland, at St. Vincent’s Hospital, St. Patrick’s Hospital, St. John of Gods Hospital, and just one residential inpatient treatment facility Lois Bridges, all situated in Dublin.
I, unfortunately, don’t have health insurance, so the battle began of applying for HSE funding, which is a painstaking task! There is a lot of red tape which has to be cut, and it isn’t a straightforward process…it can take months! I applied in July of 2016, and at the end of January of 2017 I ended up in a hospital when my bladder completely stopped working. Only when my team contacted the HSE to inquire what the hold up was is when I was made aware my application for funding had in fact been declined. My life was at risk, so my family had to do a lot of knocking on doors and the decision was luckily overturned. I was finally granted funding.
All of this really messed with my head, because the anorexia voice will always tell you, ‘You’re not sick enough, don’t worry.’ I didn’t think I deserved the funding. I was so consumed by my disease I couldn’t see the seriousness of it, and I was never afraid of dying. I had huge arguments with my family where they’d say, ‘PLEASE go to treatment, we are terrified you are going to die.’ I eventually agreed to go just to see what it was like, but I was too scared to agree to stay, so I said I would just take it one day at a time. Because I was there voluntarily, I knew I could leave at any time, and I was still ‘safe.’
I was admitted into Lois Bridges, which is a seven-bed residential eating disorder unit in Sutton (North Dublin), which is Ireland’s only residential treatment facility. The care given is second to none, and they ended up saving my life! I spent twelve weeks there as an inpatient. Of course, I found it extremely difficult for the first couple of weeks, since prior to going I had spent 99% of my time at home in my bedroom, completely isolated from everyone. Just being in the unit with people around was extremely distressing. I eventually came around and started to learn how to eat again, to try to trust food and engage in therapy. The more nourishment I received each day, the more clarity I gained. This helped me engage better in the treatment program. I was so malnourished at the beginning, my brain was so foggy and irrational, and with time and help, thankfully this improved.
The thing about private treatment facilities in Ireland is their programs are twelve weeks long, as this is the length of time insurance companies will pay for. Therefore, they have to tailor their programs around this schedule. The downside is it ends up being a ‘one size fits all’ and not an entirely needs-based admission. Yes, some people will complete the program after twelve weeks and be in a mentally stronger position to continue their recovery at home. I was not at this point when I had come to the end of my time there, so upon discharge I began to relapse quickly. It’s difficult going from 24/7 care for twelve weeks to then be discharged back to your community mental health team for one-hour therapy a week. My primary and secondary care don’t have access to dietetic services, so I pay to see one privately, meaning I can’t go as often as needed because of cost.
As the months went on, I slipped deeper and deeper back into the grips of anorexia, and before I knew it I was back to square one. I started to restrict, over exercise, and take laxatives again. Anorexia is very sneaky and it can take control of a person so fast. My parents put in another request to the HSE for funding for inpatient care, and this time it took six months. I am very, VERY grateful the HSE funded me. I would never take it for granted, and to be honest I feel so guilty because I feel there are people out there WAY more unwell who are not getting the care they need and deserve, and it makes me really sad. I have to recognize I am unwell too, and without treatment I’d probably die, even though the voice in my head tries to convince me otherwise.
My second admission was so much better than my first, as I was miles ahead in comparison to my first admission, and I wasn’t back at square one which was what I’d originally believed. I did so well on the program, and although I was in a better headspace again, I wasn’t mentally strong enough when the time came for discharge. It was scary because I was aware of how fast things can decline, so I tried my best to try keep myself in control, but again I was discharged back to community with limited resources. I am admittedly not doing perfectly one year after discharge. I don’t really want to have to do another admission, so I’ll keep trying to stay afloat, but it’s difficult. The voice in my head is strong, and sometimes it feels a lot stronger than me.
It’s so difficult to let go of an eating disorder. I often explain it to people who don’t understand it’s like having Stockholm Syndrome; you live with an abuser in your head who is hurting you, yet you’re loyal to him and want to protect him, even though he’s trying to kill you. I wish I could have written I’ve fully come out the other side, as this is usually how these stories go, but I think it’s also important for anyone reading this who is still suffering to know they are not alone, and sometimes we need to fight a battle more than once to win it. As frustrating as it is, all we can do is take one day at a time, and hope services improve to get the best chance at recovery. If it was cancer, it would not be a one-size-fits-all approach, so why is mental illness treated this way?
I’m not sure what this new year holds for me, possibly more inpatient treatment, but I am determined to not continue to be ruled by this voice in my head in this new decade, as it ruled my life in the previous one. I really hope I can beat this illness; I certainly plan to. I would love to get another degree and become a midwife, it’s my dream career. I am inspired by those who have recovered and I love hearing success stories. Just know recovery is possible, and I am reminded of this by my team, and by those who have won the battle, so I hold on to hope! I am also passionate about educating people on eating disorders and the complexity of it by spreading awareness. If you are fighting this fight, I hear you and I believe in you.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Amanda Lynch of Ireland. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read more inspiring stories from eating disorder survivors:
‘You’re embarrassing to be seen with.’ My BMI was too high. He told me, ‘I want to break up, I’m bored.’ I began starving myself for his attention.’: Woman urges ‘never let anyone determine your worth’ after nearly-fatal eating disorder
‘It’s nobody’s business!’ I’d tell myself. I was in survival mode. I dropped to 75 pounds. I thought I’d never wake up.’: Woman shares recovery journey from eating disorder, ‘I chose a life of fullness’
‘Half my bowel was coming out of my body. The doctor said, ‘Hannah, I have no idea what to do with you anymore.’: Woman survives life-long battle with eating disorders after trauma, ‘There is always hope for change’
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