‘Wow, you’re looking great, you’ve definitely lost some weight!’ ‘Tell me your secrets!’ I truly was living a double life.’: Woman battling eating disorder says ‘I refuse to let it beat me’

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Disclaimer: This story contains details of disordered eating which may be upsetting to some.

“Growing up, I like many others cared too much about what other people thought of me. I think it’s a huge reason I was SO excited to move away and go to university. I saw it as a fresh start, a clean slate, a chance to truly be me and not worry about what other people thought. I began university in September 2017. I had got into my dream course to study to be a primary school teacher, I was moving into a brand-new building of apartments which my childhood best friend was also going to be living in, and life was good. The first half of my first year in university was incredible – I made so many new friends, I had a great social life, and I was doing well in my assignments. I had so much to look forward to, including counting down the days until my family and I were heading to Disneyland Paris to spend Christmas there. I truly was living the dream…little did I know that would be my last ‘normal’ holiday to date.

Group of college women take a photo at a bar with their faces painted
Courtesy of Ellen Kelly
Family take a Christmas vacation to Disneyland in Paris
Courtesy of Ellen Kelly

After Christmas, everything changed. University workload increased, my first ever teaching placement was looming and this brought with it a lot of stress. I was worried I wasn’t good enough to be a teacher; could I really stand up in front of 30 kids and teach them? What if I was a bad teacher and the kids fell behind because of me? On top of my fears, I was sad at the thought of having to move back home for 8 weeks and leave my friends, my social life, and my new normal. The 8 weeks of teaching practice were tough; while I loved my class and the teachers/staff I was working with, the immense pressure I put on myself took its toll.

Lesson planning, teaching files and worksheets became my entire being. Instead of having lunch I would spend time marking, I would get up earlier and not have breakfast but make resources, I would quickly eat a small dinner to have more time for planning. It wasn’t intentional, but the weight began to fall off me. In the beginning, I only received positive praise for this: ‘Wow, you’re looking great, you’ve definitely lost some weight!’ ‘Tell me your secrets’ and ‘I wish I had your figure’ became my new standard greetings. I won’t lie, I loved it. I loved the praise, the increased Instagram likes, the attention. I always saw myself as the chubby awkward girl and was in awe of my skinnier friends, but now I had a chance to be like them, to be accepted.

Young college student poses for a photo in a white dress while holding a glass of champagne
Courtesy of Ellen Kelly

I completed my 8 weeks and the relief of surviving my first ever teaching practice complete with glowing reports felt like winning the lottery. I was excited to get back to university, to see my friends, to get back to my normal…however it was never to be. Going back to university didn’t meet the expectations of my memories. Food had become a struggle; before when I had the distraction of work, I didn’t have the time to sit and think about it, but now it was all I could think about. What would I eat, when would I eat, how much would I eat became thoughts which plagued my brain 24/7.

My weight continued to drop, but so too did my attention span and energy. I no longer had the energy or interest to see my friends. I didn’t want to go out as much for fear I’d drink too much or get a takeaway on the way home. My marks in my assignments began to slip as I just couldn’t concentrate. If I was sitting too long at my desk, I’d panic and have to do a YouTube workout just to justify sitting and writing another paragraph. This continued for months…I dreaded coming home at the weekends to visit my family because I knew my parents were growing concerned and I knew I had to pretend I had things under control. I smiled, I chatted, I ate with my family and then I’d spend the entire week at university making up for this by restricting, exercising, and skipping meals. I truly was living a double life.

How I ever made it through my first-year university exams I’ll never know. I was sleep deprived, my hair was falling out in clumps, and I spent most of my time trying not to pass out or burst into tears. Moving back home for the summer, I told myself would be my time to change, to get back to normal. However, I quickly learned it wasn’t this simple. I no longer was in control; I couldn’t bring myself to eat. The fear and anxiety was too much and tensions at home were rising. I’ll never forget one evening pacing the hallway downstairs, unable to sleep, and I overheard a conversation between my mom and dad. They were discussing my new eating habits and how I needed to wise up, convinced it was a ploy for attention. I remember feeling like someone had taken a knife and plunged it straight into my stomach and was slowly twisting it to cause the ultimate amount of pain. How could they think I would willingly do this? Who would choose this?

It wasn’t long after that evening I hit my breaking point. My alarm had gone off for me to get up and get ready to head to my part time job and I just couldn’t bring myself to get up. I didn’t have the energy or the strength. I didn’t want to face the day. But I knew I didn’t have a choice; I pulled myself out of bed and stood in front of my mirror, attempting to do my make-up as the tears broke free, streaming down my cheeks.

I pulled myself together as best I could and made my way to the door, but I was met by my mom coming down the stairs. She took one look at my fake smile plastered on my face, and like all mom’s, she knew something was wrong. I usually was an expert at the, ‘I’m fine, honestly’ and changing the subject, but I think a part of me knew I needed help no matter how scared I was. The only words I could muster out between the tears and gasps for breath were, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I was met with my mom’s warm arms taking me in and she held me until I caught my breath. Within 10 minutes, my mom had called into work for me, had called the doctor and we were on our way down to my GP.

The next few weeks were a blur…a referral was made to adult eating disorder services, but with the current demand my GP warned it could be months before I’d be seen. I was struggling to get through each day and with a family holiday looming I just wanted to hide away from everything and everyone. I begged to stay behind, afraid of being out of my routine, afraid of what and when we’d eat, but my mom convinced me a change of scenery and some heat could be good for me. Reluctantly, I went on the holiday to Portugal and to this day they remain the longest two weeks of my entire life to date. None of my summer clothes fit, my bones were protruding, I couldn’t sit at the pool on the loungers as my entire body ached.

Parents take a photo with their daughter while enjoying a dinner out together
Courtesy of Ellen Kelly

I spent the two weeks hiding in our apartment, planning new ways to hide and avoid meals, forcing myself to go for walks in the morning so I had control over which restaurant we went to that evening and only picking the ones that served fruit platters as that’s all I could manage for dinner. About a week into the holiday I was so frustrated at myself, I was watching the rest of my family just wishing I too could eat what I wanted without a second thought. In a moment of bravery I decided I could, and I would. I will never forget the joy on my parent’s faces when I ordered a Smirnoff ice and chips for the first night of the trip and happily cleaned my plate. That night, my mom rang my nanny crying tears of joy down the phone, thinking this was it, this was the first step to getting back to me.

Little did we know the road ahead wasn’t quite so simple. I woke up the next morning consumed by guilt, my head was screaming at me, how could I have been so greedy, I ate too much, I needed to make up for it. I spent the remainder of the holiday paying for that one night of giving into temptation. My meals became smaller, and so too did my life. Things were bleak, I was losing hope and I just couldn’t wait to get back home. Then, just when I needed it the most, my phone rang. It was the eating disorder services ringing to inform me there was a cancelation and would I like to go for an assessment the following week.

I don’t remember much of the conversation; I actually don’t think it lasted that long other than me mustering the words, ‘Yes please’ and ‘thank you’ repeatedly. I remember hugging my mom and crying tears of joy. We began counting up the weeks and naively thought 4 weeks of appointments would have me fully recovered before heading back to university. It makes me laugh now; we had no idea what was ahead of us and I truly thank God we didn’t.

Looking back now I realize the 4 years I attended eating disorder services I was doing it for all the wrong reasons. While yes, a big part of me was struggling and knew I needed the help, an even bigger part wasn’t ready to gain weight and give up the false comfort and numbness starving myself provided for me. Physically, I declined to the point I was forced to take time out of University and this was when the inpatient threats began. I still never believed I was ‘that bad’ or ‘sick enough’ no matter how low the number on the scale dropped. That’s the thing with eating disorders…it will never be enough…not until it’s too late.

Woman battling anxiety and an eating disorder takes a selfie while wearing a turtleneck to stay warm
Courtesy of Ellen Kelly

Having to take a year out of university, give up my part time job and now the threat of the hospital, I was angry and bitter…I’d lost everything, so I thought, ‘What’s the point in trying now, I’ve got nothing left to lose.’ I’ll never forget the day my mom, dad and I went down for a pre-admission tour of the inpatient ward – talk about a wakeup call. They took us through the care plan which included 1:1 supervision 24/7, someone had to watch when you went to the bathroom, 5-minute showers watched, complete bedrest to the point if I needed the bathroom I’d have to be wheeled in a wheelchair and no phones. It made prison sound more appealing.

I remember leaving and thinking nope, no way is that happening. My dad wasn’t keen on me being admitted, he heard my pleas to recover at home and understood my concerns. My mom was blinded by fear; as terrifying as the ward was, the fear of me, her little girl, dropping dead at any moment outweighed all of it. While there comes a point when the decision is no longer yours and you can be sectioned, most admissions to the ED services try to ensure are voluntary and there was NO WAY I was willingly walking in. Thank goodness when the phone call came and a bed became available my mom wasn’t in the house because I don’t think the outcome would have been the same.

I refused profusely and said I would do it from home. As reluctant as my therapist was, given my recent blood results weren’t critical, she couldn’t section me. I was really down to my last chance. This was a big changing point, from that phone call a switch had been flicked. Yes, I was afraid of weight gain, but I was afraid of the inpatient ward so much more. I was also afraid at what my illness was doing to my family and the toll it was taking on them. My mom had taken time off work to be with me, my dad bottled things up, my sister was angry at the stress and tension I was causing at home, and my brother was hiding away in his room pretending none of it was happening. It definitely wasn’t a healthy home environment.

Physically things improved: I followed every meal plan I was given, I gained the weight, and with each gain I could see the fear slowly begin to disappear from my family’s eyes. On the outside, things were great. Internally, I was struggling as much as ever, if not more. But I kept pushing on, kept going with the hope things would get easier, and truthfully they did. The more I challenged fear foods, the easier it became, the more weight I restored, the clearer I could think, the more energy I had. My life did improve with recovery. I managed the following year to go back to university. Despite joining a new year group and being a year behind my friends, I still dreamed of being a teacher and I was determined to get me – the real me – back.

Young college student recovering from an eating disorder smiles for a photo in a red dress while out at a party
Courtesy of Ellen Kelly

Recovery isn’t linear, there are ups and downs, and the remaining 3 years of university had a lot of them. I struggled a lot. Physically, I maintained my weight, but mentally, those torturous thoughts plagued me from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to sleep. Things got dark, and after experiencing suicidal thoughts just before my 21st birthday, I was diagnosed with depression and put on anti-depressants which I remain on to this day. However, despite it all I kept fighting, kept hoping I wouldn’t have to live like this forever. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to seem all doom and gloom and that life was horrible every single day because that’s not the case. There were many good days, and I can now recognize those good days were the days I fought back against my eating disorder with all my might.

Despite all my challenges, I graduated last June (2021) with a 2:1 in my BEd Honors degree in primary teaching. It was honestly a day I never believed would come. I had actually done it! After my graduation, I made the decision to discharge myself from eating disorder services despite reluctance from the team and my family. I felt I had come as far as I could and I really started to believe I could leave that part of my life behind. I graduated, I accepted my first teaching job, I moved to London – I felt like I was finally beginning to live my life again.

Woman graduates from university to become a primary school teacher
Courtesy of Ellen Kelly

And I was; to everyone on the outside, I was functioning. I could join in with nights out, meals out, I could go into school and teach, I could socialize with others and just get on with things, but I wasn’t truly free. No one knew the lengths I would go to in order to appear fine, that I would skip meals to be able to eat out, that I was still controlled by what and when I ate, that I still wasn’t able to cope with anxiety in a healthy way. Honestly, I didn’t even see it myself. I had convinced myself it was okay, I was a healthier weight, I was deciding this, I was in control…

Woman recovering from an eating disorder takes a group photo with her friends on a night out
Courtesy of Ellen Kelly

The first few months in London, I was living on a high. I’d gone from being stuck at home in an isolated rut to finally having the independence I’d dreamed of. I lucked out with meeting and moving in with an amazing group of people who I got to work with. I worked in a school full of the most supportive staff and was so lucky to have my very own class of year 3’s whom I adore with my whole heart. Up until Halloween, I truly was on cloud 9, and then as is life, things began to get a wee bit more stressful. Workload increased, inspections and my own fears of not being good enough were slowly seeping in and consuming me. Still, I told myself I’m in control and I continued on, and I did. I made it to Christmas break, but I was burnt out. I remember feeling so guilty for coming home and just sleeping near enough the entire time, but I was both physically and mentally exhausted.

New teacher gets gifted a card from a student that reads "Best teacher ever"
Courtesy of Ellen Kelly

Going back to London after Christmas, I knew deep down things needed to change. I was determined to get back into a healthy routine and made promises to myself about finding that work-life balance. My first week back was good, but then unfortunately I caught COVID, and the 10-day isolation coupled with being very sick completely knocked me. While my weight had been slowly dropping from August, things escalated very fast. I hated being stuck in the house, being away from teaching and being isolated, and quickly my eating disorder became the escape I so desperately needed.

The second I was allowed, I went back to work despite not being anywhere near fit. Friends, family, and colleagues expressed concern, but I always smiled and tried to convince both them and myself I was in fact fine. This was all well and good for a few weeks – until I hit my breaking point. I physically couldn’t do it anymore. I had found myself back at square one with my eating disorder. I was struggling to eat, 5:30 alarms, I was forcing myself to walk to and from work, being in school 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. each day and still taking work home with me to give me an excuse not to eat. I began to isolate myself once again. I was miserable, but this time it hit me – here I was almost 5 years later, still stuck in this vicious cycle of an eating disorder, and for what?

The first time I began recovery back in 2017, it was a result of my incredible mom doing an immense amount of research and organizing appointments. My family was the only reason I initially tried; I didn’t like to see them in pain or distressed as a result of me, so I went for them. I gained weight to avoid the hospital, but mentally I never improved. That’s the thing a lot of people still don’t understand about eating disorders – there is no ‘look,’ I was struggling just as much at a healthy weight as I was at my lowest. I was so scared to ask for help because I felt both guilty and embarrassed. I thought I’d had my chance to recover, and I’d wasted it, so this was my fault and I’d just have to live with it now. But deep down I knew I wanted more than to be stuck like this forever – I had a small taste at what life could be like and I didn’t want to lose it. For the first time ever I reached out for help, I asked for support, and I sought out eating disorder services in London.

After an initial assessment on Monday, February 21, 2022 it became clear things were a lot more critical than I thought. They wanted to admit me inpatient there and then due to my weight being the lowest it’s ever been. There aren’t many times in my life I’ve experienced genuine terror, but the thought of being alone in London in a hospital with no family to be with is a feeling I never ever want to experience again. I knew then and there I needed to go home; I couldn’t do this alone in London. Thankfully, my amazing mom had flown out to be with me for the assessment despite my many protests…the only reason I left the appointment that day was because there were currently no hospital beds available. As we waited for the Uber home, I broke down and all I could muster out was, ‘I want to go home.’

Within 24 hours I was on a plane home, my life in London packed up into 3 suitcases, no goodbyes to my colleagues or little class, everything I had worked so hard for gone. To say I’m devastated would be an understatement, but I also know I wouldn’t have survived much longer alone in London. Since being back home it’s been bloods, ECG’s, and urgent referrals being made to get the support once again I need.

Woman flying back home takes a photo of the clouds in the sky outside of the window
Courtesy of Ellen Kelly

I was initially so reluctant and embarrassed to write this post – here I am back at square one, having to ask for help after already having it and not ‘succeeding.’ But this time is different, this time I’m fighting for me. I’ve been in this vicious cycle for 5+ years now. I turned 24 years old on the March 5, 2022 and I’m just DONE. It’s caused nothing but pain and misery and I don’t want to be stuck anymore. I don’t want to waste any more precious time. In the UK, Anorexia has the highest mortality rate with 1 in 5 people dying. Of those surviving, it’s claimed 50% recover, 30% slightly improve and 20% remain chronically ill for life. Well, I refuse to become a statistic – I refuse to let this eating disorder beat me!

I wanted to share my story in case anyone else has found they too are struggling maybe again after already asking for help in the past. It’s okay to need to ask for help again, you’re not a failure or a disappointment, you’re human and you’re most certainly not alone! My messages are always open if anyone ever needs to talk (no matter what time of the day or night it is). I might not always have the right things to say, I might not be able to say anything to make it better and I’ll never truly understand your struggles as no one will unless they’ve been through them, BUT I promise I’m a good listener and I also promise no matter how alone you feel, you’re not.”

Woman recovering from a relapse in her eating disorder takes a selfie
Courtesy of Ellen Kelly

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Ellen Kelly of Ireland. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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