If you’re a young person worried about having an eating disorder, the best thing you can possibly do for yourself is to find help – and the very best form of help is some kind of talking therapy.
You may be puzzled about this yourself as you may not feel deeply unhappy, but it could be that various factors have combined to make you feel less sure of yourself and your place in the world. You may be having difficulties with relationships at home, or problems at school or with friends. You may be finding exam work stressful. You may be worried about the onset of puberty. You may have anxieties around relationships, and how life is going to develop for you as your enter your teenage years and are expected to find boyfriends/girlfriends.
You may feel you’re not ready to ‘grow up’ yet, that your childhood has been far too short and that you’re not prepared for the next stage. You may be surrounded by other peoples’ emotional difficulties, perhaps between your parents or in your extended family. You may be obliged to ‘fit in’ with all kinds of circumstances that don’t feel right for you. You may have suffered some form of sexual abuse or rape that you can’t talk about and has left you feeling deeply depressed and with nowhere to turn. And indeed you may be feeling very alone, with no one to talk to and no one to comfort you when you’re down.
I’ve worked with many young people suffering from varying degrees of disordered eating, but I would say that the one thing most have in common is a tendency to dismiss their own problems. They arrive at a counselling session saying:
‘I feel I don’t deserve to be here’ or ‘My problems are so small in comparison to other peoples’ or ‘I feel I’m wasting your time’.
But in fact they often have a huge, long list of things that don’t feel right in their lives, any one of which would be enough to cause a crisis in many other people. Or maybe it is true that their long list consists of fairly minor issues, but when all of them are added together they become unsupportable. Of if someone’s suffered from some form of sexual abuse, it can feel impossible to acknowledge this even to themselves – let alone begin to ask anyone for help in talking about it, so the bad feelings simply get buried away deep inside where they fester away, and all too often, grow.
If any of this feels familiar to you, the important thing to remember is that whatever you’re feeling right now is not insignificant. It’s important to pay attention to your innermost feelings no matter how confusing they feel at this moment. Sometimes it’s difficult to untangle our own feelings, they can vary from moment to moment leaving us up one minute and down the next, and we don’t always know why. Outside help with a good counsellor, whether you meet face-to-face, by telephone, or online, can be really vital in helping you work your way through your own muddled, confused and confusing feelings.
The trouble with eating disorders is that they can quite quickly get out of hand. One minute you decide to eat a bit less, or use a laxative to try to lose weight, and the next you find you’re on a kind of downward spiral that you can’t control. You begin to experience good feelings from being hungry or throwing up. And if there aren’t many other ways in your life to get good feelings, then it’s understandable why you would ‘enjoy’ getting good feelings this manner.
Sometimes it can be the only area in your life where you feel you have any control. Other decisions like where you go to school or what you study or where you live may have been taken out of your hands, but this can be entirely your thing. It can be your secret, something special to you that you don’t have to share with anyone else. This feeling can become quite addictive so that you gradually begin to shut out other people, particularly those closest to you.
You lose weight and change shape, you may like what you see to begin with so it feels like there’s an incentive to carry on. But anorexia is erroneously called the ‘slimmer’s’ disease’ because nobody embarks on starving themselves unless they’re deeply unhappy inside. You may like the look of all the slender models in magazines and on posters but I dare say that’s never been your main motivation for not eating. It’s much more likely that you’re using your eating disorder to cope with some of the other issues in your life that are making you unhappy and over which you have little control.
Sadly, the long-term effects of not eating, or throwing up regularly soon become entrenched – in other words, the damage to your body just goes on and on getting worse and worse.
Side effects of anorexia, apart from weight loss, can include loss of periods, constipation, constantly feeling cold, and the growth of fine downy hair on the body. When periods are supressed for any length of time, this can have a long term bad effect on your fertility. Your bones can become weaker so that you’re prone to osteoporis (brittle bones) and the one side effect that’s rarely mentioned is death.
Side-effects of bulimia can include irregular periods, swollen salivary glands resulting in a puffy face, bad teeth as the enamel gets worn away by the constant presence of acid in the mouth from vomit, mood swings, constipation or diarrhoea.
Eventually, someone whose weight drops very low begins to be unable to think normally. This is when problems like body dysmorphia can set it – this is a stage where you literally begin to see your body differently. You look in a mirror and see fat where there is none. You think you’re still overweight so you continue on with your weight loss in the hope that eventually you’ll feel better about yourself. And because you can’t think straight at this low weight, you can’t concentrate on study or work or anything else much that’s going on around you, so you retreat more and more into your own little world where not eating, or controlling your eating, become your sole focus.
And a real danger here is that whatever goal you set yourself, it’s unlikely to feel satisfying once you reach it. In other words, when you reach your target weight, you realise that nothing’s changed, you don’t feel any better. So you revise your target and aim for an even lower weight, constantly hoping this will bring the relief you’re looking for. And when it doesn’t, you have to set an even lower target. And so it goes on and on and on.
It’s really hard for other people once you’re at this stage, for they literally can’t reach you. No matter how much they encourage you to see how scarily thin you are, you won’t believe them. You can’t think rationally and see that they might have a point suggesting you’re running the risk of starving yourself to death.
It’s obviously best not to let things get to this stage – which is why early intervention is always considered best for any eating disorder.
‘Early intervention’, however, is probably a term that strikes fear into your heart! You don’t want anyone to intervene; you don’t want anyone to have control over you, yourself or your body; you don’t want to hand over the reins of your life, you want to keep your eating disorder. It’s become familiar, comfortable and it’s your only way of coping with everything that feels wrong in your life.
All the more reason then, to get help sooner rather than later. Anyone who lets an eating disorder get so bad that their Body Mass Index puts them at real risk, is likely to find that the first ‘intervention’ is to be put into hospital. Once there, the main focus will be to try to get you to eat more and put on weight.
This won’t be welcome if putting on weight feels like the scariest thing in the world.
So let’s be clear – it’s obviously better not to let an eating disorder become so advanced that hospitalisation is the only answer. Getting help sooner rather than later is far better. Then all you’ll probably need is some sessions with a good counsellor or therapist who can help you work through all the things that are contributing to your feeling so bad. It may sound simplistic, you may not believe that talking about stuff can really be of any use. But it can. And it can keep you out of hospital which is the good news.
If you’ve decided that you don’t want to keep on and on losing weight, that you don’t want to risk losing your fertility, or your life, then the most difficult step you’re likely to take is first opening up to someone.
It’s been your own closely guarded secret for so long, that it’ll feel really, really hard sharing it with anyone. So try to choose someone who’s close and someone you really trust, perhaps a best friend. Don’t feel you have to offload all your bad feelings on this person, but if you can bring yourself simply to broach the subject, you’ll be taking the first necessary step towards getting help.
Your friend may not know what to do, or how to help, but at least you’ll have made a start and hopefully together you can work out a strategy of who to tell next. You could start with your GP. Not all GP’s are good at recognising the signs of eating disorders, so don’t rely on him/her picking up signals. You’ll need to spell it out. But if you don’t get immediately referred on to some form of talking therapy, be it counselling or psychotherapy, then try to find some for yourself. There may be local young peoples’ (free) counselling agencies nearby who’ll be more than ready to help.
Above all, don’t let yourself be fobbed off – insist that you need help and plug away until you find someone to talk to. A friend can be helpful here in encouraging you to persist.
When you begin to change your eating from ‘disordered’ to ‘orderly’ eating, you’ll find the best regime for you is likely to be eating little and often. So try to persuade those around you that this is what’s going to feel best for you. And you’ll need to learn to respond to your appetite to get into a healthy eating pattern for the future.
This isn’t going to be easy. Seeking help will probably feel like the most difficult thing you ever do. But if you want to live, to sort out all the confusion that’s bringing you so low at the moment, this could be the best, bravest step you take in your life.
For further advice on coping with an eating disorder and sources of help you can contact Dilys via her Greatvine profile.
You can view the full list of Greatvine experts who are trained in helping you anorexia, bulimia and many other complex eating disorders.
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