When I was 19, I left home and went to live with my dad. My parents split up when I was a baby, so contact with him had been minimal growing up, but we both felt the time was right to spend some time together. Unfortunately, this plan didn’t go altogether well, and I began comfort eating to try and cope with my feelings and increasing anxiety.
My weight increased quite rapidly over the period of a year as I tried to eat myself happy. Clothes quickly got tighter so I had to buy new ones, including my uniform for work. As my relationship with my dad struggled, he started to make jokes about my size and called me ‘fatty’. I tried to shrug it off, but my eating increased, to the point where I could shovel down a large plate of food rapidly almost without tasting it. My eating style was described at the time as ‘brick-laying’ owing to my ability to pile food high on my fork, using my knife to compact a large mouthful without losing a crumb.
I’d started the year as a size 10 when I first left home. By the time I returned home to live with my mum again, I’d ballooned up to a size 18 and my confidence was at an all-time low. Friends I hadn’t seen for a while called me ‘pudding’ affectionately. I wasn’t happy with how I looked, and was sick to death of clothes not fitting. My mum worried about my physical health, while tutting that I used to have a lovely figure before all the weight went on. Something had to be done, so I signed up for WeightWatchers and started a diet. Portion control was my main issue, so I cut back on the amount I ate and my weight came down steadily.
Desperation for approval of how I looked, and translating it for affection became an all-consuming focus, as praise increased with each drop registered on the scales. I started to skip meals, substituting the recommended meals for a low-fat cuppa-soup to lose weight faster. The new-found heady sense of power over my weight was more satisfying than food, and it took a matter of months for my weight to drop to below what it had originally been.
Times of anxiety and upset were still triggers for me, and I lurched from binge-eating to vomiting when the physical or emotional pain began to take hold, then reverting back to eating minimal amounts of food, and a pattern that has taken over my life for nearly twenty years in the belief that food – any food – will make me fat. There’s an irrational part of my mind that is terrified of eating a small portion of food, expecting to see my figure balloon again. And if one piece of food can start me on the slippery slope to going back to weight gain, then what unspeakable damage can three meals a day do?
By last year, my weight had dropped to it’s lowest – I was 7 stone 6 pounds and clothes were hanging from me. Nothing fitted, my face was gaunt and my husband was terrified that I’d collapse. It took all his efforts not to panic, to show patience, and try to understand what I was thinking. The only way he could get through to me was by reminding me that if I didn’t start to eat healthily, I’d die. We started with getting me to eat breakfast – a meal that I’d not attempted since I was a teenager. Porridge was the compromise. One little bowl of porridge couldn’t hurt. It’s slow release, doesn’t make me look bloated, and almost feels like comfort food because it’s warm and soothing. After a month of making myself eat a bowl of porridge every day, the realisation slowly started to hit home – I hadn’t become fat. Initially I lost weight, since my body eagerly used the fuel I put in at the start of the day.
Recovery has been slow. Sometimes it feels like three steps forward and two steps back, as I’m wrangling with the internal fear of food with every meal. Making myself eat slowly. Sticking to a trusted routine of timings and meals that I know to be ‘safe’. Having to admit when I’m panicking about what I’ve eaten, begging for reassurance on the number of calories, frantically checking the weighing scales and my clothing, trying not to look in the mirror in case some bloated beast stares back at me. Self -loathing oscillates from fear of becoming overweight, to the hatred of being too thin. ‘Just right’ doesn’t exist.
The cycle goes on, almost like resisting an addiction. You’re never fully recovered. But for anyone who does have an eating disorder and who can relate to this experience – help is out there. Stick with the people who care about you because they love you, not because of how you look. They are the ones who will support you even when you’ve pushed them away and resisted help or support of any kind. Avoid the judgemental people in your life and in the media. Get support from organisations like BEAT. Go and talk to your GP. Try and see a counsellor. Talk to someone about how you feel, even if you think no-one will understand. Your life depends on it.