Sadly there are still a lot of misconceptions around Anorexia Nervosa, a serious mental health condition. Sufferers have a distorted image of themselves and their body shape, and often go to great lengths to hide the condition from people around them.
We spoke to a former sufferer who has since beaten the disease, Nikki Mason, a freelance editor from Ilkley, Yorkshire, to dispel some of the myths and give a first hand account of what it’s really like battling anorexia.
The 29-year-old spent nine months in hospital followed by a year of counselling, and is now back to a healthy weight.
Here are 17 things Nikki says no one tells you about anorexia.
1. It’s not an extreme diet gone wrong. Anorexics don’t choose to diet and then just can’t stop and that’s all that’s wrong. It’s about feeling like you are controlling something in your life. It is a deadly illness, just as cancer is, and it can affect your whole life and those of your loved ones.
2. It’s not just about body image. For me it was partly about identity. I wasn’t sure who I was if I wasn’t the thin person in the room. There is a bit of a myth about thinking you’re fat when you are critically underweight. I don’t think I realised how thin I was, but when small clothes sizes are too big, you have some sort of rational idea. Being thin gave me a skewed idea of being strong and powerful, when actually I was ill. I was in an abusive relationship with someone (who I’m no longer with) who would tell me how to dress, how to speak, and what he thought was feminine. One thing he couldn’t touch was what food I put into my body, I felt like it was the only thing I had control over.
3. It’s not glamorous. Your skin loses its lustre, your hair falls out of your head but grows on your face and arms. When I was in hospital my toilet habits and showers were monitored. It was all excruciatingly embarrassing. Clothes hang off you, you look gaunt and I knew people pitied me.
4. According to the charity Beat, 20% of anorexics will die from the physical consequences of the condition or suicide.
5. You can’t drive under a certain BMI. Because your brain is working at a slower level due to lack of sugars and nourishment, it’s unsafe to drive as your reflexes will be slower.
6. Having a bath under a certain BMI could give you a heart attack. The water pressure can be too much on a heart that is already having to deal with a lot of extra strain.
7. It’s not just about living off an apple a day. Personally I was eating toast, cereal and yoghurts. I stopped eating fruit because I wanted things that filled me up. I was 16 when it started and two of my best friends were petite, blonde and beautiful and I felt like the fat one. I started making myself sick, but later gave myself a set amount of calories I’d allow myself each day and take a ridiculously long amount of time to eat them.
8. Your life becomes about routines. I split up with my current boyfriend because I couldn’t dedicate enough time to him without him getting in the way of my secret eating and exercise habits. They ruled my life. However exhausted or bored of them I was, I could not let them go. If I couldn’t weigh myself, I panicked. If someone offered me a treat I hadn’t factored into my intake for the day, I’d eat less the next day.
9. Your cuts and bruises struggle to heal. Many body functions stop working properly when you aren’t giving your body the nutrients it needs. Because I was so weak, I tripped and fell a lot and I still have marks now because my white blood cells weren’t functioning properly.
10. You’ll always be cold. No body fat means violent shivering, constantly. It’s miserable.
11. You lose your sense of humour. And your whole personality really. I didn’t have enough energy to laugh or enough focus to listen to conversations and understand jokes. My life became ruled by food.
12. It’s a horrendously competitive illness. When you read about other anorexics or see other thin people, you feel the desire to better them, be “stronger” and thinner so people need to be so careful about what they say. Even comments about looking healthy would send me into a spiral of self-hate. If people told me I was too thin, I felt proud.
13. Your body starts eating its own muscles – including your heart.
14. It doesn’t just affect girls – boys, women and men are affected too. Around 11% are male.
15. People begin to recover for all different reasons. For me it was because I hit rock bottom. I was 24 and I’d moved to London to try to be a journalist but it was just really difficult, my parents split up and my weight was plummeting. I was ready to give up and let myself die. The people around me wouldn’t let me though.
16. I owe my life to Beat. When my GP wasn’t doing enough to help me after I was diagnosed in January 2009, my sister rang them and the advice she was given helped me seek out treatment and I was admitted to hospital. It was humiliating and scary but it completely saved my life.
17. After eating such small quantities, suddenly eating proper meals again hurts. Like physically hurts your stomach. And it’s terrifying and traumatic. In hospital there were set meal times and only a certain amount of time to eat your food, which I really struggled with. There was a lot of hysteria over meals, I’d end up in tears trying to eat Weetabix.
18. You can recover. It takes a lot of hard work and it can only come from you when you really want to get better, but the chances are good. I made a group of friends in hospital and we encouraged each other to get better.
19. You really feel yourself again after recovering. When I got to a healthy weight in January 2012, which I’ve stayed above since, I realised how much I’d felt like I was walking around like a ghost before. My boyfriend says he watched me “come back from the dead”. The first time I really laughed again, as I was recovering, was magical! Now I’ve got my sense of humour back, and everything else that makes me a woman really.
Help and more information on eating disorders can be found on Beat’s website. Their helpline is 0845 634 1414 and their Youthline can be contacted on 0845 634 7650.