4 September 2018

The Biggest Step of All Time...

I write this post with a heavy heart, yet a smile on my face. What started as a form of therapy, this blog has gone above and beyond what I ever anticipated it would be. On Friday 8th January 2016, I clicked ‘post’ on the first of many honest accounts of my experiences during the diagnosis, treatment and ongoing recovery from my eating disorder. Each post provided an opportunity to explore why I was feeling certain emotions and engaging in specific behaviours, which helped me understand what my eating disorder was ‘offering’ me in life. Yes, I did just say ‘offering’, because in reality, at that point in my life, anorexia nervosa gave me something. It gave me the chance to feel in control and to punish myself for the choices I had made; and it worked, reminding me every single day that I really was not worthy of health, happiness and life. But I could not see it for myself. I had become the eating disorder and nothing that anyone could say or do would make me think differently about this flourishing relationship I had with anorexia. Conversations with therapists, my parents and my best friends provided an initial spark to make change, but it did not take long before anorexia convinced me otherwise. However, putting my thoughts and feelings in writing? That was different.

It started as a diary in hospital, taking some time out every evening before I went to bed to document my thoughts and feelings from the day. No matter how insignificant, I wrote about it. From meal planning to yoga classes, every piece of information from that day was recorded. Little did I know that 127 days later I would have created my first motivational resource that would allow me to reflect on all of the emotional and physical experiences I had endured during my time in the specialist eating disorder unit. Although a difficult read, I still have this personal documentation in the top drawer next to my bed, just to remind me of the distress, pain and isolation that anorexia ‘offered’ me.

However, it was during my time at the eating disorder day patient clinic immediately after being discharged from hospital that I realised the significance that writing that diary had on my recovery. Not only had it benefited me personally, but also it had allowed me to communicate to people how I was feeling, which I had previously struggled to articulate. There were certain feelings, behaviours and thoughts that I had felt embarrassed to talk about, for the fear of being ridiculed, yet when they were written down I was able to realise for myself just how abnormal and outlandish they sounded. This not only helped me to challenge my eating disorder for myself, but it also posed the question “am I really the only person that experiences this?” I figured that I probably wasn’t, but it made me worry about the people that may also be engaging in the same behaviours and routines, ruled by the anorexic voice, and I wanted them to know that they are not alone and that they too can get help.

So that was it, my story went public. Every Step, Another Story was launched. Unafraid of the judgment, ignorance or ridicule, I wanted people to know that mental ill health is serious and that it nearly cost me my life. I wanted mental health to be openly discussed amongst families, friends and workplaces, and I particularly wanted the perception of eating disorders to change. Now, 81 posts and 82,560 views later, I am proud to have shared truthful accounts of the difficulties I have endured, as well as the triumphs I have celebrated with wonderful readers around the world, in the hope that it educates, instills hopefulness and shares support.

From travelling independently to starting university again, the last three years have been a whirlwind of challenges and successes that have contributed to the relationship I have with my mind and body today. Although this relationship fluctuates from time to time, I have found healthy ways to manage this that have no longer required me to write any content for this blog. I initially saw this as a negative situation because I felt as though I was letting people down by not updating the blog with new content. Yet, after speaking with my parents, I have realised that this is in fact incredibly positive. It shows that I have developed the healthy tools and skills I need to manage my illness, by communicating my difficulties verbally with my amazing family and friends. Therefore, I wanted to write this post to make you all aware that for the time being my blogging will be less frequent. I am not blindsided by the bright lights of recovery; I am aware that anorexia can tighten its grasp at the signs of any vulnerability. But at this moment I feel strong and supported, which means less necessity to write and reflect on the challenges I experience. Now I want to use this strength to continue my work as a Beat Ambassador, a Student Minds Fundraising Champion, a Rethink Media Volunteer and in all of the other mental health related projects I am now involved with at university. My life has become incredibly exciting recently and as I enter my final year of studying, I am enthused about the prospect of developing a career within the mental health sector and I hope that I can use my personal and professional experience to find a job that will enable me to offer support to those that need it. At this point I would just like to thank everybody that has supported me throughout the growth of this blog and in helping me share my story to achieve the goals I envisioned. Every like, share or retweet has sent the message that little bit further and hopefully enabled it to reach somebody that needs it. The blog will not be going anywhere, so please continue to use and share the posts whenever you need to!

This is by no means the last step to end my story; it is just the beginning of a new chapter.

30 April 2018

One Role at a Time...

This time of year is hard at university. Three assignments submitted in one week, exam dates creeping closer, yet revision is an uphill battle. I feel like my brain is crammed with so much information but the negative thoughts are constantly convincing me of how unprepared I am. I keep telling myself that this is the hardest thing that I have ever done and that final year is going to be 100 times worse, if I am lucky enough to make it to that point. But then I stop and think…

Where was I this time 3 years ago? I was probably sat in my living room, wearing jumpers, dressing gowns, fluffy socks, trying to stay warm. I was scared to have a shower for the fear of seeing how much of my hair would have fallen out. I was crying walking up and down the stairs because of how painful my knees were, but felt compelled to make those agonising journeys because of the horrible thoughts circulating in my head. I was constantly calculating calories, monitoring my food intake, scrutinising my body. I didn’t care about anything else; I didn’t even care about myself.

It was only when I had a break from revision on Saturday to attend an amazing training day to become an Ambassador for the wonderful eating disorder charity, Beat, that I was able to reflect on where I am today. Travelling back to Sheffield, I was overwhelmed with an enormous feeling of gratitude towards everybody that has enabled me to even be studying at university, let alone all of the other incredible opportunities that I have been able to get involved with!

Being a Beat Ambassador has always been a goal of mine, but for the past two years I have unfortunately missed any of the recruitment opportunities that have taken place in the north of the country. However, this year I was lucky and was quick to apply as soon as the opportunity became available!

As I arrived to the training session, I cannot describe that feeling of meeting and talking to people that know exactly what you have been through. I am sure that a few people are getting tired of hearing me share my experiences of suffering with a mental illness, but honestly I could not care less. When I was ill, the one thing I wanted to know was that I was not the only person suffering with this horrible eating disorder. But I never found that person. I never had that opportunity to speak to somebody that had been through it and had managed to achieve recovery. I didn’t even know if recovery was possible and in all honesty, after 6 assessments before being admitted into hospital, I didn’t even believe that the medical professionals thought I was worthy of achieving recovery. So to be at the Ambassador training day, surrounded by all of these amazing and inspiring individuals, who have all fought so hard for recovery and now want to go on and help other people, I truly felt blessed.

Hearing of all of the opportunities that the role of a Beat Ambassador offers, I cannot wait to develop my skills, meet new people and hopefully help others on a bigger scale. To be able to influence change through campaigning, support the vital work of Beat through fundraising and to challenge the stigma associated with eating disorders through raising awareness, I truly feel like within this role I can make a difference. I am excited to see where this opportunity will lead and I just hope that I can contribute to improving the lives of those that are affected by eating disorders.

13 April 2018

One Proud Moment at a Time...

Last night, Kev (Jess’ Dad) and I travelled to an awards ceremony at Sheffield Hallam University, which Jess had invited us to, and as always, we never turn down the opportunity to go and support her in all of her achievements. We knew to go smartly dressed and that it included a meal, but neither of us were prepared for the high level event that it was.

We are always so proud of whatever Jess does, but last night was on a totally new level, and whilst sat at the presentation it gave me time to sit and reflect on how far she has come.

We were sitting at the Inspirational Student Awards ceremony and our daughter had won one of these prestigious awards. Watching her engage with the staff and other award winners was a pleasure to see, especially when thinking back to our situation 2/3 years ago, when she was extremely weak and isolated, fighting for help.

We sat with staff from the university who were very welcoming, hospitable and engaging, but were also very interested in Jess’ achievements to date and her plans for the future.

When Jess was called up for her award, the lady presenting the award gave a lovely speech about her; some of it was pre-planned but part of it was ‘off the cuff’, based on information she had gleaned from chatting with her during the meal. I could not have been any more proud and I sat there with tears in my eyes; 2 years ago I would never have imagined in a million years that we would be in this position.

I know a lot of people read this blog and I wanted to add this post to say that however hard it is when you are trying to find help, keep fighting, keep pushing and don’t give up. You will come up against brick walls but keep pushing forward. As a parent, carer or family member, you have to fight the corner of your struggling loved one because they are not strong enough. Most importantly, don’t trust what you are told if you feel that there is a problem.

I confessed to Jess a few weeks ago that prior to her diagnosis I had expressed concerns with professionals before a couple of her appointments to pre-empt them, but was subsequently told that there was not a problem, when clearly there was. If help had been sought at an early stage when I had flagged up these problems then we may not have been in the position we found ourselves in. However, we did and now we have come out of the other side.

I hope that by reading this blog, carers will also see that recovery is possible and that it consequently gives hope to others. Eating disorders awareness is increasing, but there is still a long way to go and there is still a lack of resources.

KEEP FIGHTING and you too will one day have the sense of pride for your loved one that I have for Jess in everything that she does and continues to do for her own recovery and rebuilding her life whilst also trying to support others.

Well done Jess!

2 April 2018

Eating Disorders International Conference 2018

I made it! 3 years ago I saw the Eating Disorders International Conference 2016 advertised on a poster at the front door of the specialist eating disorder unit I was voluntarily admitted to at the time. I was desperate to go because I wanted to learn more about the illness I was suffering with, but more significantly, I just wanted to meet other people that would know exactly what I was going through! I knew that the conference was not going to be discussing any magic cures, but I hoped that if I attended then I would at least be able to hear of some positive treatment developments or stories of hope; but unfortunately, the cost of the tickets was so expensive and if I am honest, treatment became so intense that it soon became a distant memory.

Fast forward a couple of years and whilst planning Sheffield Hallam SU Student Minds’ involvement in Beat’s Sock It to Eating Disorders campaign, an advertisement for Eating Disorders International Conference 2018 caught my eye. As soon as I saw the line up of keynote speakers, short papers and workshops I was desperate to go. There were so many amazing researchers, clinicians and individuals with lived experience attending that I wanted to listen, learn and talk to people that are just as passionate as I am about raising awareness of eating disorders. If anybody knows my parents, you will know that as soon as I mentioned the conference, there was absolutely no way that I was not going to be attending. If anybody doesn’t know my parents, then firstly, I am sorry because they are the most amazing people that you will ever meet, but secondly, they believe that every opportunity is just that, an opportunity, which is why they so kindly enabled me to attend!

I can honestly say that I have never left an event feeling so enthused, motivated and fascinated. At the end of both days I walked away feeling so incredibly passionate about this field and wanting to start a career supporting those that are suffering. Hearing of individuals that have spent their whole lives devoted to researching eating disorders, developing treatment methods or investigating the risk factors for developing the illness was awe inspiring; I wanted to thank each and every one of them for everything that they do! I have always been thankful of professionals for their role in my recovery and I think that this conference showcased the role that they have exceptionally well. However, what I thought was the most important message of the event, and what I am going to focus this blog post on, is the role of the carer in the treatment of somebody suffering with an eating disorder.

I am not lying when I say that as soon as I returned to my hotel room, I rang my parents and repeatedly thanked them for everything. To this day, I still have flashbacks about some of the aggressive tantrums that I had or the lies I told them and I feel overwhelmed with guilt. I remember accusing them of putting fat in my food, ‘victimising’ me by serving a larger portion size or watching their every move in the kitchen. It makes me feel ashamed and I cannot imagine how hard I made their life. However, this conference made me put myself in the role of a carer in that situation and although I still felt incredibly guilty, it did make me realise that actually, this was not me and that I was not the only person in the world at that time causing this kind of tension within a household. Whilst on the phone to my parents after the first day at the conference, we actually discussed which kind of animals they embodied following the theories of the wonderful Janet Treasure in her book ‘Skills-based Learning for Caring for a Loved One with an Eating Disorder: The New Maudsley Method’! I think that these kinds of discussions have been crucial in my recovery because it makes me realise that my parents tried so hard to understand what I was going through and that has enabled them to acknowledge that I never intended to cause them any pain, it was just my way of dealing with the horrific situation I was experiencing in my head at that time.

This was actually the second keynote speech of the whole conference, but it is the one that has resonated with me the most- the role of fathers in the treatment of anorexia nervosa. I think my Mum will admit that she really took charge of my treatment, whether that was taking me to appointments or helping me with meal planning. But I think she will also agree that she was a little bit of a jellyfish- too much emotion! This often caused me to become angry and upset, which originally stemmed from the way I was feeling about myself but then Mum’s reaction would heighten everything because I hated the fact that my behaviours were distressing her! So it would often become a vicious circle of escalated emotions, consequently causing me to inflict more harm to myself because I could not deal with everything that I was doing and the impact it was having on my loved ones. However, this is where my Dad comes in…

Dad was a little bit more of a cross between a St Bernard and a Rhino- he was calm and compassionate but did not let the eating disorder win. I will admit, most of the time I hated this because I knew he was right! But I needed this type of support to help reduce my continuously escalating reactions and stabilise my emotions. Even now, I remember a few days before I begged for a bed in hospital, I sat curled up on my Dad’s knee crying and I told him that I could not do it any more. With his arms wrapped around me, he instilled hope in me, whispering that he knew I could. At that moment, that was exactly what I needed- a calm, soothing, familiar voice convincing me that I was going to through it.

Reflecting on the role of a carer has made me think so much more about how important they are in a sufferer’s recovery. I think this has really highlighted to me how much more support carers need to be offered, at all stages! Firstly, they need to be educated about what to look out for and how to deal with starting a conversation about their concerns. Secondly, they need to be well informed about all of the support options available for their loved one and they need to be offered support for themselves! Finally, they need to be aware of what recovery looks like and how they can support their loved one throughout every stage. I think this is so crucial within any support network, not only for the sufferer’s wellbeing, but also for their wellbeing.

There was so much that I learnt at this conference and it would be impossible for me to be able to reflect on every single piece of knowledge I gained. However, I just want to thank Beat and all of the organisers of this amazing conference. Also, I want to give a special thank you to all of the Beat ambassadors and volunteers- speaking to you during the 2 day event has made me feel incredibly inspired to continue with my efforts to support others and raise awareness of eating disorders. I hope I can attend the next conference in the near future!

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