22 July 2016

What Can Happen In a Year...

I just want to apologise in advance if this transformation image has a negative impact on anybody, but I just wanted to prove to myself, and everybody else that is suffering with Anorexia, that recovery is so worth it. Do not get me wrong, it is the hardest battle I have ever had to endure, but I think that after looking at this photo comparison, I can safely say that it is worth it. It scares me that I had no idea that I looked like this and could not understand why everyone was making such a big deal about my health. However, I can only thank those people now for raising concerns when I was completely oblivious as to what damage my illness was causing. I am proud of how far I have come, but I am more than aware of how far I have still to go.

21 July 2016

One Need for Control at a Time...

My eating disorder is primarily driven by the need for control. As my illness progressed, this became an absolute compulsion in all situations. Food products, meal preparation and timings were gradually manipulated, to ensure that I had control over all aspects of scenarios surrounding food. I have no idea where this stemmed from, but I presume it has a definitive link to my perfectionist traits, as well as feeling as though I had no control over other situations, such as my problems at university.

Initially, the control over products, meals and timings went seemingly unnoticed by my family and friends, as I had always taken an interest in cooking. However, I quickly began to divert from the meals that they were having and preparing my own. Family meals such as spaghetti bolognese and fishcakes were swiftly replaced by very plain meals, usually consisting of a protein source and vegetables. The idea of sauces and manufactured products, with potentially hidden ‘badness’ incorporated into them, absolutely petrified me. Worried that I was going to raise suspicions about my individual meal preparation, I started cooking ‘healthy’ meals for the whole family- without adding certain elements to my own plate. With time, I started to weigh everything that I was eating as well. Weighing all products when they were dry and again when they were cooked- just to make sure it was ‘exactly’ what was stated on the nutritional information label on the packaging. The measuring was incredibly precise- not a gram over. This was all feeding into my desire for control, and when I did not, this caused more distress, manifesting itself as very bizarre behaviours.

When I did eat a meal that was prepared by another person, whether that was a family member, a friend or at an eatery, my entire demeanor changed. I became a shell- controlled entirely by my Anorexia. Staring at the plate, I would completely zone out from my surroundings. I was unable to communicate- fundamentally focused on how I was going to eat what had been presented in front of me.

With no idea of the substances that have been used to prepare the meal, but knowing that I have to eat it, my desire for control revealed itself in the way that I ate it. Only now looking back I can see how extreme they must have looked, but at the time it felt completely normal and justified. I do not want to go into too much detail, as I do not want this to have a negative impact on sufferers that may be reading this. However, I do want to educate others about the severe behaviours that an eating disorder can display.

Initially I would separate everything on the plate, making sure that no foods touched each other. Particularly with sauces, this was very difficult, but I tried my absolute hardest to make sure that the liquid did not ‘contaminate’ another aspect of the meal. Once this part of the preparation was carried out, I would then begin to chop up each element. Again, as my illness became more severe I began to develop an obsession with numbers, and this meant that certain food items had to be cut into a certain amount of pieces before I would consider eating them. Squares- everything had to be cut into rows or squares, for example a slice of toast or even a jacket potato. These behaviours were heightened in hospital, as I had no knowledge about what I was eating, and in the beginning stages, I had no involvement in portion sizes. This was incredibly distressing for me, and more ritualistic actions surfaced, which even to this day I am struggling to shake off.

When I returned home from hospital we had to buy new cutlery and crockery. This was because I had become obsessed with a specific bowl, plate, knife, fork and spoon. My parents and I knew that the only way to overcome this would be to discard them and purchase a new set. I know that lots of people have favourite items that they like to eat with, but I was so fixated on them that my mood swings would become extremely turbulent if my routine was in anyway disrupted.

With the new utensils introduced and the weighing scales tucked away, I found it very difficult to maintain the control that my eating disorder desired. This caused havoc with the negative thoughts and feelings in my head, and my emotions became extremely varied. I found it very difficult to trust that what I was doing was ‘correct’. Not having a professional there to prompt me as to what was right or wrong, I felt an enormous amount of guilt, as the responsibility about what I was eating was ultimately mine again. There was also the agonising need to not display my emotions, or take them out on my family members, as I was incredibly upset about what I had already put them through, prior to my hospital admission. However, this helped me a lot during my transition from hospital, to Evolve, to home. Instead of channeling my frustration through behaviours I had developed whilst eating a meal, I managed to control my anorexia by eating the meal ‘normally’, including engaging in conversation, and then discussing my anxieties afterwards. It was this method of communication that I had not been able to carry out before, and being able to pinpoint that, with the support of my family, has helped me a lot during my recovery. I also want to stress that at this point I am also a lot healthier than what I was prior to my time in hospital. Consequently, I am able to rationalise situations a lot better, as my brain is not deprived of any vital substances that it needs to function properly. I noticed this dramatically when I started to reintroduce ‘old’ foods back into my diet at home, and I was able to talk myself through the reasons why I needed each aspect of the meal. This is a complete contrast to the way I would have approached it before- viewing it as a project that I had no choice but to finish.

Writing about the extent to which my eating disorder pushed me in order to gain control has been difficult to reflect on. Thinking back to the lifeless person my anorexia led me to become upsets me. I think of all of the valuable family time I have missed out on, purely because I could only eat a meal if I completely absorbed myself into my destructive behaviours. It has proven to me just how important nutrition is when making people think rationally about situations. It is this deprivation that I believe heightened my desires for control. Building on the perfectionism traits and inability to communicate problems, this was the only way I felt I could have stability in my life.

14 July 2016

One Family Occasion at a Time...

With my family dispersed all over the country, seeing close relatives is a rare, yet hugely special occasion. Recently, I have had the pleasure of making the journey down south to see two sides of the family for two separate events. Now when I say that seeing my family is a special occasion, I am thrilled to say that both of these instances were made all the more joyous, as they were for two very beautiful weddings.

Being invited to witness the marriage of two exceptionally happy couples was a wonderful experience and something I am incredibly thankful to have been asked to attend. It has been a long time since I have spent a weekend away and it be filled with nothing other than happiness, laughter and love- then two happened within the space of two weeks! Yes, there was the usual challenges that cropped up, but I am recognising now that I have the strength to push them to the back of my mind and enjoy the moment. This was made all the more easier as I was greeted with some very kind comments about my appearance, my personality and my presence. Hearing positive remarks about myself is something that I do find difficult to absorb, but with my recent realisation as to where I was both mentally and physically this time last year, I allowed myself to accept the compliments as apposed to fighting them off.

The anticipation of the first wedding was a little overwhelming for me at first. Of course I was excited about the day’s events, however, there was lots of niggling thoughts that I found very difficult to ignore. Unsure of the timings, food situation and the setting, I decided, along with my family, that it would be best to be very prepared for the occasion. To make me feel as comfortable as possible, we did take with us an array of snacks and even a sandwich, just to make sure that I was well nourished throughout the day. I was initially very concerned about what people would think about me bringing my own food, but deep down I knew that it was the only way to make certain that I was going to sustain my energy levels throughout the day. Unsurprisingly, the anxiety built up in anticipation was far more significant than the anxiety throughout the duration of the day- as I am coming to realise is always the case! However, with this being the first wedding I had attended in a long time, let alone since I have been ill, I was not prepared to take any chances. As everyone queued up for the hog roast, I collected my sandwich from the cooler bag and placed it on my plate to eat with the other guests. I do not eat pork anyway, so the hog roast would not have even been an option, but as I made my way to the salad bar, I did see a variety of vegetarian options that I would have been more than happy to try. I think that after attending this event, it is important for me to realise that people really do not care. I sat and ate my sandwich alongside everyone else and not once did anybody comment, ask questions or make me feel uncomfortable. Granted it may have been because everybody knows about my condition, but in all honesty, I really do not believe that people are bothered about what everybody else is doing. When you are sat in a beautifully decorated teepee, with wonderful music and family to talk to, even I can say that the food I was ingesting became a seemingly insignificant factor.

As day rolled into night, I remember becoming incredibly relaxed. I do not know if it was because I felt as though the main challenges were over and that I could enjoy the rest of the evening, but I recall experiencing very limited negative thoughts. In fact, they were so limited that I did something that at any other time would have probably had a substantial impact on my mood and behaviours- I accepted a piece of the wedding cake. Lovingly made by my cousin, this beautiful cake had sat in prime position at the entrance of the teepee and as it was cut, I was excited to try a piece. It was delicious and although I experienced some guilt, as soon as the band started and the music captured my thoughts, the negativity just seemed to drift away. Gazing at the dance floor and watching everybody enjoying dancing away, an element of the ‘carefree Jess’ stepped in and I made my way over to join them. I had a truly wonderful day and am so grateful to have been asked to attend such a special day. I learned so much from the event, not only with regards to dealing with my problems, but more so that there is nothing better in life than experiencing love and happiness.

As the weekend of the second wedding approached, I felt surprisingly relaxed. After a very positive psychologist appointment earlier in the week, I realised that I had so much more to look forward to in life than dwelling on what should be a lovely weekend. The problem is, my frame of mind means that I always see the negatives that could potentially occur. I constantly think about the worst-case scenarios, even if I know that there is nothing I can do to ‘solve’ them. Again, this wedding was the perfect opportunity to reconnect with family, possibly meeting some relatives that I have never seen before, which although I was incredibly excited about, I was worried about how I looked and how I would behave. I knew that there were going to be a few occasions where, if I were just with my close family, I would typically deal with the situation by shutting down and completely avoiding conversation; becoming totally absorbed in my thoughts. However, as usual, the anxiety built up through the mental preparation for the potential of some ‘horrendous’ scenarios had no presence during the entire event.

Boarding the beautiful vintage double decker bus to make our way to the church, I was incredibly excited to by immersed in another magical wedding. Unaware of how long the ceremony was going to be and having had breakfast a few hours before, I recognised that this journey would be the perfect opportunity to eat a snack. I glanced around the bus, quickly realising that nobody else was consuming any food and the fact that I had even considered a snack did encourage feelings of guilt and greed to ricochet through my mind. After a lengthy debate within my own head, fighting between the thoughts of why I need the nutrients and ‘why I do not need the calories’, I asked mum for the snack bar that was in her clutch bag. As per usual, once the battle was over, I was absolutely fine whilst consuming the snack- even engaging in conversation. I knew I needed it, I could feel my body beckoning for the sugar as my hands started to shake.

A particular moment that I realised this may become an issue was during the reception when the three course meal was being served. The anticipation of the social situation, being around people that may not know my problems, being presented with a plate that contained food that I had not known about prior to it being served- in my head it became the foundation for an exhausting battle. However, I found that this was not the case. At this point, I was genuinely hungry and I think that had a huge impact on how I confronted the dish in front of me. Instead of having time to debate about what to choose, what is the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ meal to pick, analysing what everybody else was eating; the decision was made for me. I am not saying it would have been what I would have necessarily picked, but I ate it because my body needed nourishing. No nasty behaviours crept in- I still engaged in conversation, I still made eye contact and if I am honest, I was looking around for the next course! The main was a struggle, as it was meat that I do not like, but as I cannot stress enough, I already had a back up plan prepared. When the fantastic speeches were over and the room was cleared for the band to set up, I headed back to the room for a replacement meal- cereal and milk. Maybe not the nutritious and wholesome substitution, although, it was something I was comfortable with and in terms of calories, it was enough to fulfill its purpose. As we headed back down to the party, I felt refueled, calm and, as much as I believe the word doesn’t exist, normal. With my body nourished, my mind became clear of all eating disorder related thoughts, which had a hugely positive impact on me socially. I spent the evening chatting away to family members and learning about my past- it really was a special night.

Attending these beautiful events has truly made me think about my personal goals for happiness. Seeing two couples wonderfully content in each other’s company was inspiring. Saying their vows, it was as if they were encompassed in their own bubble, seemingly oblivious of the witnesses present in the room. It was a magical spectacle- free of judgment, uncertainty or fear. They have found their perfect match- somebody that makes them feel special and worthy, somebody to support them and encourage their dreams, somebody to make and share beautiful memories with. I can only hope that one day I may find somebody that will be the perfect match for me.

7 July 2016

One Anniversary at a Time...

Thursday 16th July 2015- the day I walked through the door of Rharian Fields Specialist Eating Disorder Unit as a voluntary inpatient. Emaciated, desperate and exhausted; I admitted defeat to a long battle with my mind and my body. Unable to live a life without the torturous effects of my eating disorder, it was time to pass on the responsibility of my care to the 24/7 aid of the hospital.

In the weeks prior to my admission, I remember nothing other than tears, fear and despair. Every day was a horrendous battle, not only with my head but also with my family and health professionals. I fought so hard to avoid the notion of hospital admission, but it was inevitable. Curled up in the chair during my final assessment, I sobbed- begging for a place in hospital. I could not do it anymore. I wanted to live my life, but this was not how I wanted to live it. Stripped of my ability to drive, my family holiday to Italy cancelled and my knees making me weep with every step; this wasn’t life, it was existence.

So with the anniversary date approaching, how do I feel? At first, I took the self-criticism avenue- a failure, unworthy of the care and riddled with guilt. Why? Why do I always resort to finding the negatives of a situation? Is it because it is easier to put yourself down than to acknowledge praise? Well, as the anniversary dawns, so does a shift in my mindset.

Leaving my psychologist appointment this evening, I was filled with happiness. Reflecting on the state I was in this time last year and where I am now, I recognised just how far I have come in a relatively short space of time. My physical health has improved dramatically, my mental health has improved enormously and my ability to live an ambitious and fulfilling life has improved considerably. Yes, it has taken a long while to get to this point- 7 assessments, 4 months in hospital, 6 weeks attending a day patient service and fortnightly GP, dietician and psychologist appointments- but it has all been worth it to get to where I am right now.

To celebrate the occasion, I decided to buy a gift from me, to me! Flicking through the Pandora book, I came across a beautiful charm that was labeled as representing ambition. I knew immediately that it expressed exactly how I wanted to remember this past year- a year of determination, but also how I want to live the rest of my life. Naturally, my motivations in life have changed. Ask me a few years ago and I would have told you that my ambitions in life were to achieve academic success. Ask me now and I will tell you that my ambitions are to be healthy, happy and generous.

This past year has been the hardest experience I have ever had to endure, but it is something that I never want to forget. So as the 16th July 2016 arrives, I will not mark it as a day of sadness, desperation and hopelessness. Instead, I will mark it as the beginning of the rest of my life- a day of strength, discovery and most importantly, pride.

1 July 2016

One Research Study at a Time...

The ongoing development of treatment options for eating disorders is something that I have always been curious about. At the start of my own treatment, I was under the impression that the only way you can recover was to have self-motivation. I tried multiple different options to get better from mindfulness and CBT, to educational and self esteem groups. I guess that is the major positive of inpatient treatment, is that you have the time and resources to be able to find a method that works for you. I have found that for me, there is not a specific method that works just perfectly for me, but a combination of a few. Patience is not a strong point for me when it comes to my recovery; hence I still find myself searching that ‘miracle cure’- even though I know it doesn’t exist.

So how did I feel about the receipt of an email inviting me to take part in a research study, with the potential of informing new treatment methods for eating disorder sufferers? I think curious would be the word- with a hint of scepticism. I read the email a few times and pursued my curiosity by replying inquisitively about the nature of the study. Obviously, the question at the forefront of my mind was if participating would impact on my own recovery. However, I could not help but become fascinated by the possibilities of the study, in terms of learning more about the way my brain functions or the future of eating disorder treatment.

Following my reply, I received a detailed explanation of the study and its aims. 

The research is being conducted by Sarah Trufhitt- a psychology student at the University of Hull. The title of the study is 'The Effect of tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation) on Body Image Perception in Eating Disorders'. The task is focused on exploring the activity of an eating disorder sufferer’s brain, to investigate how they perceive their bodies. Using prior knowledge about both sides of the brain, the study aims to examine the possibility of balancing out the activity levels to improve body image. 

As I have previously mentioned, I have struggled a lot with my body image, even more so in my recovery. It was inevitable that my body was going to change as I became healthier, yet I did not expect the turbulent relationship I would have with my emotions regarding my shape, size and weight. Particularly after the difficulties that I experienced on holiday, with regards to my conflicting observations about my body in different situations, my interest in this study heightened. I am becoming increasingly frustrated with the way I perceive my body and feel that improving this aspect of my illness would have a significant impact on my recovery. Plus, I thought that even if the study didn’t have a positive impression on me, it might inspire the creation of a new treatment method that could positively change the lives of others. Therefore, it may come as no surprise that I agreed to take part.

From what I can gather so far, the study involves the application of small pads that conduct a non-invasive current to the front of my brain, to look at the perception areas of how we decide our body image. I will then take part in a computer task, which involves me judging where I think my body image matches the one on the screen. Following the first session, I will then take part in another 2, around 3-5 days apart.

I am not going to lie and say that I was euphoric about the idea of an electrical current pulsating through my brain, but my curiosity and optimism about the study seemed to overrule my fear. An important aspect of my recovery has always been to find reasoning behind why my eating disorder makes me experience things in the way that it does. Therefore, the possibility of finding a logical explanation for my difficulties surrounding body image may help me to firstly accept it, and then work on it with the help of the support around me.

Monday evening will be my first session taking part in the study, so fortunately I have not had time to question my decision! After plenty of supportive reassurance, I can say that I am looking forward to simply taking part in the experience and more importantly, feeling as though I have contributed to the future of eating disorder research.  

Sarah is looking for female participants aged 18 and over who have previously, or are still suffering from an eating disorder, or who have high body concerns which affects their daily life. If you would like to get in contact with Sarah to discuss the study or feel you would be a suitable candidate for involvement, please email her at sarahtruf@gmail.com