8 October 2017

One Comment at a Time...

As written back in May 2016...

Being a woman, it is impossible to avoid conversations about food and body shape; they make an appearance in almost everything we talk about. What is being planned for tea, where we are having a meal out at the weekend, or a new flaw we have discovered on our body; it is inevitable that these topics form the basis of most discussions.

As somebody that has been very sensitive to these subjects in the past, I have established an increased awareness of the frequency that the topics occur in everyday life. If it is not communicated in people’s conversations, it is plastered across various media sources, and these are aspects of our life that we cannot escape. In the depths of my illness, I chose to isolate myself as a form of avoidance from having to hear or see anything that could cause me any further distress; but this proved to be impossible. It seems that restriction was the ultimate goal for all elements of my Anorexia, most prominently seen in my diet, but also in my social interactions. The fear of discussing food, diet, exercise or body shape was overwhelming, and the rapid changes in my mood swings could have seen an absurd response to any comment or question, regardless of whether or not it was directed towards me.

Throughout my ongoing recovery I have questioned what I was trying to achieve by avoiding the previously mentioned topics of conversation. Was it the fear of being caught out by other people about the lifestyle and choices that my Anorexia was prompting me to make? Or was it due to the difficulties I had in actually discussing food, particularly regarding the acknowledgment of enjoying a certain meal or snack. In each instance, I can see that the origin of my fears was the prospect of letting my Anorexia down. The anxiety and complex emotions that came with doing something that went against everything my eating disorder was telling me was just so incredibly overwhelming, that I did all I could to satisfy it. This is why recovery is so difficult.

Attempting to rebuild my social life, starting back at work full time, and discussing my mental illness have all thrown challenges at me regarding listening and talking about the previously delicate subjects of food and body shape. ‘I am so full, I don’t think I am going to eat tomorrow’, ‘I should not have eaten that chocolate bar, I am so fat’, ‘I am allowed this biscuit, I am going to the gym tonight’ are all examples of just a few of the comments I have heard. Now, for the people that have said these remarks, it may not have had any significance or meaning to them whatsoever. Chances are, the person that said they wouldn’t eat the following day undoubtedly did; the person that ate the chocolate bar was not fat; and the person that ate the biscuit probably didn’t go to the gym. But I now want to detail how these comments translated in my head. ‘I don’t feel full, does that make me greedy? If they aren’t eating tomorrow, then I definitely shouldn’t!’ ‘Well if they think they are fat for eating a chocolate bar then I am never going to eat one’, ‘So if I eat a biscuit then I must go to the gym. What about that cookie I ate last night, I didn’t go to the gym after that, should I go for an extra long walk tonight?’ These are just some of the thoughts that go through my head, even now at this stage of my recovery. I hope now you can see why avoidance of certain conversations was so vital in attempting to prevent my already weakening condition.

Strength, self-belief and rationalisation are key when trying to reduce the impact that certain comments can have on a sufferer’s mental state and behaviours. Avoidance and weakness, although difficult to challenge, are not helpful in the recovery process. I battle everyday with the conflicting thoughts in my head that ricochet after hearing a passing comment, but I have to learn to deal with it. I do not want to live my life being scared to engage in conversation for the fear that it may ignite the emotions, feelings and behaviours of my Anorexia. I must continue to cement the work I am completing with my dietician and psychologist into my mind, and silence the voice that still believes holds all of the power to rule my actions.  

1 October 2017

One Return at a Time...

So here I am- a second year nutrition and public health student at Sheffield Hallam University! I was going to write “I never thought I would be saying that!” but the truth is that I always knew I would. Obviously, I knew it would ultimately come down to my results from first year and that was an element that I had to leave to the judgment of the academic tutors; but there was no doubt in my own mind that I would be returning to complete this course. Throughout the long summer my motivation heightened, my aspirations developed and my confidence soared.

As I mentioned, the summer was long, but I think there is no denying that I tried to utilise my time effectively. A 4-week work experience placement with the Nutrition and Dietetic Department at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust was the first of the opportunities I planned. This experience was a challenge considering the last time I had been in a hospital setting was when I was being discharged from the eating disorder service, but it was an incredible opportunity that I never expected I would gain so much from. I was allowed to shadow dietitians from all departments, work on health promotion activities and develop information resources for various departments. I truly felt like a member of the team and that the work I was producing was genuinely appreciated! I developed so many skills, knowledge and respect for those that work within the NHS. I made the most of every chance I had to gain the most from the placement and I am so grateful for all of the guidance, support and time that the staff within the team dedicated to helping me succeed with this goal.

Two weeks later and it was time for Bali! I am not going to regurgitate my previous blog post, but my goodness this was a journey, both personally and professionally. I had the time of my life, yet now that I look back even then it fuelled a determination to return to university and get engaged with the introduction to public health module I have during second year. This is an element of university that I love, the ability to explore subjects that you may never have considered as being applicable to your desired career path. Similarly, it allows you to use your personal experiences to bring a deeper level of understanding to a topic that you cannot gain from a textbook or journal article. These are all aspects of university that people tend to overlook, and something I wish I had told myself before! This time last year I was petrified about the core scientific modules on the course and felt that this was going to set me right back, but in fact, what I lacked in scientific knowledge, I made up for in passion, motivation and a desire to succeed. This all links back to one of my previous triggers- a focus on academic success. Before my journey to recovery, I would have absolutely dismissed the opportunity to apply for this course for the fear that failure was inevitable due to my shortage of scientific qualifications, yet I took that step regardless of every thought that told me otherwise. After seeing the deprivation in rural Balinese communities, I have returned from my travels acknowledging that if the children in those populations can excel fighting against every social and economic barrier that they face, I can continue working on my self-awareness to excel fighting against every mental barrier that I face.

Welcome Week pretty much confirmed that my determination to make the most of my three years at university did not subside over the summer break. With stalls at the Societies Fair and Feel Good Fair and a range of Alternative Welcome Week events, we got straight to work with promoting Sheffield Hallam SU Student Minds- and raised £42 for Student Minds! It was tiring, but to see people engaging with all of the work we had done over the summer and making the effort to join in with our events was absolutely amazing. In my mind, there is nothing that I enjoy more than seeing individuals enjoying the resources and activities that we have worked on. We said right at the beginning stages of starting this society that if we can manage to just make one person happy, then we feel that we have done our job- and I think we have made a good start in achieving this goal. We still have a long way to go in reducing the stigma around mental health and encouraging people to develop skills to benefit their mental wellbeing on campus, but for now, the knowledge that so far we have 40 members that are passionate about doing this and helping others is more than I could have expected!

After a week of fairs, trampolining, ice skating and gaming, I was not expecting the wake up call I experienced this week with a very thorough introduction to what was to come in order to achieve my degree qualification. Essays, lectures, assignments, presentations, placements- you name it, I heard it at least 6 times. Undeniably, a wave of doubt swept across my mind about why I had returned to study for a second year, but I reflected back on those very same thoughts I had this time last year when I arrived at university. Every thought convinced me that I could not do this, but I proved to myself that I could, and I can. Yes the modules are different and this year ‘actually counts’, but I really want to be able to apply myself to the university experience like I did last year. I have acknowledged that I need to be more conscious of the roles that I get involved with, but it was those roles that made my first year the incredible year that it was! I also believe that it was those roles that aided me in my recovery and restricted any possibility of relapse, because they provided me with the confidence, social interaction and motivation I needed through those inevitable difficult days.

This year is going to be tough and I know that. There will be days when my negative thoughts will sense vulnerability, possibly achieving the impact it desires, and I know that. The course is probably going to expose me to more potential triggers and I know that. But I live in a house with four amazing girls, have an incredibly supportive network of friends, and have the strength, support and love from my family. I have no idea how this year will toy with my emotions and effect my behaviours, but I need to trust myself and my awareness of signs that things are going wrong. But don’t let me fool you that I am not in a positive frame of mind! I am ready to learn, enthused by the potential for Sheffield Hallam SU Student Minds and want to work on the personal and professional skills I developed last year. I am starting the way I am determined to go on!