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Shining a light on the reality of eating disorders

Thursday, 18th February, 2016 1:00am

Cork City Hall will be lit up in orange from the 22-28 February to highlight Eating Disorder Awareness Week (EDAW), an international event.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health condition and with approximately 44,000 people suffering with the condition in the Munster region, it’s vital to shed light on the condition through EDAW.

An eating disorder is a condition that manifests in unhealthy eating habits and acute distress about body weight and shape.

Psychologically, people with eating disorders live with a severe, negative, and aggressive mindset, often coupled with depressive and low mood, social or generalised anxiety.

The most common forms of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorders, which can affect both females and males.

Anna, who is a frequent speaker at the Cork Eating Disorder Centre will be talking at the EDAW about her own past experience of an eating disorder.

“I’m recovered three years now, but it all started in 1995,” says Anna, “At the start, I didn’t know what it was. I had never heard of an eating disorder. It wasn’t talked about in magazines so I thought I had come up with the idea and it was just me.

“When my grandmother passed away, I didn’t know how to cope with my grief. My eating disorder served a purpose, it was a sort of coping mechanism for me. When I was younger, talking about feelings just wasn’t the done thing.

“It really started to take hold when I was in fifth year; I always thought I was slightly on the chubby side and I used hide my lunch. As time went on, people began to comment on my appearance,” says Anna. “It was all about controlling my obsession and controlling my feelings, and I didn’t want anyone to see that. I felt I had control over it, and it wasn’t a big deal for me. I hadn’t tried to stop because it was serving a purpose and it had become my friend.

“As the years went on though, it had started to affect many parts of my life and it had grown a dual-face, both friend and mainly, enemy. There was now a nasty, negative voice attached to it which was very abusive and constantly putting me down.”

She continues: “If friends wanted to go out for dinner, the voice would erupt and I would make my excuses. I felt I didn’t deserve to go out and have fun. Listening to that, even subconsciously, you begin to believe it. Even if others on the outside are telling you otherwise, the voice is too loud. It was like being in a bubble and everything on the outside would just bounce off me.

“I was still a student when I first went to a GP. It was my boyfriend who had become concerned, and to keep him happy, I allowed him to bring me to a GP and then, a psychiatrist. I was just going for the sake of going,” she says.

“In 1998, I found a specialised eating disorder clinic in Dublin and I began to travel up weekly for my one-hour session. There’s no quick fix, and even though I was going, I wasn’t ready to let go of my eating disorder. But a part of going, was talking to the therapists who had their own past experiences with eating disorders. I felt understood. The eating disorder wouldn’t allow me to let it go but I didn’t feel alone anymore. My thoughts and feelings weren’t so bizarre.

“During my carer talks, a lot of the parents or loved ones voice their concerns of feeling at a loss, and asked me if the different treatments and programs were helpful. They weren’t a waste because whether I was ready to listen or not, a lot of the things I would’ve heard had locked themselves away in my subconscious and they came out when I was ready,” she adds.

“In 2009, I was admitted to St John of Gods Hospital in Dublin for three months and at that stage, my family just weren’t enough for me to be able to stop. Everything was magnified; if I had eaten a slice of toast, I would think I had put on a stone in weight. I would feel so full and I would look in the mirror and see myself as much bigger.

“I was at the stage where going outside of the house, I would change my clothes over 10 times. That may be normal for any woman but if I managed to catch a reflection of myself in the window or any mirror, the eating disorder would turn on me.”

Anna explains the moment she wanted to change. “By the time I was admitted to St John of Gods, I had two children, aged four and six at the time. One night, I was on the phone to my husband who was doing the Christmas shopping in Smyth’s and we were talking about presents for the kids.

“When I got off the phone, I caught a glimpse of what reality looked like and felt, and just thought, ‘Oh my God, this is wrong’. I was always waiting for an epiphany to happen but there’s no rule book or outright solution. When I stopped waiting for an answer, I found my answer.”

Two years ago, Trish Shiels, the clinic manager of the Eating Disorder Clinic in Cork, already in frequent contact with Anna, asked her if she was in the right place to speak about her eating disorder.

“And I was. It’s really to give hope to people suffering with an eating disorder. I always thought recovery is possible but not for me. It’s talking about what an eating disorder is, and how they work. It’s giving a better understanding to carers and loved ones on things to say and maybe, avoid saying.

“An eating disorder sufferer interprets reality and things differently, but if family and friends are there for them unconditionally, and with empathy, the person is still there and can recover,” she says.

If you would like more information about the upcoming events on EDAW, call 021-4539900, visit eatingdisordercentrecork.ie, or the Facebook page: Eating Disorder Centre Cork.

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