In aid of this year's Mental Health Awareness Week (16th-22nd May), Sophie writes about her experiences of Orthorexia and what that taught her about the relationship between mental health and the self.
When I found out that the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week 2016 was ‘relationships’, I felt that it was something that I couldn’t write about. My family and friends are incredibly supportive and I’ve never been in involved in anything abusive romantically. But then I started thinking about the relationship I have with myself, and how that relationship has caused me to suffer with my mental health and self-worth. I started struggling with depression at the age of about fifteen or sixteen, so this is something I am able to manage and monitor. However, in my second year of university, I experienced something other than that. And that ‘other’ was in the form of an extensive battle with disordered eating.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this began: I generally say that it started in May 2014, as I lost quite a lot of weight in a very short space of time by eating very little and over-exercising. Once I’d shed a few pounds, I had the bug- nothing was going to stop me getting the body of my dreams. Then, in the following September, a messy break up with my long-term boyfriend led to my self-worth and confidence plummeting. I started on the Protein World ‘Slender Blend’ meal replacement plan, which turned out to be the worst, and most dangerous, thing that I could’ve done. I developed Orthorexia, which fed into bulimia and binge eating.
The funny (or very unfunny) thing is, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing to myself. I thought that it was normal to come home from eating something ‘bad’ and do hundreds of exercises in my room to try and burn off the calories. I thought that having protein shakes was great, because protein’s what makes you lean, right?? Wrong. I was harming my body beyond belief, blinded by seeing the number on the scales drop, and basically starving myself. Despite thinking and worrying about food all the time, I was living off little more than 700 calories a day. It’s very difficult to explain exactly the way I was feeling to someone that’s been lucky enough not to experience an eating disorder. I was utterly fixated by everything I was consuming, constantly researching ways to lose weight faster, forever staring at my body in the mirror and despising every little thing that I saw. There were no good bits, there was no ‘oh, my arms look alright today’, there was nothing. Nothing but this shroud of negativity, so powerful that it was pushing both my brain and body to their breaking point.
Nearly two years have passed since the beginnings of my eating disorders, and it’s still something that I struggle with. I’m a million times better than I used to be, but in extremely stressful situations, I find that it’s very easy to slip back into my old habits, as food sometimes feels like the only thing I have control over. I urge anyone that has even the slightest feeling they may have a problem with their relationship towards food or their body image to seek some help. Tell a friend, family member, support officer at school or university. I think that there is a common misconception with eating disorders, in that we often picture someone that has an almost skeletal figure. I did not look like that (in fact, I got quite a lot of compliments from people telling me how great I looked for losing weight!), but that doesn’t mean that I was in any way healthy. Admitting that I had/have a problem and talking about it with other people (or writing it all down on my blog) has helped me a huge deal.
‘The most important relationship that you’ll ever have is with yourself’ is something that’s said a lot, but is far too easily forgotten. Treat yourself nicely, respect yourself and give yourself the love that you’d give everyone else you care about. You are what matters, and your relationship with your body should be happy and healthy.