Have you ever wondered how anorexia nervosa impacts daily life?
As the majority of my readers will know I’ve suffered from Anorexia Nervosa since I was a young girl. Although I talk about recovery and how to help yourself and others, I’ve never actually gone into detail about what it’s like to live with Anorexia Nervosa.
My Life With Anorexia Nervosa.
Anorexia Nervosa came into my life shortly after I entered high school. That’s where it would stay at varying levels until the present day. Officially I’ve been diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa for over fourteen years, unofficially it’s closer to sixteen. I’ve never quite known where it began or in what order. It’s a chicken and egg scenario. What came first; depression, anxiety or the eating disorder?
That’s the thing about eating disorders; They never exist alone. Depression and anxiety will usually co-exist due to an imbalance of hormones, depletion of the body’s nutritional needs and the ill effects of malnutrition. Or like me, you may be stuck on deciding if they were already there in the first place.
Either way, it doesn’t change the tremendous struggle that it takes to live daily alongside an eating disorder.
For a long time, I was unable to separate myself and the Anorexia Nervosa. It was mine, it was a ‘She’ and together we were perfectly happy. After being in quasi-recovery for over four years I decided to call her up in late 2018. I called because I needed to feel anything other than perpetual fear, crippling self-doubt and ‘FAT’. At the time I was working in a very stressful work environment that in hindsight wasn’t right for me. I was pushing myself to the absolute limit and still falling short. But I knew anorexia, I’d danced with the devil before, and I was damned good at it.
Before weighing up the potential dangers (for which there were many), I was out buying a scale and determined to succeed! I’d be the thinnest I’d ever been or I’d die trying.
Dealing with physical and mental impacts.
Anorexia Nervosa has taken a lot from me not only as an adult, but also as a child. I’ve lost my teenage years, relationships with friends and family, missed out on social events, lost confidence and most importantly, I’ve lost myself. The trauma caused by Anorexia Nervosa has left me so damaged that in December ‘18 I suffered from a breakdown. In hindsight, it’s not surprising considering the pressure I’d put myself under. Consequently, this meant that I could no longer work and so I was signed off on sick leave. *I’d later leave that job in June ’19 after the death of my grandfather.
Anorexia and the impacts of such can become so complex that it can be difficult for non-sufferers to understand. So, in order to cover all areas and to keep it simple, I’m going to keep this relatively short. This is by no means a definitive list nor is it true of all those who suffer from anorexia nervosa.
My memory has been severely impacted.
Although I was completely unable to focus and retain basic information while actively starving myself, I’ve found little improvement during recovery. When I was working I could barely remember driving there. Now I find myself relying on one-too-many alarms just to remind me to eat or take medication.
My short term memory is by far the worst. I find myself having the same conversations with my partner over and over until he’s exhausted trying to explain that we’ve talked about it already.
It never ceases to amaze people just how quickly I can forget something.
The depression and anxiety can be crippling.
I’ve suffered from low moods and anxiety for years now, possibly before the eating disorder. But the depression and anxiety that co-exist with anorexia nervosa leave you in a horrible, horrible place. The anxiety keeps me up at night, while the depression begs me to sleep. I’m exhausted all the time because my body isn’t getting a peaceful sleep and the anorexic routine keeps me fixated on a waking time between five and six in the morning.
Then there are the dark, dark moods that I can find myself in. Sometimes there’s a tell-tale build-up to these bleak periods and other times it just hits me like a train.
“I’ve been completely floored by depression, making it difficult for me to find the motivation to even get out of bed, never mind feed myself.”
It’s getting easier with the help of weight restoration, therapy, and medication, but it’s certainly still a present concern.
The anxiety comes in many different forms. First, there’s the persistent fear of food, especially ‘fear food.’ My anxiety is severely triggered by things like milk, bread, chocolate or foods which are normally perceived as ‘bad.’ Anything involving these, especially when I have to eat them, can send me into panic mode and possibly a panic attack.
Secondly, I mentally and physically find it difficult to leave the house without my partner or someone I know. Throw food shopping into the mix and the anxiety increases tenfold. I simply can’t do it. Even when I do go shopping with my partner I let him choose the food items while I browse the non-eatables.
Thirdly there’s the fear that surrounds cooking. I haven’t cooked in months, possibly years, as a result. The idea of separating, weighing, chopping, simmering, etc just terrifies me and I’ve no idea why. I used to cook all the time when I did my GCSE’s. Although also suffering from anorexia at the time, I took great pride in my altering meals to suit and then cooking them.
Finally, there are the physical impacts.
I suffer frequently from heart palpitations due to low potassium and an irregular heartbeat caused by many years of self-induced vomiting and starvation. These come and go and can often be coupled with anxiety.
After a long period on my feet, or even just after a simple, routine walk, I suffer from severe muscle cramps and joint pain. In recent weeks I took a trip with my friend to Ikea and was kept awake all night by cramps traveling from the soles of my feet right up to my upper thighs. I put it down to the increased level of activity which I’m both not used to and not particularly allowed to do according to my treatment plan.
It’s not unusual to suffer from joint pain as the cold weather approaches. My fingers tend to swell up and my feet turn gray due to how cold they can become. I also suffer from lower back pain and shoulder pain almost constantly.
“The impacts of anorexia nervosa can vary from person to person, and symptoms change daily. Some days are fine, while others can be unbearable.”
Truthfully unless you’ve suffered from an eating disorder, it’s hard to understand it. Quite often people see food as being the main issue when in fact there is deep, underlying trauma that needs fully hashed out and treated in order to reach a place of recovery. I personally attend treatment one to two times a week on varying days. This can change depending on my level of commitment and what I’m able to handle as therapy can be grueling. Even after nine months of treatment, I am still nowhere near ‘recovered’ and in fact, it may take many years to reach a place of normality.
The sad fact is that the majority of those with anorexia nervosa never recover, and more people die from eating disorders every year than any other mental illness. Yet the public understanding is that anorexia recovery is simply a case of refeeding and then you’ll be cured. I’ve heard the words ‘just eat something’ uttered to me on one too many occasions and it’s simply infuriating.
Public awareness and understanding of all eating disorders, not just anorexia nervosa, needs to be improved. The services for treatment are also in dire need of improvement, however, with limited NHS funding and a lack of Northern Irish government, this is unlikely to happen in the near future.
March 2nd marks the beginning of Eating Disorder Awareness week, a cause very close to my heart.
During the time I urge you to educate yourself on the various eating disorders out there, and the help available to you and your loved ones. In the UK and Ireland, funding for things such as eating disorder treatment is at an all-time low. I know of many people from Northern Ireland who have had to travel far from family, friends, work, and school in order get the treatment they need. This not only costs a great deal but also removes them from the safety of their support networks.
Please consider donating to your local eating disorder charity so that they can help provide volunteers and support for sufferers and their families.
*I should note that this was written months ago. I’ve since begun a new job and even started to cook again (while also enjoying it). The anxiety is still very much there, as are the heart palpitations and muscle weakness but I suspect they may never leave. Recovery is still just that; Recovery. I am still in it and I may be for the foreseeable. But I am happy to report that many things have improved since writing this.