‘You’re not thin enough to be anorexic. Do your parents argue a lot? Are you getting bullied at school?’ an NHS counsellor once asked me. As an unwell teenager, who was hiding food and cutting calories, this was fuel to my anorexic fire – a medical professional telling me I was still too fat. It would be another year, (and another three stone) before I reached dangerous territory – pounds away from being admitted to a ward, I was finally part of the thin club, and I was terrified.
Of course, pointing the finger of blame at one ill sighted counsellor is unfair, nothing in life is that black and white; yet I always wonder how, or why, she missed the warning signs. In aid of World Mental Health Day, it’s important to see anorexia for what it is – not the attention seeking ‘women’s disorder’ it’s perceived to be, but a fully fledged illness, with the power to ruin lives.
Since it’s discovery in the nineteenth century, anorexia has been stigmatised as the ‘fasting’ of white, usually middle class woman, in order to stay thin. In reality, anorexia accounts to less than 20 percent of eating disorders in the UK; illnesses which affect both males and females, of all ages and backgrounds. Akin to other mental health issues, this is not a one size fits all problem. It’s not something you can always see from the outside, (not all eating disorders are classified by extreme weight loss) and it won’t be something the sufferer will readily admit.
In my experience, by the time people started noticing my weight loss, the anorexia was so ingrained in my brain, I didn’t care. I had been living with my disorder for years before I entered I was ‘thin enough’ to be diagnosed. Anorexia had damaged my mind before it even started on my body.
So how do we change things? Beat, a charity I will always support, praise (and run marathons for), believe in early intervention and changing the medical guidelines for treatment. It turns out I’m one of many sufferers to receive such treatment; in fact a third of UK health trusts recently surveyed still use BMI as a criteria for diagnosis. Moreover, anyone who has lived with an eating disorder will know it makes you a master of deception – ‘yes I ate lunch, no I’ve not lost weight, honestly, I’m fine’. If you’re a good liar, in the hands of a GP who doesn’t have the relevant training, you can all too easily slip through the net.
Things cannot and will not change overnight, but the more we talk, support and campaign for a better system, the less lives we will lose.