World Mental Health Day. We seem to have a day for everything – Star Wars Day, National Doughnut Day, or even International Sheep Day. But this is one day with an important meaning. In fact, mental health is so important we should be aware of it every single day of the year.
Major depression is now the second leading cause of disability worldwide. And allow me to put this on the table – pun fully intended – 725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder. 10% of those are male. And I am one of them.
Considering it took three years to share this with anyone the actual figure is probably much higher. I was amazed at the response when I first shared this in my blog earlier this year, so here we are again. If it helps one person, then to hell with the stigma. I have nothing to be ashamed of. The intrusive thoughts of eating disorders thrive when hidden so it’s time to let them burn in the light.
After two bouts of depression it was five years ago when my binge eating disorder and bulimia first crept in. A long-term injury had forced me out of running, training and outdoor exercise, and the frustration led me to look for other means of control and escape. Sadly that meant severely restricting my diet instead. Such a bohemian regime isn’t sustainable for long and quickly turned into binge eating, where I would rapidly down thousands of calories (usually sugary carbohydrates) like a ravenous animal in desperation to comfort my woes. This problem became a much bigger problem once I discovered I could literally “have my cake and eat it too” with bulimia, which basically involves purging or throwing up the “bad” food afterwards. Of course, this ‘solution’ is totally wrong. Eating disorders have you trapped in a toxic and dangerous cycle which is wired into your brain and unbelievably difficult to break.
You see, nowadays I’m running again, stronger and faster than ever and completing major challenges like my record-breaking Climb The UK this summer. I earn a sustainable income from my speaking career at just 22 years old, and everything is going right… so you might question why on earth I still get stuck with this chip on my shoulder? Well, me too. I feel somewhat a fraud that this cycle of behaviour still manifests behind the scenes. This condition sabotages every bit of confidence you have and earn. Two Everest attempts seem irrelevant.
Eating disorders are more than just teenage girls trying to look thin. Diets aren’t just weight loss. Food becomes everything: a pleasure, an addiction, a number, a weight, a stress, a failure or a punishment. Good days are manageable and with the help of exercise and training, you can enjoy ‘normal’ meals. On bad days, food dominates your entire life. Sometimes it strikes without a cause or explanation. Just because it can.
At worst, your full day is controlled by food. Meals must be planned with logistical precision in a delicate balancing act to prevent a full-on binging episode. You can spend an entire week worrying about what you’ll eat at the weekend or the event you’re invited to. Routine is essential but all it takes is a trigger food and your brain goes into overdrive. One voice urges you “Do it!” and drowns out the reasonable voice that knows what will happen if you give in. “Might as well finish the lot now. You can try again tomorrow!” it says again.
No matter how much you promise never again, you’re quickly out of control again and looking at yourself red-faced in the bathroom mirror in disgust and shame.
You learn to manage the behaviour on a day-by-day basis and what to avoid. Sugary food is scientifically shown to be highly addictive to anyone, so that knocks any silly argument of willpower or being ‘more disciplined’ on the head. Certain occasions like family meals and Christmas can become your worst nightmare. To the family around you, all of this seems like a pointless game: nowadays I even have to prepare all of my own meals separately. Even my recent holiday to Italy was controlled by food. Could it not just leave me alone for a week?!
It’s been a while since I’ve known it, but I’m sure we all feel guilty for eating too much, bored snacking, or having one too many chocolates now and again. It’s natural and healthy to enjoy occasional treats. But bulimia totally throws the balance out of the biscuit tin. Training helps, but sometimes it only complicates the situation. I’ve never had the heart to refuse innocent gifts of chocolate/sweets from friends, but nowadays I have to bin them immediately before they trigger an episode. Having ‘just one’ might not be achievable yet, but one day, it will.
There’s this public image of the perfect man. Having eating issues isn’t seen as the manly thing, of course. Perhaps men are expected to self-medicate with lager and fags before calorie counting or skipping meals. But this ‘get over it’ macho mindset is dangerous. Men and women are equally human with the same emotions to deal with, in our own individual ways. If mental illness is a sign of weakness, I’d like to see one of those blokes down the pub cope with cycling alone for 18 hours of torrential rain and headwinds…
Another difference between depression and bulimia is the readiness to speak out. Although the stigma is far from perfect, depression seems more common and widely accepted in society. As time went on I started telling more people about my struggles. With bulimia the usual response was one of shared discomfort: scratching their neck, looking away and quickly changing the subject, or ignoring you completely. This is one thing that must change.
Did you know that up to 10% of people with eating disorders will die from it? Sufferers know this – and in their lowest points probably don’t even care. People are literally dying to be understood.
Equally, I don’t want to put off others from speaking out. Because speaking out and seeking help is overall a positive experience. Telling someone might not offer a radical cure. But however scary it may seem, it’s the first and most important step to recovery. Whilst nobody may truly understand without being there themselves, we often get so tangled in our own thoughts that we can’t see the wood for the trees. But a problem shared really is a problem halved.
I’m now working with a nutritional therapist and slowly unravelling the negative thought pattern – because it can be un-learnt. Best of all are the friends who offer an ear when needed: something I wouldn’t have found without telling anyone. Together we celebrate the good days, and they get me through the bad days. Hiding this condition might seem easier than facing it, but that’s exactly what the demons want us to do.
Through the darkness, life does get better. It’s hard to visualise what’s around the corner… think about some of the biggest moments of your life – how many of them did you see coming?
It hasn’t stopped me achieving my purpose in life. In fact, it’s become a gift to use for helping other people. In the long run, I believe that any mental illness makes us more resilient for the stresses of life, and more compassionate people, so we’re better able to understand and help others around us. In todays’ world that cannot be a bad thing.
Mental illness might feel like a battle but the important word is just that. Because so long as we keep fighting the battle, we cannot be defeated.