I developed anorexia and OCD when I was 13. There were different reasons for it; but change was a big part.
As a child, I knew who I was and I knew where I fit. Now, I didn’t. My grandfather died; we moved house. I was bullied at school and I started puberty. These changes weren’t outside of ordinary experience; but to me, they felt huge. The outside world had broken in. And I picked over the wreckage of my old self.
We heard on the radio about a terrifying new virus called AIDS. It killed you, but no-one knew how you got it. So we washed our hands and spoke in whispers. We swallowed our fears, but, bitter, they kept repeating.
Externally my body was a leaking, weeping mess of hormone and flesh. Internally I was also spilling out – questions, hungers, anxieties and fear. What did it mean to be a woman? What did the future hold? No-one knew. There was only one certainty – the world was not safe. So I stopped swallowing fear and food. I built a new world, using my bones as bricks. And as it shrunk, so it seemed, did all the mess.
An eating disorder doesn’t start as a problem, though it quickly becomes one. To the sufferer it’s a solution – to fear and pain and uncertainty. For young people in particular, it exercises a dark and powerful magic.
There’s very little you can control when you’re 13. Except your own body. And as our culture reminds us, that body is everything. Carve it up right and you’ll be accepted. Clean up the mess on the outside – and the inside will follow.
Of course, much has changed since I was a teenager. We know more now about eating disorders. We’re fluent in the language of body positivity and mental health. This is Eating Disorders Awareness Week and campaigners have been working hard to educate and to provide support for those affected. They’re doing a brilliant job. But despite this, the numbers are rising.
A recent study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found the Covid pandemic has had especially “strong and wide-ranging” effects on people with anorexia and bulimia nervosa. The UK’s leading eating disorder charity, Beat, has seen an 81 per cent increase in calls to its helpline since March 2020. In the same period, hospital admissions for bulimia, rose by 75 per cent. Across the UK, referrals for treatment are up roughly 40 per cent – an increase typically seen over the space of two years. Children and young people are particularly at risk.
Dr Simon Chapman (Consultant Paediatrician, King’s College Hospital and South London and the Maudsley), writes:
Dr Nancy Bostock (Consultant Paediatrician, The Croft Child and Family Unit, Cambridge) add:
For many young people, lockdown has acted as a trigger for existing or new EDs. Concerns include isolation from peers during school closures, changes in normal routine, supermarket shortages (anxiety around food availability triggers the need to starve) and the desire to stockpile foods (especially difficult for those with binge-eating disorder or bulimia). Added to this a greater emphasis on health/fitness, exam cancellations, loss of motivating extra-curricular activities; increased use of social media concentrating on unrealistic ideas of body image; being forced to quarantine; worries about families’ economic problems; illness or death of loved ones, and fears about contracting the virus…and you’ve got a perfect storm.
A Way Out
But there is a way out. My story is one in which the Lord joined me in the midst of my storm to say “peace, be still… Be still and know that I am God.” (Mark 4:39; Psalm 46:10). It’s been about learning to live in my body and with my desires. It’s been about handling my deeper hungers, my anxieties, my need for control, my shame, my anger and my despair. It’s a long journey—decades long—but one that’s taught me so much about my God, myself, how to love and how to live. I have seen it in myself and I’ve seen it in many around me: there is hope.
So if you’re struggling, talk to someone. Below are listed some helplines which you can access anonymously. But if you can, why not tell someone you know and then, together, you can access the help that is there.
If you live or work with young people, let’s keep an eye out. Let’s talk about fears and anxieties, making it as easy as possible for others to confide in us. If you’re concerned, the helplines below will offer advice. Early intervention can make a huge difference.
The Beat Youthline is open to anyone under 18: 0808 801 0711. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Beat Adult Helpline is open to anyone over 18. Parents, teachers or any concerned adults should call the adult helpline: 0808 801 0677. Email: email@example.com
A helpful booklet on coping with EDs during the Pandemic (free to download)