'RealCovery' (an honest piece on eating disorders by Alex Young)
The following is written by the beautiful Alex Young, a fierce woman and lovely friend.
Unless you’re severely under-weight and at risk of your heart stopping due to serious malnutrition, eating disorders are often overlooked. People can suffer with issues relating to food and exercise at any weight but unfortunately, there aren’t enough resources out there to properly support those experiencing eating disorders.
My name is Alexandra Young and I’m 22 years old now. A few years ago, when I was 19 years old and in the depths of my illness, I read about National Eating Disorder Awareness Week and I told myself that one day, I would tell a story of my own success in gaining my health back. Now, my goal is a lot bigger. I don't just want to be a survivor of an eating disorder, I want to make a change in the ways in eating disorders are seen, taught and treated.
In order to bring this illness to the public's attention, I have become a media spokesperson for BEAT, the UK’s leading eating disorder awareness charity. They call upon people like me to talk to the press about our experiences. So far, I’ve spoken on BBC radio a number of times, been featured on a BBC investigative TV news piece and helped with the research of a Channel 4 documentary, Wasting Away: The Truth About Anorexia.
I have also written to the Minister of Health and the Minister of Education to ask for their support in providing information in schools for young people to get help with eating disorders.
In my letter, I outlined the severity of eating disorders in the UK. The number of people in the UK who reported to be currently suffering from anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder is over a million and many more go un-diagnosed. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rates among all psychiatric disorders and the recovery rate for sufferers is just 50%. Eating disorders are said to cost the NHS £15 billion each year.
These statistics are, however, just that. The people who suffer from eating disorders are not and cannot be treated as just numbers. They cannot be treated in relation to the amount they weigh, or the number they are on a waiting list determined by the extremity of their suffering.
As a young woman who has both suffered and overcome an eating disorder, I speak not for everyone, but with a certain level of experience with the system. Having always been a healthy weight and brought up totally oblivious to the horror of eating disorders, developing one myself during an extremely stressful period of my life left me completely lost. The feeling of control I had over my weight through what I ate and how much exercise I did was addictive. While at first I was praised for my change in shape, told by family friends that I looked great having 'finally lost the baby fat', people soon stopped complimenting me and turned to worrying about my mental health. I couldn't stop counting every calorie I ate and would beat myself up if I hadn't burned more calories then I'd eaten each day. Knowing I needed help was never an issue. Getting the help I needed professionally was, however, practically impossible.
I was repeatedly turned away by my GP when I addressed the beginning of my anorexia and was desperate for help. First I was told to ‘snap out of it’. Then, after a few months, my symptoms worsened. My fingers and toes were constantly ice cold. I grew lanugo all over my body, basically a thin layer of fur-like hair which the human body produces to adapt to an extremely low fat percentage in an attempt to stay warm. I lost my period. I went back to the same doctor and was told that there was still nothing 'medically' wrong with me and I was advised to buy cashmere to keep warm. It was only when my body weight had dropped from 65 to 40kg in the space of 4 months, I was told by the GP that I was ‘lucky’ enough to be eligible for treatment. Getting treatment took a long time and even with the state my body was in, dietician’s appointments were months apart. The CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) I was offered to help tackle the triggers of my disorder was unable to go ahead as my BMI was too low and the treatment was only able to be given to those of a healthy weight.
Without the unconditional strength and support that I was truly lucky enough to have from my family and friends, I am confident that I would not have survived. Knowing that they were there for me and that them having to see me in the skeletal state I was in was so difficult for them made me want to get healthy again. Every single day was a fight against my own mind.
Having larger portions of food that I hadn't been eating before was mentally challenging to begin with but there wasn't a meal a didn't sit down and eat with my parents during my recovery. They constantly reassured me that I was doing the right thing and that gaining weight was entirely positive, despite the whole of society being focuses on the success of weight loss. Being reminded of the things I could do in life when I regained my health was my motivation. I wanted to go to university, to be able to go out with my friends, and enjoy sport again. After just a few months, I had regained my weight and although there are still days when I want to restrict my food intake and lose a bit of weight, I think about how far I've come and how much I can do now that I couldn't last year and I wouldn't change that for anything, never mind losing a few kilos.
As young men and women, we are constantly bombarded with images of extremely thin people through the media, photo-shopped or not, and there is so much pressure to be a small size. We need to be taught to love ourselves and take care of ourselves. One positive thing I have found about sharing my story with friends and even mutual friends is that they are now much less inclined to starve themselves to lose weight. Having seen the state I got myself in through extreme restriction, they are choosing not to go for 'quick fix' diets to change their appearance.
My fear is for those who develop an eating disorder and don’t have a close network of people who care about them and will fight day and night to get them better. With the over spending and extensive waiting lists, we cannot fully rely on the NHS to provide prevention and help for eating disorders.
That is why I think that we need to introduce classes to be taught in schools to educate young people about the aforementioned illnesses. 14-25 year olds are the most affected group and the percentage of male sufferers is rising as well as female. Informing those who are likeliest to suffer from eating disorders on the signs and symptoms of its beginnings and where to go to get help before their health is seriously compromised is crucial. Whilst I acknowledge that schools and colleges cannot provide enough support to prevent every case of an eating disorder progressing, I strongly believe that a more in-depth teaching of these illnesses and the ways in which those who are worried about the issues around the illnesses can receive advice will lower the number of sufferers.
There is a need to raise greater awareness about eating disorders and the best place to start doing this is with young people. They need to know that they are not alone and that the best thing they can do is speak to someone and get advice and support.
If you feel like you could do with talking to someone about how you’re feeling about your body or your relationship with food but are unable yet to open up to those around you, I cannot recommend BEAT’s website enough. Please know that you are not alone and that things can get better: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/
To connect with Alex find her on Instagram @Alex_yng.