We’ve been very privileged at mapem to work with a number of different medical students and spread their message out. Two absolutely inspirational girls include Sophie and Ella…and this is their story…
I’ve always been pretty open about my eating disorder with my nearest and dearest, but posting it online for the whole world to see is a big leap. So hey there to anyone who’s reading this who’s seen me around medical school/my friends from home, my secrets out!
A thing that always surprises me when I tell people is how shocked they are; ‘I never would have guessed’, ‘you hid it so well’, ‘I can’t believe I didn’t notice’… Ive heard them all. Well that’s the problem with mental illness I suppose, your head doesn’t get labelled ‘broken’ and put in a sling. The only people that know are the ones you choose to tell… and maybe the unfortunate soul who hears you being sick in a public toilet, sorry to them. But let’s be honest, who would want to be open about mental illness with all the stigma that surrounds it? Who wants to be labelled an attention seeker, or wants to be told they’re making it up? But Im not ashamed of my story, so here goes..
Unlike Ella, I’d never really thought about mental illness, which is ironic looking back considering how immersed I was in it from an early age. When my parents divorced aged 11, off to a therapist I went, when my ‘invincible mummy’ was battling depression, I was there to cuddle her demons away, I’d seen programmes on the TV and heard stories about friends of friends, but I was happy, it wouldn’t happen to me and so I didn’t think about it.
Around 2009 I began restricting what I ate, I can’t remember how it began but by the end of 2010 I was limiting myself to 500 calories a day. Ideally no breakfast or lunch, then a can of tomato soup and toast with a low calorie hot chocolate and biscuit for dinner. I was losing weight at a surprisingly steady pace, nobody knew, everyone congratulated me on how good I looked, I started getting more male interest (embarrassing) and I was loving life. Around this time, I met a guy and we began seeing each other (I promise this is relevant). I started to associate being happy and loved with losing weight. In my head the more weight I lost, the happier I would be, the more everyone would love me – win win right?
Not really. In 2011 my boyfriend of the time cheated on me. In hindsight we were nothing serious, it was not my fault he cheated, nor was it his fault that it was a trigger for my illness – I think if it hadn’t been that event, it would have been something else. Nevertheless, I spent the next week in a bit of a haze, talking to my best friend about how skinny the ‘other girl’ was and automatically assuming this is why he chose her over me. It was this week I first entered the horrible binge purge cycle. I came home from a long day and instead of having my usual soup and toast I raided the chocolate cupboard. I don’t know how much I ate that first time, Im sure it was nothing compared to the binges I would eventually end up having, but it was too much. I was disgusted at myself, had ruined everything, how would I ever be loved again when I was a fat pig, I deserved to be cheated on… these horrible thoughts swam in my head until I had an idea to undo it all and regain the control. I made myself sick.
In the beginning you’re in control of bulimia, but quickly the tables turn and you’re a slave to your illness. What had begun as a clever trick to eat what I wanted and lose weight, quickly controlled my life. In the end everything I did was ruled to some extent by bulimia, I no longer had control over how much I ate. Food became a compulsion. Its hard to describe why I binged or the feelings I felt during one, a meal may start off normally but half way through eating Id feel numb, lightheaded and shaky. I could feel adrenaline coursing through my body as I began to eat faster and faster, not pausing to properly chew or even taste what I was putting into my mouth. Id stagger over to the fridge like an alcoholic, but my drug was food, and eat anything I could get my hands on – trying to fill the emptiness inside me. Eventually my binge would become so large it was physically distressing keeping it inside me, and so purging was as much a physical release as it was an emotional one.
These binges would happen at any time without warning, I had to leave my sixth form reunion because I quite literally couldnt stop eating the food on offer to the point I spent an hour being sick, pretending I had to phone my mum. The day my Dad found out about my illness was after Id been stuck in a binge and purge compulsive cycle for over 2 hours, had missed the only bus to get to the train station and ended up ringing him sobbing on the floor of the landing, unable to move because of the pain my stomach was in. Fast forward 5 hours and I was back in birmingham at my uni groups social pretending I was the happiest girl alive.
Anyway, back to the story. In 2012 I told my mum, it’s hard to make excuses for enough food to feed a small family disappearing from the fridge everyday. In July of 2013 before I went to university my weight had dropped to below 7 stone, and I wasn’t getting any better on my own despite all my/ family/friends research and support, so I went to my GP. She seemed concerned, noticed the russels sign on my hands (scars on your knuckles from repetitive purging) and said she would refer me ASAP. I never heard from them again until October, by which point I had convinced myself I obviously wasn’t sick/ill/thin enough to warrant help and had moved to university. Turns out my referral had been lost for one reason or another, but they forwarded me the letter a consultant psychiatrist had sent me and I broke down. It showed real concern, suggestions of things that could help and advised the doctors to perform an ECG to check my heart was okay. But in my eyes it was too late, I’d tried to get help and failed.
Me in my first year of uni vs me now – 2 stone heavier and 200x happier
Then the day before my 1st year January exams I was sick 6 times, I hadn’t been able to revise all Christmas as I couldn’t stay in the house alone without becoming trapped in a binge purge cycle, I had 2 panic attacks the night before, couldn’t face breakfast and after my exam I went straight to the gym to punish myself with cardio, at which point I predictably fainted… Twice. (Not the kind of exercise we’re aiming for with Muscle Mind I can assure you). I went to the GP again, this time I was referred to the Barberry mental health centre and put on the waiting list for CBT which would start the next year, I began taking 60mg of Fluoxetine, which I’ll discuss another time, and with the help of Ella I started to see the gym in a different way.
You see, even when I had been thinking about exercise all wrong, the gym was the only place I ever saw my body for what it really was. There I felt strong and resilient, I saw a body that could run when needed or lift when required and it was the only place I felt proud of it. With Ella I stopped spending hours punishing my body with cardio; we would gossip whilst walking, have fun trying to squat with the big guys in the weights area, relax whilst stretching and always say how happy and refreshed we felt after a fun workout. All hail endorphins.
A combination of many things have helped me on my path to recovery, and Im still not there; Im currently 1 month purge free after 6 months previously (my longest streak since year 11)! I wouldn’t be where I am without the help of my family, friends, the therapists in my CBT group, my 2 monthly ‘hows things’ psych chat and my medication. But I really believe that finding happiness and self acceptance through different types of exercise was a turning point for me. Its something that I could do without any help or reliance on anyone else and there were no year long waiting lists or lost referrals. Talking to Ella about her experience with exercise made us realise how similarly it had helped both of us when we were struggling with our mood, even though we had different illnesses.
A bit of investigation and we found a sea of research papers calling for exercise interventions to be used in mental health treatment alongside therapy, NICE guidelines recommending exercise be offered as ‘standard’ advice to anyone with depression, exercise sections on Mind’s charity website etc. Where was all this information when we needed it??! That’s where Muscle Mind comes in. We want to create an accessible platform for information and advice for anyone struggling with a mental illness, whether its themselves or a friend. All types of exercise from stretching to walking need to be promoted for the amazing therapy they are, and we want to combine that with a place for stories to be shared, inspirational interviews and information to help anyone and everyone.
I really hope this post has helped you to understand what Muscle Mind is about, and made you think about mental illness. Thank you for reading my story, and to all of my friends and family who have supported me through everything.
To quote Kaci Diane,
“I love the person I’ve become, because I fought to become her”