Most of this information will be in various posts on my blog, but if you have just found me and want the potted history, here it is!
I first started to develop an eating disorder when I was about 12, but like many people the eating disorder wasn’t the original or only problem. I had always been an anxious kid – I started having panic attacks when I was about 4, symptoms of OCD at 6 or 7 and I began having palpitations and feeling sick all the time at the age of 9. There didn’t seem to be a psychological reason for any of this. Many members of mum’s side of the family have problems with anxiety or depression and tend to think that it’s probably genetic. Also, when I was a baby I had an undiagnosed milk allergy which made me – in my mum’s words – scream constantly for the first ten months of my life. The thing about trauma which really causes problems with brain chemistry is the high level of anxiety and physiological arousal that a person suffers during and after the event. The fact that I was in pain and crying for months probably had the same effect. Although I certainly don’t feel traumatised by it or resent anyone for not realising what was wrong, most psychiatrists I’ve seen have suggested that my brain chemistry was most likely altered by the constant state of arousal my body was in.
When I was a kid I wasn’t too bothered about my rituals, tics, occasional panic attacks and hypochondria – I was actually pretty happy, as far as I remember. But at 9 our first family dog died, I fell out with my best friend and my year group moved up from primary to middle school, and this was enough to start causing me more problems. I was bullied at my new school and instead of telling someone I internalised it all, believed every word and thought that if I were one of the bullies I’d probably be so disgusted by me that I’d bully me too. I first started thinking about suicide when I was 11 and had a disturbing almost psychotic break at 13, when I thought that my teachers were spying on me and laughing about things I’d said in the staffroom. I think I probably would have gone right over the edge if that had kept up much longer, but instead I discovered that not eating made all that crap in my head go away. It was never about weight. I thought I was ugly, but I didn’t think I was overweight or that losing weight would make me prettier, I just got hooked on how not eating made me feel. I didn’t weigh myself for the first year I had an eating disorder so I don’t know how much weight I lost, but when I started passing out my mum took me to the doctor. I panicked and started bingeing to try and regain enough of the weight to keep what I was doing a secret. As far as I remember it worked – lots of 13 year old kids are a bit underweight anyway, and my GP didn’t think there was anything drastic wrong. But having broken that first episode of restriction I continued to binge periodically, and until I was about 19 that was mostly the pattern that my eating disorder took: I would starve myself, lose 10lbs or so then start bingeing and regain it, then go back to restriction and etc.
I finally asked for help when I was 16. I was having panic attacks at school three or four times a week and self harming quite badly too, and I thought I might not get through my GCSEs if something didn’t change. I saw a psychiatrist who put me on antidepressants for the first time, and suddenly all hell broke loose. I started self harming more severely than ever, I ran away a few times and my BMI finally dipped under the anorexic mark. No one linked it to the medication at the time, they just thought I was getting worse. I was asked to leave school because the head thought I might hurt myself while I was there and then my parents would sue them. Eventually I was referred to a local adolescent outpatient mental health clinic where I started proper therapy with a psychologist. By this time my life was in pieces – I was out of education, no job, no friends and my family weren’t really speaking to me, although I still lived at home. Mum seemed to think that I was hurting myself to get at her, and while I can’t really see how she ended up at that conclusion I don’t blame her for not understanding, because I refused to talk to anyone about how I was feeling or why I was behaving in the way I was.
The psychologist did help a lot, and I began to get out of the house a bit, doing voluntary work, getting a part time job and then reapplying to college. I started talking to my parents again and made some new friends. A couple of weeks before I started college I realised that I felt quite a bit better, more stable and less depressed than I had in ages. I was really relieved – I thought that the worst was over and was determined to make up for lost time when I went to college. Unfortunately I think my enthusiasm clouded my judgment when it came to trying to make friends because, six weeks into my A levels, I was raped by a girl I had met at college and her boyfriend. I reported it to the police but was too scared of them coming back to kill me to press charges. A few months later my psychologist got a new job and my two best friends had their own crises and disappeared from my life. Within 12 months I’d lost my entire support system and was suffering terribly from post traumatic stress disorder. Up until the second of my friends fell out with me I had been trying really hard not to relapse into the eating disorder and self harm, but eventually I gave up, remembering how not eating made me feel numb and distracted me from whatever was going on. I was just getting into dangerous territory with my weight again when I started going out with a boy I’d known for five years. I hate to be a cliché, but that helped so much. I suppose he kind of bullied me in reverse. He told me over and over that I was pretty and clever and fun until I actually started thinking that maybe he wasn’t completely deluded. He was also a pretty good distraction – I spent 75% of my time with him and didn’t have enough time to get lost in my head anymore. He had bipolar disorder so didn’t judge me for the mental health problems, and for a couple of crazy people we actually had a very healthy and happy relationship for a few years.
During the time I was with my boyfriend I passed my A levels and started university in Cardiff. Unfortunately I was still suffering badly from PTSD and couldn’t cope with living on my own so far away from my family and boyfriend. I became very depressed and had to come home again. Determined not to get stuck sat on my ass for too long I applied to a university much closer to home, to study Occupational Therapy. I didn’t really know at the time what OT entailed but I knew it was a job helping people put their lives back together in practical ways after illness or accident, and I really liked the sound of that. I knew myself how keeping occupied, making goals and finding meaning and purpose in my life had kept me going when I had been really depressed. When I started I found that I really loved the course, the placements and the other students. This was probably the first time in my life when I felt like I was an equal to ‘normal’ people. It took me a while to make friends but once I did, we were a really close knit group. Despite my scars I walked around with short sleeves (better people know at the start than get freaked out and stop talking to me later) and after a while the others actually stopped seeing them. I felt like they just saw Katie, another OT student (and a pretty good one at that), not someone to be pitied or avoided, not a crazy girl or a victim. I loved it.
Unfortunately, none of this could cure the PTSD. I was pretty stable for a few months but gradually started becoming depressed again until, eighteen months later, I was having to fight really hard to keep my head above the water. I was back on medication and on waiting lists for therapy. I was still trying not to self harm or stop eating but no matter what I tried to keep myself going, I kept getting more depressed. Eventually I ended up in the local psychiatric hospital for three months. While I was there I had a really bad reaction to the antidepressants I was on and became manic, which was was when my doctor finally realised that they were making me ill. I made a couple of little charts of when I was on meds and the worst depressive episodes and found that I always became far more self destructive and suicidal when I was taking antidepressants. During a period of about six months before, during and after the hospitalisation I was put on and taken off of eight different meds – three different antidepressants, two mood stabilisers, an antipsychotic, a beta blocker and valium. None of them helped a bit, I experienced intolerable side effects on all of them. A couple of months after being released from hospital my digestive system packed up, probably from all the medication. I felt constantly sick, had terrible cramps and spent days on end camped out next to the toilet. I lost a lot of weight because my phobia of being sick meant that I was just too scared to swallow. After a bad reaction to an antiemetic I started getting dizzy all the time too, and it got to the point where I had barely eaten or slept in about three months, and having discovered that the only thing that made me less aware of the dizziness was walking, was doing so for hours every day. I was hospitalised again because I was exhausted and suicidal, and spent my 23rd birthday on a psychiatric ward.
I did actually feel a little better having had a rest and discharged myself after a week. While I was in hospital I weaned myself off of the last meds I was taking. I was still feeling sick and dizzy but it was better than it had been. Still, I continued to lose weight. I had nothing else in my life – I had grown apart from my boyfriend because I had been too ill to leave the house, and he wasn’t very well either, having also become manic after his psychiatrist started him on antidepressants. I tried to go back to university but was too ill to keep up with the full timetable. I felt so disappointed and lost and not eating made me feel safe. It stopped me feeling sick and gave my day structure and focus. Getting on the scales every morning gave me something to get up for every day. Because the phobia of being sick had gotten so bad the degree of weight loss which usually triggered the bingeing came and went – I was too scared to binge any more. I was referred to the local eating disorders services, and after three years of being on waiting lists for therapy for the depression and PTSD, was seen by one of their therapists within weeks. I was diagnosed with various food allergies and intolerances, and after eliminating those foods from my diet I stopped feeling so ill, but by then I was too stuck in the anorexia and my weight kept falling. Eventually my therapist told me that I had a choice between going into the unit a couple of times a week as a day patient, or waiting until I lost another 10lbs and being admitted as an inpatient. I didn’t want to get better but I didn’t know what else to do either, so I agreed to the day programme.
It didn’t really go very well. I gained some weight but I hadn’t wanted to recover in the first place, and after a few weeks I dropped out. I relapsed again and started to wonder where the hell my life was going. It was now May 2008, and I’d dropped out of university after being hospitalised in February 2007 – I’d spent more than a year just sat around at home being ill. On a whim I applied to university to study physics. Now, I can see that it was a bad decision. I was just running away from my crappy life. Still, it gave me a reason to try to gain weight – to get well enough to cope 300 miles away from home, at the university of York.
My target was a BMI of just over 18.5, and my periods, which had been missing for a year, reappeared just before I hit that. It was only two weeks before I was due to go to York, where I’d have no support and no friends – and I freaked out. I decided I couldn’t cope with having my hormones and emotions running wild, and that I should just drop 5lbs or so to get myself ‘back under control’. By the time I left for York in October 2008 I had started losing weight again. It was kind of doomed from the start, really. I did make an effort to make friends but I was terrified of the kitchen (OCD – germs, food I was allergic to) and couldn’t exactly eat pizza or go out drinking with the other students I lived with thanks to my allergies. I got involved in a few societies but I lost weight surprisingly quickly and soon all my efforts were focussed on keeping up with my studies. I did OK up until Christmas. I got 90% in my first term exams, one of the top 3 marks in my year. But over Christmas my weight plateaued and I panicked. When I got back to York I resolved to lose as much as I could, as quickly as I could, with no regard for how it would affect me. I was so sure I could cope. I cut the amount I was eating to a truly ridiculous level, walked for hours every day and night and took herbal diet pills. It actually scared me how little time it took for me to stop being able to function. By early February I had to admit that I couldn’t carry on in York – I couldn’t make it to my lessons anymore, let alone sit through one – and I emailed my mum telling her that I needed to come home.
This is when I started my blog. I was stuck in York for ten days before my parents could get me because there was snow up and down the country and they had a busy couple of weeks, and I was bored (and scared) out of my mind. I couldn’t go out shopping or sightseeing, I was too cold and tired. I couldn’t concentrate enough to read or study, and all I could think about was food. I watched cookery programmes on the internet endlessly, talked to a really good friend who was in a similar situation on MSN, and started my blog. It was the longest ten days of my life. I spent the whole time in my room, staring out the window at all the people walking past on their way to lectures or the student bars, wishing I hadn’t screwed up so badly and that I could be down there with them. I was too ill to feel anything but numb and I was glad, it would have hurt unbearably if I hadn’t been. As it was, all I could think about was the physical pain and food.
I got home and, to be honest, pissed about for another two weeks hiding how little I was eating from my parents. I lost another 5lbs before I was referred back to the eating disorder services. They weren’t much help this time. Having been discharged and relapsed they weren’t prepared to offer me therapy again. The nurse assigned to keep an eye on me said that I could do the day programme again, but I had to start gaining weight before I’d be accepted, both because I was under the BMI they admitted people to the day programme and to prove that I really wanted to recover. I didn’t think I could do it on my own. I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Then something changed. My mum got upset with me one night and it made me stop and ask myself where I thought I was going with all of this. I realised that I could either start trying to get better myself or I could wait another couple of weeks until I was carried off kicking and screaming. I didn’t want to end up in hospital, my health was appalling – I had an infection in my digestive system, serious nutritional deficiencies, my immune system was as weak as someone on chemotherapy according to my GP, I couldn’t sleep because I was so hungry, I was getting suicidal from the wonky brain chemistry caused by malnutrition. I decided I’d had enough. Really, truly, honestly, totally enough.
And that is where this blog really began to take off. Everything that has happened since early March 2009 is here. I am now absolutely committed to recovery – I’ve gained the weight back, my health is much better, I’m getting out there again and rebuilding my life slowly. I mean to recover fully this time. I’ve burnt my anorexic jeans. I’ve made recovery revision cards and a relapse prevention plan. I reached my target weight in January 2010, quit calorie counting a month later and managed to maintain through intuitive eating for the last year. I’ve started volunteering for a local ED charity, giving talks in schools and universities, and I am training to become a counsellor. I am going to have a happy, healthy, stable and fulfilling life. Watch me 🙂