Carrie Mitchell, 30, from the UK, is owner of interiors store The Joinery Shop. She tells us about her battle with eating disorders
It’s difficult to know where to begin when talking about my history with eating disorders. I wish I could pigeon-hole it to a brief period in my teens, but even though that’s when it all started, I continued to suffer from disordered eating for half of my lifetime since then. Nevertheless, I guess the best place to start is at the beginning.
I was a happy, carefree child in many ways, but I believe I was predisposed to developing an eating disorder – in hindsight, all the signs were there. I remember preferring my Cindy to my Barbie doll because I liked the fact I could see her ribcage. I was five. I remember complaining to my mum about how my thighs spread out when I sat down. I was seven. I remember feeling a tiny bit special when the school nurse picked me out for being a bit underweight. I was nine. I think all I needed was a trigger and when I was 11 my small world as I knew it fell apart and I began to eat less and less.
As my parents went through a difficult and angry break-up that led to a bitter divorce, I found solace in controlling the one part of my life that I had power over: what I ate. I began to lie every day to those I loved… pouring a trickle of milk and a few Coco Pops into a bowl in the morning so it would look like I had eaten breakfast; telling my increasingly worried school friends that I had eaten a huge breakfast and so couldn’t possibly manage lunch that day; persuading my mum that I had eaten dinner before she got home.
In the meantime my diet eventually consisted of a fat-free yogurt and two wafer biscuits a day. As I lost more weight and further restricted my food, the lies and manipulation became more frequent. I hated myself for what I was doing and this reinforced the path to self-destruction.
But I thought if I could achieve physical perfection, which in my anorexic mind was thinness, I would become perfect on the inside too. It was a vicious cycle.
Two days after my 12th birthday I was admitted to hospital, diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. I had never heard of the disease before, but weighing a little over four stone (25kg) and with a dangerously low BMI of less than 11, the doctor had immediately admitted me after a family meeting organised by my concerned dad. Much of the next four years is a haze of various therapies (everything from psychology to hypnotherapy), hospital admissions and a cycle of forced weight gain, weight loss and readmissions. I was routinely discharged when I reached a target weight, but as soon as I got home, the weight loss would begin again and I would be readmitted when I had lost the weight I had gained. Anorexia had a firm grip on me. And then, shortly after my 16th birthday, I was admitted with a heart murmur. There was no space on any of the wards I normally went to, so they had to put me into a geriatric ward. I looked around at the frail, elderly people and thought ‘What am I doing?´ It was like a light switched on.
I was young, I could be healthy and I knew I didn’t want to die. It seems strange that after four years of failed therapy, something finally just clicked. That night in hospital I ate the hospital meal without any coercion and continued to eat the next day and the next. I didn’t look back and had two blissful years of enjoying being a teenager. I bonded with my friends again and tried to catch up at school as I had missed a lot. I sat my exams, got a part-time job and loved living my young life free from the clutches of anorexia.
It wasn’t until I was 18 and in the first year of university that disordered eating reared its ugly head again. Little did I know it, but this time it would plague me for the next decade. I had moved away from home to a new city and into student accommodation. Although I made a few friends I didn’t really click with anyone. I also didn’t feel good enough to be studying at university. I felt like an unworthy fake and in my sadness and loneliness I found comfort in eating large amounts of food. The physical fullness felt almost like a hug. But guilt soon hit and the only relief I could get would be to make myself vomit.
Once again, the feelings of disgust grew as my habit grew in frequency and I was soon back in a destructive cycle of self-hate. I told my mum the first summer I went home and she took me to the doctor, but as I wasn’t dangerously underweight like I was with the anorexia, I was told to come back in six months. So I bought a self-help book, did the exercises and through the following three years at university, I slipped in and out of bulimic episodes. Often months would go by where I had a normal relationship with food and was happy enough. Although I was still bulimic, it was manageable and didn’t control my life.
This all changed after I graduated and spent the summer backpacking through India before moving to Dubai. Whilst in India I lost some weight and this coupled with being in a destructive relationship, plus sadness and loneliness, once again triggered increasingly frequent bulimic episodes. I went to great lengths to keep it a secret and, when my relationship ended after a few months of being in Dubai, although I felt liberated, I was already trapped in a bulimic cycle of bingeing and vomiting.
Over the next five years I was a slave to bulimia, enjoying a few periods of respite between all-consuming periods of purging, but managing to hold down a job and socialise with friends in between. For a city that is buzzing with people from all walks of life and with such an active expat community, Dubai can be a surprisingly lonely place. With its transient nature and somewhat superficial social circles based around nightlife and brunches, I never opened up about my battle with bulimia to anyone. It was easy to never let any of my friends get close enough to have to. But it was lonely.
When I met my husband Imran in 2011, I was pretty much convinced that I was so imperfect I was unlovable. I would try to shut him out with the walls that I had built up around me, but each time I did, he would just show his love for me more and, eventually, with his openness and warmth, he broke down my barriers and slowly helped me build my self-esteem. Over the first few years of our relationship the bingeing and purging episodes gradually lessened until eventually they stopped altogether.
Today, I would say I have a healthy relationship with food. I enjoy it. I eat what I want when I want and I don’t eat my feelings. But I would be telling a lie if I said I was completely happy with my body. There are always going to be these images of perfection blasted through the media and there’s always going to be someone who is prettier, curvier, skinnier with better hair, better skin, better teeth...
I don’t believe anyone is really immune to that, but it’s all about perspective. I gave birth to a baby girl this spring, and when I hold her I can’t help but marvel at what wonderful, incredible things a woman’s body is capable of. It’s ironic to think that the same body that I spent 14 years denying nourishment to is now providing her with the nutrition she needs to grow. I have a new level of respect and awe for my perfectly imperfect body.
When I hold my daughter in my arms, it hurts me to think that she might ever hate her body for not fitting in with the ‘ideal’. When I feed her it breaks my heart to think that she might ever refuse food, or abuse food, in an attempt to achieve perfection on the outside because she feels imperfect on the inside, like I did. I am committed to raising a daughter who has the confidence and the conviction to respect, cherish and nurture her body to be strong and agile, valuing what it is capable of and not how it measures up against a standardised notion of beauty. I am also committed to raising a daughter who is able to talk about her feelings and her difficulties rather than dealing with them alone. Just how I am going to do that will be a learning curve, as I know you’ve got to practise what you preach.
So I guess that’s where I’ll start.
Jes Body, 28, from New Zealand is a personal trainer and in great shape. However, she has struggled with eating and body issues since she was 13
I would say every woman has had a disordered eating pattern at some point in their past. This means having complexes about the way you eat and your body and nutrition. My female clients often ask me to help them with their diet and I always ask them to keep food diaries. So I find myself talking to women about food and about their emotions related to food quite regularly.
If we don’t talk about it, their issues and complexes can hamper their fitness and body results. I have had experience of this myself so I know that if you don’t deal with these issues, they can really mess with your head.
For me it started when I was 13 or 14. I was putting on weight for the first time and, simultaneously, I was going through some pretty heavy emotional family stuff. I felt awkward about my weight gain, so I started doing the Weight Watchers plan with my mum and I took up running. The weight started dropping off… I ate less and ran more. I became very anxious about my eating and my running… I would freak out if I couldn’t go for a run one day. I would go out running in any weather, no matter how tired I was. And I would play games with myself to see how little I could eat in one day. I lost a lot of weight and was looking gaunt. My grandmother noticed and asked me not to lose any more weight. In about a year I went from 58kg down to 46kg, and my periods stopped.
My mum took me to the doctor, who asked me to keep a food diary, which I lied in. I was very anxious and I knew I had depression, but I lied about that too.
It carried on through my teenage years. When I was 20, I went to Japan for a few months. I was still very thin and had no muscle and I went to the gym every day.
Back in New Zealand, I started working in a gym, training to be a fitness instructor. I got really into it and realised that nobody would take me seriously as a trainer if I was this little underweight chick. So I started learning about nutrition and started succumbing to the idea of my body having muscle.
Over the next two years I became passionate about gaining muscle and got into physique competitions. I ate five or six times per day and trained once or twice a day. The first competition I entered was in Paris and I won every category that I entered, which fuelled my competitive streak. I let it consume me and didn’t let anything else interfere with it.
When I moved to the UAE, I started training with a highly recommended trainer who was having lots of success with women in the industry. But he didn’t seem to understand my body... I relented to his control (against my better judgement), and I started to put on fat rather than muscle.
One month before a big competition we were training for, he dropped me. I pulled out of the competition because I wasn’t in good shape and, mentally, I was exhausted. I had worked so hard and had done so well, and now I was at the bottom.
I took myself off to the Maldives for a week to get my head together. While I was there I at first felt anxious about eating the wrong things, or having a glass of wine. But then I decided to let it all go and to start eating and training intuitively... and it worked. The weight came off and I felt more grounded and happy in myself.
I had been through such a horrible experience... you can push yourself to extreme points when you have a fitness, or body weight, goal in mind. But I’ve learnt that you need to be kind to yourself. If you are ill, it’s OK to ease off. If you have had a big weekend, it’s not the end of the world.
Would I go back to competitions? No. I think it brought out more disordered eating and training patterns than it solved. I still run, but not as much... and not exclusively.
Running is such an emotional form of fitness because at the end you feel physically, mentally and emotionally spent. If you are emotionally distraught and you go for a run, it clears the mind. But at what point does it turn from being a healthy outlet for your emotions to being an unhealthy obsession?
Another issue for health- or fitness-obsessed people is that if you are not eating enough and you are over-exercising, it wrecks your metabolism, so it becomes easier to put weight on. So whereas if your life was a bit more balanced, you could probably get away with eating a piece of cake every now and then, now you can’t.
I can see it a mile away if a woman has disordered eating. I wouldn’t always say it’s an eating disorder. But it’s a disordered approach to eating and training... which sometimes means too much order and control.
Every single one of us has fat phobia in varying levels. At the end of the day, you are the best gauge of yourself and your body. Our confidence can be affected by what we see in the media and we can start to believe that the images we see are what we have to strive for.
Because of that, women can get addicted to cardio, which is also destructive and obsessive. If a woman is really into cardio, I would advise her to be careful as it’s not a healthy approach to fitness.
I can see now that both phases of my disordered eating life were very extremist. I am very goal-orientated... It was just two different goals and therefore two different modes.
Now I am so much more balanced. I’m not in fear about my body shape changing. I can enjoy myself without being worried about the impact on my body. I learnt from what happened and I made a conscious decision to live a more balanced life and to heal emotionally. Now I make the effort to check in with myself and work out what I need. Do I need a workout, or a stretching session? If I am stressed and hormonal and feeling exhausted, a massive workout will boost cortisol, which I don’t need at a time like that. What I probably need instead is a stretching session, or a yoga class or a walk. I listen to my vibe and decide what will be best for my body and mind right then.
I think that was my biggest takeaway from the entire experience... to be more intuitive about what my body needs at any given moment.
Teresa Karpinska (aka Style Drifter), 37 from Sweden, is a fashion blogger and stylist who developed bulimic tendencies in adulthood
I had bulimia from when I was 22 until fairly recently... it ended just over five years ago. I have always been into fitness so I have been skinny at times, and chubbier at others. My weight is hugely related to my emotions... but the bulimia, which came and went, came down to the varying degrees of self-love.
I think it is something that all women go through... to be plus or minus two or three kilos at any one stage of their life. If someone is going through a stressful time, or a break-up, they will probably put on or lose weight. There’s nothing unusual about that side of my journey.
Also, I am quite spiritual and, over the years, I have been systematic about learning how our emotions and bodies are linked. I learnt about healing and insecurity in a scientific manner, and about how my past is linked to who I am. I don’t sit around feeling sorry for myself about stuff... I feel like I have taken my journey of self-discovery and understanding quite far. The only thing that didn’t make sense to me was the bulimia.
I have always had solid levels of self-confidence and self-esteem. I was always happy to be me. So I couldn’t understand why I always ended back in the bulimia zone.
I would sit there thinking, ‘I am so intelligent and I don’t want to lose weight. And I know I am hurting my body... I can taste stomach acid and I know that eventually my teeth will fall out. So why do I feel the need to do this to myself?’
It was strange... I just sometimes felt the need to purge myself – to rid my body of something – even if I hadn’t eaten.
But now, looking back, I can see what happened. I had a tough childhood with an unstable family dynamic. My brother and I suffered a lot of abuse from a young age... we dealt with it in different ways and unfortunately his was to block out all reminders, so our relationship is fragile now. My way of dealing with it was denial – I pushed it deep down and got on with my life. But when I got married at the age of 26, the emotional issues rose to the surface again. Marriage facilitates similar conditions to childhood family life, which is why I think my childhood stuff came up for me then. Also, I felt like I had a support network behind me so I could open those doors and experience the pain, or have a meltdown. Subconsciously, or consciously, I didn’t face up to my childhood issues when I was solo. I have since got divorced, but getting married opened up the emotional floodgates for me – I felt like I had someone there to catch me if I fell.
My now-ex husband and I started going to couples therapy. After a few sessions, the therapist said she needed to start working with me on my own. I feel that here in the UAE, you get exposed to people who have hard stories, and difficult life experiences – people who’ve grown up in war zones, living away from families and children, so it’s easy to underplay the importance of your own wounds and issues.
And, yes, in comparison with anorexia and people who end up hospitalised because they weigh less than 40 kilos, throwing up every couple of weeks doesn’t seem that severe... you can undermine the significance of it. So the first step for me was admitting that I needed help.
There’s nothing self-loving about forcing your body to throw up stomach acid. It’s self-hating. If you think about how disgusting throwing up is... you are willing to crouch over a smelly toilet and hurt yourself. You taste stomach acid and bits of food... what message does that send to your body?
I did it sometimes when I was out of the house – in disgusting public toilets and in malls. When my face was submerged in the toilet at a petrol station, or a MacDonald’s, every now and then I’d get a glimpse of sanity and realise that there was nothing loving about this image.
It was a long and tedious process to get past bulimia and the symptoms of the turbulent childhood I had. It took me years to deal with it...
My therapist used to say bulimia was my emotional handicap. That when a person has a physical issue, such as diabetes or a gluten intolerance, that they will still have a great and fulfilling life, but that they will learn how to deal with their physical issue and the symptoms as they arise. She said, ‘You’ll also live a happy and fulfilling life as long as you remember your predispositions and learn how to prepare yourself against them.’
I’m very good now at living with my emotional handicap. When I get warning signs of it building up, I work out what I need. This could be a week of solitude, or a week of getting productive, or a week of making healthy food. When I’m feeling a tad fragile, it’s pretty normal for me to turn off my phone, cancel my appointments and sit on the beach for a day. When I feel anxiety, I take the time to work out why and then I sit with it until it’s gone. I recognise my triggers and I know where they can lead to.
I have learnt how to say goodbye to friendships and relationships that are negative for me... In some ways the experience has made me selfish. But I have learnt that I need to put myself first. And so that’s what I do.
Five things you didn’t know about eating disorders
- 1 in 10 people with an eating disorder will receive treatment, or seek professional help.
- 4 out of 10 people have either personally experienced an eating disorder, or know someone who has.
- Eating disorders are frequently associated with other psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and personality disorders.
- Bulimia and binge eating disorders tend to run in families. Anorexia is thought to be 56 per cent determined by genetics.
- The highest mortality rate of any mental illness is attributed to the category of eating disorders.
Eating disorders in children
All three women interviewed for this feature said their eating disorder and body image problems stemmed from childhood issues and insecurities. With this in mind, we set out to find whether eating disorders are commonly triggered in childhood/adolescence and why…
- 86 per cent of eating-disorder cases start before the age of 20.
- Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents.
- The parents, children, and siblings of people with anorexia are 11 times more likely to have anorexia themselves and six times more likely to have disordered eating behaviours. This is likely due to both genes and the modelling of disordered eating behaviours.
- 50 per cent of girls use unhealthy weight-control behaviours, such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking, vomiting and taking laxatives.
- 91 per cent of 16 to 25-year-olds suffering from anorexia, bulimia or overeating said they had been bullied. 46 per cent said they believed that bullying had contributed to their eating issues.
- 42 per cent of girls in grades one to three want to be thinner.
- In one study, the number-one magic wish for girls aged between 11 and 17 was to “lose weight and keep it off”.
- A Harvard University study found that up to two thirds of underweight 12-year-old girls considered themselves to be too fat. By 13, at least 50 per cent of girls are significantly unhappy about their appearance. By 14, focused, specific dissatisfactions have intensified, particularly concerning hips and thighs. By 17, only three out of 10 girls have not been on a diet – and up to eight out of 10 will be unhappy with what they see in the mirror.
All stats from the following sources: National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders; National Eating Disorders Association; Oxford Clinical Psychology; eating disorder hope; Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; www.psychcentral.com.