LAST week was Eating Disorders Awareness Week which aims to educate the public about the wide spectrum of illnesses that exist and affect millions of men and women of all ages.
There are 1.6 million sufferers in the UK alone and there will be many living in our area.
Anorexia, which literally means without appetite, accounts for only 10 per cent of eating disorder cases. More than 80 per cent involve binge-eating and/or bulimia. Women aged 12 to 20 are most at risk but 15 to 20 per cent of sufferers are male.
One young woman who has been afflicted by anorexia since she was 13 is Abby Baker, of Millfield Close, Helpston.
Abby, now 19, is planning to head off to university later this year to train to be a nurse in the field of mental health.
She has been an ambassador for the UK eating disorders charity B-eat since July 2009. She gets involved with fundraising, gives talks in schools and attends family days at the Phoenix Centre, a specialist unit for eating disorders that’s based at Fulbourn Hospital in Cambridge.
Abby thinks the trigger was a mixture of things that happened to her personally. She was a pupil at Arthur Mellows Village College in Glinton at the time and although she was of normal size, she became obsessed with the idea that if she lost a little bit of weight she would look better and feel happier.
“I started out to lose just a little a bit of weight,” she said. “Then I lost a bit more but it still wasn’t enough. I was skipping meals, I was lying– you get taken over by it.
She said it took a while for her to realise she had a problem. “I wanted to be normal, I didn’t know what was wrong with me,” she said.
It also took a while for her parents Paul and Jacky to notice something major was wrong.
“It was my school who insisted I see a doctor after teachers noticed I had become withdrawn and isolated,” she said. Her secret was out and she began treatment at the age of 15 with Peterborough’s child and adolescent mental health services. She had already lost a lot of friends and given up her hobby of gymnastics because she just wasn’t strong enough to continue with it.
“I couldn’t talk to friends about it,” she said. “People don’t understand, they think its attention-seeking. It’s completely not that – you do need people there to try to understand you.”
As a result of this isolation, she says she became a really horrible person, even being violent to her mum.
“I was going to meetings to be weighed every week and for my mental state to be monitored,” she said. “I saw various therapists. My mum was desperate for me to be helped.”
Eventually at 16 she was hospitalised at the Cambridge unit and kept there for five months.
“I don’t think I wanted to get better. I was hostile to treatment – I wanted to be thin more than I wanted to be normal.
“I thought if I got thin enough I would be happy. It took over my life.”
She said she learned to fight her body’s natural signs of hunger, the all-consuming need to be thin was so deep-rooted. After two months in hospital she began to feel suicidal.
“I felt I was just existing, I wasn’t living,” she said.
“I hadn’t opened up or spoken to anyone. But one day there was this one nurse I started talking to, she just got through to me and from then on I got determined to get better.”
Once she was a healthy weight and deemed to be mentally able to cope she was allowed home.
“I did relapse but I turned that around myself,” she said. “Only you have the power to change. You can get a lot of support but you have to learn how to accept it.”
As well as that Cambridge nurse she has had a consultant, an outreach worker and an outreach team therapist, all of whom she describes as “brilliant”.
In Abby’s new role she is now the one offering help and guidance and has been praised by staff at the Phoenix Centre for her aptitude in helping other people.
“People contact me by e-mail or on Facebook and I did a video for the Phoenix Centre that’s now on YouTube,” she said.
“It’s nice to know I can help others.”
Abby says it is not uncommon to see sufferers as young as 11 and even eight-year-olds have been diagnosed. It is not a new problem – there are documented cases from the 16th century onwards – but she thinks television, advertising and modern life in general have put extra pressure on people.
She is all for pictures of skeletal anorexics being banned.
“This is the deadliest of psychiatric problems – one in five people die,” she said. “Someone stole my pictures and put them on pro-anorexia websites. I want them gone, they should be made illegal. There are loads of them. They get shut down but new ones pop up.”
She says she has suffered from anxiety and depression and her message is that eating disorders are a mental health illness, not something people choose.
“I get about 10 people a day asking for advice and it is great to get a good response from them – they sometimes say I’ve changed their life,” she said.
She says she is generally happy now, doing normal things like shopping and partying with friends and accepting that life isn’t always easy.
“It feels like I have a normal life now and the whole experience has brought us closer as a family,” she said.
For more details of eating disorders see the B-eat website or e-mail Abby direct on email@example.com
Abby’s story in her own words:
I am Abby and I am a recovering anorexic.
I am not proud of this title, nor am I ashamed of it; however, I am completely for using my experience to help educate the world and inspire others to realise that recovery is more than possible. For years of my life I was plagued by a disease that ridiculed my mind, beckoned me with misery and controlled my presence. I was no longer a person, I was merely an existence.
Just two years ago I wrote in a letter: “I feel as if my life has already been taken away. It’s been consumed for these past years by something evil and I feel I’m just waiting to die. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life miserable and suffering. This isn’t living, this is existing.”
These were the thoughts that dominated my life throughout my adolescence. Haunting my presence day in day out, I thought there was no escape. I believed there was no way out.
I was wrong.
In 2008 I embarked on a journey, a journey in which my life would change forever, for the better.
My venture to recovery proved to me that life could be everything I hoped for. Life can be happy, life can be sad yet, ultimately, life can simply be life; normality is possible and your mind doesn’t have to control you forever.
I for one want to aid people in understanding the seriousness of this illness. Eating disorders affect approximately 1.6 million people in the UK and anorexia currently has the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric problems with one in five sufferers dying.
There is, unfortunately, so much shame and stigma attached to eating disorders which just shouldn’t be; therefore I hope that during this week, this can be confronted head on and the stigma and shame can be weakened.
This week is about understanding an illness that is so often misrepresented; I want stereotypes to be challenged and I myself, want to speak out for those who suffer in silence.
Eating disorders aren’t about weight, shape and size – this is simply how they are manifested in us. As a friend of mine quite rightly put it, “anorexia is not about how thin you are, it’s about your emotional ability to deal with the world.”