Eating Disorders: "I felt powerless. Now I feel powerful"
For Eating Disorders Awareness Week, we spoke to our amazing ambassador Juliette Burton about her experience of living with a number of different eating disorders. Here's her story...
We all know our bodies change. The body you’re using right now to read this is not the same body you used to first read your first book in kindergarten, right? You look different, you behave differently, you are different.
And yet, you’re the same. The eyes may be older, those eyes may have seen more things, but they are still your eyes. You’ve grown up, grown older. The viewing perspective may be literally heightened but you are still the same person…and yet different.
Throughout my life my body has changed. Perhaps more than most.
When I was 10 years old, I was repeatedly taken to hospital every school holiday to get weighed and measured, my weight plotted on a graph that haunted my thoughts and self-worth. I wore braces to correct teeth that had been displaced due to compulsive thumb sucking for comfort. I was bullied at primary school for looking different and also because those bullies clearly felt badly about themselves.
In my teens, the darkness in my mind shifted. After dallying with self-harm at a younger age, I began to internalise disordered voices that hissed to me I was ugly, worthless, disgusting, abhorrent, that my body was not to be trusted, a thing to loath, to punish it. They lied. For most of my early life I couldn’t cope with overwhelming, terrifying feelings that flooded me. Those feelings I was drowning within manifested in another illness and took an even more overtly sinister form.
I became anorexic. That sounds like it’s a choice but it’s anything but. It snuck up on me and sucked me in with its whispers and lies. This anorexia minx sat on my shoulder and lured me into the idea that to be worthy I needed to lose weight. And more weight. And more. To monitor my own weight every single day to assess how much value I had in the world. Conversely the lower the figure on the scales the more I felt I could handle pain and the higher I held my head because of those ridiculous anorexia minx’s deception.
I was admitted to hospital for the first time during my GCSEs. Aged 17 I was sectioned under the mental health act because I was a month away from dying of anorexia.
Aged 19 I went from a size 4 to a size 20 in six months due to compulsive overeating disorder. I was powerless over my inability to stop eating. I’d eat so much I’d pass out from the pain of eating. I’d eat at all hours of the day and night because I couldn’t stop my body from drowning myself in food.
Just like my anorexia numbed my feelings and thoughts through starvation, my compulsive overeating numbed my thoughts and feelings through drowning myself in the sensation of food. Food was my great escape from being in my body, I wanted to escape the exquisite pain of being alive. I was so depressed it would’ve killed me.
I wanted to end my life. I made attempts to do so. I won’t give any more details for your benefit and for mine. The darkness I experienced then was heavy, immovable, solid. I knew I’d never feel differently.
But I was wrong. I knew nothing. I feel utterly differently now. I felt powerless. Now I feel powerful.
It took a while to get here. In my 20s my compulsive overeating disorder morphed into bulimia. Bulimia is a shameful secretive shy little minx who tells me less nasty, more cushioning deceits than my anorexia. It tries to comfort me. It was another survival tool, a way to reset my feelings, find quiet time within myself and find an anchor in a life, mind and world that felt so very untethered.
All of my eating disorders are linked. They are all still present. I fear them all but I must learn from them. They all still whisper to me, some more loudly and more persistently than others. And I am grateful to them. Yes they nearly killed me but they also have kept me alive. My emotional distress has been so intense that developing mental illnesses was the sanest thing my mind could do.
I’ve been within a stable weight for around 10 years… yet while I type that my anorexia minx, who has never really gone away is screaming in my ear, “BUT YOU’VE GAINED 2KGS! YOU’RE SUCH A FAILURE! YOU DON’T DESERVE TO BE SEEN!” but I’m telling her to please be quiet.. I’m learning to ride the waves of my emotions, the ebbs and flows of those minxes shouting in my mind. I can hear them, acknowledge them and politely tell them I’ll not let them affect my behaviour today.
Now I’m getting older and my body is changing more. I have a few wrinkles appearing, a few more signs I’ve lived a life of variety and colour. But our bodies are meant to change and shift as we grow. I needn’t fear any changes, not like I used to when in the firm grasp of my minxes. Any changes now are to be welcomed if it’s a natural shift and not a symptom of emotional distress. A bit of weight gain might be a symptom of a happier life. A bit of weight loss might be a symptom of temporary stress or my self-care that incorporates more exercise and better food management. A few wrinkles might be a symptom of laughter. White hairs might show me I’ve lived a little longer than some people ever thought I would.
Our bodies are meant to change. My mind has changed too. I’ve changed. Change is a good thing. My therapist used to tell me “When everything changes, change everything”.
And I’m so pleased I have.