I wrote this blog after being inspired by an article in The Sunday Times magazine, by Hadley Freedman, who shared a personal account of her battle with anorexia lasting over 20 years. Hadley is a mum of three as well as a journalist and a writer. Her new book “Good Girls: A Story and Study of Anorexia” is going to be published on 13th April 2023.
An eating disorder is widely defined as a type of mental illness characterised by irregular or disordered eating habits, which can have negative effects on a person's physical and emotional health. Eating disorders often involve an intense focus on body weight, shape, and size, and can lead to significant physical, psychological, and social problems. Anorexia Nervosa that Hadley was diagnosed with involved the desire to keep her weight down by restricting food, exercising too much, or both. Anorexia sufferers will often have a distorted image of their bodies thinking that they are overweight even if they are underweight. It typically starts in the mid-teens and is more prevalent in young women although men, as well as women, can get anorexia. For a 14-year-old Hadley, the trigger point leading up to full-blown anorexia was just one presumptively innocent comment from her friend who described Hadley’s dress size as ‘normal’. Hadley believes that her anorexia had always been lurking somewhere inside of her; the comment had only opened the gates to its unstoppable force of it. Psychoanalytic theory suggests that eating disorders are often a manifestation of a deeper psychological issue, such as low self-esteem or a need for control. In this view, eating disorders are seen as a way to manage difficult emotions or experiences, such as anxiety, depression, or trauma. Additionally, the psychoanalytic perspective emphasises the importance of exploring the individual's past experiences and relationships with their caregivers to identify the root of the issue.
In the article, Hadley describes her struggles with the eating disorder. She calls it “addiction to starvation” causing her to stop using lip gloss as she was worried that chewing on her lips would increase her calorie intake. She also convinced herself that inhaling the smell of food would extract calories from the food particles. Apart from restricting her food intake Hadley also engaged in an exercise regime that made her feel weak and injured. Hadley’s perspective on her eating disorder started to shift after over two years of being in and out of various psychiatric wards. She was just over 16 years old when she decided that she would not have a “temper tantrum over a piece of toast” unlike one of her fellow patients who was twice her age when she observed her on her 32nd birthday. She also started psychotherapy and felt understood by her therapist. Psychotherapy for eating disorders typically involves working with the patient to identify and explore the underlying psychological conflicts and developmental issues that may be contributing to their disorder. Psychotherapy also aims to help the patient develop a stronger sense of self and a more positive relationship with their body. This may involve exploring the patient's beliefs about their body and appearance, as well as developing coping strategies for managing difficult emotions and experiences.
The road towards recovery was not easy. As Hadley remarks for the next 20 years, she had two main jobs: “being a functioning anorectic and being a functioning but extremely obsessive adult riddled with OCDs”. She was mindful of not getting back to anorexia and instead became involved with men who were drug addicts and subsequently started taking drugs herself. Hadley concludes that entering a stable relationship with someone “who was nice” and “not a heroin addict” as well as becoming a mother helped her overcome anorexia but did not cure her of it. Time was her cure. She managed to outgrow the need to hold onto the anorexia label to make herself feel special.
In recent years eating disorders have been on a consistent rise in the UK. As The London Centre for Eating Disorders and Body Image reported in 2022, hospital admissions had risen 84% since 2018. From 2015 to 2020 there was a 128% increase in hospital admissions for boys and men.
There could be several reasons why eating disorders are on the rise and have been rising for the past 50 years:
- The rise of social media has led to an increased emphasis on appearance and body image. Social media platforms often display highly edited and filtered images of people, creating unrealistic beauty standards that can contribute to negative body image and self-esteem issues.
- There is a widespread cultural obsession with dieting and achieving a certain body type, which can contribute to the development of eating disorders. Diet culture often promotes restrictive eating and a focus on weight loss, which can lead to disordered eating patterns and an unhealthy relationship with food.
- Traumatic events or high levels of stress can trigger eating disorders in some people. Trauma can lead to feelings of loss of control, and an eating disorder may provide a sense of control over one's body and food intake.
- Research suggests that genetics and biology play a role in the development of eating disorders. Individuals with a family history of eating disorders may be more susceptible to developing one themselves.
It's important to note that eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that can be caused by a combination of factors, and not everyone who experiences these risk factors will develop an eating disorder. Eating disorders can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, race, or socioeconomic status. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Anorexia Nervosa has a mortality rate of 10%, which is higher than that for depression, bipolar, or schizophrenia. Treatment for eating disorders is often lengthy and challenging, recovery is possible with the right support and treatment. It is crucial for someone struggling with an eating disorder to seek professional help and support.
Here are a few links to charities that offer help and advice: