"I'm a fraud", I thought, as I sat beneath a brightly-coloured and decidedly 70s-esque 'flower power' sign with luminous lettering, welcoming me to join in with 'Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2014'. I was painfully aware of the emaciated girl sitting across from me, avoiding eye contact with me at all costs. I was avoiding hers, too, in fairness. Could you have picked a more inappropriate week to come here, Anna?
I was sitting in the waiting room of the April House Eating Disorders suite in Southampton, having been referred after an emotional out-pouring to my dietician at clinic some weeks before. I had told her through choked-up tears how all my adult life I had been overweight, except for a brief stint in my early 20s of extreme dieting, over-exercising and dabbling with diet pills (the ones that have no label and are kept 'out back' at the beautician's). I explained that I had been on every diet going but remained obese and utterly ashamed of it; ashamed of myself. Worse still I was gaining weight, again. I cried and asked her for help, because I had recently found myself behaving in an inexplicably compulsive way around food - a way I had never noticed before, but which would explain why I was the weight I was, despite always exclaiming to people "I just don't know why I can't lose weight!"I was asking for help.
Now, a few weeks on I found myself in a clinic with clinical psychologists and a host of other degree-holding professionals all wanting to take what I said seriously. The thought now of being branded with the label 'has an eating disorder' was becoming a little too much for me. I had said for some time that my eating was disordered, but an eating disorder? No.I picked at the label on my drinks bottle and shuffled my feet - left over right, right over left - all the while making sure my eyes didn't meet with anyone else's. It would be mortifying to see the looks of 'what are you doing here?' on their faces."What are you doing here?" I angrily demanded from myself. "You don't have an eating disorder, you just need to diet and lose some weight. You're just fat, that's all".As I toyed with the idea of simply getting up and leaving - of not wasting everyone's time - the decision was all too swiftly taken away from me. "Anna Presswell", a voice called."Oh God. Shit. This is going to be mortifying when they tell me I shouldn't be wasting their time. Just get through the 2-hour assessment and GO!"Lucy, was my assessor's name. She was warm and friendly, with a clip-board full of questions about my life that in any other situation would be considered obscenely intrusive. Perhaps the hardest question of all was "When did your issues with food start?". I still couldn't answer it, truth be told.We trawled through questions about eating, lifestyle, living arrangements, diabetes, food-regimes and my feelings towards myself. Half-way through I was convinced that I would never need to see Lucy again, because I was clearly not in the right place, and we both knew it."Have you ever self-harmed?", "No"."Have you ever tried to take your own life?", "No"."Have you ever made yourself sick?", "No"."Do you have a desire for an empty stomach?", "No"."Are you isolated from loved ones?", "God no".I was right. This is dreadful."Do you exhibit frantic behaviour around food?" "Um, yes"."Do you hide your eating behaviour from loved ones?", "Uh, yes"."Do you eat to the point your stomach is uncomfortably full?", "Well, yes"."Do you eat in secret?", "Yeah".
"Do you experience shame after eating?", "Every single day".
The yeses started to multiply. And the questions went on. The open-ended questions left me in tears because I had to explain things I'd never before said out loud. Each one exposing more of my twisted relationship with food.I told Lucy about what had brought me there: about the day when I decided to have a chocolate bar after work, and found myself six minutes later having eating four chocolate bars and three packets of crisps. Of how I saw people watching me in the car park as I ate the chocolate bars in three enormous mouthfuls, but was too frantic to care. Of how I came home, already disgusted with myself and feeling the blood sugar rise from the chaotic eating my insulin could never catch up with, and about lying to my husband about having bought myself one chocolate bar as a treat. Of how ashamed I felt when I caught myself lying about food to one of the few people I could have told.As the session drew to a close I suddenly found myself desperate for Lucy to tell me that I wouldn't just be left hanging if their services weren't going to be right for me. I suddenly realised how glad I was that I hadn't run off at the start of the day."So, if you aren't able to help me, will anyone else? What if I don't have a diagnostically recognised condition, can anyone still help me, or is this it?". My eyes pleaded with her."Anna, our decisions about who we can work with and whether our service will be suitable for someone are made at our morning team meeting. But unofficially, it's clear to me that you have some real issues around food, and we would recognise those issues as an eating disorder. You are on what we would call the binge-eating disorder spectrum. And I am confident that we have something we can offer you."With that I found my head in my hands as I let out a mixture of sobs and cries, as I found myself thanking Lucy. I was grateful, but I didn't know what for. I was relieved, but I couldn't understand why. I felt lighter, but I had no idea what this meant.My relationship with food has always been, complicated. I was diagnosed at four years old, when my parents were forced to impose strict rules around eating. Sometimes I went hungry; sometimes I was forced to eat when I didn't want anything. It kept my body healthy, and for that I am grateful. But what that diagnosis did to me emotionally, is only just being picked at 27 years down the line.