Illustration by Kate Towsey for Varsity

Content note: this article contains detailed discussion of eating disorders and eating disorder recovery

For me, therapy was an inherently odd experience, sometimes painful and often hard. But it was undeniably life saving and, looking back, I will always be grateful for what these people did for me. I hope to reassure anyone apprehensive about entering an eating disorder clinic that talking about your eating disorder is the best thing you can do.

For me there were 3 stages of therapy. First, the clinically strict and unemotional stage. Next, mindfulness, awareness and education. And finally, it was talking, emotions and preparing for the future.

For me, the first stage was everything you don’t expect therapy to be. It consisted of sitting in a large room with one of my parents next to me, and two psychologists and an eating disorder nurse sat opposite. I was weighed and the number on the scale was recorded so it was easy to track my progress, or lack of progress, on a graph.

The numbers were scrutinized and discussed. It was in this stage that my parents were given a meal plan and I was banned from doing any exercise. There is no medicine for anorexia but this was perhaps the closest to it – unquestioned and unemotional food. Most weeks I was almost scared to go, or at least apprehensive. Were they going to tell me off? What were they going to say? Looking back I can see that this is the way it needed to be, I was only ever scared to go because my anorexia was. I hated these women for a brief time, but only because my anorexia did. They knew this.

“It uncovered a weakness that I was terrified to admit”

I remember them telling me everything I wasn’t allowed to do, explaining the dangerous path I was heading down. Then the mood in the room changed. You could have cut the tension in the room with a knife. One of the women said, “there it is, I can feel anorexia in the room.” This may sound like a weird thing to say, but she was undeniably right.

As I slowly but surely put on weight about the time I turned 18, the therapy changed slightly. I was still on some kind of meal plan, but as long as I was eating, it wasn’t as strict. My parents no longer had to come with me and it was now one on one with a nice smiley man. I was still weighed every week and we still talked about what I ate, but I was in more of a position to talk about why I was doing this – what anorexia’s motivation was. If my weight dropped slightly or I didn’t eat lunch that day, we would talk about it. We did a small amount of mindfulness: sitting, thinking, listening to music, focusing on your breath and escaping the busy world around you – with the hope that I could become more in control of my mind and life again.

We talked about the consequences of what I was doing a lot. It still had an element of strictness; everything felt like it had serious consequences, but his statements didn’t just finish in a sort of angry teacher fashion, but rather ended with, ’but why.’ It was forcing me to think and it made me learn how to say well done to myself, to slow down and be satisfied in those moments with what I had achieved in my life.

“I have explained the ins and outs of my eating disorder more times this term than I ever have in my life”

As I reached the end of year 13, therapy changed again. I began to see a lovely, motherly type woman. The strict element had been faded out. I was still weighed, but there were no eating plans and we talked a lot about the future. We discussed how I was going to cope with my A Level exams, going interrailing for a month, and then finally going to university.

I wrote a list of ‘challenges’ – or foods that I (or anorexia) would avoid like the plague. We would talk about why this might be, and the idea would be that eventually, without too much pressure, I would go out and eat it. Then do it again, and again. Each time was a kick in the teeth to my anorexia. Each time proved to me that I could do it, I could eat like everyone else!

We would talk about how I was going to cope living alone. I honestly couldn’t have guessed how I was going to be at Cambridge, but I decided not to continue therapy here. I wanted to leave it behind. I was so determined that anorexia wasn’t going to ruin this opportunity for me. But I knew what to do if it did.

I think the most important part about therapy is that they force you to talk about it. Whether it be an eating disorder, another mental illness or a past trauma, it forces it out of you – out of that space you have trapped it in and allowed it to eat you from the inside out.

I have explained the ins and outs of my eating disorder more times this term than I ever have in my life. And finally, I don’t mind. Finally I can talk about it, really talk about it, in a way that makes me feel my mind is now free of the control of the monster of anorexia.


Mountain View

Escaping competitive anorexia

So, if you are to take anything from this, I hope it is that these psychological demons are best fought with external support. A person suffering needs someone else, someone to tell them food will not kill them and that one day they will be able to live without anorexia if they fight it for long enough to banish it.

Not enough people ask. Most people ignore, dismiss an eating disorder as a phase, or just don’t like to say something – but why? Talking might just save someone’s life. To me, anorexia wasn’t just something that happened to me. It uncovered a weakness that I was terrified to admit and it represents a time when I was not perfect. Yet, talking is the only way we might help someone, and it’s okay if that someone is yourself. 

If you have been affected by any of the content of this article, B-eat Eating disorders provides useful information and resources, as well as a helpline at 0808 801 0677. The Students’ Union Advice Service provides a more comprehensive list of support resources.

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