Recovery is possible at any age
I’m Hayley, aged 40 and I have recovered from anorexia nervosa.
How it started
“Make sure our Hayley has the fruit cocktail option for school lunch, I’m trying to watch what she eats”, my mum whispered to my auntie as she was leaving our house. She was my school dinner lady at infant school.
I was five years old listening to those words, confused as to why I was not allowed the sponge and custard option like my friends in the dinner queue. Was something wrong with me?
This was a common theme throughout my primary years. No ‘junk food’ was ever bought by my parents. My mum could not understand why I was gaining weight year on year. The truth was; because I was not getting sweet treats at home, I was getting them at my best friend’s house and spending my spare pocket money on them. After all, what is forbidden you crave!
I would eat tea early at my friends’ house then pretend I’d not eaten and have a second tea at home. Same with breakfast in the school holidays. I would quickly eat breakfast at home then knock on my friends’ house and have breakfast there. I thought it was great!
By the time I was ten I was heavier, and puberty began early – I started my period in year 6 of primary school. I had boobs which got me unwanted attention from boys. They felt it was ok to grope me and I was too embarrassed to speak out. I felt very isolated and different to all my friends. I felt ashamed.
“I began to compare myself to other girls my age.”
At 11 years old when I started secondary school, I was out of my comfort zone and more aware of my size. I remember countless times crying in the changing room as I hated the way my clothes fit. Ilooked awful in ‘trendy’ clothes and even had to wear men’s trousers as my school uniform trousers. Maybe this was what mum was trying to save me from by forbidding junk food?
My mum could see that I was getting upset with my body, so at age 12 she took me to the doctor to get written permission for me to attend my local Weight Watchers. I attended for a few weeks with my auntie and got as much information and books as I could to follow on my own, as my mum couldn’t afford for me to keep attending the weekly weigh-ins. I just tried to cut down on junk food and eat healthily. It worked and I slowly reached a ‘healthy weight’ but as a commercial weight-loss programme it solely focusses on numbers on the scale without addressing the underlying cause. I got lots of positive attention from friends and most importantly from my family and it felt good. I continued to eat ‘well’, however I was so much more self-aware and self-critical.
When I was 14 years old, we went on a family holiday to Florida. I let loose and ate ‘all you can eat’ buffets for breakfast, dinner, and tea. However, when we returned home, I realised that in two weeks I had regained a lot of the weight I’d lost. It was the school holidays and like every summer I wanted to have a transformation in the six week break and look amazing when I returned to school. I knew I did not have long left to slim down, so I took drastic measures – instead of cutting down, I cut out.
In under six months I had lost half my body weight. At first it felt good, and again I was getting compliments from friends and family asking me how I was doing it. I lied and said I was eating healthily. I was getting thinner and thinner until my mum took me to the doctor, as my period had stopped. The same doctor who, a few years earlier, gave me permission to join Weight Watchers, was now telling my mum I was borderline anorexic. This was an insult to me – being ‘borderline’ – so I lost more weight. I remember one night lying in bed, so emaciated that I just couldn’t move. It was as if something was holding me down. I hurt everywhere, it was very painful lying down and especially having a bath.
My dad just could not understand the illness and thought I was just attention-seeking and selfish. My parents paid for me to see a private dietitian who gave me a high calorie diet plan to follow which, without psychological support, was a complete waste of time. No one seemed to understand.
“All I knew is that I did not want to die. I just wanted to be skinny.”
Over time I learned to ‘cope’ with my eating disorder; I felt that the anorexia was my friend. It gave me control and I felt that I would be lost without the voice in my head. I weighed myself religiously, restricting, over-exercising and adopting other behaviours to stabilise my weight if needed. I had continual immense tummy pains and was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), probably caused by laxative abuse.
Following the birth of my two beautiful boys 12 months apart in 2011 and 2012 I felt out of control again, so the voices in my head got louder and louder. To gain some control back in my life I took up running. It was seen as a ‘healthy habit’ but was really a type of purging behavior through exercise addiction. I had to run multiple times a week with a self-imposed goal of a certain number of miles. I would book running competitions as something to hide my behaviour behind, even running a full marathon. I was seen as the ‘fit’ mum. It took over my life; I was snappy and bad tempered if I couldn’t get on my planned run. I would take it out on my husband and children. I was torturing myself, getting exhausted mentally and physically. It was affecting everything, my job as a nurse, and my relationships.
My turning point
One day in 2017 I’d had enough. I just woke up one day and just couldn’t go for my planned run. On the 19th July 2017 my official recovery started. I took the boys to school then I went by myself to a local café and had a cream and jam scone and a hot chocolate with cream and marshmallows and I savoured it. I didn’t feel guilty. I vowed from that day forward I would start to be kind to myself. To stop punishing myself for eating. I even got a tattoo of two crosses on my ankle to symbolise ‘everything happens for a reason’.
My journey to recovery was a very rocky road and far from linear. I had lots of quasi-recoveries, but each time I got stronger and stronger and the voice inside my head finally got quieter and quieter.
I booked a GP appointment at the start of my recovery and broke down to him. He referred me to the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme, which I had a couple of counselling sessions with.
“Talking out loud was very therapeutic. It made my story feel real.”
Finally, I felt like I was being true to myself – no more hiding behind my eating disorder. I gradually began being gentler and kinder to myself, something I’d never done. I sought out my local eating disorder group, SYEDA, where I attended group talking sessions and even had a private 1:1 session. It was very useful, although one thing that stood out to me was that at 37, I was much older than the other members of the group. The other members were teenagers and early twenties, so I searched on the internet for older people who had recovered, and I found a few ‘influencers’ on YouTube who were extremely helpful and influential in my recovery. I also bought and read lots of self-help books on eating disorder recovery, mainly about rewiring your brain and body positivity. A book I found incredibly useful and still follow to this day is Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. This allowed me to recognise my hunger cues and not place a value on food. All food is treated equally. Your body will tell you what it wants when it wants it. I do the same with exercise and have just got into yoga which I practice mindfully. I also found journalling particularly useful, writing down all the thoughts in my head and putting them on paper. I threw out the scales at the beginning of my journey and have stabilised in weight, never missing a meal or snack since.
“I know that I am stronger than the critical voice in my head.”
I have to be honest and say that I still get the odd negative voice in my head about my body. However, I have tools now on how to deal with it. I know what triggers me.
What recovery means to me
I totally appreciate the small things in life that I never got to enjoy before. The main ones are eating my son’s birthday cakes, enjoying fish and chips and ice cream at the seaside. Appreciating my boys and living in the moment. Not obsessing about the future and putting things off until I am at my ideal weight, like I did for so long. My next personal goal is wearing a bikini on the beach. Something I haven’t done since I was 15 and anorexic.
How I want people to remember me, is not for my weight or my size, but who I am. I strive to be the best version of me I can be. That is my goal.