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The truth about eating disorders, by Rebecca Quinlan

CW: Eating disorders

Every year, for one week, it is Eating Disorders Awareness Week. One week dedicated to raising awareness of the mental illness with the highest mortality rate. Given how much misunderstanding, stereotypes, and stigma there is around eating disorders, one week is not enough. I have suffered with an eating disorder for the last 20 years. For me, it is not just something that happens one week every year. I live with it every day of my life. Because of that, I now dedicate a lot of my time to raising awareness and understanding of eating disorders. I share my story in the hope it helps others.

When I was younger, I thought having an eating disorder meant that you were thin and had self-control around food. Things I believed I did not have, but wanted to. I soon learnt that my belief of what an eating disorder was could not have been further from the truth. Firstly, the majority of people who suffer from an eating disorder are not underweight. You don’t have to be thin to have an eating disorder.

I thought that if I had anorexia, it would mean I had self-control with food. But the thing with anorexia is that it actually leaves you with no control at all. Rather than me being in control, anorexia had complete control. And not just of what I ate, but of my whole life. I have received so many comments over the years such as “why don’t you just eat?” There is this perception that eating disorders are a choice. That it is simply someone choosing not to eat food. But again, there is no choice when you have an eating disorder.

I was a 13 year old athlete with dreams of running for Great Britain. I spent the whole of my teens dedicating my life to trying to achieve this one ambition. But anorexia got a hold of me. And in getting hold of me, it suffocated me of life and destroyed my running dreams. Rather than going to the Olympics, I ended up in intensive care and spending the best part of three years in specialist eating disorder hospitals. I didn’t choose that. I didn’t choose for the one thing I had worked towards my whole life to be completely destroyed. A footballer does not choose to receive a career ending tackle. People don’t choose to have eating disorders.

You see, eating disorders are serious mental illnesses. It is not just someone who is vain, stubborn, or attention seeking. I’ve lost count of the times I have heard people say that those with eating disorders are selfish and that there are starving people in the world so how dare we behave in this way. You would not make comments like this to someone who had a physical illness like cancer or dementia. But because eating disorders are mental illnesses, there is not the same understanding or compassion.

My experiences of eating disorders is with anorexia. Anorexia is often the most talked about eating disorder and this leads people to believe that anorexia is the most common eating disorder. But actually, only 8% of those with an eating disorder have anorexia. Far more people suffer from bulimia, binge eating, and non-specified eating disorders. But regardless of the eating disorder, unfortunately, the same stigma, discrimination, and stereotypes exist.

Many believe eating disorders only happen to young girls. Yes, I was 13 when I developed an eating disorder. But I still have one now. I’m 34. During my admissions in specialist eating disorder hospitals, there were adults from every decade of life. It is not just teenagers. And it is not just females. Males get eating disorders too. In fact, 25% of those with an eating disorder are men.

For me, it was when I was 19 and went away to university that I became very unwell. My eating disorder grew so big it took over my life. It destroyed my life. For years and years, I felt trapped in this prison cell of anorexia. I was exhausted, both physically and mentally. I hated living how I was – I wasn’t living, I was barely even existing. But I was powerless to my own mind. I was powerless to anorexia. It made me do things that I didn’t want to do, but I felt I had no choice. An eating disorder is a never-ending mental torture. I never wanted attention, in fact, I wanted to disappear. I never once thought that I looked nice, or was ever just not eating and being difficult. At one point I had to be tube fed for 8 months. That’s not just someone who is vain and self-obsessed. That is not someone choosing to behave in that way. It is someone who is ill. Because eating disorders are illnesses.

Thankfully, over the last few years I have been able to enter my journey of recovery. And I have come a long way. But it hasn’t just been a case of eating more, gaining weight, and life going back to normal. Eating disorders are so much more than weight and food. So much more. I have worked hard to start to rebuild my life after the devastating effects of anorexia. And I also try and work hard now to raise awareness and understanding of eating disorders. Because they are, unfortunately, still so very misunderstood.

I also share my story now to give hope and inspiration to others. Because I was once written off. It was considered I would never make progress and would spend the rest of my life going in and out of hospital. But I haven’t. I have built myself a life that once seemed impossible. Yes, I still have anorexia. There isn’t a sudden end to eating disorders like there is to a broken bone. My recovery is ongoing. The need to raise awareness and understanding is ongoing. We never give up.

Rebecca’s memoir, Running Free: My Battle with Anorexia, detailing her struggles and life living with anorexia, is out now.