Being diagnosed with an eating disorder can feel overwhelming and confusing as well as disrupt schoolwork, careers and relationships with family and friends, as Laura Phelan discovered when she was told she had anorexia nervosa aged 13.
Just over 725,000 men and women in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, with the condition mainly affecting young women aged between 12 and 20.
Changes in eating and exercise habits
Laura’s eating habits changed when, aged 13, she decided to follow what she thought was a healthy meal and fitness plan. However, an interest in controlling food intake soon turned into an obsession.
‘I started to eat at certain times of the day – I would wake at 7am and eat straightaway, but wouldn’t let myself eat after 4pm. If I couldn’t get home in time to eat, I would become hysterical.’
She was overly cautious about different food types and completely cut out carbohydrates and sugar, while restricting her daily food intake to just 500 calories, despite young teenage girls requiring just over 2200 calories a day.
‘I made myself exercise every night before bed, even when I was off school with a stomach bug or a cold.’
‘To me it was all about having a healthy diet and exercise plan and I didn’t recognise it as an actual eating disorder.’
Her friends and family noticed a change in her appearance after a few months. Within six months, she had lost three stone in weight.
Laura started to feel physically unwell and didn’t understand why. Her hair started to fall out and her bladder became overactive as a result of the condition.
‘When people hadn’t seen me for a while, they were visibly shocked and would ask me what was happening. This frustrated and upset me as I didn’t believe anything was wrong and would walk away to avoid confrontation.’
‘At the time, I genuinely didn’t realise I had an illness, I shrugged it off and didn’t think anything of it.’
Her family became increasingly concerned that Laura could have an eating disorder and weren’t sure how to handle a potential dangerous situation, so her mum took her to see a family therapist and her GP.
The GP diagnosed anorexia. She was warned that if she didn’t start gaining weight and making changes, she would be admitted to hospital.
Laura was confused about her diagnosis and took the news hard.
‘I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I genuinely thought that there was nothing wrong with my eating habits or that I had any kind of disorder.’
‘After my diagnosis, I thought it would be much easier if I died – the thought of having to eat and live an ordinary life terrified me.’
Road to recovery
After discussions with her doctor, Laura was offered Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
‘Although CBT helped me, it was quite an uncomfortable experience. They teach you how to behave and think differently which requires a lot of persistence.’
She also saw a dietician to help her gain weight – However Laura found that educating herself on nutrition and food was the most helpful treatment.
‘I needed to learn the balance between eating well and being healthy about it. My treatment required a lot of patience and willpower.’
Laura had ups and downs during treatment, but made a full recovery a year after her diagnosis. Despite stabilising in weight a year into recovery, the mental battle with anorexia continued for several years.
‘There were days I hated myself and hated what I had to do in order to get better. Although treatment was not an immediate fix, perseverance is really important, as well as surrounding yourself with good supportive people.’
Now aged 23, she believes that the experience of getting through the condition made her mentally stronger. She now works as an ambassador and recovery buddy for the UK’s leading eating disorder charity Beat.
‘Now I’ve got through it, all I want to do is help other people with eating disorders to get better.’
‘There is no better feeling than waking up and feeling happy and knowing you can spend time with loved ones not having food and exercise on your mind all day.’
She feels the most important thing is to surround yourself with a good support network, as Laura did, with her mum, grandparents and a few close friends helping the most when she was unwell.
Laura believes that a better understanding of the condition could have led to a wider support network when she was unwell.
‘What I would say to somebody else going through this is, don’t give up. You’re kidding yourself if you think you will be happy living like this.’
‘It’s not necessarily about loving yourself; it’s about being content with your life. You can get over this and there is a life after anorexia.’
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Beat is the UK’s leading charity supporting anyone affected by eating disorders or difficulties with food, weight and shape.