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March 02, 2018

Eating Disorder Awareness Week

Read two inspiring accounts from people affected by an eating disorder

Debbie Howard, now a psychotherapist specialising in eating disorders, suffered from anorexia for over ten years. Here is her story ….

‘I developed anorexia at 12 years old, and suffered with it until my early twenties. It was the most difficult and awful time of my life.

Eating disorders have the highest death rate of all the psychiatric illnesses, and affect 1 in 10 people in the UK. Sadly it is still an illness shrouded in shame, and grossly misunderstood. So many people say that eating disorder sufferers choose to do this to themselves, or put it down to vanity. But these people are clearly ignorant about this devastating illness.

Your mind is taken over by the most punishing and nasty dictator, who continually puts you down, and dictates your every thought, feeling and behaviour. It tells you that you are not good enough at anything you do, and that you don’t deserve anything you have. It makes you hate yourself, despise yourself, and it makes you feel worthless and useless.

Every time you look in the mirror all you can hear is that voice telling you how disgusting and how fat you are. You spend hours weighing yourself, pulling bits of fat and planning how to get rid of it, always believing the voice that is telling you that if you just lose another few pounds, you will be happy. But of course, you lose those pounds, and the elusive happiness never appears. At some level you know that what you are doing is wrong, but the voice is so powerful that it always wins.

If you are wondering how no one knew or why no one did anything, it’s because eating disorders are very secretive illnesses. You become a professional at lying and deceiving people, continually coming up with more and more elaborate ways to hide the fact you haven’t eaten. I managed to hide my illness from my parents for many years.

We tried treatment several times, but the support and understanding from health professionals in Northern Ireland was not there. It was only the life-saving care I received in London that helped me to recover.

Unfortunately there has not been much improvement in terms of treatments since I was ill. Services have increased, however our sickest and most vulnerable are still being sent to London for treatment.

We set up fightED to provide carers courses for those who have a loved one with an eating disorder.

Recovery is a long and painful process, and it is vital that sufferers have a strong support system. Although they may be receiving some treatment, they will spend the majority of their time at home with their parents/carers, so it makes so much sense to educate and empower the carers by teaching them how to best support their loved one and promote recovery. The course teaches parents the tools they need to improve daily life within their family, reducing conflicts, stress and tensions, and well as promoting recovery.’

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Debbie’s mother Pat McLarnon spent years feeling terrified and helpless as she watched her daughter fight her anorexia. Here is her story…

We found out something was wrong with Debbie when her screams woke us in the middle of the night, when she was 17. We found her on the bathroom floor writhing in agony. She wouldn’t tell us what was wrong but when I checked her school bag I found laxatives. She refused to tell me how many she had taken so when I started to guess one, two, three, she nodded her head at 44. We didn’t fully understand what was going on but we just knew something was very wrong. From that moment our lives were thrown into turmoil. Her younger brother went into her room that night and hugged her and said “Debbie, please don’t die”.

Her whole personality changed. Our daughter had been very bubbly, outgoing and loving but it was almost like our daughter was a stranger. She became very depressed and sad, argumentative and manipulative and we had literally no idea how to help her.

We went to our GP because we wanted to know how we could fix her, but Debbie had hit her self-destruct button and was basically starving herself to death.

Meal times were a battlefield and we tried everything, from punishment to grounding but if we had known then what we know now we could have helped her so much more. We didn’t realise that we were pushing her into the arms of the eating disorder.

When she did eat she would go to the bathroom and make herself sick because not only was she anorexic she also became bulimic. As she became weaker we, as parents, felt powerless and helpless. Every morning my husband Paul and I woke up with a knot in the pit of our stomachs. We were terrified.

In the meantime, she was able to keep up her rhythmic gymnastics and she even competed at the Commonwealth Games when she was 16. It’s part of the sport that you have to be slim and we did talk to her coaches about it, and they were very good, speaking to all the girls about staying healthy, not isolating her on her own, but still, her struggle with anorexia continued. We never knew what weight she got to because she would never let anyone weigh her.

We have come to learn that the longer the illness lasts, the more entrenched it gets and the more negative the sufferer becomes. It’s a very illogical and irrational illness and it got to the point where Debbie said it would be easier for her not to be here at all. Debbie later told us it was like fighting with yourself all the time, with a voice in her head, 24 hours a day, telling her she was disgusting and worthless.

As far as treatment, there was none here in Northern Ireland so we had to battle the services. We wrote to every MP and MLA and got two compliment slips and one letter back. Debbie had to go to London for help, where she saw a therapist for four years. However, it came to the point where the counsellor told us to bring her home: she was so weak she was on the brink of heart failure.

In the end Debbie suffered until her early 20s. Now she would say that it wasn’t about the eating, it was an emotional issue. Not eating, for her, was a symptom and when the problem begins to go away the eating will naturally come back.

Years later my son did a fundraising cycle in America when he read a story on Amy Winehouse’s eating disorder, written by her brother and he was so upset we nearly flew out to be with him. It upset him very much and it was then we realised he still had issues to deal with after watching his sister experience anorexia. It doesn’t just affect the sufferer, it affects the whole family but thankfully Debbie survived but there was a time when we feared the very worst for her.’

To find out more about the New Maudsley Model Workshops, to book a place on a fightED training course, or if you would simply like to talk to about eating disorders please contact fightED:

By calling: 07999 901 936

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