Battling anorexia and its stereotypes

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“I remember looking outside and seeing that the sun was shining and it was springtime but I realised I wasn’t connecting with the world in any way,” said Georgina Routen, recalling the moment she knew she needed help to fight her anorexia.

“I couldn’t face the thought of getting out of bed, I was completely at the point of exhaustion and I thought, how had I done this to myself? At that point I realised I needed to do something, I wasn’t living, I was dreaming my way through the world. I was disconnected from everyone and everything around me. All I did was think about food and my school work.”

Seeing images of those stricken with an eating disorder always leads to this exact question: how can anyone let this happen to themselves?

Catwalk images of overly skinny models are often cited as a motivation for anorexia, arguably fuelling the typically false stereotype that this life-threatening illness is just a diet which has gone badly wrong.

Now recovered from anorexia and bulimia, 20-year-old Georgina from Northamptonshire is a young ambassador for Beat, the national eating disorders organisation.

Speaking out about her ordeal is one way that the University of Oxford student finds she can challenge the stereotypes that still surround these conditions.

She is loathe to even mention losing weight when recalling the anorexia she started developing at the age of 14. Instead, she says the motivations were about control and perfectionism.

She said: “It is demeaning when people think you were just on a diet. The stereotype that most affected me was that you have to be really thin to have an eating disorder. But when I had bulimia I was a normal weight and still suffering, perhaps more than I did when I had anorexia, but it was hard to get people to take me seriously. It does seem that people think eating disorders are a vanity rather than a serious mental illness.”

“I was always a perfectionist,” she explained. “And that seems to be a trait that many people who have eating disorders have. I felt subconsiously that I wasn’t good enough compared to the people around me. Now I realise it was twisted, but I felt I could be good at being really thin.

“I think I was 14 when I started to become more aware of what I was eating; I obsessively made sure I was having ‘five a day’ and drinking enough water. It was an attempt to grab a handle on my life really. It was more about me trying to control everything that was going on around me. Once I started to cut things out, the more anorexia took hold.

“It definitely crept up on me, it wasn’t, to begin with, about looking thin, I wasn’t even on a diet. I did not need to lose weight, I had a slender build anyway. It was just about being in control.

“After I became ill things in my life were quite regimented. I would do things in a certain way, I would do things at a certain time of day every day and that spread into my eating as well. It was, for me, extreme perfectionism. It isn’t easy to stop eating, most people would get to a point where their body would override that, but with anorexia there is no automatic stopping point.”

She finally sought help for her anorexia, only to face a new battle with bulimia, but by the time she was 18 she had succeeded in conquering both.

She remembered: “It is a pattern you have to fight every night and every day. You have to make sure your thoughts aren’t ‘eating disorder’ thoughts. For the first few months you are battling with every thought you have held for so many years. It is just a case of having the faith that it will get better in time.

“Beat were amazing. Mostly because I realised that I wasn’t the only person to go through this, I realised I wasn’t alone. People would say ‘just eat, Georgey.’ But in my head it wasn’t that easy.

“After my anorexia I became bulimic, which was pretty horrific. I felt really guilty eating and I realised I could stop that by bringing the food back up again. It was the most horrendous time, I had to fight one illness only to fight another. When I was recovering from anorexia, there would be my healthy voice saying ‘you need to eat’ and the anorexic voice saying ‘you can’t, the world will end.’ With the bulimia, I did not know whether it was my voice or the bulimic voice telling me to eat.” But finally Georgina won through. “I did not suddenly wake up and realise I had recovered I just realised I was continuing with my life and doing things that I had previously stopped doing. I just want to show people that you can recover from this.”

According to the NHS’s Northamptonshire Eating Disorder Service, 240 referrals were made in 2011 and 247 last year.

Clinical nurse specialist Kathryn Weaver, who works for the service, said not only are more cases being seen generally but some people are waiting longer periods of time before presenting with symptoms. The illnesses are also far from solely the preserve of teenage girls.

She said: “My colleague was telling me yesterday she had been talking to someone who was 66 and had anorexia. We are living longer now and there are more expectations of our looks.

“Eating disorders are not about looks but they are about the idea of being the best we can be.”

She explained that while about 10 per cent of people with eating disorders have anorexia, a larger percentage are classified as EDNOS
(Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), meaning they have symptoms which do not classify as anorexia or bulimia.

Sue Wilson runs a private eating disorder consultancy s ervice based in Dallington. She has also been seeing a larger number of older patients, including a woman aged 71.

Sue said: “The referral rates are going up. I get self-referrals, referrals from Beat and from GPs. They are always people who have fallen through the gaps in the system.

“It is frustrating to me that eating disorders are not more understood.

“My function is to find out the role of the eating disorder, what it is helping people cope with and what negative feeling it is taking up.

“The eating disorder is a diversion and I don’t think people always understand that.”