How one woman's recovery is being affected by the pandemic.
Emily Bashforth is a 20-year-old blogger living in north west England. She has suffered from disordered eating for almost as long as she can remember, developing an obsession with thinness and cutting out food from a very young age. Here, she shares with GLAMOUR how living in lockdown during the Coronavirus epidemic has triggered those ED mindsets – and her advice for anyone else trying to balance recovery with isolation.
I was seven years old when I first became aware of my weight. It was during a science lesson at school, when the teacher asked us all to weigh ourselves for an experiment. When I stepped on the scales, I was heavier than many of my classmates.
I wasn't overweight – it was probably because I was one of the tallest in my class – but ever since then, I was fixated on comparing my body to other people's. I began calling myself 'fat' and 'ugly', agonising over why some parts of my body wobbled when my friends' didn't. As I entered secondary school, I began cutting out food one meal at a time. I'd hide cereal in my backpack and throw it in the bin when I got to school, so my parents wouldn't notice I wasn't eating breakfast. I'd give away my packed lunch to classmates. By the time I was 16, these harmful behaviour patterns had snowballed into a dangerous obsession with being thin and constant control over what I ate and how much I exercised.
Eventually, I was eating and drinking hardly anything while exercising obsessively and falling further and further into my own self-hatred. I felt terrible that my mum was spending money on all this food that I had no intention of eating, and I was keeping a huge secret from the people I loved – not only was I having all these dark thoughts about my body, but my self-worth, too.
The thought of gaining weight was nothing short of terrifying to me. My life's sole purpose became to shrink myself. At 17 I started counselling. Initially, the sessions weren't about my disordered eating, but that became the thing I ended up speaking about the most. I told her how I felt and how I viewed myself. We spoke about body dysmorphia disorder and how my perception of myself didn't match up to reality. Shortly after, I went to see my GP and I now attend weekly appointments at my hospital’s eating disorder clinic.
It wasn't an overnight fix and I wouldn't say I'm 'cured'; eating disorders very much become part of your identity. Years of self-hatred and self-loathing behaviours were – and still are – engrained into my brain to the point where, for a long time, I didn't know who I was without my eating disorder. But as I've started treatment, I've found ways of coping as my specialist has helped me rationalise my ED thoughts, set mini goals for each week, recognise triggers, quieten those urges, and accept the fact that my eating disorder will most likely always be a part of my life in some way. I now know that I deserve a life free from disordered eating, and that's been a huge achievement.
But as soon as I heard the news of the Coronavirus outbreak and the instructions to stay at home, I began to panic. What would this mean for my recovery? Having a routine has helped me learn to eat more regularly, would spending all my time indoors and adjusting to a new normal set me back? Would I feel too overwhelmed to cope? Old ED thought patterns started to resurface and I began fretting over whether I would gain weight in lockdown. Then came the self-loathing; how selfish of me to worry about my physical appearance when there were people out there losing loved ones to this pandemic.
Sure enough, life in lockdown has distorted my ED recovery a lot. It's times like these, when life as we know it is so disrupted and uncertain, that those old thought patterns come to the surface. I'm moving around less, which contributes to food guilt and guilt for not exercising. Boredom and lack of distractions mean I'm snacking more. Panic-buying in supermarkets means foods I’m familiar with aren’t always available. And with fewer social distractions and more time to do nothing, there’s space for intrusive thoughts about my body to invade my brain. Over the past few weeks, I’ve started looking in the mirror and picking apart my reflection again.
But while I can't always ignore my ED's voice, I'm doing what I can to quieten the noise. I know we're all unique in our recovery and no one's experience of an eating disorder is the same, but if you're suffering and are looking for advice from someone who's going through it too, this is what I've learnt about coping right now:
- As often as I can, I'm reminding myself that there has never been a more crucial time to be alive and well. Undernourishing myself would weaken my immune system, which I’ve experienced after relapsing in the past, so I’m trying to keep my eating regular and just take things one day at a time. Sometimes I’m just surviving rather than thriving, but I’m content with that, because surviving is probably the most powerful and impactful thing any of us can do right now.
- Introducing structure is helping a lot. Eating disorders thrive in moments of chaos, and they’re constantly on the lookout for any type of disruption in your life, so trying to implement a routine of some sort helps me feel like I’m disobeying my eating disorder. But at the same time, we have to remember that we are experiencing a trauma right now, and we have to be gentle with ourselves. So, instead of implementing a strict routine every single day, just try and set some sort of structure that works for you. It's okay to not be on it all the time.
- Keeping up appointments with doctors, specialists and therapists is really important. My weekly appointments with my ED specialist have been switched to phone appointments, and although the lack of face to face contact is hard, being able to talk through my anxieties and get advice is so comforting and makes the weight of my eating disorder feel less heavy. Isolation can be lonely, so unloading and communicating with those who are trained to help is more important than ever.
- Try distancing yourself from social media and taking breaks from the news. Keep informed with the latest updates, but don’t let it consume you. You don’t need to be productive during isolation or learn an incredible new skill, but finding something else fun to focus your mind can be really beneficial, whether that’s playing board games, watching Netflix or knitting (something I’ve started doing!)
- Remember that you're not alone, even if you have to physically be on your own right now. When our EDs have been our companions for so long, and those behaviours were once all we knew, it’s understandable that we turn to them for comfort in unprecedented times like these. But if you are struggling, there is still a world of support out there. Specialists and doctors haven’t stopped working, the internet is still functioning and your family and friends still care just as much. Talking is all we really have right now. Please, talk to someone.
- I’d encourage anyone who doesn’t struggle with an eating disorder to be mindful of their words at this time, as joking about binge eating and weight gain during self-isolation could be really damaging.
- Finally, try to forgive yourself. It's okay for things to be challenging right now, it's okay if your eating patterns are irregular, it's okay if you're snacking more, moving less, if you're changing size or shape. Weight gain during isolation isn’t a stick with which to beat yourself. That doesn't mean your struggle is invalid, as eating disorders don't take days off. But things won’t be this way forever. This is a glitch, and what matters most is taking care of yourself and being well enough to look out for others.
'This article originally appeared on GLAMOUR UK'