Time to Talk Day is an annual mental health awareness day. Organised by Time to Change, the anti-stigma campaign by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, it aims to get people talking about mental health. This year, Mind arranged for employees to talk about their own experiences of mental ill health. Below you can find the text of the speech I gave to my fellow Mind colleagues on 1st February 2018.
Content warning: discussion of eating disordered behaviours, depression and anxiety
Hi, I’m Abi. I’m a Charityworks trainee, and I work at Mind. I’m a recent graduate of the London School of Economics, so unsurprisingly I’m interested in politics. I like watching Gossip Girl, and I’m undefeated at Harry Potter Trivial Pursuit. I also have an eating disorder.
I said that bit last because I honestly think it’s the least interesting thing about me. It’s shaped the person I am for sure, but these days I see it mostly as a bit of a nuisance, kind of like an extra limb that doesn’t really serve a function and just keeps getting in the way. I haven’t always seen it like that. In fact, six years ago it was way more than an extra limb; it was everything that I was, and it never would’ve let me have interests outside of its endless list of demands – especially not fun, “unproductive” interests like Gossip Girl and Harry Potter.
My journey from that place of total subsumption in anorexia to where I am today has not been neat and linear. In fact, it’s often felt a lot like like story of Sisyphus: he was doomed to forever roll a rock to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll straight back down again. My rock is the eating disorder, and my recovery has been that long, repetitive, painful process of trying and trying again.
It’s not completely bleak. Obviously, I’ve come a long way, and these days the rock rarely rolls all the way down the hill. But it can often feel that way. When I first realised I was sick and started treatment, it really felt that way. I asked for help because I thought it would make things easier – but starting eating disorders recovery is painful. It requires you to do things you have forbidden yourself to do for years, and in doing so it requires you to stare your demons right in the face, then poke them in the eye and stick around to see what happens. I suddenly had to eat cake and meat, and I had to sit still! Those were intensely difficult experiences because I had to recognise my fear of becoming fat, and realise that that fear wasn’t so much about my actual body as it was a kind of protective veil over things I was really afraid of. Things like failure. Things like loneliness. Things like grief. It was a lot for a fifteen year old to come to terms with.
But I made really good progress. I managed to avoid hospitalisation, and I stayed at sixth form and made amazing friends and got very good grades. Then it was time to go university. And, because apparently I really like to make life difficult for myself, I decided to not just go to university, but to go to one of the most competitive universities in the world, in a huge, busy, expensive, isolating city called London. Classic perfectionist, right – if a thing is worth doing you gotta give it 1000%! I really gave it 1000%. I left my cosy little support network of friends, family and treatment team, and came to live by myself for the first time, knowing nobody at all in London, with no real sense of how hard LSE was gonna hit me. And it hit me, so hard it knocked me all the way down the hill again. Yet I’d learned so much in my recovery so far that the experience of being at the bottom wasn’t quite the same; it was a puzzling mix of functionality and dysfunctionality. I could eat cake and meat and sit still – but I’d have panic attacks and extreme low moods and a constant, harrowing fear of failure. All of that was kind of new, because I’d been numbing it for so long with obsessions and regimes around food and exercise. Those obsessions and regimes were still there, but because they were easier to manage, all that other stuff came up and I had to hoist what felt like a huge additional burden up the hill.
I got help again, though, and over time it got easier. I resolved stuff. I got in touch with traumas and pain that I’d never even thought of as traumas and pain. And it got better. I was actually free to do things, from small things like going for brunch with friends, to big things like fulfilling a lifelong dream of visiting India. Sure, I got really ill when I was there – physically ill, the classic “Delhi belly” kind of ill. But I did it. When I wasn’t throwing up, I felt pretty badass.
Leaving university and starting work, however, was another bottom of the hill moment. The thing that I really liked about being a student was the radical freedom; I got to decide when I woke up, where I went in the day, how often I exercised, what I ate, when I ate, who I ate with. As a result, I was able to manage my eating disorder very effectively – and brush a lot of it under the rug. But coming to the workplace, even a very flexible workplace like Mind, took away a lot of the freedom that had allowed me to manage so well. Suddenly I had to sit still, at one desk, most of the day. I can’t express how horrifyingly difficult that was. I’m a restless person by personality – I’m always looking for new learning, new experiences -, but restlessness and an obsession with exercise is a chronic symptom of the eating disorder. And my God did it remind me how much it dislikes sitting still when I started here in September.
It also kindly reminded me how much it hates unexpected food items. At university, I very rarely had to deal with unplanned biscuits. In an office, there are a lot of unplanned biscuits, and cakes, and sweets, and chocolates. These are things I once completely banned myself from eating; they’re things I can enjoy on occasion, under circumstances of my own design. I find them incredibly difficult to manage spontaneously. So coming to an office environment, with unplanned biscuits, where sitting down was required, was really hard. Don’t even get me started on conferences and away days, how drastically out of control I feel when someone else has planned what and when I’m going to eat and how and when I exercise. With all of that challenge going on, the eating disorder kicked off again and a new wave of difficulties came my way.
But again, I wasn’t really at the bottom of the hill. I realised that much over Christmas. Christmas used to be a really hard time of year, because everything is different, there are a lot of rich foods, and all my routines get a bit skew-whiff. Yet this year, I actually enjoyed Christmas. I actually ate what I wanted and how much I wanted, and only did the amount and kinds of physical activity that I wanted to. I couldn’t help but compare that to Christmas 2011, when I was in the absolute depths of anorexia, and so hungry that I could not stop eating; and then, of course, I had to punish myself for it. Christmas 2017 was a completely different story, and it reminded of how far I’ve come.
I still have a ways to go. My recovery journey isn’t over; there are fears and traumas that I’ve not resolved yet, so the eating disorder is gonna stick around a bit longer, doing a pretty poor job of trying to protect me. And that’s ok. I know it so well now that nothing surprises me, and it certainly isn’t gonna stop me doing things I enjoy – like watching Gossip Girl, and winning at Harry Potter Trivial Pursuit (I’m not competitive, I promise). In a weird way, as painful as recovery has been, I’m kind of grateful for it. It’s given a unique perspective that I never would’ve had otherwise. It’s opened my eyes to how difficult “normal” experiences can be – how difficult being a human with a body in a health-obsessed, ableist, racist, sexist society can be. And I really hope that I can use that perspective to do good things – here at Mind, through my work as an Ambassador for Beat, and maybe even beyond that, contributing to creating an environment where we really respect people’s embodied experience, we respect their needs, we respect that they have trauma and pain, and that they’re just doing their best.
So, to sum up: I’m Abi, I have an eating disorder, and whilst I’ve been on one hell of a journey to overcome it, these days it is probably the least interesting thing about me. Thank you.