A Personal Perspective

Anna Paterson

This page has kindly been written for us by Anna Paterson. Anna has experienced the pain of suffering from an eating disorder herself and here offers us a personal perspective on eating disorders.

Anna has written two pieces for us, the first "What are Eating Disorders" provides a personal perspective on eating disorders whilst in the second "My Experiences" Anna shares with us a little of her life experiences, the pain which led to her eating disorder, her struggles with her eating disorder and ultimately her recovery and beyond.

Anna has since gone on to write a book about her experiences - Anorexic - had a BBC documentary made about her story and become involved in a wide range of activities designed to help people affected by eating disorders. We are sure that you will find a great deal of interest here and above all encouragement and hope!

If you would like to know more about Anna and her work please visit Anna's own web site which can be found at www.annapaterson.com.

What are Eating Disorders?

When SEDA asked me to write a section on my personal thoughts on 'What are Eating Disorders?' I realised that I could write numerous pages on the subject. I didn't want to just present a selection of facts, as this website contains a lot of extremely good factual information about eating disorders. I knew that I wanted to write from a purely personal perspective. I remember that when I was suffering from anorexia, I felt the need to read other personal accounts which were honest, open and above all hopeful. It is extremely important to understand the dangers and risks involved with eating disorders but it is also VERY important to know that you CAN beat them. That was the main reason I wrote my book "Anorexic". I knew what it was like to suffer from anorexia - how lonely and isolated sufferers become. How terrified, ashamed, angry and frustrated they feel. How your feelings constantly switch from desperately wanting help to anger that others won't leave you alone. I knew what it was like to give up hope of ever being 'normal' again - of ever feeling I could go through a day without constantly thinking about food or weight. I wanted to try to give hope back to other people suffering from eating disorders.

When I was ill, I read books and articles that often made me feel worse and as if there was no point in even fighting for recovery. They seemed to be saying that when you were this deep in the anorexia, you could never get better. That is simply not true. However ingrained anorexic or bulimic behaviour is, it can be changed. You can turn your life around. I am living proof of that fact. Just a few years ago I was admitted to hospital, only hours away from death. Now I am a happy, healthy woman, engaged to be married. I currently spend my time trying to help others who are suffering as I once did. I am trying to spread the truth about eating disorders. Some sections of the media seem confused and poorly informed about eating disorders. Many myths are spread around that often result in sufferers feeling too ashamed of their behaviour and their illness to seek the help they so desperately need.

In the past, treatment for many sufferers has been terrifying and at times cruel and barbaric. Thankfully nowadays the punishment/reward system of treatment seems to be disappearing and is gradually being replaced by a kinder, more sympathetic form of treatment. Counselling and re-feeding need to go hand in hand. Many clinics are now ensuring that patients no longer simply reach a healthy weight but are also given specialist therapy and guidance. This is needed to help a sufferer learn to live at a healthier weight and to also find new ways of dealing with problems in their life, without returning to their eating disorder.

I suffered from chronic anorexia for 14 years and during that time was admitted to hospital twice, for a total of 7 months. I lived close to death for many years but during that time, like so many anorexics, I felt invincible and couldn't understand why others were so concern for my health. It is only now, looking back, that I realise how close to dying I actually came. I never believed anything positive could ever happen to me but my life was turned around when I met Simon. We are now engaged and he was the first person to show me totally unconditional love. With his help my self-esteem started to build and I slowly realised that I didn't need to punish myself all the time. If I didn't need to punish myself, then that had to mean I was allowed to eat food. For the first time in fourteen years I actually started to make real progress and leave behind my eating disorder because I was finding that I no longer needed it.

Feeling a need to have an eating disorder is an interesting idea that I have come across again and again when I talk with sufferers. I know that my eating disorder started as a direct result of abuse I received from my Grandmother from an extremely early age. This abuse took the form of severe mental and occasional physical cruelty. My Grandmother was always telling me that I was fat, ugly, unloveable and stupid, even though none of these things were true. My self-esteem began to deteriorate and gradually, over time, I felt a very strong need to disappear. I didn't feel worthy enough to even eat any longer. I didn't deserve food. I also started to self-harm, in a further attempt to punish myself for being such a bad person.

For me anorexia nervosa was an escape route - a way out of the problems I was experiencing. I felt I took up too much space in the world and I needed to slowly and quietly disappear. As I lost weight, I also started to withdraw from the world. My voice became quieter and I never spoke unless I was asked a direct question. I was disappearing into the world of eating disorders, where nothing mattered except food and finding new ways of avoiding meals.

Eating disorders are an escape for some people in the way that drink and drugs are for others. I have often heard anorexia described as "my best friend and worst enemy rolled into one". Anorexia and bulimia are illnesses that dominate the sufferer's thoughts and take them away from reality for a while. The problems they were facing are now pushed into the background as their eating disorder begins to dominate their thoughts.

Some girls who suffer physical and sexual abuse, turn to anorexia as a way to become almost asexual. They lose all their feminine curves in an attempt to become unattractive to men. Often these feelings are subconscious. Sufferers are not deliberately making themselves ill - it just seems like the only solution to all their problems. I have talked with abused women who have said that starving themselves was the only control they had in their lives. They had no way of stopping the abuse and turned to anorexia in an attempt to hide from the fear in their lives.

Eating disorders are all about low self-esteem. I could not tell anyone about the abuse that I was receiving from my Grandmother but my body was speaking for me. I couldn't say the words but my thinness was showing the world that I needed help. Eating disorders are often simply dismissed as attention seeking behaviour from vain women. Anorexia is frequently called the 'slimmer's disease'. These are common misconceptions, which tend to be repeated by people who have no real understanding of these disorders. The majority of anorexics have never in their lives been overweight and their weight loss is not about dieting but an attempt to 'fit in' or be loved. Our society puts forward the idea that 'thin is beautiful'. When you have very low self-esteem and feel unloved, you will often try to fit in with the ideal. I know I hoped that if I was thin, my Gran and my parents might love me.

Many people say that eating disorders are just teenage illnesses. This is another misconception and I am contacted by people of all ages. Eating disorders can develop at any age and older sufferers often feel unable to come forward because they feel ashamed of having a 'teenagers' illness. Shame (together with a fear of change) can stop sufferers from asking for help. This is why kindness and understanding are so important when you are helping someone with an eating disorder. Building self-esteem takes time and requires patience. Relatives of sufferers often feel frustration at how slow recovery can be. However, it is very important for sufferers that their recovery is slow. Changes in diet and weight need to be slow. If changes are made too quickly, the sufferer can become frightened and turn back to their eating disorder.

Eating disorders start for many different reasons. It can be a combination of various events or one specific direct cause, such as abuse. A recent survey has found that at least 90% of all anorexics have suffered some form of abuse in their lives. In my case, although the abuse triggered the whole cycle, there were many other factors that caused my anorexia to develop further and become chronic. This is why is it so unrealistic to say that eating disorders are simply the result of girls idolising thin catwalk models. Eating disorders are complex, psychological illnesses and therapy is usually needed to discover the reason why they began in the first place.

I hope that my observations have been helpful. My opinions are based upon my own experience with an eating disorder and also my work with ED sufferers and their families. If you would like to talk to me about anything relating to eating disorders, please feel free to e-mail me at anna@anorectic.fsnet.co.uk or visit my website, which is www.annapaterson.com

My Experiences

I wanted to share a little of my life and experiences with you here, in the hope that it may help you to see that eating disorders CAN be beaten. I have suffered much abuse in my life and lived through 14 years of chronic anorexia but I am now happy and healthy and am leading a life free of my eating disorder.

I spent a great deal of my childhood with my abusive Grandmother and so some of my earliest memories are of cruelty. She constantly told me that I was worthless, unloveable, ugly and fat, even though I was none of those things. She played many cruel tricks that always hurt and which gradually destroyed my self-esteem.

I saw my Grandmother every day in an attempt to protect my Mother. I could prevent my Gran from being cruel to my Mum if I took all the abuse and that is what I tried to do from a very young age. My Gran constantly threatened me with further punishment, both to myself and my parents, if I spoke about the treatment I received from her and so I stayed quiet.

By the age of 13, the abuse had worn me out and my body began to shut down. I developed "glandular fever" and ended up in the children's ward of a hospital. My Grandmother visited me daily and, under the noses of the doctors and nurses, continued to abuse me. I was obviously unhappy and doctors prescribed large adult doses of anti-depressant drugs. The powerful drugs caused me to start hallucinating and eventually I lost the ability to read or write. After my discharge from the hospital, I slowly taught myself to read again with the aid of a piece of card that isolated only a few words at a time. It took two years for me to reach a stage where I was able to read and write normally again.

My Mum had developed severe migraines when I was a child, also due to my Grandmother's behaviour towards her. By the time I was 17, she was taking a cocktail of strong prescription drugs. Following the death of an Uncle, my Nan became obsessional and Mum, no longer able to cope, disappeared into a fantasy world. My Gran told me everything was my fault and that I had caused all my family's problems. I decided I had to disappear. I felt totally unworthy and stopped eating. I felt I no longer deserved food and I also started to self-harm. I was cutting my arms very frequently in an attempt to punish myself and to try to block out the mental torment with physical pain. Trapped in an impossible situation, I found I was developing anorexia - my body's desperate cry for help.

At a dangerously low weight, I started college in an attempt to put distance between myself and my Gran. She stayed in touch though and began sending me poisonous letters. I only stayed at college for a year because after the first six months, I began to be treated badly by one of my housemates. On leaving college, I decided to get a job and began work in a Solicitors practice. There I met Tom, a 70 year old man in the midst of a painful divorce who seemed to gain pleasure from publicly humiliating me.

I soon lost the small amount of weight that I had gained at college while I was away from my Grandmother's direct influence. Now I had two abusers to handle, Tom at work and Gran at home. By the time I was 21 I was chronically anorexic and was referred to a psychiatrist who simply told me to "Go home and eat". This was impossible for me as I now felt controlled by an anorexic voice that spoke to me constantly, telling me how bad I was every time I ate. Unable to force myself to eat, I became very weak and was forced to give up my job.

I was by now totally obsessed with food and went to extreme measures to avoid eating. I worked out elaborate plans to dispose of food and also started taking laxatives. I began seeing a psychiatric nurse once a week. She disagreed with the diagnosis of anorexia and said I was suffering from M.E. Comforted, I agreed with her, because it masked the shame I felt at having anorexia.

I worked with the nurse for a year and I fell deeper and deeper into the anorexia. My Dad retired from his job and we moved to Cornwall. Within three months, I was in an acute psychiatric hospital, on complete bed rest because the doctors were scared I could have a heart attack at any time. My Grandmother sent me letters at the hospital, telling me my parents didn't love me and asking me why I just didn't let myself die?

After a month I managed to convince the doctors to discharge me and I began therapy with another nurse but over time my weight just gradually fell once more. I constantly lied and cheated the doctors, trying to fool them into believing I was heavier than I actually was but I still looked extremely ill. They called in an emergency treatment team to help me try to eat more at home because once again my life was at risk. My weight continued to fall and to my total horror, I found myself back in hospital again. This time I was admitted to an Eating Disorders Unit 200 miles from my home. There I was told that I was only hours from death.

The hospital did save my life and I stayed there for six months, working hard at therapy sessions each day. I wasn't totally honest with the doctors though - the anorexic voice in my head was still very powerful. It still told me that eating food was bad and being thin was good. I hid the voice from the medical staff though and managed to convince them I was well enough to leave. I was still a very sick young woman when I was discharged from the hospital in Bristol. Physically I was a lot better but mentally and emotionally I was still very ill.

For the next five years, I lived at home with my parents. Gradually my weight dropped but I managed to maintain it at a level just high enough to keep me out of hospital. I started my own needlework business and lived an isolated life at home each day, sewing elaborate pictures. The only time I went out was with my parents, and we all lived a very controlled and strictly timetabled existence. I was living the life of a child instead of an adult woman.

I was nearly 30 years old and extremely lonely. I took a huge risk and joined a pen pal club in the hope of making new friends. It was through this club that I met Simon - a kind, understanding and caring man. Like myself, Simon suffered from low self-esteem and I felt able to tell him about my life, including the abuse and the anorexia. This was the real start of my recovery. Simon showed me that I was not the terrible person my Grandmother had always said I was. Slowly I began to understand that I didn't need to constantly punish myself by starvation and self-harm. I realised that Simon had nothing to gain by lying to me about how I looked and I learnt to trust him and his view of my body, rather than my distorted anorexic view.

After a few months we were engaged. I am now two years into my recovery and, with Simon's help, I am living a fulfilled and happy life. Now I feel I want to give something back and hope that I can help other sufferers of this horrifying and increasingly widespread illness with my book. I decided to write about my experience of anorexia to show that however far into the illness you are, you CAN still recover. In the six months since my book was published, I have been talking with hundreds of sufferers via e-mail. BBC Television filmed a documentary about my story called "Quietly Dying" in an attempt to spread the message about the dangers of eating disorders. I have been a speaker at the Eating Disorders Conference, describing anorexia from a patient's perspective to doctors. I have also been asked to give staff training at an ED unit, teaching the staff exactly what it feels like to live with anorexia and the anorexic voice.

I hope that just by offering this brief summary of my life, I may have given you some hope. I lived with anorexia for 14 years. I NEVER believed that I would be free of the illness, yet I still managed to fight my way back. If you are suffering from an eating disorder please feel free to visit my website at www.annapaterson.com and if you would like a chat, my e-mail address is anna@anorectic.fsnet.co.uk

“I can’t emphasise enough what a massive part SWEDA have played in my journey to finding myself again. They are an incredible charity and are brilliant at their job. Over the past two years I have really started to understand myself and I have addressed issues that I had hid away in the past and with my counsellor’s amazing listening, non-judgmental and supportive skills I have been able to take back control of myself and rationally look at my emotions in day to day life."

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