Sarah Glover-Smith takes a real approach to telling her tale of anorexia. In this brave and honest piece, she eloquently expresses the true highs, lows, relapses, and recoveries, dispelling widely-believed myths through her highly personal account. Though Sarah’s story is one of inspiring strength, what truly shines through is her equal endorsement of kindness, community, and love.
I want to get real about mental illness. The kind of real that might make some of you uncomfortable but might also be a total game changer for the way in which eating disorders are understood. When we think eating disorder, we usually think of unrealistic beauty standards for women, perfectionistic tendencies, diet culture, affluence, and a need for control. But there’s more to the story than that. The number of men admitted to hospital with eating disorders has risen by 70% over the past six years – the same rate of increase as among women. The mortality rates of eating disorders are the highest of any psychiatric disorder, and, of those surviving, 50% remain trapped in the tortuous cycle of recovery and relapse. Eating disorders are not something that young girls give to themselves so that they can stay thin. They are serious, devastating illnesses that can happen to anyone, at any age, for a whole host of different reasons.
My eating disorder story started when I was seven, when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I wanted to be perfect. I remember the first time I felt self-conscious of the space my body took up when my friends put their hands around their arms to see if they could make their thumb and forefingers touch and I was unable to do it. I felt disappointed, embarrassed and so distinctly imperfect that I took the next day off school.
In secondary school I found myself in a hyper-competitive environment, where I saw examples of what I deemed to be perfection; higher grades, more extra curriculars, more likes on social media profiles, more invitations to social events, than I had. I saw confidence, popularity, and beauty, things that seemed so objective, and I wasn’t making the mark. This was so terrifying that lay in bed with a chest so tight that I thought it was going to rip apart.
I thought I was failing, that the reason I was so unhappy was because I wasn’t good enough. All I could see when I looked at myself were unforgivable mistakes and flaws, so I addressed my most hated one: my weight. I made myself a list of rules and I followed them; I lost weight, and people complimented me, so I kept going. As my family began to worry, I began to lie. For me, the path to happiness lay in one principle- that fat is failure and skinny is success. This is culturally justified in a society that suffers from fat phobia, and in which skinny represents drive and determination, and seems equated with worth and happiness.
As my weight continued to decline, I was diagnosed with Anorexia, and admitted to an eating disorder service with which I didn’t engage. I had finally found something that I was good at, and I measured my success with great delight when I stepped on the scales and saw the number fall closer to zero. I exercised at night and early in the morning until I was exhausted, and aching, and bruised. I avoided food at all costs and I became a solitary lying machine who viewed people as obstacles to my weight loss.
Anorexia is often characterised as body dysmorphia. This does not mean that an anorexic cannot see their protruding ribs, hips, and spine, because they can. It means that this is not enough for them, because they are not enough. Anorexia was slowly killing me; my hair was falling out, my feet turned blue, and my heart rate was so low that my body wouldn’t let me sleep in case I didn’t wake up. I was destroying my family as well as myself but I didn’t think I deserved to stop. Eating disorders are not a choice but a coping mechanism, my rules kept me safe, my numbness protected me from feeling the things that really hurt. I clung on to the illness and the rules and the routine because I couldn’t see how gaining weight would make my life any more worthwhile.
The longer that you suffer, the harder it is to realise that there is true happiness to be found outside of an eating disorder, but I found a glimpse of it when I went to the Gambia. I was deeply moved by the poverty I saw, but more so by the love and happiness within the community, which was like nothing I had ever seen. I came back from the trip and made a conscious effort to change. It was excruciating going through the process of recovery, but I managed to get myself to a stable place and go to university, but couldn’t let go of the idea that my self-worth needed to be earned. This now depended on my ability to help others. I ran myself into the ground doing everything I could to please others. I became insecure, terrified of gaining weight and losing my new friends, and I fell back into my old habits with food and began to lose weight.
It was only when I found myself losing a destructive relationship that I realised that I had my own community. It was the first time that I had allowed myself to connect with people who were my empathetic and open support and allowed them to help me. I realised that I had people who loved me unconditionally. It was only with these people around me that I could give myself enough patience, and time, to heal. I found comfort in being honest about my feelings for the first time in my life, and I started to write my own blog. After a few posts, people started to reach out to me and tell me I’d comforted them in their own struggle or helped them to understand the suffering of someone close to them.
If you are struggling now, I want you to know that you are more than an illness, you can take up space and you do have things to offer. You deserve to live a life that you are excited about, not one governed by the rules of a disease. Stop punishing yourself for not being perfect, because no one is. And don’t be ashamed of your story, because it will inspire others.
To read more of Sarah’s stories and self-help tips, head over to her blog on: simplysaz.co.uk