(Trigger warning: this blog post contains details of eating disorders and anxiety)
For many people that knew me when I was younger, they are probably shocked and somewhat confused by my decision of becoming a psychologist and starting my own mental health business. The younger version of myself dreamed of becoming a west end performer or a singer on a cruise ship and I spent my entire childhood working towards this glamourous vision. However, not many people know that I also spent my entire childhood and early adult life suffering from a still not widely known type of Eating Disorder (ED) that shaped my experiences and is one of the reasons that led me to create Mindset in 2017.
The problems with my relationship with food started when I was around 2 years old. Like most typical toddlers, my appetite changed, and I started to develop food preferences, snubbing the majority of previously loved meals my parents gave me in favour for a select few preferred foods. Like most loving parents, they would do all they can to persuade me to eat a varied and healthy diet, but this fell on deaf and stubborn ears that usually resulted in a tantrum until I got what I wanted to eat. For the most part, behaviour like this is completely normal and infants often go through a ‘picky stage’ who will of course favour a chicken nugget over a vegetable. Developing children often favour carbohydrates because they need the energy to fuel their growth, however, usually by puberty the flexibility of diet has returned to a better balance.
I, however, had an extreme and narrow range of foods that I would eat, and it became difficult at times to meet my nutritional needs. Sadly, because of my age, I was just considered to be a very ‘fussy eater’ and so continued living through childhood eating mostly chips, beans, and chocolate spread (not all in one dish I might add!). While that may sound typical for a fussy child, as I grew older, I refused to eat a lot of what the majority of children my age would have loved. Pizza, ketchup, burgers, sausage rolls, or cheese was abhorrent in my eyes. I couldn’t enjoy a birthday party or eat out at a restaurant and it would make me incredibly anxious if I was made to eat somewhere other than home. I liked crisps, but only a finite amount of flavours; I liked fruit and vegetables, but only 2 of each and I was repulsed if they had thick skins or certain colours; I liked chicken, but only if it was breaded and if I saw something discoloured I would stop eating immediately and feel sick. I feared anything new, particularly if I’d never heard of it. God forbid we went on holiday because everything looked and tasted different (one holiday I ate the same dish every day for a week). I feared opening up my lunchbox each day in case my parents tried to put something new in there. I would hide food and occasionally eat tissue in fear of upsetting someone who had slaved on making a nice meal for me. Food was stressful, and it continued to be right up until my early-20s. Don’t get me wrong, I did occasionally try something new, but I didn’t eat a burger until I was 14, an egg until I was 16, pizza/cheese until I was 18 (and drunkenly dared to do it). By then, I was just branded as the ‘fussy one’ and left to eat my minimal food groups in the hope that it would just get better one day.
It all came crashing down when I got to university and I was living in halls, left to fend for myself with my newly found independence. That’s when things really started to get worse because I had no one to persuade me to eat and if anyone questioned me, I could simply say I was on a diet. In my first month of university, I had lost a stone in weight and contracted bronchitis, likely because if you don’t eat well your immune system weakens and cannot fight off illnesses, so I was sent home for a few weeks and missed the start of my course. Later in the year, I started getting severe pains in my abdomen that led to blood tests and ultrasounds to see if I was celiac or had cysts. Thankfully, nothing came back as concerning and I was told to keep a food diary and try cutting things out of my diet to see if I had intolerance or allergies. After a long slog of tests and countless doctors, in 2014 someone noticed that I may not be ‘just a fussy eater’ after all.
Eventually, I was told I had an ED called Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) where I met every piece of criteria for the diagnoses and referred to counselling services. It was explained to me that this ED had only been introduced to the diagnostic manual in the past year, so it was incredibly new and justified why it hadn’t been picked up previously. I was relieved to see that I had a genuine reason to explain my behaviour and that something could be done for it. However, it pains me to say that the stigma of mental health led me to keep this to myself and I ignored the many phone calls and letters from the mental health services in fear of what people would think of me. I was too ashamed to admit to my friends and family that I had a problem and needed counselling. Instead, I carried the secret with me for another 18 months, and looking back this only increased my anxiety and made me feel worse.
One silver lining of my diagnosis was that it enabled me to read up on ARFID and how others had overcome their ED. For me, educating myself on mental health and about ARFID on websites like BEAT empowered me to try and overcome my ED and I did actually get a bit better and introduced more variety into my diet. I do think my housemates deserve some credit here too as they always cooked for me and unknowingly, if had they not have done this I wouldn’t have had the courage or motivation to try new things. And of course, my parents deserve the recognition of this too, and possibly a medal for coping with the tantrums. Eventually, I found the courage to seek and accept help and I did manage to go to counselling for some support. While I do have a few ‘fussy’ tendencies that I’m not sure I’ll overcome, I’m pleased to say that I’m considered to be in remission, and I can finally enjoy food.
My experience made me realise how important it is to educate people on mental health and how harmful stigma can be, particularly if it holds you back from seeking and accepting help. I wholeheartedly wish I’d have accepted the help the first time around as I caused so much frustration and disappointment which even led me to lose friends. I wish I’d have spared myself from even more suffering by going to therapy; and I wish I’d have had the courage to be open and honest about my ED sooner. Nevertheless, should I have not been through this experience, my interest in mental health wouldn’t have happened, I may never have felt this determination to engage, educate and empower others with their mental health and wellbeing, and Mindset wouldn’t have been born.
I hope that by sharing this it highlights my passion for my job; educates you on the lesser-known eating disorder, ARFID; and most importantly highlights the danger of stigma and the importance of mental health education.
It’s okay not to be okay and it is in no way a sign of weakness if you need help and support.