Thursday, 11 January 2018

WTF is Orthorexia?! // Eating Disorder Recovery

Hello lovely people,

Today's post is probably the most daunting thing I've ever written. I've thought long and hard about whether or not I should write it. I have decided to write this post because I hope that it will help end stigma surrounding mental illness and mental health in general.

Before I had orthorexia, I was totally ignorant about eating disorders. I remember watching a program about body image and anorexia, aged 11 and being completely dumbfounded by the problems of the girl being interviewed (turns out it wasn't a very insightful program but still). I couldn't comprehend how somebody could look in the mirror and hate the way they looked and not only that, be completely consumed by it.

The girl described herself as being 'so fat' and needing to lose weight. At that point in my life, I had never considered losing weight and had always had a healthy relationship with food. I distinctly remember being very envious of the girl's body and feeling insecure about the fact that my body was much bigger than hers.

It was during puberty that my negative body image really started to take form; as my body changed, so did my attitude towards it. The clothes that I wanted to wear weren't available in my size; I had to shop in the women's section for the first time and ended up wearing clothes that were frumpy and ill-fitting. Of course I blamed my body for this. I remember refusing to take off my jumper in school because I felt so disgusted by my own body.

These disordered thoughts turned into disordered eating some years later, when I was in love with all things musical theatre. I believed that the only way to be cast as the lead role, to be taken seriously as a dancer, to get to wear the beautiful costumes and live happily ever after, was to lose weight. If I wanted to play the part of a fairy princess, I needed to look like one. I needed to be petite, pretty and light as a feather. Little did I know that any size discrimination taking place during castings was
in no way a reflection of my abilities or suitability for a part.

As I began to pursue acting as a career, I decided that my success hinged upon my appearance. After all, the female leads that I saw on screen and on stage were thin and surely if I wanted to be in their shoes, thin was the way to go. I was reluctant to diet as I knew deep down that it was unwise and also that diets didn't work long-term. Then I came across the miracle solution: clean eating. Not only would it make me thin, it would make me healthy too. By only eating 'natural' amounts of 'natural' foods, I would 'naturally' reach my 'natural' weight....

It sounded perfect, no crash dieting for me..this was a 'lifestyle change'.

I cut out dairy, sugar, meat, eggs, any processed food, oils, anything with additives or preservatives and I was already gluten and fish intolerant (weird combo, I know); everything had to be clean.

I also began exercising excessively in my room, staring critically at myself in the mirror before and after each workout to see if there were any visible changes in my body.

I even took photos, ready for my big 'before and after reveal', after seeing so many similar posts on social media.

But it was never enough. I was never sweaty enough, exhausted enough, hungry enough. I still didn't look like the women on social media; their glowing golden stomachs were hard where mine was soft. I didn't even notice the weight loss until I had lost about 2 stone. There were no scales in the house so I wasn't weighing myself regularly...besides this was about health not numbers, remember?

I would go for long periods of time without eating and force myself to exercise even when I felt faint. I even felt uncomfortable sitting down because I wasn't burning up enough calories. Every time I moved my body, it was because I hated it. I burnt myself out completely.

I had no idea that this obsession with 'health' and 'fitness' had another name.... orthorexia.

During all this time, complements came flooding in. People who had never spoken to me before suddenly complimented my figure, my weight loss, my inspirational health kick, telling me how they would have to 'lock me up to keep the boys away' (FYI, present day-feminist-Niamh has some serious problems with that statement).

I could finally fit into the clothes that I wanted to wear and felt confident expressing myself through fashion. I was finally getting seen in a way that I had never been before. On the outside, everything looked great.

I even considered losing my period a mega-bonus (and while periods are such a b***h, they are also totally healthy and necessary). As my hormones waved au revoir, so did my acne, which felt like progress, since clean eating promised to 'cure' acne ( I had no idea that this was a sign of how sick I was). My immune system totally flopped and I had a permanent sore throat, not to mention the fact I was freezing cold the. whole. time.

A scary fact is that I was actually eating more than the suggested portion sizes in the clean eating books and websites I was following and experienced extreme guilt for doing so.

Another scary fact is that my BMI was in the 'healthy' range this entire time.

In the absence of a very low BMI, I was relieved that I exhibited other ED physical indicators like amenorrhea and a drop in internal body temperature. Even so, I did not believe that I was sick enough to receive treatment.

While the physical symptoms of eating disorders are talked about at great lengths, they are really only the tip of the ice-berg.

So many people who suffer from eating disorders never meet the diagnostic criteria for treatment because that criteria comprises mostly of physical side affects/indicators. And while these physical ailments should of course be addressed and treated, they should not form part of the criteria for the diagnosis of a mental illness.

It is important to note that, disappointingly, orthorexia nervosa, is not recognised as a clinical diagnosis in the DSM-5.

The immense self-loathing that fuelled my eating disorder came from years of believing that to be beautiful, healthy, popular, successful, had to be thin.This is no coincidence.. diet culture and the diet industry have done a great job at convincing us of this (more on this here). Most recently the clean-eating craze has become a cloak under which diet culture can hide.

In fact, I saw three different nutritionists during the initial stages of recovery (who were all aware of my eating disorder) who all gave me nutritional advice that involved cutting out even more food groups/reducing carbohydrates and more clean-eating and detoxing all in the name of health. Not only did this cause me to relapse, the excessive amount of fruit and vegetables I was eating had a considerably negative effect on my digestive system.

I have also received poor advice from several other health professionals.

I didn't write this post as a sob-story, I wrote it in an effort to raise awareness for eating disorders, particularly orthorexia and EDOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwised Specified) that are largely unknown.

There is a significant amount of stigma and ignorance surrounding eating disorders and had I not developed orthorexia (and subsequently bulimia), I would still be contributing to that ignorance.

Eating disorders affect your whole life, your friends and family and combined with high levels of anxiety and depression often result in the person suffering feeling isolated and misunderstood.

I hope that in writing this, I can spread the message that eating disorders are nothing to be ashamed of and you should be able to talk about them openly. Also, if you are struggling, don't be afraid to reach out for help, however, be sure to educate yourself on the ways that disordered eating is actively promoted by professionals and the media. Remember that recovery is always possible, even if you don't believe it.

Lastly, Time to Talk day 2018 is an annual event created to combat mental health stigma, hosted by (led by charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness) on February 1st. I encourage you to use this as an opportunity to talk about mental health regardless of whether you're struggling or not. If you choose to do so online, you can use the hashtag #TimetoTalk. Do not underestimate the difference you can make.


Remember to keep up to date by following this blog on bloglovin and Facebook :)

Until the next post,

Niamh xxx

P.S. I intend to talk about this much more, specifically focusing on ED recovery, but never fear, I also have some upcoming beauty posts planned for some light relief so stay tuned...

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