Wednesday 23 March 2016

Seeking Support: Anorexia & Coeliac Disease

Molly, University of Southampton graduate and Communications Officer at Student Hubs, shares her experience of speaking up about physical and mental health difficulties. Find her on Twitter: @molly_whyte.
- Molly Whyte

I can be stubbornly independent. I want to do everything within my capacity (and sometimes beyond my capacity) and I want to do it as well as I can. While I don't hesitate to learn from people at work who have more experience than I do, I have found it harder to seek support when dealing with personal issues. Supporting others is something that comes naturally to me, but I can struggle when the tables are turned.

My self-reliance was put to the test in the summer of 2015, when I returned home from my final year of university exhausted and underweight. Between late May and early August, I went through the diagnostic process for coeliac disease, a chronic autoimmune condition, alongside initial recovery from anorexia. As someone who takes comfort from being organised and in control, this was an overwhelming challenge, physically and mentally. If I had been more open with my GP about my eating difficulties when we discussed my 'gluten challenge', he probably would have advised against doing both at the same time.

Still, I was as persistent in my initial efforts to recover and follow the gluten challenge requirements ahead of my endoscopy as I had been at undereating and overexercising. Despite being terrified of the physical distress and changes in routine I was going through, I had graduation, holidays and a new job to look forward to, so I committed to getting better.

Having spent three years at university trying to hide my eating difficulties from concerned family and friends, I opened up to my Mum about the full extent of the problem. It was painful, but so necessary. It was difficult to accept that I wasn't entirely managing on my own and that I needed to learn how to look after myself properly. I had been working hard to do everything perfectly - academic work, volunteering, internships, planning for life after graduation - that I got lost in restriction and ritual.

Although I was underweight, in pain, permanently cold, losing my hair in clumps and distant from my friends and boyfriend at the time, I had been unable to accept that I was sick. Eventually admitting I was brought on relief for my newfound desire to recover and grief for the body, energy, time, friendships and fun that were sacrificed during my worst months.

Confronting this also meant dealing with the causes of the problem. Throughout my life, many of the physical side effects of undiagnosed coeliac disease had led me to feel fat, sick, achy and uncomfortable after eating. Between June and August, having to make myself eat significant amounts of food, including gluten, triggered brain fog, migraines, joint and bone pain, night sweats, lethargy and digestive trouble. On top of this, the necessary weight gain made my unhelpful thoughts more prominent. I mainly spent my time having blood tests, watching Netflix and sleeping. On better days, I managed to walk the short distance from my parents’ house to the beach and catch up with old friends over a cup of tea.

Alongside these physical issues, I had to face anxiety head on. I have been prone to worrying and perfectionism since childhood, but family trauma in my teenage years, body-shaming comments, media influences and my own tendency for comparison led to a greater need for control. I speak more openly about this and the physical side of recovery now, as it helps to keep me accountable to looking after myself. I have struggled with restrictive relapses in the past year, but I work hard to let my rational thoughts win. When triggered by feelings of stress and anxiety or other factors like a comment or news story, I now feel better able to rationalise the negative feelings that arise.

Coeliac disease means it is still necessary for me to be cautious with food. I have to avoid foods that cause me pain and internal damage. I can even get ill from eating gluten free food made in other people’s kitchens or in restaurants, due to contaminated utensils, pans and ovens. Despite this, I try to focus on the positives and things I can eat. Deliciously Ella and other similar “health food” figures have been criticised for promoting restrictive eating, but her recipes have been a huge help in introducing me to coeliac-friendly foods, breaking my routines and making me feel more normal. Dealing with physical symptoms and anxiety is part of my life, but it is not the biggest part of it anymore.

Having the energy and headspace to give to friendships, family, fulfilling work, exploring new places, volunteering and hobbies is worth much more than being thin. Since moving to Oxford seven months ago I have felt moments of happiness, independence and community that wouldn’t have been possible had I not made those first steps towards wellness. When I feel old habits start to return, I remind myself that there are moments like these to be enjoyed every day. I also tell myself that eating properly means hopefully repairing the osteoporosis and other physical damage caused by illness. I want to be well enough to experience other parts of life still to come, like having children. I can’t do that if I don’t eat.

I share this experience not to gain sympathy or attention, but to urge you to speak to someone if you are struggling. While potentially changing people's perception of you is scary, it can be freeing to open up. I am lucky to have friends in Oxford and elsewhere who check in with me. My housemates, other friends and family give me encouragement and support when I need it. I happily do the same for them, because it is so important to look after ourselves and each other.

Whether dealing with a mental and/or physical health difficulties or not, we could all benefit from discussing our wellbeing more - at home, school, university, work and elsewhere. I am happy to see organisations like Student Minds, Beat, Time to Change, Young Minds and Girlguiding creating discussion and challenging stigma around these issues. I am also thankful to the Student Hubs team for encouraging self care and a culture in which we can bring our whole selves to work. Wellbeing sessions at our regular Team Days have been a valuable part of this.

When experiencing a mental or physical health issue, do reach out to a friend or family member and seek advice from your GP. If you are struggling, then start the conversation. It will be worth it. You are not your illness, you are loved, you are capable and you deserve to enjoy life.

Check out Student Minds' Understanding Eating Disorders resources for more information and further support for those experiencing eating difficulties.

The articles that have been linked to in this do not necessarily reflect Student Minds' viewpoints.

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