Food Demonising And Eating Disorders

During the month of April 2016, the food company that manufactures “Dolmio” pasta sauce issued a health warning telling people that they should not consume certain varieties of their products more than once a week due to high levels of salt, sugar and fat. The next day, the newspapers were covered in ridiculously dramatic headlines like “The Bolognese sauce in your cupboard is plotting to kill you” and “Research suggests it is safer to drink bleach than creamy tomato pasta bake”. Supermarkets gathered up all remaining stocks of Dolmio sauce and threw them into the ocean where over one million fish were knocked unconscious by the sudden downpour of jarred carbonara, and people fled their homes to set up new lives abroad as the sudden media frenzy had inspired such fear in their hearts that they’d rather safely escape from their kitchens without a backwards glance, than risk having a heart attack trying to dispose of a jar of pesto they had foolishly lurking in the cupboard. Now I will admit that this is perhaps a slight exaggeration on what happened after Dolmio’s announcement, but the message I am basically trying to convey here is that some pasta sauce company said there was some sugar and salt in their sauces and absolute chaos ensued.

This chaos probably doesn’t seem worthy of a blog post, especially on a website that focuses on mental health, but the problem is that this whole Dolmio extravaganza is not an isolated incident when it comes to the fact that the world has suddenly become obsessed with “clean eating” and being healthy. Just the other day I saw a headline on a magazine that asked “Which is more dangerous: Carbs or Fat”, a ridiculous question considering the fact that people need carbohydrates and fat to stay alive. It is far more dangerous to not eat enough of those food groups than to eat over whatever amount of grams the government has said is acceptable or required for every single one of us individually, despite vast differences in age, height, weight and exercise regime across the population. Ok too much of certain food groups can be bad for you, but no individual food group is especially dangerous, they all play a part, are all vital, and this food demonising obsession of recent years is incredibly disordered and unhealthy both in terms of mental and physical wellbeing.

Eating healthily is great, but being obsessed with what you eat and counting every calorie, every fat gram and every grain of sugar is not normal and is something that, prior to recent years, I had only seen in fellow people with eating disorders. Food demonising and counting “macros” is such an issue in the eating disorder community that groups are offered to try and challenge these behaviours, which would be a hell of a lot easier if the rest of the world wasn’t suddenly condoning the thoughts and fears around a potato that you have been told are unwarranted.
During one of my hospital admissions there was a brand of cereal bar that we had as part of the meal plan every day. It came in a variety of flavours but I always went for the blueberry one, because it was the lowest calorie option…However, one fateful day at the hospital, disaster struck. WE HAD RUN OUT OF BLUEBERRY. I suggested we should call the police immediately to deal with this heinous crime of cereal bar deprivation, but for some reason the staff thought this was not the way to respond and told me I would have to have another flavour bar. And they call me crazy? Still, as they were the staff, I had little choice in the matter and ended up having a different flavour that was a mere one calorie more. The next day I gained weight at weigh in and I put all the blame on that different flavoured cereal bar. I did not think of all the meals I was eating in the hospital, the fact I was on a weight gain diet and an eating disorder program designed specifically for weight restoration, no, all I thought about was that cereal bar, and I immediately decided that that flavour was dangerous and never to be eaten again. In my eyes that bar had caused my weight gain and I demonised that bar so extremely that I pictured Satan as that cluster of oats and honey I had consumed, presiding over the underworld with an iron fist and chunks of real fruit (Gosh I shudder at the memory). Hopefully anyone reading this will see that demonising that particular flavour of cereal bar was ridiculous, clearly irrational and that obviously there were many other things influencing the number on the scales at that time. Yet still the message is being spread that we should demonise and run from certain foods (like Dolmio pasta sauce) in the name of “health”, without remembering that health is another thing influenced by hundreds of complex variants and not determined by the macaroni cheese you had for dinner.

In the mental health world, being obsessed with “clean eating” is called Orthorexia, a term coined in 1996 to address the unhealthy fixation on healthy eating suffered by some people with eating disorders and it is a big problem. I myself have been obsessed with government guidelines when it comes to food intake, and due to all the scare stories I have developed a fear of salt. At times I have been so afraid of salt that I have avoided eating a single milligram, because low salt diets are “healthy”, but it has never done me any good. In fact I have ended up in A&E multiple times due to this lack of salt causing low sodium, a key electrolyte that people NEED in order to keep the heart working.

We really need to stop avoiding food groups or labelling them as “dangerous” when it is so much MORE dangerous to become obsessed and potentially develop a fatal eating disorder. Ok if we ever discover crowds of potatoes rallying in secret, plotting to take over the world, then maybe we can see a danger in the carbohydrate department, but until then can we all just sit down and eat some damn pasta like we used to rather than this spiralised courgette nonsense that suddenly seems to be so popular.

I suppose that the message I really want to get across here is that in no circumstance is a food or a food group to be considered a danger in itself, as the real danger here is actually food demonising that condones and can potentially lead people into serious eating disorders. Obviously you should still eat your greens at dinner and whack a banana on your cereal, but you should also be able to eat a bowl of actual spaghetti rather than a courgette that has been cut to ribbons. Take government warnings with a pinch of salt (literally, remember, sodium is important), and stop seeing any food as the ruler of the underworld. It isn’t just an apple a day that keeps the doctor away, sometimes you also need a piece of good old chocolate cake.

Dangerous potatoes

Advertisements

Why “Self-Care” Is Important And How To Get Better At It

Pretty much every time I part from someone who knows that I have mental health problems, they will tell me to “take care” of myself. It is a lovely thing to say, and an instruction I very much wish I could follow, but for some reason I, much like many other people with mental health problems, find the act of self care incredibly difficult.
It isn’t a matter of being incompetent, if you asked me to take care of someone else I could do it very well, but being kind to myself is another story.

As you are all probably aware, I am currently in hospital trying to battle anorexia, but this week on top of all that going on in my head, I have the added joy of having developed shingles. To be honest when I was first informed of this I was rather excited, for it is not every day one is diagnosed with an illness that rhymes with jingles. As an impulse buy I ordered four large boxes of bells to be delivered to the ward because I really wanted to be referred to as “the patient with shingles who jingles”, but since they have arrived the novelty of shingles has very much worn off and I have lost the ability to go anywhere or do anything discreetly around the hospital anymore, because every time I move it sounds like the ward is being invaded by a troop of morris dancers or Santa’s reindeer.
Practically every hour staff are telling me to sit down, rest and take it easy, when I am anxious or upset and struggling they advise me to do something they know I used to and sometimes manage to enjoy like watch a film, read a book, play a video game or draw, but allowing myself to do these things feels selfish, indulgent and like a waste of time. It is like I always feel I have to be doing something productive, no matter how I feel, something of use to someone else or something to tick off of a to do list, for the act of “relaxing” serves no tangible purpose that I can use to justify it. This problem of self care is especially apparent here in hospital because I can see it in all of the other patients I am surrounded by, they all feel the need to do “something”, without realising that relaxing is “doing something”, it isn’t wasting time but is something vitally important that everyone should do a lot more often.

Whether you have mental health problems or not, everyone in this world has some level of stress and needs to allow themselves a bit of self care and a break for their overall wellbeing. Maybe one of the many reasons the number of people developing mental illnesses is on the rise, is because we are all so busy these days that we have forgotten the fundamental basics of taking care of ourselves. Doing things you enjoy (or if you have depression and find enjoyment difficult, doing things you used to enjoy/not giving yourself a hard time for lying on the sofa when thats all you feel able to do), taking time out, resting and, in short, being kind to yourself, is as important for your wellbeing as all the other crazy things people do in the name of healthy living, like getting enemas or taking cod liver oil tablets.

For this reason then, I have come up with an ingenious piece of advice to all people with mental health problems who struggle with self care, whether that be not allowing yourself to sit and rest because it feels lazy, not feeling worthy of taking a shower/getting dressed/putting on make up/ decorating your room to make it a little brighter, or even letting yourself take a nap. Actually even if you don’t have mental health problems and struggle with allowing yourself to slow down from the hectic stress of daily life in any sense, I would like to urge you in the name of both your physical and your mental health, to do one very important thing for me. That thing? To treat yourself like a puppy. I will even allow you free reign on the decision as to what breed of puppy you would like to treat yourself as (I would say the fluffier the better), and that is not a decision I would trust everyone with, so please, handle the responsibility wisely.

Now of course, by treat yourself like a puppy I am not advising you trot off to the vet to be neutered, microchipped, nor would I suggest entering yourself into Crufts. Trust me, it doesn’t work. (I tried to convince them I was a cocker spaniel to get into the agility round but they didn’t believe me. Told me that I was clearly a poodle and I was so offended I left). No, what I mean when I tell you to treat yourself like a puppy is to do for yourself and be kind/take care of yourself as you would do for a puppy. If you need to rest, allow yourself to nap, if you are hungry, allow yourself to eat, if you are dirty, allow yourself to wash, allow yourself to just sit, to be, to play, whether that be with a rubber ball, some sticks you found in the garden, or the human equivalent in recreational entertainment. Every time your head tells you not to do an act of self care like resting, washing, eating or playing because you don’t deserve it, take the former concept of you and remember that you are a puppy, and if you had a puppy, what would you do? Leave it to starve and force it to round up sheep without a break or rest or play? (For the duration of this post you also might want to imagine you are a shepherd with sheep to herd). Would you treat it so badly that the RSPCA were forced to come round, seize your canine companion and put you in prison for puppy cruelty of the first degree, never allowed to own a dog again in your life? No! You would let it rest and play and eat and wash without even thinking it was indulgent or selfish to do so and it is exactly the same as the right and need to take care of and be kind to yourself.

Obviously in an ideal world you would tackle your issue with self worth so that you felt able to be kind to yourself without having to pretend you were a cocker spaniel, but self worth can take a long time to develop, and it is important to have a way of managing a little self care whilst that self worth is germinating. No matter how low your opinion of yourself, you deserve to be kind and take care. Even the declaration of human rights states we have the right to be treated to a certain standard, and that includes the way in which we treat ourselves. It is illegal for someone to imprison someone without food or shelter, or to keep them from the things they love and hobbies that bring them happiness (that is my interpretation of “The right to your own things” anyway), so don’t let a voice in your head neglect you and treat you like some evil dictator.

One of the groups in the hospital I am in at the moment is all about learning to be kind to yourself and self care, so this isn’t even me telling you to try to experiment living in this crazy way of treating yourself nicely off the top of my head, taking care of and being kind to yourself is officially NHS approved and declared as important. Yes ok the group at the hospital isn’t telling me to pretend that I am a cocker spaniel, but for now that is how I am trying to manage self care until I have worked on the ability to be kind to myself as the mentally troubled, shingles ridden human that I am. So, for now, if you struggle with self care and find the concept of it too hard because of low self worth, please don’t be so hard on yourself. Join me, be a puppy, and treat yourself as such, with love, care, and maybe even with a little belly rub thrown in.

Self care puppies

Demystifying The Mental Health Act…With Penguins

If there is ever a widely reported act of violence on the news orchestrated by a single individual, the majority of the time it will be equally widely reported that said person was mentally ill and most likely “detained under the Mental Health Act”. Understandably then, when people hear of people being detained under the Mental Health Act, they associate the Act with danger. To be fair I can understand why people may jump to this conclusion.
If every time I heard about some violent crime I simultaneously heard that the perpetrator was addicted to coco pops, I may naturally make a connection between violent knife attacks in the street and coco pops. When the coco pops are simply mentioned as a “thing” and there is no explanation to tell me that coco pops are actually little puffs of cocoa sugar covered wheat based cereal with the key ability to turn the milk chocolatey, how am I to know any different?
Therefore, seeing as I am currently “detained” and have recently been given a load of forms explaining the official legal terms of it all, I thought I would do a post to clear up any confusion and to give a purely factual explanation of what the Mental Health Act is, what it does and what it means.
I don’t however want this to turn into some boring school lesson, so to liven it up I am going to provide my explanation via little examples involving “Patricia the penguin”. You know what they say: “When life gives you lemons you make lemonade”, so when life sections you under the Mental Health Act, you use the lump of paperwork dumped on you to make a post explaining what it means, with pictures of penguins to help clear up confusion and reduce mental health stigma. I think that’s the saying anyway…so here goes…

What is the Mental Health Act?: It is a law that enables professionals to admit and detain patients for a compulsory admission to hospital. It doesn’t have to have involved any incidents of violence, much like the consumption of coco pops does not have to be involved with criminal activity. Alas, unlike coco pops, the Mental Health Act does not turn the milk chocolatey, for there is rarely any milk involved.

How does one come to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act?: This is a question that will vary between the sections of the Act and individual circumstances, but as a basic principle a Mental Health Act Assessment will be called by professional people (I am not sure what they are professionally qualified in exactly, but they are usually people holding clipboards, stroking their chins, squinting/looking thoughtful), and they will interview you and ask questions in order to assess your health.

Are there different sections of the Mental Health Act?: What a marvellous question dear reader and one I can respond to with the knowledge that indeed there are several, the differences between which I will explain below with the help of Patricia…

Section Two: Recently, Patricia the penguin has been acting unsafely (skating on thin ice as it were), and is suspected to have a mental illness without the capacity to see that she is putting herself in danger. She is not however diagnosed with one, nor has she been in hospital before, so a group of professional penguin Doctors with specific training may place her under a section two, aka a legal detention to hospital for an assessment of her mental health, in order to establish whether or not she needs treatment. It can last up to 28 days and in that time they aim to discover if she has a mental disorder. Under this law she can be treated against her will if it is deemed in her best interests, and discharge or transfer to another section can happen during, or at the end of the 28 days.

Section Three: A section three is a detention in hospital for treatment, so if Patricia were to be put under this section it would mean that she were well known to hospital services, would have a diagnosis and not require assessment. In the section two admission, the focus would have been more about finding out why Patricia was found skating on thin ice in the middle of nowhere and deciding whether or not her reasons were rational, but for the section three they already know why she was skating in such a reckless way, for she has a diagnosis of “Skating on thin ice syndrome”, a common mental health problem in penguins that requires treatment when severe. On this section Patricia can be held for up to 6 months, but may be discharged sooner, or later if the section is renewed for further treatment. Again under this section it is possible for Patricia to be treated against her will (e.g. in her case, forced to skate on thicker blocks of ice even if she doesn’t want to).

Section Four: Section four is pretty much like a section two in that again it is a detention for a short period of time (72 hours) for an assessment of one’s mental health. This is more commonly used in emergency situations as you only need one special doctor to enact it, unlike a section two which requires two. For example, if Patricia is skating on thin ice at 5am in the middle of the arctic and two doctors with the ability to enact the Mental Health Act have been sent for, but one got lost by turning left at the second igloo (use your imagination kids), the doctor with superior navigation skills could potentially hold Patricia under a section four for 72 hours until the other Doctor hurries up to give his second opinion, which then may result in her being placed on a section two.

Section Five: In this circumstance Patricia has realised she may have skating on thin ice syndrome and has voluntarily admitted herself to hospital. However, twenty minutes into her admission she is overwhelmed with the desire to skate on thin ice and asks to discharge herself. The Doctor does not think this would be a good idea in terms of Patricia’s safety though, so he can put her on a Section 5(2), aka use his “Doctor’s holding power” for up to 72 hours. If there are no doctors available at the time Patricia is asking to leave however, a nurse can enact a section 5(4) which lasts for 6 hours or until a doctor arrives. This section will be used if there aren’t specially qualified doctor/doctors around to enact a section two/four available and can take place in general as well as mental hospitals.

CTO: This isn’t technically another section it is tied up in it all, as a CTO is a community treatment order that it’s possible for someone who has been detained under a section 3 to be discharged on to. Basically, it’s a legally binding order of conditions someone has to meet in order to be allowed to remain in the community (e.g. Patricia must attend weekly appointments/hand in her ice skates, cancel her membership to the local ice rink and take her antifreeze medication.)

And there we have it! Now of course this is a very brief explanation as to what the Mental Health Act is and there are far more details and legal jargon/complexities that go into each section, but hopefully I have demystified The Mental Health Act somewhat, albeit with a very basic, penguin centred outline. Hopefully if you are reading this you will never have to have anything to do with the Mental Health Act personally, but at least you will know what it actually is that is being referred to when an article brings it up in relation to something unpleasant that doesn’t put any effort into explaining the Act itself.

Finally, I just want to let everyone know that if anyone is concerned, I can confirm that Patricia the penguin is merely a fictional character created for the purpose of educating and reducing stigma, so please do not go away and worry about how she is doing after having been through all these sections. As a product of my imagination, I can assure you that Patricia is just fine, and I hope you all are too. Cheerio.

Patricia
(I hope the above picture serves as enough evidence that Patricia is safe and sound/not in any danger. As you can see she is merely enjoying a bowl of coco pops in her safe ice igloo and has not been ice skating, nor will she be doing so in the near future.)

The Problem With Eating Disorders And The Desire To Achieve

In life I think it is safe to say that most people are born with a desire to achieve, a need for purpose, for something that they feel will make their life worthwhile. If you are an expert in biology as I am, with many qualifications in human body expertise (I did biology GCSE), you will know that this space that craves a sense of achievement comes in the form of a little hole that is located just below the liver, and when humans are born, it is empty. Naturally people want to fill it in order to feel complete, and the way in which to do this is to fill it with achievements, achievements like getting a good grade in an exam or breaking the world record for the number of potatoes you can balance on your head at one time, whilst enthusiastically taking part in a salsa class with a lady who keeps clacking maracas. The difficulty comes in finding what it is that fits in your hole (by which I of course mean your sense of achievement craving space and no other hole in the body), because when that hole is empty it can get awfully draughty, especially if you are wandering around the blustery moors like Cathy searching for Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.
Unfortunately, a lot of people with eating disorders somehow manage to wedge an almighty bout of anorexia right in their sense of achievement space, and this is in no sense as good an idea as filling it with a world record relating to salsa and potatoes.

When you have an eating disorder, you automatically obtain goals, and purpose (dangerous horrible ones that are no good to achieve, but when you are caught up in the illness they feel as important and legitimate as someone else’s goal to become an astronaut.) There are always rules and things you are striving for or you are trying to beat, a new number of minutes on the treadmill, a lower number of calories than before or a new target weight, and achieving these goals fulfils that need for purpose. Ultimately each goal you set and then achieve can feel like validation that you are doing something with your life, making your existence meaningful and making life worthwhile.

I know that personally I struggle with this a lot, especially as I appear to be friends with a lot of people who all seem to know what they are doing with their lives and are very successful. On countless occasions I have been to parties with these friends and in the general “catch up” chatter I have heard them talk about all of the fantastic universities they have got into to do their masters, all the plans for their PHD dissertations on complicated topics I didn’t know existed, and the fantastic relationships they are all happily involved in, already planning to move out of their family home, elope to New Zealand and get mortgages on houses with their partners.
Meanwhile at these parties I tend to stand there looking a little bewildered and feeling incredibly inferior. I have not been to Oxford university, been to New Zealand (or Old Zealand come to think of it), and the closest I have got to moving into my own house so far is my attempts to build my own pillow fort under my bed, which isn’t going well because planning permission is a nightmare and I am struggling to sort out the plumbing situation. Does anyone have any advice for supplying a pillow fort with running water, when the only materials you have at your disposal are a few cushions, a blankets and giant cuddly penguin who has a surprising lack of DIY skills? Even if that works out, this house is being built under my bed within my parents house, so I wouldn’t really have moved out, even when I do get things up together. I know it is disordered, but in these instances at these parties, my eating disorder is of great comfort to me, because when I am feeling like a hopeless failure, I can comfort myself with all the things I have “achieved” through my anorexia, all the hard work and goals I have reached, even if in the real world things like “only ate X calories for lunch and have a BMI of Y” means very little.

This is but one of the many reasons I find the act of challenging my eating disorder and overall recovery so difficult, because in doing so I am carving out the well crafted plug filling my sense of achievement space and leaving it empty again with the gale whistling through my abdomen.
I know that the key to all of this is simply find another thing to fill that space, but it is a lot harder than I ever anticipated because when it comes to making new goals or setting out on new pursuits that you are not very experienced in, there is a high chance of failure, something that is reassuringly lacking when it comes to the world of having an eating disorder, as I have had it for so long now that I know the rules and I know that when I put my mind to it I can achieve the goals it sets. Setting my hopes and dreams on becoming a lawyer or something is a lot more complicated because it relies on so many outside influences and there are so many places for error. What if I don’t get into law school? What if I fail my exams? What if I manage to make it as a High Court judge and then at the biggest case of my career I lose my big hammer thing that judges use after they have announced their verdict, and the jury and I are left until the end of time unable to put a murderer into prison because I cant bang my hammer on the table? With eating disorder goals, I have to rely on nobody but myself, and I don’t need to be mindful of where I am keeping my hammer.

From speaking to other people with eating disorders I know it is fairly common to use anorexia to serve your sense of achievement, and in a way it is great. The anorexia or whatever else serves the function of filling that sense of achievement and blocking that gale, but it isn’t a particularly healthy filling, because once lodged in there the eating disorder grows bigger, spidering slithery tendrils away from the hole in which is was originally placed to take over and kill the whole body altogether. Therefore when it comes to recovery, it is vital to think about and work on making a new life and set of dreams to pursue and goals to achieve alongside eating a healthy diet and getting to a health body weight.

If you are currently in recovery or contemplating it and are struggling with this issue then I guess my advice is to be brave and rip that eating disorder plug out to feel that abdomen gale for a bit. I know it sucks. It will be chilly, and put you at risk of failing whilst attempting to fill that desire for achievement with things you have never tried before. Maybe things you might be bad at, or heaven forbid, things you may fail in. But maybe that is ok, and nobody can get these kind of things right the first time. Maybe in reality, achieving or failing at anything in life is far better than fooling yourself into thinking you are achieving in an illness that is basically just starving you to death, which is not an achievement at all.

Therefore I want to challenge everyone reading this with an eating disorder to try and find something new or give a random hobby a go to try and replace the one you have that is potentially killing you. Take up chess, or tiddlywinks, collect magnets shaped like penguins in hilarious poses, hell try and beat that world record for dancing the salsa with potatoes on your head. That last one especially is a great one to start with because to let you into a little secret I have learnt from my research, nobody has even set a record for that yet, so you have a pretty good chance of winning (I still cant believe no human has dared to attempt such a feat before.)
Yes it is silly and yes it sounds pointless but I urge you all to give it a go anyway, because in life there is so much more to devote your efforts and attentions to than a silly number on the scales that doesn’t tell you anything anyway. You will never lie on your death bed and reminisce about the greatness you achieved by starving yourself and wasting your life, but by God wouldn’t it be wonderful to lie there in your final moments, and to reminisce about salsa dancing amongst all your trophies and Guinness world book of record certificates, a little pile of winning potatoes gently settled at your feet. That my friends is success. Go and get it.

salsa