Eating Disorders And Gender Identity

As you can probably tell from reading my blog, I am pretty open about my mental health, and I suppose, by putting my life online, you could argue that I am pretty open and honest about most things I experience. Nevertheless, there is one aspect of my identity that I have kept secret for years, not just online but with friends, something which I have only spoken about to my mother and certain therapists. In the past few weeks I have been asking myself why this is, and the answer to that is fairly easy (far easier than answering the question what is 4504 divided by 789 at least…NO CALCULATORS PLEASE), that being that I fear judgment and still see this aspect of myself as somewhat taboo. 

However, I have started to realise that by keeping this part of me on the “down low” because I feel embarrassed, is only perpetuating the idea that this “secret” is something I should be ashamed about, and that isn’t going to help anyone out there struggling with the same thing. What if there are people who are feeling as uncertain as I am about things but who are scared to speak out? What if they feel as alone as I do?

Ok, so it is probably time for me to stop beating around the bush and get on with the topic (the bush is fairly battered by now…there are so many leaves about I can barely see the keyboard…sorry bush, you didn’t do anything wrong…not that if you had done something wrong that would be an acceptable reason to beat you…I don’t condone violence of any kind…gosh I feel I might still be beating around the bush…SORRY AGAIN BUSH). 

The topic around which my “secret” revolves? Gender, though more specifically, my personal gender identity and how that affects my mental health and experience of anorexia. 

As you have probably all assumed, I was born and am biologically female, yet I do not see myself that way. In all honesty I feel quite ill when people refer to me as “a woman”, and every time a stranger refers to me as a “lady”, I feel physically sick. Saying this may make people think that therefore, inside, I see myself as male, but again this is not the case. With regards to my gender, I do not feel like a woman (just one of the many personal emotions Shania Twain and I disagree upon), nor do I feel like a man, in truth, I feel simultaneously like neither and both all at the same time. Thankfully more and more people are talking about gender these days what with the transgender FTM/MTF bathroom debates going on in the US, and there are even labels out there to describe people like me who do not see themselves as belonging in either of the binary box options presented on health forms. Names like agender/gender-non binary/genderqueer/gender neutral are now words many people, rather than just those whom they affect, are familiar with, and there are even more pronoun options and gender identities available in the “about me” section of your Facebook profile. Which of these “non binary terms” I best identify with I am still not sure as I find my gender identity rather confusing. 

The one thing I know for certain however, is that I am not female, and having a biologically female body has had a bigger impact on my anorexia than most people would understand. 

I have written before about how anorexia functions in my life, as a sense of achievement, sense of control, friend, identity and many other things that make it a lot more complicated than the common understanding of “people with anorexia just want to be thin”, but the other way in which anorexia functions for me is as a way of trying to minimise the “femaleness” I am uncomfortable about in my body. 

I see a lot of females on recovery websites listing perks of recovery to motivate themselves and others to keep fighting their demons, and more often than not one of the things on this list will be “recover to get your boobs back” (for when a person’s eating disorder leads to weight loss/becoming underweight, “boobs” are obviously a part of the body that will undergo some shrinkage.) Indeed I have known people whose cup size has fallen several letters of the alphabet due to their eating disorder (side note: who the hell coined the name “cup size” as a way to describe the space taken up by a boob? Why don’t we just say “boob size”? Who the hell is putting their boobs in cups? Don’t people realise those things are for drinking out of not measuring body parts? You don’t call your shoe size your “colander size” do you? No! So what is this…SOMEONE EXPLAIN). 

This loss of BOOB SIZE is often met with discomfort and people saying things like “I don’t feel female anymore” as if that is a bad thing, when for me, that is part of the point. For this reason, people trying to motivate me to recover by saying things like “recover for boobs” or “recover for curves” is more like a threat of “if you gain weight you are going to have to wear massive bras and stop running for the bus incase you knock yourself out with a rogue breast”, so I often find that I cannot relate to people with eating disorders despite sharing a diagnosis. 

In a way the idea of my chest increasing in size shouldn’t scare me as much as it does, as, in terms of revealing another aspect of myself that people are unaware of, I actually wear a binder rather than a bra. 

For those of you who don’t know, a binder is basically a very tight vest like thing that “binds” your chest somehow (magic and wizardry I think), to give you the appearance of a flat chest, and it is often a thing warn by transgender men. Indeed it was from a trans man that I myself first heard of such a garment and immediately picked one up because I too hated my chest. What I couldn’t relate to with this trans man however, was the need for things like testosterone hormone injections and a desire for facial hair, and it is there that my confusion of “what the hell gender am I then” began. 

I have worn my binder for six years now at both healthy and underweight BMI’s, so I know that technically, no matter how far I am in terms of physical recovery, when I have to go out in public I do not need to worry about my chest. At either weight I know that my binder will give me the appearance of a flat chest, but I also know that I cannot wear my binder in places like the shower which is where the appearance of my chest really bothers me. 

I know that in the past when in the process of getting to a healthy weight, one of the main parts of my body I have feared gaining weight on is my chest, and my bare chest makes me so uncomfortable that I have often refused ECG tests in the past to check how my eating disorder is affecting my heart (these scans are apparently very clever but involve you having to be naked from the waist up…not that clever in my opinion then). 

It has caused such issues in hospital before that even nurses have been confused and contemplated forcing me to stop wearing a binder as they wonder if it could actually be an eating disorder driven choice to “make me look thinner”. People have also suggested that me wearing a binder could link to my desire to remain a child and not grow up into the scary world of adulthood, but as possible as that is, it doesn’t explain the other issues I have with regards to being called “lady”, “she” or even “daughter”. You might not have noticed but if you look through any of the posts I have written previously mentioning my mother, I always refer to myself as her “offspring” and never as “the D word”. Maybe you thought that was just because I wanted to sound fancy, but in actual fact all of those instances were me trying to write on my blog honestly whilst keeping a secret, which is sort of like trying to make a cup of tea without any tea leaves. 

Other things I have seen on websites to motivate females to recover is the idea of getting their menstrual cycle back/being able to bear children, yet again this possibility is something from which I want to run away in fear rather than welcome with joy. When I lost my menstrual cycle I was secretly thrilled and as terrible as this sounds the idea that eating might make my womb work properly was terrifying. I feel so guilty saying that, as I know there are so many women out there who can’t have children so I shouldn’t be wishing my fertility away in such a manner, but I can’t help it, I don’t want a womb and I do not want a monthly reminder that I am trapped in a female body with no escape. When I was told I had osteoporosis (caused by the lack of periods), I even refused to take oestrogen hormone replacements because the idea of getting my menstrual cycle back was more frightening than the idea of breaking my spine, and my google search history has more searches like “can you get a womb or breasts removed” than I care to count.

Unfortunately, I realise that yet again it is one of those “here is a mental illness problem people struggle with” without any conclusion or advice to support those out there struggling with the same thing, which sucks because I know how horrible and complicated this whole relationship between eating disorders and gender can be. That said, considering I don’t fully understand my gender identity in relation to anorexia myself, I would be hard pushed to say anything of any worth, yet still I wanted to write this post if only to get the topic out there and the conversation started. I haven’t come to a conclusion as to “what” I am and I haven’t given advice on how to manage an eating disorder when gender identity is one of the things causing problems with recovery, but I hope I have at least shown another aspect of how complex mental health problems like eating disorders can be, and done something to dispel the idea that they are simply a case of going on a diet that gets out of hand to look as thin as the people in the magazines. More importantly though, I hope that I have made anyone else who feels as confused and alone with this as I do, feel a little less weird, knowing that someone out there does understand, and that though they are also confused, at least you are confused together. Maybe the more people who talk about it the more research will be done and the more will be understood, so as anxious as I am about posting this, I am doing it anyway to add to the voices of those telling professionals that this is a problem only to receive responses like “I have never heard of this happening before”. As I always say, when it comes to mental health problems nobody is weird or a freak, and none of you are alone in any of your struggles.

Take care everyone x

Gender

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Mental Health Problems In The LGBTQ+ Community

This is just a little note to say that this post mentions incidents involving self harm so if that would trigger you, I thank you very much for joining us today but maybe go and treat yourself to a good cup of tea and biscuits instead. Safety first pals!

I once had a psychologist who, during a talk about my mental health and how broken my brain is, asked me if I thought any of my issues “were because of being gay”. I was appalled.

“How dare you!” I replied. “What homophobic nonsense is this? I am deeply offended! You think people who are gay must also be mad because nobody with common sense would be queer? For-shame! A plague unto you and your ancestors! Watch me flounce out of this room waving my rainbow flag in a fury! Watch me flounce I say!” (please note that this was what I replied in my head…in reality I think I just squinted my eyes a bit and formed a quizzical expression).

At the time I didn’t see what being a member of the LGBTQ+ club, had to do with my mental health at all, but after a little bit of discussion, research, and no actual flouncing, I realised that this psychologist was on to something.
Turns out, rainbow folk in general show higher levels of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts than heterosexuals, so seeing as it is Pride month in the UK this month, I thought I would use this post to think about why that might be. It’s like that old saying, “if you are gay and you have mental health problems, it is your duty to mush those experiences together and write a blog about it.”

In my experience,I wouldn’t say that for me personally, being a member of the LGBTQ+ community has been THE trigger that led to all of my personal mental health problems, although I know that for some people, it can be.
Often I think it can be things like homophobic bullying and external discrimination that are the reason people who are LGBTQ+ might go on to suffer problems, and in that respect, I have been very lucky.
I have never been bullied for my sexuality, my family have always been very accepting (my mum to the point where she is basically a walking gay pride parade all year round and always gets very excited/becomes a fan every time any celebrity comes out as a homosexual), and I live in a country/time period where it is safe for me to be “out” without fearing arrest.
The only discrimination I have ever had has been the odd homophobic slur shouted out of a car window at me as I was walking down the street, but this has never really bothered me as I don’t have that much respect for the opinions of people who shout abuse out of car windows… I might admire their ability to project with their vocal chords out of a moving vehicle, but when it comes to their judgements on who I fall in love with, frankly, I don’t give a damn.

However being LGBTQ+ has certainly affected me because of discrimination, it is just that all of that discrimination came from my own head and in the early days of my queerness, led me to feeling very ashamed.
Nobody in my external surroundings was telling me I was weird or shouldn’t be gay, but my head was, and consequently I was scared to tell anyone about it incase they felt the same. Indeed I decided that rather than tell anyone, I would start a grand “make Katie straight” mission so that nobody would ever have to find out. You may wonder how on earth one goes about “de-gaying themselves” as surely to do so is impossible, and in that assumption, you would be right. Little old me however, was convinced otherwise.

The idea came to me whilst watching a television program which funnily enough, was about a straight woman seeing if she could undergo treatment to turn her gay…Good lord they show some weird things on TV these days…
Anyway, in the program, this woman was told by some mad scientist to use this machine that would give her electric shocks every time she thought something heterosexual in an attempt to recondition the brain to stop thinking those things. The theory was that if your brain experiences an electric shock every time you think about something, it will stop thinking about that thing (either that or your hair will stick out all over the place forevermore and you will run up one hell of an electricity bill).
Unfortunately, I did not have an electric shock machine. I did however, have access to a lot of sharp things around my household, and I think you can guess how things went from there without me providing any more detail. As part of my “make Katie straight” plan, I set about trying to literally cut the gay part away from me, a futile pursuit considering “gayness” is not an extra body part or a long fingernail you can clip away at until it is gone. Unsurprisingly, that plan didn’t work, but it did get me into a cycle of self harm that I couldn’t get away from and still struggle with to this day.

Admittedly, my struggle with self harm is not about being gay anymore, but the whole situation introduced the idea of self harm as a punishment, a coping mechanism to try and remove guilt or shame I was feeling about anything in life.
Rather than being a punishment for being gay, it has become a punishment for things like bad marks on a test at school, or saying something mean in an argument, and I actually used to keep a little notebook in my pocket throughout the day to keep track of my “crimes” so I knew how many “punishments” I deserved later.
At first I was only doing a few things “wrong” a day, but because I was scared to talk to any of my psychologists about it as that would involve telling them how self harm started, and though I was ok with being gay, I didn’t expect everyone else to be. Consequently the notebook of punishments escalated and got so out of hand that after a few months, every action was considered a crime deserving of punishment, from using a “large blob of toothpaste” (which would use up the family tube sooner and lead to money needing to be spent on a new one), to “not smiling well enough at my friend in the corridor at school”.

It wasn’t until my mum found some blood soaked clothing in my bag which I had been trying to smuggle into school to wash in the school sink before she could see it in the laundry, that the whole self harm as punishment thing came out, and even then I wouldn’t tell people how it had started.
By the time I did tell people that I was gay, I had already been in therapy for 8 years or so and had been through two admissions to psychiatric hospitals, always keeping that part of my identity hidden. Like I said, being gay has never been a cornerstone in the almighty Jenga tower of my insanity so I don’t think that keeping that part of me a secret severely hindered my treatment. I was still able to talk openly and honestly about the depression, OCD, BPD related problems and anorexia in therapy, yet although it isn’t the source of my mental health problems, when I finally came out to professionals it did serve as some kind of relief. Whether it had been important to OCD or not, I always had to watch what I said in sessions incase I accidentally let a possible clue slip like “I LOVE HELENA BONHAM CARTER AND I WANT TO MARRY HER IN A BIG GAY WEDDING WITH A BIG RAINBOW CAKE BECAUSE I AM A BIG GAY MYSELF”. Being able to talk openly without worrying about that certainly made a difference and made me feel more connected to my therapists, because I think if you are ever keeping a secret from anyone, you are automatically reserved around people even when that secret isn’t being discussed.

As you can see then, compared to some members of the LGBTQ+ community with mental health problems, being queer hasn’t had anywhere near the impact on me that it has on other people. In essence, being gay is the vanilla extract in my giant cake of insanity rather than the flour of which the majority of the cake comprises.
That said there are a lot of LGBTQ+ folk out there who struggle so much with their identity either due to judgement from outside sources or internal judgement on themselves, that being LGBTQ+ can be a direct cause of certain conditions like depression or anxiety and it is for these people that we need to talk more about this kind of thing in the hopes that they will be able to seek help themselves. If shame about your identity leads you to having mental health problems, it is likely that shame will prevent you from seeking help for them, and as we all know that is just going to make things worse.

In this post I do not want to do a shoutout to all the LGBTQ+ people out there who are hiding in the bushes and tell them to run about telling everyone about their identity, because I understand that for some people in certain families or countries, that might not be safe for them.
All I want to say is that if you are struggling and feeling like there is nobody to turn to, you are not alone and I can promise you that there are people out there who understand (I am one of them. Hello, it is nice to meet you. My name is Katie and if you bring me penguins we can be best friends). If being LGBTQ+ is causing mental health problems and it is not safe for you to speak to people around you, there are hundreds of LGBTQ+ mental health charities out there for every country (I will link a page recommending some existing in the UK below), and if you can, I would encourage you to reach out to them for support.
I am not going to demand you just get a rainbow flag and feel proud because it is pride month, as I understand it is not as easy as that, but I do hope to offer some sense of reassurance that being LGBTQ+ is NOT something anyone needs to to be ashamed of or punished for, no matter what that voice in your head tells you.

Take care everyone x

RainbowBlog

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/lgbtq-mental-health/useful-contacts/#.WV0XKlKZPVo

 

“Who Am I?” – Anorexia And Identity

Have you ever wondered how people refer to you when you are not in the room and they don’t know or have forgotten your name? People refer to others using general but somehow specific terms all the time (my mum and I do this with contestants on Masterchef for example, this series we had “beardy man” and “Jam sandwich lady”), and it makes me think about how people refer to me. Rightly or wrongly I have always assumed that people call me “the anorexic one”, “the one who never went to school dinners”, “the one who disappeared into hospital for 10 months and then came back to sixth form 2 stone heavier” or words to similar effect, and it is one of the reasons that I find the concept of recovery so frightening and difficult to achieve. I feel that the label of being “anorexic” serves as a sort of identity both to me personally and for other people. In my head “anorexia” is my thoughts, it is all I think, it is what I do and who I am, so in my eyes if it disappeared, I would disappear too. I also feel this way about OCD sometimes, as that is also what I do and how I live/what I am, but the identity tie is mainly to the label of “anorexic”. After all, OCD is rarely used as an adjective to describe a person, you never hear the words “they are an OCDic.”

When anorexia first appears in someone’s life, it is sort of viewed as a separate thing, an added extra, an invader that is not part of the real person, or, in metaphorical terms, purple hair. People say that someone “has” anorexia much like they would say someone “has” purple hair due to some dye they have just bought, it is a temporary alteration to their being that will gradually wash out over time, it is not an integral part of who they are. If someone has it for a month, they will perhaps be known for that month as “the one with the purple hair” and then the label will change again as they themselves change style and perhaps career (e.g the brunette professional penguin tamer).
The problem is that the longer someone has purple hair, the more the purple hair becomes tied up with who they are as a person, they stop being a person with purple hair, the purple hair almost becomes them. When I was first diagnosed with anorexia it was an addition to who I was, a bit of purple colouring in my ponytail, but now after all these years I feel it has leaked all over me. The dye as it were hasn’t stayed in my hair, it has dribbled down into my skin so that my entire body is as violet as that girl who turns into that blueberry in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when she eats the piece of gum Willy Wonka told her wasn’t finished. I no longer have anorexia as one has purple hair, I am anorexic, I am entirely purple from head to toe. If you scrub at my hair or my skin, the colour doesn’t just wash out anymore, it has been too long, it is embedded and to get rid of it you would have to peel away all of my skin completely which would in turn get rid of me too. That is how anorexia feels in terms of my identity, it is a thing that has become me and that now I am so entirely that it is impossible to remove. Without that label who would I be? My therapist is always correcting me when I say things like “I am scared of eating X” by saying “the anorexia is scared of eating X, Katie isn’t” but I don’t feel like that is true. I don’t have a voice telling me to avoid going over a certain number of calories, it is just my thoughts, it is just me.

A few years ago I went to hang out at a friend’s house with various people I had not met before (some may have called it a “party” but there were no balloons and in my eyes a party is not a party without rubber sacks of the host’s breath floating about, so I would call it a “jovial social gathering”). At some point in the evening some cake was brought out and handed around. The plate and thus the cake was offered to every guest individually, except me. Don’t get me wrong, I really appreciated it and was relieved. I hate the awkward moments when people offer me things that I then have to make up excuses to avoid, and knowing this my friend the host (lets call her Bertha for the purpose of this conversation), did not put me in that position. She knew I wasn’t going to have any cake so she didn’t insist on the whole “Cake?”, “Oh, no thank you” palaver that is often so embarrassing. However, this act of what was consideration for me and kindness of a friend aware of my difficulties, really got me thinking. When Bertha went round the circle she saw everyone as a person with the potential to eat cake, but when she got to me she saw someone or something different, she saw one of the “anorexic species”, a creature notorious for avoiding sweet treats. It felt like Bertha saw me as “the anorexic one”, I was different, and I had to wonder what on earth would it have been like if in the five minutes before the offering of the cake, I had been struck by the most wonderful bolt of lightening in the history of weather, and instantly cured of all mental health problems ever. What if I hadn’t had the illness that made me “the anorexic one”, what would be left, if anything, or would there just be a an empty space where the former anorexic had been?

I guess the point I am trying to make here and the point of this post/what I want more people to understand, is that there is a reason that anorexia is so hard to recover from. It is such a complex illness that both destroys and provides in ways that people may not think.
When sufferers are trying to fight but are struggling, it isn’t simply a case of being “scared of food” or ”scared of gaining weight”, often it is also a fear of what they will lose, of throwing away everything that they think they are, the removal of their core identity, leaving a hole they have no idea how else to fill.

Identity

(Apologies for the crease at the top of this image…I actually drew this picture for an appointment with one of my psychologists and the paper got creased on the way to the hospital. It was a good day for therapy but a bad day for my attempts at art.)