Should NG Tubes Be Used In The Treatment Of People With Eating Disorders?

When it comes to treatment for people with eating disorders there are many different options and interventions to be explored, various therapies, meal plans, pieces of group work and even hypnotism. However, alongside all the perhaps more psychological treatments, there are other more invasive practical treatments that can be used such as the NG tube (a tube that is inserted through the nose and into the stomach to feed a patient who is unable to consume food orally themselves), and this is something I never had much of an opinion on before it happened to me recently for several weeks of my admission to hospital. It may seem silly or odd to be bringing this up now as my tube came out over 8 weeks ago so surely I should be over it and not thinking about it anymore, but I have to say that even though it has been a while since its removal, the method of being NG fed still affects me to this day, is a fairly traumatic thing for people to go through, and it has made me wonder whether or not NG feeding should actually be used in eating disorder treatment full stop. 

Obviously if I am going to open up a debate in this blog about whether or not NG tubes should ever be used I am going to have to say that aside from all the ethical, psychological, long term effect complicated sides to the issue, bluntly yes NG tubes should be available as a way to treat people with eating disorders. Despite their perhaps negative side effects down the line, it makes no sense to rule them out completely (unfortunately…I really hate admitting this…excuse me whilst I go away and grumble). 

Sometimes, whether we like it or not, NG tubes are life saving necessary pieces of treatment and there are people out there who arguably would have died without them. If a person is unable to nourish themselves adequately and becomes seriously medically compromised, sometimes the only option is to NG feed them as a matter of saving a life and I know that, as much as I disagree with the methods used on me and wish more than anything it hadn’t happened, that that is the argument doctors and nurses have had with me in defending that method of treatment. 

Aside from life saving serious stuff, NG tubes can also be positively used not just for getting nutrition into people but for providing a motivation to eat orally despite the screaming eating disorder wailing in their head like a banshee who just stubbed her toe on a particularly sharp piece of lego. 

When someone is struggling to eat because of an eating disorder it is often made harder by the fact that eating always feels like a choice, an option you actively choose to partake in, and who would choose to torture themselves by forcing themselves to eat when they knew their brain would go off screaming at 90 miles per hour? With an NG tube in place however, the act of getting nutrition is no longer an option or a choice, it is going to happen one way or another and with this choice of whether or not the food will go in eventually being taken away, sometimes eating becomes easier. 

Personally I can at least admit and testify to the fact that I found the NG tube helpful in the sense that it did motivate me to eat because the choice was taken away. No longer did I have the raging debate of “do I eat or don’t I”, it was just a matter of how it was going to go in/happen (“up the nose or down the throat” as I used to think). It also gave me encouragement to eat in a way because there were times when I knew that if I didn’t consume what was in front of me orally, I would get an increased number of calories down the tube and that certainly served as some motivation! 

Indeed at my unit there was a rule that I was presented with a meal and if I were not to complete it, the entire meal would be started again via the feed. Therefore if halfway through a meal I was struggling and really wanted to give up, having the tube there motivated me to carry on as I knew that were I to stop, we would have to start all over again and I would essentially end up having to go through the same meal twice. NG tubes can also be helpful in the sense that they offer a way for medication to go into a patient when a patient is unable to take a medication themselves (another thing which I hated and disagreed with personally but can understand is necessary in some circumstances.) 

As I said at the beginning of this debate however, alongside these positives there are a lot of negatives and it is the effect of these long lasting negatives that I am still feeling today. You see, when you have an NG tube, it takes responsibility for eating away, and whilst this is a good thing when a person is unable to eat by themselves, it is a bad thing because in learning to eat again or going through the re-feeding process they are not actually learning how to do it for themselves. Indeed, people go from needing the tube in an emergency situation to becoming dependant on it and that is what happened to me. For the first few months of re-feeding I was going through the motions but psychologically was making no progress and then when it came out I didn’t know how to eat. Without the tube, suddenly the guilt became much worse because eating went from being the lesser of two evils with the tube in to simply “evil”. 

Another negative from using an NG tube and perhaps the one I am struggling the most with today is that of rapid weight gain. When you are on the tube it is possible to gain a lot of weight very quickly that mentally you are not ready or prepared for and although it can again be life saving and good treatment medically, it can be an incredibly traumatic experience. Similarly, now I have been left at a weight far higher than I am comfortable with because of the tube and because I reached this stage far quicker than I would have done without it, I am still struggling with the repercussions and am feeling overwhelmed. 

In terms of trauma it can also be a traumatic experience to be restrained for feeds and when this happens it can damage the patient vs treatment team relationship. For example I used to trust my treatment team and even get along with a lot of them, but if I am honest, now I resent them all and want to be discharged from the entire service because the act of having something so traumatic being done to me has led me to dislike and mistrust them all. Having something like an NG feed physically done to you whilst you are held down means being treated as an object not a person, there is no therapeutic benefit, you are just a thing being pumped full of stuff you are terrified of with no chance to work through it or figure out a long term solution at home. It is a temporary fix and though you can force feed someone food, you cannot force feed them long term recovery, so in a sense the NG tube method is unhelpful long term. Then again that is just my experience and I know that for other people actually starting with an NG as a temporary measure can help long term as it gets enough nutrition for their brain to work and allow recovery long term afterwards so it really is all down to personal experience. 

Overall then, should NG tubes be used to treat people with eating disorders? Well, I don’t know is the honest answer, it is a tricky one because I think the answer will be different for different people. For some people using the NG tube is not a matter of something to be debated but a necessary life saving act of treatment and sometimes it can even help long term recovery by motivating someone to eat orally by taking away the choice. Also the more nutrition someone gets the more likely it is that their brain will be receptive to treatment but then again there are the negatives of cases like mine where I have been fed up to an unbearable weight via physical methods without going through the proper therapeutic work, meaning that I am now stuck unable to deal with it and thus struggling with relapse. I don’t think when it comes to this question there will ever be an answer for everyone but it is certainly a controversial topic that I think we need to keep working on and talking about. 

Take care everyone x 

NGdebate

The Difficulty When Mental And Physical Progress Move At Different Speeds In Eating Disorder Recovery

In a few days time, I will have been in hospital for 16 weeks aka a grand total of 4 months, and because of this, I am often being asked questions like “How are you getting on?” or “are you feeling better?” which are both very complicated and difficult questions to answer when you are in treatment for an eating disorder. You see, on one set of paper work, things are going rather swimmingly and I am indeed doing much better, yet on the other set of paper work in my opinion, I am actually feeling and am “doing” worse than I ever have done in my life.

Oddly enough, this discrepancy between paper works is not because I have two very different doctors with opposing ideas writing sets of notes about my progress, but because when it comes to recovery from an eating disorder, there are two very distinct and different sides to it, the mental and the physical, and unfortunately these two sides do not work as sleeping otters do (aka hand in hand – yes, fun otter fact for you, otters hold hands when they sleep to make sure that they don’t drift away from each other. Apparently they also make waterslides and play with pebbles. Conclusion: Otters are cool).

Indeed the two sides to eating disorder recovery are so separate that I think that asking someone in treatment for an eating disorder how they are, is a question that needs to be asked twice, once for each side of recovery, because otherwise getting one coherent answer is impossible.

To be fair, towards the beginning of my admission, the physical and mental sides of how I was doing were fairly in sync. Mentally things were a bit all over the place and physically things were too. This then continued as I struggled to work with the program at the eating disorder hospital, until the introduction of my NG tube and since that most unwelcome introduction, everything has changed, in my eyes, for the worse.

Before, when I was mentally struggling and didn’t feel able to manage food, I was able to avoid it which obviously didn’t help my body very much but it prevented my anxiety levels from getting worse. Now though, since the NG tube, I have a constant and unavoidable source of nutrition and it doesn’t matter how I feel, food cannot be avoided. If I don’t eat, the food still goes in, and consequently my mind is in utter turmoil. My body on the other hand is as they say “loving life” and ironically, it is killing me.

Seeing as food is unavoidable now, I have been following my meal plan in one way or another for weeks and the affect this has had on my body is dramatic. I am gaining weight faster than I have ever gained weight before (perhaps because I have never had such an unavoidable source of nutrition stuck up my nostril before), so health wise, I am “improving”. I am no longer at a weight where I require a wheel chair, I am now able to stand in the shower for long periods of time, even on one leg (I am a fantastic flamingo impersonator these days), and when I get out of bed in the morning, the world doesn’t swim before my eyes and go black. Objectively these all sound like good things and for the medical professionals and my friends and family, these are good things but to me, these are terrible things.

I really don’t know how to explain this idea to people who may not have eating disorders as I know that to most people it sounds absolutely ludicrous. Physical health, the ability to stand in the shower and walk down the corridor are abilities to be appreciated not feared, but when you have an eating disorder, these abilities mean entirely different things.
To me, not being able to stand up without things all going fuzzy was a sign that I was “behaving” myself, a sign that I was doing a good job at punishing myself so the guilt I felt at being alive was lessened. Now though, I am unable to “behave myself” by not eating because even if I don’t eat the food will go in without my permission, so with things not going fuzzy, it is like a sign that I am doing something “bad” (even if it isn’t always me who is doing the eating), and I guess I am feeling all the guilt and shame as anyone else would were they to do something they thought was bad, like stealing or punching someone in the face.

Now I take up too much space in the world and with the weight going on as it is I take up more and more space each day, which is something I have always struggled with. When you hate something you want to make it as small as possible (or you want it to disappear altogether), you want it to take up as little of the world’s space as possible so as there is more room for the good things. In gaining weight I feel like a weed taking up too much space in the flower bed and stealing all the sunlight from the marigolds.

It is incredibly hard to watch this body you hate, morph in front of your eyes into this thing that is getting bigger everyday, getting “better” everyday whilst inside you are all the more depressed and tormented.
I don’t have any idea if I am making sense here because to be honest I am on so many medications right now that my brain is not functioning but if I had to resort to the good old Born Without Marbles way of explaining things, aka an analogy, it feels like my body and brain are one of those cars people drive off in after a wedding with tin cans on the back and “just married” scrawled across the rear windscreen.

My body is the car and as it gains weight it is zooming off full speed. Meanwhile my brain is the collection of tin cans tied to the back, being dragged along and through all of this road that it is not ready for, each can bouncing and denting, bruising and breaking a little more with every mile that passes. My body gains weight, my brain cracks a little more, I feel more broken, depressed and bruised and the faster my body goes the further it is from my brain which is actually all the way back at the starting line. I guess this analogy isn’t perfect because you could say “but your brain is moving in the right direction like your body if it is tied to the car” but that is where the analogy fails because that is not happening at all, like I said, as the car moves the brain just gets battered and even staff have admitted that in the past few weeks things have mentally become worse and worse as time has passed and weight has gone on.
Christmas day is a perfect example of this. When I woke up on Christmas day I was weighed (NOT something I asked Santa for and if I ever wake up to a set of scales in my stocking on Christmas morning again I swear to God I am marching to Santa’s grotto to give that beardy man a piece of my mind…and his scales back), and I had gained a lot of weight. On paper then and to the doctors, my body had got “better” but mentally the shock of it all had such a strain on my mind that I totally lost it. Within minutes I was having to take medication to calm down from the anxiety and agony and when my family came to see me for our two hour visit, the visit wasn’t better for the weight gain, it was worse. It should have been better logically, my body was healthier than the last time they had seen it but in becoming that way I became so upset, distressed and anxious that I had what we shall simply call “ a little incident” and I had to ask my family to leave early.

It is that which I think illustrates my point best as to how impossible it is to answer the question as to “how are things going” when you are in recovery for an eating disorder. Am I better? In a way, yes and I am getting “better everyday”, but in the other more important mental side am I better? Am I progressing? Not at all. I hate myself more than ever, I am more unhappy than ever and I feel more trapped than ever in a body that I no longer relate to. The distance between my body and mind is so great now that I have asked staff if there is any chance we can slow down on the weight gain so that my mind has got a chance to catch up but they are refusing and it all feels like I am being dragged and pushed too far out of my comfort zone. I am in hospital being treated for an eating disorder and the physical problem is being taken care of by a tube, but the mental aspect is being torn apart and I really don’t know how much longer I can handle it.

It is so frustrating trying to explain all of this and I guess in the end the main thing I want to do at the end of this blog post is apologise because I feel like I haven’t made any sense and that I have wasted your time with my incoherent waffle. Like I said though, I am on all sorts of crazy meds at the moment (to calm me down because I am in so much distress due to this whole struggling mentally with the physical progress my body is making right now when I am not ready for it), so please blame those meds and not my inabilities as a writer. I don’t understand half the things that are going on at the moment so explaining them coherently is somewhat difficult. I really am sorry. I am just so battered. I hope this makes some sense at least or that I have got the point across in some way that physical recovery and mental recovery for an eating disorder do not go hand in hand and can sometimes be literally travelling in opposite directions. “How are you doing?” is such a simple question but good lord when you have mental health problems is it a difficult one to answer.

Take care everyone x

RecoveryCar