The Difficulty Of Eating In Public When You Have An Eating Disorder

To the average person the idea of going out to eat is a pleasant one, and when someone suggests going out for a coffee and a piece of cake in a local cafe or out to dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant, the usual reaction would be “Why yes what a lovely idea”, or “of course! I think I shall order the lasagne”.
To someone with an eating disorder however, it is likely that the idea of eating food out will be a terrifying one, reserved to the realms of nightmares rather than sweet dreams, and if you are anything like me when it comes to life with my eating disorder, it is likely you would rather dance a tango with a giant hairy spider than go out to “grab a bite to eat”. It is for this very reason that when I was in ward round this week and I was told that I had to go out to a local coffee shop for a snack with a member of staff, I started to wish there was a chance to whip out my dancing shoes and go to a ballroom with an enormous arachnid instead.

It is silly really because like I said, as a rule people generally enjoy going out for food (even if, like my mum, that is simply because you don’t have to wash up at the end of the meal), but for me there are so many things to be scared of and I don’t think people realise just how many things there are to worry about when it comes to going out for something to eat when you have an eating disorder rampaging in your frontal lobes.

First off there is the difficult task of looking at a menu and choosing what you are going to eat. Alright you may have to make some food choices in the home or out at the supermarket, so choosing food shouldn’t be a sudden and new experience, but at least with that kind of thing you can plan far in advance and prepare what you are having yourself so you know exactly what the meal comprises of. When you are eating out however, the ability to plan everything and control each stage of the process is whipped out from under you quicker than a slippery yoga mat on a vaseline coated floor. Ok, nowadays most restaurants and cafes tend to have menus online so in a sense you can prepare for what you are going to attempt and do not have to make a choice on the spot, but even if you make a choice from an online menu you can never guarantee that what you decide on will be available in the branch of the restaurant that you visit in particular. What if you have your heart set on the roasted aubergine spaghetti and then get to the table only to be confronted by a waiter breaking the news to you that they are all out of pasta and severely lacking in terms of aubergine supplies? What if you get your head all psyched up to tackle a chocolate muffin with multicoloured sugar strands and then find that the muffin man got caught in a traffic jam on the way to deliver his cocoa rich rainbow sprinkled delights? HOW CAN ONE RELAX AND MAKE A DECISION WHEN THE WHEREABOUTS OF THE MUFFIN MAN AND AUBERGINES ARE ALL UNKNOWN?

Then again, what if the aubergine harvest has been plentiful and the chef can prepare your chosen dish? How are they going to prepare it? How much pasta will they use? Will there be oil? Will there be butter? How will it be arranged? Will the sauce be served on top of or mixed into the spaghetti? Exactly what kind of concoction should you expect? Also what if you can’t even get that far and can’t make a decision as to what to have in the first place, either because there are too many options or not enough safe ones? When it comes to people going to restaurants a little bird told me (a very little bird. about half the size of Tweety Pie to be exact) that people chose what they “fancy,” but again when you have an eating disorder and find most of your decisions controlled by calories and grams of fat, what exactly does it mean to “fancy” something?

Even when food is chosen and aubergines can be found in abundance, the worries don’t end because then you have what I would say is the hardest thing about going out for food and the thing that I worried about most after this news about a snack out had been broken to me: eating in public. Indeed the choosing from a menu worry wasn’t even what made me anxious about the excursion as when I went out for snack with my nurse I actually took the food with me to the coffee shop from the hospital (not that that is technically allowed in terms of coffee shop table taking up without making a purchase regulations, but when you are terrified and have an eating disorder you don’t give a damn about the rules!), so it wasn’t the menu issue but the eating in public part that was troubling me.

Truth is, when I eat I prefer to do it in private because even though I am well aware that other people have too many things on their minds and in their lives to have space to think about what is on my plate, I am always paranoid that everyone around is looking and judging me for every mouthful that I consume. Why do I care what random strangers have to say about my choice of snack of an afternoon? I have no idea. Why do I think that a business woman on her lunch break or a student cramming for an exam over an espresso and a laptop, care about whether or not I eat a hobnob? Who knows, but regardless of the reason, I do care and I care a lot. For other people I do not see the act of eating as something to be ashamed of at all but when it comes to me there is something so guilt and shame filled about it that the idea of eating in public is sort of how I imagine the idea of showering in public would feel to most people, aka self conscious and like you want to throw a sponge and curl up in a ball so nobody can see you.

No matter what you do or what you eat, it feels like everyone is staring at and judging you, even if you can see for a fact that others around you may even be eating more than what you have on your plate and are not actually looking anywhere near your direction. When I was out for snack there were plenty of people busy reading papers over plates far fuller than mine, yet still I thought that they were somehow looking at me with some kind of laser vision and thinking that I was greedy for attempting what I had before me. It was so bad that just to get through the snack I had to close my eyes and play that childhood game where you imagine that because you can’t see other people ,they can’t see you either (side note: it is surprisingly hard to eat a snack when you can’t actually see it…).
Somehow I got through it using my head down, eyes closed, just keep munching method but still it was a horrendous experience and one that I am not planning to repeat in the near future or ever if I can help it.

Overall then, though it would seem that the idea of eating out in public, either for a snack or a meal, is some kind of treat to be looked forward to, when you have an eating disorder, it really isn’t that simple a task nor is it a particularly enjoyable one either. Like I said, I know I for one am not going to be attempting such a thing again voluntarily simply because even without the ordering stress and malarky it is the actual act of eating in public and being judged (however irrational that thought may be), that causes all of the anxiety. A snack out in a coffee shop may be a piece of cake physically, but in practice I can assure you that it certainly isn’t! PLEASE DON’T EVER MAKE ME DO IT AGAIN!

Take care everyone x

EatingPublic

Should The Government Be Teaching Children To Count Calories?

When it comes to the government, they are always coming up with handy suggestions as to how people should live their lives. You know the stuff, “eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day”, “don’t drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week” and “drive on the left hand side of the road” (actually that one might be a rule rather than a suggestion…I wouldn’t know. I failed my driving test and every time I asked my instructor for more driving tips after that, he ran away screaming which really did not help with answering any of my questions…)
Always ready to tell the population what to do then, for 2018, the government in the UK have come up with a new suggestion, complete with its very own catchy advert, where play-dough people morph around the screen and a happy jingle plays advising parents to teach their children to restrict themselves to “100 calorie snacks, two a day max”. Now I am not one to turn down advice from our dear Theresa May who is doing such a wonderful job of running the United Kingdom without any trouble whatsoever (pause for laughter), and even I can admit that it is a catchy slogan with a tune that isn’t bad either, but in my opinion this “handy lifestyle suggestion” is a terrible thing that should cease being taught to children immediately.

Obviously for someone (aka me) who is in hospital trying to recover from anorexia and is following a meal plan where snacks exceed 100 calories and are more frequent than twice a day, this kind of thing is unhelpful and triggering. On one hand I have dieticians and psychiatrists coming out of my ears (I really don’t know how they got in there in the first place), telling me that I need to eat this far higher meal plan than the one Theresa May suggests and on the other hand I have play dough people telling me to restrict my intake, which as I have said is obviously confusing and not particularly useful, but it is not just to people with eating disorders that I think this advert is detrimental, rather it is bad for the entire population (far worse for your health in fact than, dare I say, more than two snacks a day comprised of over 100 calories each).

The problem I think with any lifestyle suggestion or diet tip from any source, is that people hear it and immediately take it as gospel. In the real world however, nutrition isn’t governed by blanket black and white, one size fits all rules like that, and there is no such thing as a “diet expert”, only people who have done a lot of research about food and have opinions about it, a point highlighted to me during my brief stint working in a bookshop.
Unsurprisingly, this job involved various tasks including book shelving, and one day I was in the self help department (insert joke about how I need to spend a lot more of my time in such a section here), which was helpfully next to all the diet books. Therefore whilst shelving, I couldn’t help but get a good look at all the titles and diets being advocated.
Now generally, when it comes to reading about a topic, one would assume the more books you read, the more educated you become. For instance say you read 30 books about penguins, it is then likely that you will be more intelligent on that topic than someone who has only read one and that you would do better on any quiz regarding penguins. Alas, when it comes to nutrition, things are not like that, for as I shelved those diet books (working very hard I might add just incase my former boss is reading this…), I realised something ridiculous. Turned out if I were to read all of the diet books, take all of the information, all the “no carb”, “no protein”, “no fat” nonsense and I were to mush it together to make one overall diet plan (which you would think would be the best and most informed having been the culmination of so many books’ worth of information), I wouldn’t be able to eat anything. All the health advice added up together in the world and the conclusion from it? No food is safe, which I think is fairly unhealthy considering such a thing would lead to death, and, were we all to follow that advice, the extinction of all human life on earth. Marvellous. Therefore when it comes to rules like this “twice daily 100 calorie snacks” thing dolled out by nutritionists, taking them as gospel is never a good idea as they are merely opinions rather than facts.

“But for some people limiting snacks to twice daily amounts of 100 calories might be a good, healthier idea than their current lifestyle choices” I hear you cry and I am not going to disagree with you on that, but another thing I want to point out when it comes to guidelines is that they are not universal and are actually only helpful or beneficial to SOME people, which is why it is not helpful to have them rolled out as rules for the general population. As I have already said, this advert is obviously not applicable to people who are in recovery from eating disorders, but neither is it applicable to a large number of the population who all vary in height, weight, activity levels and nutritional needs. What about athletes for example. Is this rule supposed to apply to them too because I am pretty sure that that Mo Farah and Usain Bolt wouldn’t get very far nor would they get any more gold medals were they to restrict themselves to two 100 calorie snacks a day…
Okay I get it, there does need to be some kind of suggestion out there as to how to live a healthy lifestyle and it is important to teach children about food and nutrition but whatever happened to “general education” and suggestions like “eat your vegetables”, “everything in moderation” and try to have a “balanced diet” as opposed to these rigid rules and guidelines ridden with fixed numbers. Where pray did these numbers come from because last time I checked people don’t eat numbers, they eat food (and for good reason too. I once tried to eat a number nine and it was terrible. Tasted purely of pepper.)

It is just somewhat ironic that the whole focus of this campaign is to encourage health but encouraging children to see food in terms of calories and numbers really is a disordered habit struggled with by many people with eating disorders. If healthy snacking is the priority then advising healthy snack foods and providing possible examples would be a far better way to go about it because this focus on calories isn’t healthy at all. When numbers are brought up things start to get obsessive and this is where I think the problem lies. By specifying 100 calorie snacks they are labelling a strict limit to adhere to, but how ridiculously close are people supposed to stick to it? Is a 101 calorie snack ok? What if it is a really healthy snack that is slightly over? Should an “unhealthier” food be chosen instead simply because it fits the amount? Should we weigh already healthy fruit to check that they are “safe” in this new government scheme? Should children be taught how to count calories from the moment they exit the womb? Is that a normal healthy attitude to food? Seriously, think about it, does all of this sound healthy and worth advocating or more akin to rigid disordered behaviour seen in people with eating disorders aka a mental health condition needing treatment?

Overall then, if I had any say or control in any of this government malarky, I would say the whole “100 calorie snacks” with “two a day max” idea needs to be binned and for calculating numbers to be kept in children’s maths lessons in schools rather than in their lunch boxes or at the dining table at home. If you want to educate and give healthy food guidelines from the government then fine, go ahead, but when this advice is given it should be just that, GUIDELINES like the old “eat more fruit and veg” rather than strict, prescribed, rigid calorie counted rules that must be followed exactly and are carved in stone and sung over the breakfast table like some terrible national anthem.

If you have or even if you don’t have an eating disorder but are finding these adverts unhelpful, as hard as it is, my advice would be to do your very best to ignore them. Remember, just because it is prescribed by the government it doesn’t mean it is automatically healthy and it doesn’t mean that its obsession with numbers is not disordered. Nobody is the authority on rules regarding food and diet, it is all opinion, and strict rules, hell even general guidelines, are not applicable to everyone.

Take care everyone x

GovernmentFood

The Difficulty Of Knowing What Counts As “A Behaviour” When You Have An Eating Disorder

How do you tell the difference between an elephant and a letterbox? You check to see which one has a trunk and which one is filled with neatly addressed handwritten letters that will soon be lost in the abyss that is “the postal service”.
How can you tell the difference between a brand new slipper and a boomerang? You throw it to see which one comes back and smacks you in the face.
So far so good (apart from the fact you may have just been smacked in the face with a boomerang or lost a perfectly good slipper), but now for the third question:
How do you tell the difference between the genuine preferences of someone with an eating disorder and the disordered behaviours of someone with an eating disorder? The answer? With extreme difficulty…if at all.

When you are on an eating disorder unit, the food aspect of things/what you can and cannot do with food, is a lot more regimented and controlled by sets of rules than it is in normal life.
Rules will vary depending on what hospital ward or inpatient unit you have been admitted to, but as a general list of examples these rules will be things like “no eating cereal with tea spoons”, “no breaking food up into tiny pieces”, “no sleeves at the dinner table”, “you must scrape the plate that you are eating from clean to complete the meal”, “only X number of minutes to eat your meal” and “no inserting parsnips into the nostrils of the person sitting next to you” (pretty sure that last one is also relevant in real life actually but I am not quite sure…my mother was never very clear when it came to table manners.)
These rules are often frustrating and can seem a bit harsh but they exist because often an eating disorder controls how a person eats and behaves around food, as well as how much or little of it they eat, so part of treatment during recovery involves tackling those food behaviours as well as things like the amount of food someone might be eating. Like I said it can be annoying, but it makes sense. Take the “you must scrape your plate to complete a meal” thing. It may seem over the top (and is a rule that will destroy the lovely willow pattern adorning all of your best crockery), but were it not for rules like that in hospital, there is the risk of people arguing that they have finished their meal when really all they have done is smear it across the good china.

With behaviours like that, I think it is easy to tell the difference between them and genuine food preferences as I don’t think I know any people without eating disorders who “prefer” trying to mash a lasagne into oblivion rather than consuming it.
There are however, a lot of actions people do where it is far harder to tell if the person is making a genuine choice or following a behaviour, and in these situations it is less like trying to distinguish an elephant from a letter box, and more like trying to tell the difference between an elephant, a tea pot and a vacuum cleaner (if you line all three up together you have to admit they do look rather similar…trunks, nozzles and spouts are easily confused…I learnt that the hard way…and broke a teapot).

For example at the hospital I am in at the moment, there are certain rules regarding condiments such as “only two pepper/ketchup/vinegar/mayonnaise/brown sauce etc sachets per meal”. The logic behind this is that some people with eating disorders tend to totally cover their food with a certain condiment in order to make it all taste the same/spoil the food and make it taste horrible as a punishment etc.
Then again, as well as people who use pepper to burn the roof of their mouths off by using it excessively, there are people who use what looks like an excessive amount of pepper simply because they like it. Every time my Dad eats a meal he uses so much pepper that even people scuba diving at the bottom of the Atlantic start sneezing because he likes the spice, and I have a friend who uses what may look like a lot of salt because she has been brought up using that amount and things taste wrong without it. Neither of these people have eating disorders, but they would still struggle living by the rules that are in place to help someone in recovery from a disorder. I guess you could say that the way you tell the difference is to see which came first, the food preference or the disorder, but that isn’t as easy as it sounds. Eating disorders are sneaky, they slip into your life gradually without you really noticing, so it is rare for someone to be able to pin point the day they officially became unwell.

What if my Dad, who currently does not have an eating disorder, developed one in years to come and had to go into hospital? Or my friend who likes a lot of salt? They might, quite rightly, argue that their preferences existed years before their illnesses began and they may be right but the thing is, in hospital, that doesn’t really matter and this is where it gets frustrating. Once you are tarnished with the Eating Disorder brush, suddenly people assume that EVERYTHING you do around food is because of that disorder and they rarely give in or believe you even when you are expressing a genuine dislike. It can be really annoying when you know that your love of toast that is not particularly well cooked is because you like soft as opposed to crisp bread, yet when you are consistently told that everything you do is disordered, sometimes you can start to doubt and be unable to tell the difference between your own choices yourself (aka the is it an elephant, teapot or a vacuum cleaner situation).

How about timings and things like time limits on eating disorder wards? Admittedly they are necessary to avoid still working on Monday’s bowl of cereal at Sunday dinner time (rather soggy cereal I would imagine), but in addition to timings perhaps being affected by disordered thoughts or behaviours, people naturally have varying eating speeds. I certainly know that in my household my Dad will always finish his dinner a good 10-15 minutes before my mum for the simple reason that he has a bigger mouth and more violent set of gnashers (not abnormally large I might add…like he is still a handsome chap and isn’t frequently being mistaken for a shark who needs to be sent back to the aquarium…just clarifying…love you Dad.)

The main rule/“behaviour” that got me thinking about this topic however, the rule I have seen come up in every single one of my admissions to an eating disorder unit and the rule that is carved in a stone tablet and worshipped on a mountain guarded by holy cherubim:

“Thou shalt not dunk biscuits”.

Some of you reading this, who have never heard of such a rule, may be a little shocked, stunned and perhaps distressed to hear that there are people all over the country being forced to eat rich teas that have never actually taken a dip in a real mug of the beverage after which they are named (I know, it is upsetting but we can get through it).
Again, as with all hospital rules there is a reason behind it, that being that people sometimes submerge and drown their biscuits rather than dabbling in a quick dunk and then smear the soggy remains around the inside of their mugs or leave them in sorrowful abandoned mush mountains at the very bottom.

The issue though, comes when you are someone who wants to safely and appropriately dunk their biscuit, yet are prevented by the rule that may not be relevant to you. Of course rules have to apply to everyone on the ward to make them fair, but that is what is annoying, i.e. having an eating disorder and then having EVERYTHING you do with food put down to your disorder when maybe you have just grown up liking a lot of ketchup on your curly fries, or genuinely prefer the texture of a cookie that has had a quick swim in a mug of hot chocolate. Dunking biscuits CAN be a disordered behaviour, but it isn’t always.

Just imagine if the world had to live by eating disorder ward rules with the act of dunking a biscuit being classed as a disordered/unhealthy behaviour and thus banned for all. How would any of us ever eat an Oreo? The dunking aspect to those delights is even in the damn advert! They literally explain how to eat them on the packet! First you twist it, then you lick it, then YOU DUNK IT. If that bit was deleted from the process the country would grind to a halt and living rooms across the world would be filled with poor distressed people holding opened licked Oreos and crying out in agony “WHERE DO I GO FROM HERE?” Think of the number of teeth that would be broken on undunked ginger nuts!

You could maybe be a generous dictator and say that only people who appropriately dunk their biscuits are permitted to do so (something I have asked for on multiple previous admissions), but how can you tell if someone is dunking appropriately? What if someone is genuinely dunking for the resulting soggy biscuit end goal but is such a poor judge of the strength of their chosen biscuit that they get the timings wrong and remove their Custard cream or Bourbon from their brew not to find a perfectly melted vanilla or chocolate cream centre but instead a blank space, an empty half in which biscuit perfection had existed seconds before it was too late and the perfection turned into a sinking disappointment of heartbreak, sorrow and missed opportunities.
Should biscuit dunking be classed as an eating disorder behaviour just because it can sometimes be used as one or can it just be a preference?

Overall then it is clearly very difficult to tell the difference between an eating disorder behaviour and a genuine food preference, especially when you yourself have the eating disorder. I guess when it comes to people who have no issues with food the answer is obvious…until that person is unfortunate enough to develop the disorder and we are caught in the whole confusing “which came first the soggy biscuit or the mental health problem?” dilemma which has plagued scientists for years (scientists who I feel are doing valuable work but are also perhaps taking advantage of their right to order in free biscuits from the big companies under the guise of “research purposes”….)
Of course there will always be ways to figure out the disordered act from the genuine preference but it isn’t always as clear cut as the elephant and the letter box example and sometimes even knowing your own reasons for doing things can get you into a confused muddle of soggy biscuit yourself.

Take care everyone x

ElephantHoover