How To Deal With People On Diets When You Are In Recovery From An Eating Disorder

When it comes to treating an eating disorder, there are about a million ways out there that people go about it. It is like the overall goal of recovery is the Triwizard cup from the Triwizard tournament played out during Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and all people with eating disorders are standing inside this perilous maze running down various paths to try and find their way to victory in recovery (and hopefully not a surprise encounter with Voldemort as happened to Harry. By God that was unfortunate). Some people take the path of medication, others attend groups, try various different kinds of therapies, visit hypnotists, but of all eating disorder recovery journeys you can guarantee they will all, at some point, share something in common: a meal plan. Sometimes people construct these meal plans themselves, others are prescribed them by therapists or dieticians, and some have their meal plans dictated by doctors and nurses in a hospital setting.
Obviously eating the meal plan is hard enough in terms of having an eating disorder and the thoughts that go alongside that, but one thing that can make following your meal plan a hell of a lot harder than just carrying out the basic set of instructions, is the almighty trigger of people on diets.

Picture the scene. You are sitting there at home, ready to eat your healthy balanced lunch prescribed by your dietician. All your basic food groups are present (protein was a little late to the table as he got held up by a tractor on the motorway but everyone is there now). You are anxious but determined to soldier through the meal in your journey to recovery. Then a member of your family comes to join you. You smile and wave, grateful for the company, anticipating a nice bit of conversation to distract you from the eating disorder screaming at you not to pick up the fork, but then the family member sits down. Glancing at their plate, your face falls. All they have is lettuce. THE NERVE OF IT.
If you are anything like me it is around this point that you will start to feel very angry and indignant, and your already difficult task of eating lunch becomes a hell of a lot harder. Suddenly your recovery meal plan lunch looks like it has doubled in size like some unwelcome food multiplication miracle in the style of Jesus and all those loaves and fishes. The already intimidating quantity feels even more excessive and unnecessary than it felt before and the thoughts are churning. “If I eat this when they are just sitting there with a salad I will be greedy”, “clearly I don’t need this much for lunch if that is all they are having for the equivalent meal”, “why should I eat this food when they are allowed to eat lettuce” etc etc. Then things escalate, and before you know it you have hit your lunch time companion over the head with the left over half lettuce in the kitchen, torn up their copy of Slimming World magazine and crumbled any diet pills they were taking to dust, dust which you then sculpt into a giant sand castle prison to lock them in until they agree to eat normally again (not that I have ever thought this through in detail prior to writing this post you understand). Basically, it sucks, but for all you people out there who struggle with this trigger, never fear, for I have words of potential wisdom that I hope will help, as there is a key thing to remember in all of this.

The most important thing to remind yourself when you are at that table, eating your recovery meal plan around potentially salad chomping dieters, is that you are in a completely different situation to that person, so different and far apart in fact that you are actually not even on the same table.
If you are in recovery for an eating disorder and have been prescribed a meal plan to follow, that meal plan is your medicine, and the nonsense in your head trying to tell you not to eat it because someone else is eating less than you, is a voice that makes as much sense as someone with an ear infection refusing to take antibiotics because nobody else in their household is.
Who knows? Maybe that person on a diet has been prescribed their low calorie meal plan by a doctor because their previous diet was giving them health problems, or maybe they are just doing one of those silly fad diets for a few days after an advert they saw in a magazine. Either way, that does not mean that automatically you should not follow the meal plan that is prescribed/necessary for your body, and following it does not make you greedy simply because you are eating “more” than someone else.

When you are at the table trying to eat your meal plan and you are with someone who you know is having less than you, the most helpful thing to focus on for me is imagining the distance in your situations (aka a person with an eating disorder and a body damaged by the effects of starvation and malnutrition vs a person without an eating disorder who is not malnourished), as a genuine distance in physical location.

For example, imagine an explorer standing in the Arctic as representing a person with an eating disorder (for the purpose of this example we will call him Eggbert because I would imagine that people called Eggbert are rather adventurous/like the cold). Eggbert is surrounded by a blizzard, a glacier is rapidly approaching from the North and a polar bear to his left is giving him very funny looks (even the polar bear looks a little on the chilly side despite being designed as fluffy enough for these conditions).
Now picture a holiday maker on a beach in Barbados as representative of people without eating disorders. Doreen, for that is the name of our sand loving pal (actually that’s a lie…her real name is Doris but she had to change her name because she is on the run from the law…SHHHH!), is on a beach in Barbados with temperatures so hot that the local chicken eggs are laid hard boiled.
Now imagine the food aspect of things as a giant pile of coats and blankets.
Eating disorders aside, I think we can all agree that in these circumstances, Eggbert who is shivering with the polar bear in the Arctic, is definitely in need of all the coats and blankets and hot water bottles available to him. Indeed it is vital for Eggbert’s survival for him to take those things on board and snuggle up regardless of what Doreen is wearing on her beach in Barbados. By keeping all of the blankets to himself and not sharing some with Doreen somehow, Eggbert is not greedy, he just is at a place in life where he has different needs to Doreen to keep him alive. It is a situation in which Eggbert is using necessary resources to keep himself safe, and he still needs all those blankets and hot water bottles even if Doreen is lying elsewhere on a beach towel fully nude (AVERT YOUR EYES CHILDREN).

That may sound a bit of a drastic difference in situation to illustrate the point, but it is vital to acknowledge the difference in situation between you and the person you are eating lunch with if they are eating less than you. You are not on a weight loss diet because you do not need to lose weight, their diet magazines do not apply to you, and if you tried to attend their weekly weight loss sessions for more weight loss tips you would be turned away. As hard as it is, you really do just have to cut that person’s weight loss mission, diet and exercise out of your life and not allow the voice to trigger you to use someone else’s behaviour as a reason to avoid doing what you need to do. As with needing jackets in the Arctic, you need the food, even if the person sitting next to you is as naked as the day they were born and munching on lettuce. What a lovely image to end a post on. I really hope you enjoy it.

Take care everyone x



Why It Is Important To Be Aware Of Your Mental Health Triggers

During every moment of every day, everyone’s experiences in the outside world trigger an inward, mental response to that event in that person’s head. Seeing a penguin could cause someone to feel happy for example, or seeing someone kicking a penguin could cause someone to feel a rage more powerful than can be possibly imagined. Either way, what happens on the outside will flip some kind of switch on the inside, and, if a person has a mental illness, that switch may be the one that controls their disorder/sets it off on a rampage. Daily life with a mental health problem is a struggle in general, but pretty much everyone will have things that trigger their disorders more than usual, and for this reason people will avoid thinking about these things.
In terms of OCD I know there are certain words or smells that make me particularly likely to engage in compulsive behaviours, and I know that hearing people talk about weight loss, exercise or calories pushes the buttons of my eating disorder. Consequently, I do my best to stick my head in the sand when it comes to things like that and I avoid thinking about those topics as much as possible. On the surface it seems like a good idea, surely if I avoid thinking about things that make my disorder worse, I will avoid the distress they cause and I won’t have to deal with it. However this head in the sand method tends to fall to pieces if I ever find myself in a situation where I cannot avoid my triggers, because by never thinking about them, I have not prepared a way to manage my response. It is all well and good to turn off TV programs about topics in which my OCD trigger words are likely to arise, or avoid people following the latest diet trend and pretend that they are not a problem for me, but say for instance I was ever kidnapped by my local troop of Weight Watchers (not that I am suggesting that people who belong to the aforementioned diet club are at high risk of kidnapping people), I would be screwed.
For this reason I would say that thinking about your triggers and planning ways to cope when confronted with them is actually vital in terms of living with a mental disorder, and if for some reason you do not believe me when I say this (which I would understand; it is after all asking a lot for you to trust the words of a stranger on the internet without explanation), then allow me to illustrate my point with a story about my good friend Bert…

Bert is a very famous athlete, his sport being the javelin throw. He is 28 years old and has been training since the age of five after he found his first ever Javelin waiting for him in a stocking one Christmas morning (this was back in the day when Santa was not very good at picking out gifts for the under tens and Health and Safety were less on the ball than they are nowadays). Due to many years of training and a natural talent for throwing long pointy objects, Bert excelled at his sport and was thus invited to attend the Olympics in Rio this year. Bert was thrilled. He immediately packed his bags, stepped on a plane and set off to Rio (I don’t know how exactly he got through airport security with a massive javelin when most people aren’t allowed more than 100ml of shampoo but just go with it).
Upon arrival, he went to the stadium in which his sport was to be held, but prior to reaching the changing rooms, a strange man in a top hat came up to him with news that shocked Bert to his very core. For some unknown and mysterious reason it was confirmed that Bert was indeed to compete in the Olympics…BUT NOT IN THE JAVELIN. No, because of some kind of spelling mistake on behalf of an overworked secretary, Bert had been entered into the dressage, an understandable error as we all know how often one will accidentally find oneself writing “dressage” when meaning Javelin. Whoever wrote the dictionary really should have made those words less similar to save us all the stress we face in daily life… ANYWAY. Bert cried out and pleaded with the top hatted man for the error to be changed but there was no way, and thus it happened that Bert found himself as a competitor in the dressage event Rio 2016 despite having no knowledge of dressage whatsoever. With two hours to go before the competition started, Bert rushed off in a panic to try and find someone with any knowledge of dressage, but alas though he looked in every nook (he forgot to check the crannies), he found nothing, and had to turn up to the event as clueless as the moment he had stepped off the plane. Only when it was his turn to perform did he realise the problem even bigger than having no knowledge of dressage. He had no horse. Therefore poor Bert had to compete without a noble steed, resorting to galloping and prancing around the paddock tossing his imaginary mane all alone. It was a catastrophe.
Now, let’s just imagine that story again, but with one very important detail changed. In this second version, instead of finding out about the unfortunate spelling error in the stadium, he found out in a phone call from the man with the top hat before he packed to get on the plane. This way the situation awaiting Bert was to be exactly as it was the first time, but in this version Bert had time to prepare. By knowing about the mix up beforehand, he was able to run to the fields prior to his flight and purchase a horse from an old farmer called Frank, to accompany him on his journey (again I have no idea how he got a horse through airport security but to be honest if the unrealistic portrayal of airport security is the only thing you are finding hard to believe in this story then I feel I am doing rather well.) When it came to the dressage event Bert still had little knowledge of dressage, but having read a pamphlet on the plane and with his horse, he was able to compete considerably better than he had in the alternate universe where he had been forced to gallop around the paddock himself. Did Bert still come last in the event? Yes. Did he score the lowest mark in the history of dressage at the Olympics? Of course he did, but by anticipating the sudden event change before getting on the plane, Bert was able to prepare the best he could for the inevitable difficulty in his future and thus able to manage the situation far better.
Now, if we read this story and interpret participating in a sudden dressage competition as being forced to suddenly face one of your triggers without ever having thought about how to deal with it first, I think we can all agree that it was better for Bert to be aware of the upcoming problem so that he could prepare, and therefore better for people to anticipate and think about ways to manage their triggers before they are sprung upon them unexpectedly.
Did Bert having a horse stop all of the distress and anxiety when performing? No, but he was at least better prepared than in the first story and was able to do all he could to make the best of that situation/gather a horse together.

Knowing your triggers will not cure you of your illness, but there are times in which it can help manage the surprise bouts of anxiety when these triggers come up in situations you hadn’t expected them to (say for example a sudden kidnapping from a band of rogue members of your local Weight Watchers).
Obviously by simply being aware of what situations or things trigger you, you are not going to change the affect those triggers may have or lessen any distress they may cause. Even when you are aware of what makes life difficult those difficulties will still affect you, but when you are aware of what sets your disorder off, you are at least able to anticipate ways of dealing with it.
Thinking about triggers is always going to be hard, yet I can assure each and every one of you out there that doing so is a lot easier than encountering them unawares, just as it is much easier to perform in Olympic dressage when you have a horse…

Take care everyone


An Important Reminder For People Struggling With Mental Health Problems During Exam Season

Ah summer, a wonderful time of sunshine, drinks with umbrellas (as we all know if anyone needs a device to keep something dry it is a glass of liquid), and, less wonderfully, exams. No matter what kind of exam is being thrown at you, whether it be a GCSE, A-level, university finals or your N.E.W.T’s at Hogwarts, I think we can all agree that exams suck and are a very stressful part of the year for everyone involved, especially people with mental health problems who are pretty stocked up on stress and need no exam boards adding to it. If you have exams coming up I can guarantee you have been told how important they are by teachers and lecturers and if you are anything like me you will feel that they are the most important things in the world, but I want to provide an alternative voice to all that stress and pressure and let you know that in the grand scheme of things, exams and other education related worries are not important. Now I know what you are thinking, “why should I listen to a weirdo on the internet when I have educated officials telling me that these exams are vital to my future happiness?”. Well dear reader, because I am going to prove my point with an analogy using the absolute best thing about summer, ice-cream, and if that doesn’t get me credibility then I don’t know what will.

For the purpose of this post I would like you to imagine an ice cream cone. That empty cone represents your physical health, no emotions whatever, just the heart beating oxygen to carbon dioxide basics of being alive. Now add a scoop of ice cream to that cone (one involving chocolate or peanut butter preferably but I suppose you could use any flavour for your metaphorical ice cream…just not rum and raisin because that is nasty). That scoop of ice cream is your mental health, stress levels, emotional stability, any brain activity that involves quality of life, pain or pleasure, and makes you different from the empty ice cream cone of the amoeba. Now add a cherry to that ice cream cone. That cherry is exams/good results/fantastic education stuff in general.

If you went to an ice cream van in the real world and asked for an ice cream, you would expect at least a cone with a scoop of ice cream in. A cone is fine but it is worth nothing without the ice cream and without the cone the ice cream would have no “body” to chill in (literally). To be worth having, you need both the cone and the ice cream. Having a cherry added on the top would be nice, but without the ice cream and the cone it is pointless. Without those key components you just have a random cherry floating in the air and that is useless in terms of the ice cream experience (otherwise known as “life”). Exams alone are that useless floating cherry.

The most important things to focus on and look after throughout life, exams and education in whatever form, are your physical and mental health, because if you don’t have either of those things then exams have nothing to sit on.
When I was doing my A-levels I was absolutely terrified and my exams literally became a life or death situation. My head was compressed under so much pressure and my brain had made some kind of OCD rigid deal that I had to get straight A*’s or kill myself. No other grade would give me “permission to live”, not even an A which is an incredible grade to get as it is. My anxiety and OCD drive made a life or death situation out of “a star” and you know what that star is? IT IS JUST AN ASTERISK. IT IS PUNCTUATION. It is not the be all and end all goal of life, this mystical magical holy relic to be chased to the end of time. Nope. Look here is one now *. And another one *. Is “*” and therefore any grade worth the pressure and insanity placed upon exams?

The stress of exams, grades and dedicating all of your energy to revision is like chasing a floating cherry without the cone and ice cream needed to support it. If education is causing so much stress that your anxiety is out of control, if you are revising so much that you are “not having time to eat”, then that is not OK. At university I spent my entire time chasing that illusive floating cherry (otherwise known as “a first”). I read books obsessively, didn’t sleep, took notes on things with unnecessary detail and precision. Revision sheets were awash with bubble letters that I took hours colouring in using the order of colours in the rainbow. I had to get a first so everything had to be perfect, but I was so busy colour co-ordinating titles that I didn’t look after the cone or the ice cream and eventually everything fell down with nothing there to support it. I never took my final exams at university, I never wrote my dissertation or got the resulting “dissertation picture”, because I was in hospital. Thankfully I had the most amazing tutor and team at university so I was still able to graduate. Did I get a first? No. Has having a “2:1” rather than a first changed my life in any way? No. Do you know how often I get asked about my degree or A-level grades? How often someone asks to admire my colour co-ordinated revision notes with obsessively neat handwriting and bubble letters? Never, because in the real world none of it matters, what really matters is keeping yourself alive and able to function.
When you are in school I know that education feels like the world and grades are the tip of the mountain in importance, but when you leave school you realise that that mountain was just a mole hill and the real important mountains in life are actually living your life both physically and, hopefully, with some mental stability or quality that make it worth it. Getting an education or a dissertation picture are things in life, but they are not the ONLY things.

Obviously I am not telling you not to bother with revision, if you can handle it then that is great and of course you should do your best in exams, but you shouldn’t sacrifice your emotional or physical wellbeing to achieve, catch a cherry that is useless without the cone and ice cream to balance it on. An earlier hospitalisation during sixth form meant I had to go back a year in school so I did my A-levels a year late. Again it seemed like the biggest deal in the world, but I needed that time in hospital and that time out and eventually I got my exams, Ok they were a little late, but the only difference between my certificates and the ones my initial year received was the date. Also, I actually made loads of new friends in my new year, so in retrospect going back a year was not only vital but actually gave me some positive experiences with people I wouldn’t have met had I forced myself through exams the first time. Especially if I had died in the attempt.

In short, education can wait. Education can be done any time if needs be, but what cannot wait or be done at any time is keeping yourself alive and looking after your health. If you need to take time out, do it. Lower the pressure and expectations for grades. In short, give yourself a break, give yourself time to breathe. If you have exams and revision this summer then I wish you the best of luck and hope they go brilliantly, just please remember to look after that cone and scoop of ice cream first, and don’t kill yourself over a floating cherry that in the grand scheme of things matters nowhere near as much as the ice cream.

Ice cream