Tash’s Story: Anorexia Nervosa

We live in a world where body image is something that is important to most. Unfortunately, there appears to be a real pressure from society to appear a certain way. Social Media has played a huge part in this as we find that we are constantly comparing ourselves to others/celebrities who appear to have those “perfect bodies”. These frankly distorted and unrealistic representation of bodies has led to many struggling to love and accept their own body as their body isn’t correctly represented in the media. Negative association and an unhealthy relationship with our body can have a devastating affect on mental health which can sometimes lead to an eating disorder.

Recently, we have spoken to Natasha, a 4th year Medical Student from Sheffield, who has previously battled with anorexia nervosa. Anorexia is a serious mental health condition which makes people try to keep their weight as low as possible usually with excessive exercise, not eating sufficient food or a combination of both.

Below are some of the questions that we asked her to get a better understanding of the condition.

When were you diagnosed and how did you seek help?

I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at the end of my first year of medical school. My family and friends had been concerned about me for some time throughout the previous year and after a couple of months, I agreed to speak to a doctor about it. I was subsequently diagnosed with anorexia, but at that time I still didn’t particularly believe I was unwell and thought that those around me were exaggerating or being dramatic.

One of the most complex things about eating disorders is that you never feel ‘sick enough’ or ‘unwell enough’ to need or deserve help and treatment so I didn’t think that I needed any help or support. I was diagnosed at the end of my summer holiday and just a couple of weeks later I was going back to university to start my second year of medical school. As I still didn’t believe I was unwell, I didn’t tell any of my friends, housemates or tutors at uni what had been going on.

Anosognosia – when someone is unaware of their own mental health condition/an inaccurate awareness of it – is fairly common with regards to mental health disorders. It must be so challenging to admit that there is an issue if you genuinely believe that there isn’t one. If anything, this must be one of the most difficult things to accept and potentially the biggest factor to accepting help.

Going back to the freedom of university away from my family, meant no-one held me accountable anymore and I fell back into really restrictive habits. However, after a few months of uni I started to really, really struggle – I couldn’t sleep, I was constantly exhausted, falling asleep in lectures from lack of energy etc. I decided to go to my GP at uni. This is one of the big problems that university students face. You have to start again in the system when you come back to uni and go through the whole process again. My GP was great though and was so supportive and understanding and referred me for some more support with secondary services. There are several different services available to assist with a recovery of anorexia. Usually, it is treated with talking therapies such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Maudsley Anorexia Nervosa Treatment for Adults (MANTRA) and Specialist Supportive Clinical Management (SSCM).

Recovering was a long process and there is no easy answer or overnight fix. It’s lots of hard work and requires you to face your fears over and over again. But it is so worth it. For me, it was figuring out my own personal reasons and motivations to recover- to get my old self back, become the best Doctor I could for my patients and to be able to be present in social situations and enjoy spending time with my friends and family again. Once I figured this out, I became more motivated to recover. Although I still had my bad days, and recovery certainly isn’t linear (there were many ups and downs), reminding myself why I was doing this always gave me a boost to keep going.

It’s fantastic that Tash was so determined and committed to recovering from anorexia nervosa. It cannot have been an easy ride but overcoming such a serious condition shows bravery, courage and strength.

In what way did anorexia impact on you daily life?

At the time when I was unwell, I didn’t see how anorexia impacted on my life, because I didn’t perceive myself to be unwell. But when I look back, anorexia controlled and dictated my entire life and started to impact my friends’ and family’s lives too. My life and priorities revolved around exercising and controlling my food and weight. I started to stop going out and socialising with my friends because I was terrified that I would have to eat or drink something that I didn’t normally allow myself to eat. My self-confidence and self-worth plummeted and I really didn’t think I deserved or was good enough to be at medical school. Due to lack of energy, I started to struggle at university and slipped behind in exams and coursework. I had to drop down a year to enable me to fully recover, which at the time was particularly difficult to accept and I felt like a complete failure. However now when I look back, that year out saved my life, and helped me to properly recover and to re-find myself again.

Hearing Tash say this, we think it is brilliant that she can look back on such a challenging and dark time in her life and appreciate now how much it changed her as she was able to become her true self again.

How do you manage the condition now?

Now I consider myself to be pretty much recovered. This looks different for everyone- and please try not to compare your own recovery journey with other people’s! For me, I now love being able to enjoy going out for meals with friends and family and being able to be spontaneous and flexible around food. I also love being able to exercise when I feel like it to celebrate what my body can do, instead of pulling it apart and constantly punishing it. It is those spontaneous coffee and cake dates with friends, it’s those nights out that end with pizza. It’s having space in your brain to think about more than food and exercise. I still struggle with anxiety and feelings of not being good enough, but I am always finding new ways to try and manage these and try not to let them define who I am.

The really important message of not comparing your journey to another’s is fundamental to recovery as it is relative and personal to the individual. It must feel so liberating to be able to go out without the worry of what you can or can’t do/have after a period of time of feeling so restricted.

What advice would you give someone who might be in the same position you were?

Please reach out. There are lots of resources and support out there with organisations such as Beat and Eating Disorders Association NI. They both offer support groups and individual support options for both those suffering from eating disorders and carers as well. Reaching out to friends and family can seem like a terrifying idea, but most of the time people are really supportive and just want to help in any way they can. I would also say recovery is always possible. When you are in the depths of your eating disorder, recovery can feel impossible and it be hard to see the light of the end of the tunnel, but I promise you, you can recover and things do get better.

The most important message we get from this is to talk. However difficult this may seem, it could change, or in fact save, your life. We really appreciate Tash taking the time out of her very busy schedule to share her inspirational and honest story about her recovery from anorexia. If you are suffering or think you might need some help, we strongly encourage to talk to someone, contact your GP or seek advice from one of the organisations linked above.

As always with our blog posts, we want to remind you and highlight how mental health can happen to anyone regardless of gender, ethnicity, social background, age, race, etc.

Nick & Lucy x

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