We have a guest post from the inspirational Hanna from www.hannabeatsana.com. Anorexia: My Visible and Invisible Illness
Over to you Hanna.
When I was first asked to do a guest post here, alongside being pleased to have been invited onto this site, I suddenly thought hang on a minute, my illness isn’t invisible! I thought maybe I’d been invited under the wrong topic…then I thought again and realised that this is the whole point – anorexia is often invisible to all but those closest to the person struggling with it, until it gets severe. And this early invisibility is one of the biggest barriers to being taken seriously and getting help.
I became ill at 23, but after the sudden dramatic weight loss at the start, it became more of a slow and steady descent deeper into the illness, punctuated here and there by brief months where I tried to get a bit better. Throughout most of this time, it wasn’t immediately obvious to many people that I had a mental and physical health problem. I looked thin, underweight, at times quite gaunt, but not anorexic in the stereotypical media portrayal of the problem with the usual focus being on those who become so ill that they are hospitalised and sometimes tube fed. I was still a long way from this, but I was already really ill.
I guess I was invisibly ill as no one could see the constant anxiety running in my mind, the secret behaviours I developed around food and strained to hide, the complete loss of my periods, the semi-collapse of my digestive system, thinning hair, and the one even I couldn’t see – thinning bones and the onset of osteoporosis.
I’ve been encouraged recently by the increasing use of the word ‘parity’ by politicians and in the media when talking about mental health. I really hope all the talk and planned initiatives come to something so that others don’t pay the price for the lack of parity up to now. Perhaps anorexia shows up this lack of parity more than any other mental illness as it seems to be only when it becomes very physically serious, and so very visible, that it gets treated.
It was only on my fourth attempt to get help from a GP that I was finally referred to specialist services, and without months of waiting. By this stage, my illness was very visible – a full blown physical condition that needed daily management and put me on the brink of hospital admission. But earlier on, when things were not so severe, my attempts to speak to GPs didn’t lead to support. In fact, the first time I tried to reach out, I was simply told that the reason I didn’t have periods was due to being underweight and that I just needed to eat more – no dots were joined as to why I couldn’t eat enough to maintain a healthy weight. I know some GPs are better than others, but what’s needed is some kind of standardisation so that it’s not pot luck as to whether your invisible illness will be taken seriously, and whether you will be treated with kindness and respect.
Anorexia has a complex relationship with visibility. Unlike many other mental illnesses, it’s one where as soon as you disclose you have it, you wait for the body judgement. You wait for the line, ‘but you don’t look anorexic…’ or ‘I’d love to be as skinny as you’ – both of which are insensitive and destructive. Even if you don’t hear these comments, you know a judgement is being made on your body and your size – it’s an automatic response even if it’s not voiced.
These reactions have terrified me until very recently. They stopped me admitting I was ill and pushing harder for help for many years. They also stopped me speaking out about my illness as maybe I wasn’t or hadn’t been ‘anorexic enough’ to be taken seriously.
But after a good hard think and pushing myself onwards so I don’t give up partially recovered, I’ve realised that if I don’t admit what I’ve been through and if I don’t speak out I am just reinforcing the lack of parity. I am vindicating the mistaken belief that my illness is only real and serious when it’s highly visible. That’s rubbish!
So now I’m not afraid. Yes, I’m in recovery from a decade of anorexia. Yes, even when I’m the healthy, physically active woman I’m striving to become and no one can guess or see what I’ve been through, I know what I’ve overcome and that can’t be negated. I know too that a tiny part of my mind might have to continue the struggle, making sure the illness can’t creep back to the front – a struggle so invisible, yet so important.
In 2018, my aim is to speak out, reach out to others struggling with eating disorders at all stages of visibility, and to campaign so that we can be helped before these disorders become so visible and so mentally and physically serious.
If you’d like to read more of my writing on my recovery and on eating disorders, follow my blog: www.hannabeatsana.com. I’d love to chat on Twitter too: @HannaLou84