People With Eating Disorders Offer Advice On How To Fight Relapse During Self-Isolation
Dealing with self-isolation is tough no matter what the circumstances, but when routines and schedules are paramount to your health – as they so often are for those with eating disorders – it can be even harder.
Life as we know it has temporarily come to a halt for people across the globe, as gym sessions are cancelled, bars are closed and work is upended as a result of COVID-19.
Governments are urging people to stay indoors as much as possible in an effort to tackle the spread of the virus and allow hospitals to give appropriate care to those who are most in need. While it can prevent people catching coronavirus, self-isolation can have other impacts on people’s health.
Eating disorders are highly complex mental illnesses, and while they can be beaten with the right treatment and support, losing the coping mechanisms established in day-to-day routines can have a big impact on progress.
UNILAD spoke to 23-year-old Jax, a non-binary children’s theatre actor from Connecticut who started isolating on March 13, and who has ‘struggled on and off with some sort of disordered eating’ since they were around 12 years old.
After a doctor told them they needed to lose ‘quite a few pounds’, Jax began ‘obsessively tracking calories’ and monitoring how much they were putting into their body versus how much they were exercising.
They struggled with anorexia for years, and sought help from counsellors to help combat the disorder. In day-to-day life, Jax keeps the eating disorder at bay by making sure to consume something in the morning, trying to eat at least one food of every category and sticking to a regular schedule.
In accordance with government recommendations, Jax gave up touring the US and returned to live at their mum’s house following the coronavirus outbreak. However, losing their daily routine and being forced to stay inside has left Jax struggling with their mental health, and in turn their control over their eating disorder.
Jax told UNILAD:
Without accountability I find myself sleeping a lot more and having less motivation.
I don’t want to eat as much. I want to slip back into old habits of lying in bed all day and barely consuming anything.
Similarly, 26-year-old Thomas has found that self-isolating has left him with a ‘complete detachment of [his] previous routine’.
A professional dancer and bartender from New York City, Thomas started struggling with bulimia when he was around 11 years old and worked to overcome his disorder by receiving behavioural therapy and nutritional education, as well as by consciously trying to create a healthy relationship with food and with his body.
He now maintains a healthy lifestyle by staying active and providing himself with good, healthy fuel to keep his body working and to help pursue his dance career.
Thomas began self-isolating on March 15 to protect his family from possible exposure, as there are people in Thomas’s network who have contracted the virus.
As a result, he saw his 15-hour days turn into blank schedules, with his dance classes and rehearsals cancelled or postponed and his bartending jobs no longer available.
Since he has no plans to keep him occupied, Thomas found himself turning to food. He has no access to a kitchen while in isolation, so rather than being able to create his own healthy meals he has to rely on what he’s given.
With no jobs, no classes, no auditions, and no social gatherings, I’ve had to build a life from scratch.
This has led to a complete detachment of my previous routine and a heavy reliance on food to cope with stress. I have basically no control over what I have available to eat, and no access to a kitchen.
I am given a hot meal by my family once a day and eat whatever I have available to me in the interim. This has led to a bingeing problem.
Claire Farnsworth, a 20-year-old student from Illinois, has found herself feeling guilty for trying to preach body positivity while simultaneously finding herself ‘completely and totally paralysed in fear’.
Claire came to rely on food in a lonely childhood, and found it as a comfort and ’emotional release’ from a very young age. She was ashamed of her bingeing habits and would hide food wrappers at the bottom of the bin, as well as sneaking into the kitchen late at night to make herself an ‘exorbitant amount of food’.
She was hospitalised for high blood pressure for the first time when she was just nine years old, with the doctor concluding she was ‘simply too obese for a child’. By the time she was 10, Claire could ‘binge a day’s worth of food for a grown man in one sitting’, and at 11 she started attending Weight Watchers meetings.
Recalling the road to recovery, Claire told UNILAD:
My eating patterns were erratic for the majority of middle and high school; I’d cycle through binge eating and starvation depending on what I was trying to cope with. My life made me feel miserable, so I’d eat. Then my body made me feel worse, so I’d starve.
It wasn’t until the end of high school and college that my life started to regulate and the environmental factors stopped bothering me as much and I gained some healthy coping mechanisms.
Like Jax and Thomas, Claire coped by keeping herself busy, but when she started self-isolating on March 17 ‘the majority of [her] coping skills went straight out the window’.
I’m stuck in my room all day that has mirrors on almost every wall, which was probably never a good idea in the first place, but is now proving to be a glaringly obvious misstep for someone with eating disorders. I have found myself waiting until absolutely necessary to eat my first meal, which is the obvious sign of relapse.
Jax, Thomas and Claire have all found their own ways of trying to stay healthy during isolation, whether it’s by relying on family members, attempting to come up with a new routine or reminding themselves of how far they have come with recovery.
Jax has found support by leaning on their family members, with their mum and brother often reminding them to eat and helping them stay healthy. Jax has also taken to feeding themselves when they feed their cat to ensure they are consuming regular meals.
Both Jax and Thomas have also tried to get into a new routine, with Jax making sure they get outside for some of the day to benefit their mental health and making an effort to listen to their body when it’s telling them it’s hungry.
Thomas has attempted to echo the coping mechanisms he developed in his previous routine, by ‘staying as active as possible [and] trying to avoid body checking and other destructive habits’.
Claire has also avoided destructive habits like checking the Instagram pages of models as well as other areas of the internet that ‘make [her] hate [herself]’. Like Jax, Claire’s family are encouraging her to eat, and though she admitted her mum’s homemade chocolate chip cookie ‘felt like lead in [her] stomach’, she was glad she ate it as it made her mum smile.
I’m trying really hard to remind myself that food is my friend, not my enemy. When I finally decide to let myself eat, I make sure it’s worth it. I put care into preparing a balanced meal for myself.
Usually after I eat my first meal of the day I feel so proud of myself for being stronger than my eating disorder the second meal comes only an hour or two later, and it’s usually Cinnamon Toast Crunch, my favourite.
Jax advised those struggling with eating disorders to ‘reach out to someone if you can, and check in with friends if you’re able!’
We need to look out for each other in this time. If you need an accountability buddy who ensures you eat, that’s okay too.
Claire and Thomas admitted speaking about their eating disorder helped, and Thomas has plans to find some sort of counselling to help him maintain a healthy lifestyle while dealing with self-isolation.
Claire hadn’t opened up about her struggles before speaking to UNILAD, but she found sharing her story helped her feel more powerful against her eating disorder.
That’s the funny thing about eating disorders, they want you to suffer in silence because that’s how they win.
You convince yourself it’s the right thing to do and when you get to that magic weight it will turn itself off and you will be magically happy and unaffected. Doing this interview has lifted a weight off my shoulder that I have been refusing to acknowledge was even there.
Exposing my disorder for what it is, rather than a protective measure against weight gain in a time of quarantine, makes me feel like I could beat it again, like I did before.
Claire went on to point out that ‘recovery is not linear’, saying:
There are ups and downs and relapsing is a part of the journey, as crushing of a blow that is.
Remember who you were before the relapse, or before the beginning if you’re still in the thick of fighting, and that you can be that person again. You are worth fighting for and the people in your life love you and don’t want you to vanish.
Despite what the news may be telling you, the world isn’t ending and neither are you. Eat all of those quarantine snacks you bought, you deserve it! Take care of yourself and do what you loved before, I promise it will make you better than your reflection in the mirror.
Thomas shared a similar point as advice for others, recommending those struggling ‘accept that your body is going to change’.
You need to be okay with this… The world is different. Now more than ever, how we look is far less important than the health of ourselves and the ones we love. You are not alone.
Jax, Thomas and Claire all reiterated that those struggling with eating disorders are not alone, and an urgent appeal from BEAT reveals the charity has seen a 30% increase in demand for its services in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
Self-isolation is not something that can be avoided, but it is still possible, and encouraged, to reach out to others for support while isolating. Opening up about your issues to a family member, friend or on a helpline can help you feel in control and can allow others to stay by your side, physically or virtually, through the ordeal.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues and want to speak to someone in confidence, contact the BEAT helpline on 0808 801 0677, or talk to an advisor via the talk secure instant messaging service here.
It’s okay to not panic. LADbible and UNILAD’s aim with our coronavirus campaign, Cutting Through, is to provide our community with facts and stories from the people who are either qualified to comment or have experienced first-hand the situation we’re facing. For more information from the World Health Organization on Coronavirus, click here.