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More than one million people in the UK have an eating disorder, something which will affect no two people the same way.
Something else that has affected everyone differently is the pandemic. While some have dealt with the past 12 months well, others have found it extremely difficult.
In regards to the pandemic, those with eating disorders or recovering from one have all dealt with lockdown differently; in light of this week marking Eating Disorder Awareness Week, UNILAD decided to speak to people about their experiences.
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Francesca Baker, 34, has had anorexia since the age of 18 and found that her busy schedule prior to the pandemic didn’t help her eating disorder. However, lockdown gave her the time she needed to relax and focus on her health. She explained, ‘Between the ages of 18 and 34, I’ve never really got a decent enough meal plan or gained enough weight to have energy. Usually I’m out every night, keeping busy, and that burns energy.’
Francesca told UNILAD:
I’ve been much more relaxed [in lockdown]. Pre-lockdown my packed agenda was a great excuse to skip meals or burn energy. I can’t now. I’m at home and focused on recovery.
Working from home also means I can focus on my meal plans. I think coming out of lockdown I need to remember that a chilled pace of life suits me more than I ever realised.
Francesca explained that since her life has slowed down, she’s come to realise all the things she has missed out on as a result of her anorexia, and wants to change this. She said, ‘So many times I have turned down nights out or birthday parties or lunch with friends because I have been too scared of the calories or because I’ve been too tired due to not fuelling myself enough. Not being able to do these things has made me realise how much of my life I’ve missed out on, and I’m determined not to say no to life to say yes to anorexia.’
‘Being at home all the time has made it easier to follow my meal plan, and I’m determined to keep doing this as well as embrace life,’ Francesca added.
While Francesca has found the pandemic and lockdown has helped her take time for herself, Lucy Dodds, 26, has found coping with her eating disorder increasingly difficult due to the fact she’s not around people every day.
Lucy has had a binge eating disorder and bulimia for more than 10 years, and felt she had a handle on it until the pandemic made her work from home. She explained she hadn’t realised how much she relied so much on having work and a normal day-to-day routine had aided her recovery.
Lucy told UNILAD, ‘I must have been relying a lot on having other people around because I can’t go to a work toilet and make myself sick – that wouldn’t be possible. So I guess going to work every day and having a routine that I guess I took for granted because I was getting up, and you have to go for lunch with friends […] I’m always conscious of what I’m eating but if I’m out with friends I wouldn’t have a massive binge in public.’
Lucy isn’t alone in how she feels. BEAT’s Director of External Affairs, Tom Quinn, explained the eating disorder charity has seen a 173% increase in calls since the pandemic began.
Quinn said, ‘We know the pandemic has been particularly difficult for people affected by eating disorders, with demand for our helpline soaring by 173% since it began. It is not surprising, as those affected and their families have had to cope with extreme changes to their daily routines, support networks and care plans, all while also dealing with the additional stress the pandemic has brought.’
Lucy went on to say how the brief hint of normality that hit the UK last summer as lockdown ended caused her to put more pressure on herself to lose weight.
It got to a point when things appeared to be going back to normal and it kind of felt pressure for things to get quickly back to normal, but the thing with an eating disorder is, a lot of people like me have a tendency to build up a lot of pressure on themselves, which makes you spiral worse.
Lucy described herself as ‘petrified’ of seeing things potentially return to normal in June, but in the wake of her struggles has sought out professional help for the first time to kickstart her recovery. She said, ‘I have health insurance at work so I ended up seeking help back in August last year. [Bingeing and being sick] was happening everyday and I thought, ‘This is so crap’. I talked to a therapist and they started out with some self help.’
Lucy also advised others going through the same as her to reach out for help and to stop ignoring the problem. She told UNILAD, ‘My advice to people would be to stop ignoring their eating disorder and make that phone call to the doctor or whoever. You worry about putting more pressure on the NHS and health providers [at the moment], but I think there’ll be a huge influx of people in light of the pandemic who are experiencing the same thing as I am.’
Rebecca Quinlan, 32, also struggled during the pandemic but fortunately managed to keep on track with her recovery. She was first diagnosed with anorexia at the age of 19, something she partially believes stems from being a former competitive athlete, which lead Rebecca to believe that the less she weighed, the faster she’d be.
Eventually Rebecca found her anorexia was ‘taking over [her] life,’ and ended up being admitted to hospital for treatment because she became extremely unwell. Being in and out of hospital for several years, she says she fully started to recover from 2015 onwards.
Discussing the difficulties she’s faced in recent months, Rebecca told UNILAD:
As soon as lockdown was announced, it was like a light switch in my head went on and anorexia just turned on full blast. I think because the whole world felt very scary and we had no idea what was going to happen, the eating disorder works by telling me that if I focus my mind on losing weight, then I haven’t got to face all the terrifying things going on in reality with COVID. Also, when lockdown was announced, my instant panic was that I wouldn’t be able to do the exercise I would normally and so I will gain lots of weight.
Rebecca added that when Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated people could leave their homes for an hour of exercise every day, it made her feel like she had to exercise frequently.
However, because she was able to recognise that these thoughts were all stemming from her eating disorder, Rebecca was able to push them aside and think more rationally. Rebecca said, ‘I was able to keep track with my recovery because I was able to recognise that my eating disorder had totally been switched on. I knew that I was struggling. But in the past, I would not have recognised this, I would have just gone along with what my head was telling me.’
‘But because I was able to recognise that my eating disorder had been triggered by the pandemic, I was able to try and balance the arguments in my head with more rational thoughts,’ she added. She also reassured herself that the pandemic was only temporary, while reverting back to her disorder would potentially affect her for the rest of her life.
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Rebecca further explained that setting herself targets proved hugely beneficial, telling UNILAD, ‘When you are recovering, you need to have goals and purposes to recover for. I found that with the pandemic, my reasons for wanting to recover such as going out with friends or going on holiday were no longer possible, so it can make recovery seem a bit pointless because you are unable to do the things you wanted to recover for.’
‘I kept telling myself that once the pandemic was over, I wanted to be able to pick my life up from where it left and do all the things I wanted, rather than finding myself right back in the depths of my eating disorder and spending the next however many years trying to get back to a better place,’ Rebecca concluded.
From Rebecca, Lucy and Francesca’s experiences, it’s evident that no two people feel the same, so it’s important you don’t compare your recovery to that of other people. Whether you’ve been struggling through lockdown or found you’ve been able to begin your recovery recently, help and support is always available.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in this article and would like to speak with someone in confidence, call the BEAT Eating Disorders helpline on 0808 801 0677. Helplines are open 365 days a year from 9am–8pm during the week, and 4pm–8pm on weekends and bank holidays. Alternatively, you can try the one-to-one webchat.
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