My Battle with Myself
An Insight to My Relationship with ARFID, Food Neophobia and the Adverse Symptoms Such as Malnutrition Plus the Effects on Every Day Living
I sit here at 12:38 pm, typing away, the low rumble of my stomach a constant reminder of the uphill battle I face daily. It’s a common thing to not eat breakfast for some, a lot of us rush out the door without even considering our first morning meal. For me, it’s a little different—although many people try to excuse my behaviour as they “do it too!” as if to say it isn’t bad. It is, and always will be if you have ever been diagnosed with an eating disorder. I’ve spent the majority of the last five years hungry. Not hungry as in stomach rumbles, but like your whole abdomen feels like it’s been growing teeth, like you’re ready to faint, bones weak under the weight of a heavy crushing pressure of the atmosphere around you. You can’t breathe. Is it the air? Oh wait, you didn’t eat for seven hours again. The dizziness and the lack of ability to process the most basic tasks can stump even the most intelligent of people when malnourished.
Did I mention that five years ago, I used to be a body builder? At nineteen, I could squat my own body weight twice over and fuel it on a smile—now at twenty three I can’t even walk up the stairs without feeling cramp in behind my knee. The difference in my health through the years is heart stoppingly scary and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I can’t help but procrastinate my battles the way a child procrastinates exhausting lengths of studying, except my procrastination doesn’t just stop at important tasks, such as going to the bank, or say, doing tax returns. It goes on for hours and days and weeks, confusing you like a long paper with words you don’t quite understand, not quite remembering your place on the page. The constant fog in your mind, disassociating mid conversation and waking up once your guests leave thinking, was that today? The health services within Scotland are under so much pressure from cut backs, it seems no person is receiving the support they need. Am I missing something? Conversations you disassociate from come flooding back to you. But without therapy, sitting in neautral can do more harm than good. So why are people forced to wait?
Malnutrition affects the body in many ways, but long term it has disastrous consequences for the body. The brain ultimately shrinks from stress and the lack of nutrients prevents fueling for cognitive developments to healthy growth. In waiting seven, nearly eight years for treatment for my mental health, problems have amplified to physical manifestations of anxiety and my stress associated with food leads me to avoid meals altogether—proving that when it comes to mental health, “package deals” are more definitely common. Depression, anxiety and eating disorders all seem to manifest together, alongside forms of OCD as well. It seems our public health systems aren’t coping with these disorders as we know people in the thousands are being turned away from resources they desperately need across the country. I’m one of them. Even now, I’m blindly reaching in the dark for private help for a disorder that is disastrously unknown to the average doctor, never mind average person. In my moment of need, clarity and reasoning, I decided that my partner should take me to hospital if he felt it necessary. This was months ago yet, I’m no closer to public treatment.
Dark rain bounced off my face and salt soaked tears dripped down my chin, my partner carried me to his car. His own body stumped and stressed, muscles unresponsive and tight. Neither of us had eaten enough for the stress our bodies experienced in days, nor did we have the solution laid out in our heads. No one did. No one does.
Within the hour, I find myself in the company of the hospital psychiatrist. The words “I’m sorry?” rings through my ears, like tinnitus. Except rather, it’s the nasty reminder that I still have to explain my disorder to the people who are supposedly more educated than myself, despite the stress and anxiety it brings me to discuss from the beginning with each new doctor, psychiatrist or councillor. People mistake my immediate hostility for a disregard for them, not the system that tortures me over and over again with regurgitated questions and the same puzzled forlorn faces. It seems the nurses knew more than the psychiatrist, my partner utters while I scrunch the pamphlet that I was handed, before immediately being sent out the door upon analysis. The words “passive suicidal tendencies” isn’t alarming enough. Neither is years of unusual and inconsistent bowel movements despite bowel cancer being one of the highest causes of preventable death in the UK—but it’s the mental prison in which I have been left to languish that hurts the most. I’ve been trying to find access to an understanding that is unfortunately, unavailable on a public healthcare budget. The anger will never leave me, from being failed by a system in which I was indoctrinated with the belief that it would help in my moment of need. We may openly discuss the failures of the system, people nod and accept the truths in the many complaints... but the reality is nothing is being done about it, at least from the perspective of those wait seventy-seven weeks for any form of dialogue of cognitive behaviour therapy after attempts of being sectioned.
As teenagers, websites like Tumblr and Formsping embodied the questions we all ask ourselves, giving the insecure a way to project them unto others with no regard for personal cost. Social media, in all its Cerebus like forms, has a way of leaving nearly every person who uses it with a scar deeper than most care to admit, with parents fundamentally unsure of how to support a child damaged by technological abuse, or even themselves. In no way however does this mean I try to suggest that using Facebook will ultimately kill you, nor uploading a new selfie to Instagram cause death—but it is, in a way, a death of the true self. We idolise those who are flawless, perfect and beautiful—despite telling ourselves en masse that it will always be unachievable. It will always be a perception, obscured by the human need for order, perfection, conformity and control. At what point will we admit as a society that these both intertwine? Even distantly, it’s a conversation we must discuss. These websites result in holding or portraying some of the most toxic parts of ourselves that we still refuse to talk about in public. These unattainable, perfect visions of ourselves seem to leave such a bitter taste in our mouths, as teenagers and young people with anxiety are being hospitalised in record breaking amounts, and in the last five years these figures have tripled. The NSPCC Childline service reported a 35 percent rise in calls about anxiety from children in just twelve months. At a point, we have to start admitting that our lifestyle choices for inclusion and social stability is actually affecting our mental health, and our future generations.
I spent years looking on the internet for what I didn’t receive in real life— being bullied all through primary school and throughout secondary by my “best” friends lead me to the ideology that I didn’t need anyone—and as a teenager with mental health problems, that was a danergous decision. It lead me to the wrong friends, the wrong partners and the wrong solutions. Over and over, and for years. But ultimately when you’re starving, you don’t notice red flags. The only red flags when you have an eating disorder is when you feel faint and you can’t lift your arms with the shooting pain of malnutrition, your body literally feeding itself from muscle degeneration because of your lack of ability to.
For so many people, questions arise about how to truly support mental health problems when they manifest this way; how on Earth are you meant to comfort someone who is quite clearly or regularly at rock bottom? How do you support that? For some of you, it will require you admitting you have your own problems. Refusing to discuss your own illnesses with someone who has depression can be exceptionally detrimental to a relationship, as it can lead to the breakdown of communication—which is such a key factor in support for anyone with mental health problems. If you really struggle being able to open up—how do you expect to be able to support someone whom you’re expecting that behaviour from? In supporting mental health, you must lead by example, this is key.
Our healthcare fails to realise this. Sometimes, the most effective steps are the simplest. Supporting a person with an eating disorder for example, can be a variety of different treatments—ARFID, is not an eating disorder that corrupts the mind from calories like anorexia, but similar to a fear of food. It can shut down the brain with stress similarly to anorexia, but only towards food deemed unsafe, unusual—or ( a personal favourite descriptor) just plain shit—by the sufferer. As similar as they may be, treatment for both can be exceptionally different. Combined, these disorders need amplified and personalised attention. For me, a simple thing out of place, missing, or even slightly overcooked will utterly destroy my ability to be able to eat a meal, and corrode any perception that I could want that meal again. I treat my own cooking as if I am a student of a highest chef, yet live on pre-made, empty carbohydrates. People mistake that when you are a “fussy eater," that it’s primarily due to being spoiled as a child - and maybe to an extent that is true. Yet dismissing someone’s traumatic experiences, in life, or at the dinner table is never the solution. Eating disorders are depression, and depression is a disease that kills million globally regardless of wealth, class or means. Depression does not favour a class. As a society, as a support network for those plagued with disorders they struggle to find the resources to help them fight, we must admit our own accountabilities. Sometimes that means admitting we don’t have the resources we think we have.
For someone with depression, support could be simply adhering to the activities you have already planned. Disappointment after preparing for plans after spending four days in solitude... or knowing that the person you tried to contact, is out having a night with someone who would be considered less depressed and able to enjoy themselves could be crushing in a vulnerable moment. When people who have depression ask for help, that could mean they need you to take over. Having a disease like this—in any of its forms—can truly disrupt the brain from simple, basic tasks. Brushing your teeth could be the one thing routinely remembered but only every two days. You’re trying, but the neurological pathways aren’t clear enough to understand and evaluate when your body is flooded with cortisone. It’s not an aversion to responsibilities, it’s stress and anxieties resulting from chemical imbalances. Supporting someone with depression isn’t sitting in silence, waiting for them to tell you what they need. Sometimes you have to somehow connect with that person, and communicate to them. This is no easy feat, but we cannot live in denial at being support networks while enabling and isolating the people whom suffer daily. Thousands of people die waiting for help because they don’t know how to ask and thousands more die by continually talking about their problems, people deducing it’s a case of “boy cries wolf," and instead, isolate or even ostracise the ill person for not being able to take control of the tasks in front of them every day.
Today, people from all generations—at least one in six—are facing depression. The people we expect least to have it, can be struck from us by their complete exhaustion at climbing the mountain of understanding and exploring mental health. It’s a conversation so many refuse to even utter in the dark corners of a local pub, slurred under drunk and forgetful breaths. Support networks are failing, resources are stretched thin and unfortunately, a cloud of depression emanates from areas suffering most, with suicide statistics rising steadily and regularly. We must now be that support network for each other. And sometimes, that means listening to the person who is asking for your help in their moment of need.
A particular song comes to mind, albeit one I’ve changed slightly,
“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to my right,
Here I am,
Stuck in the middle with food."