I am sitting at my desk in the newsroom, watching my colleagues working, preparing for their next report. They seem to be full of energy and not a care in the world about whether they should eat or not or how they look like. Why can’t I be like them? I ask myself. I am sat twiddling my thumbs with tears streaming down my face, trying to work but keep thinking about food, if I look fat and debating in my head how much exercise I will need to do if I eat today. Taking regular toilet breaks to check myself in the mirror – if my hair and make-up is perfect and if my outfit makes me look big. I cannot look normal or average. I must look amazing outside because I do not feel amazing inside.
I have my dream job; I am good at what I do, people praise me for coming this far and tell me to be proud of myself. But how can I be proud when my eating disorder is stopping me from achieving my full potential in the workplace? I realised that not eating does not help me as much as I thought it did. Yes, I can complete a task and make it perfect, but it is only done in punishment and in the end, I am still left miserable.
I am 22 years old and at the age of 21, I landed my dream job as a news journalist, working for the BBC. I suffer from anorexia nervosa and have done so for many years. I thought it was isolating enough in school and university but suffering in the workplace, or rather the shame of admitting it to bosses and colleagues, is tougher and scarier than I had ever imagined. Why? Because I don’t want to be seen as not capable of working. I worked so hard to get to where I am and I do not want my eating disorder to take it away from me.
Work equals success, success equals perfection and perfection equals “good enough”. At work, being perfect is what I strive to be. Everything I do has to be immaculate and one bit of criticism I get, I turn to anorexia. I cannot and will not be a failure. My eating disorder has got me this far. I achieved so much with it. I went to university, graduated and I got my dream job, all with my eating disorder. What makes work any different?
But anorexia destroys my confidence. It makes me isolate myself. The more I isolate myself, the less noticeable I become. Sometimes, it is scary to even do the simplest things. Anorexia wants me to be perfect and says I don’t deserve to eat until I complete a certain task and make it as perfect as I can. I tend to take on a lot of work, despite burning out in the end. Why can’t I say no? Because I want to be seen as someone who is perfect and strong. Working a 10-hour shift on an empty stomach is no fun. It leads me to isolate myself even more.
I have to be pure and empty at work. Or at least that’s what anorexia tells me. People think of me as an inspiration and I cannot ruin that by feeding myself or get seen eating by colleagues. I’ll get fat and then what will happen? No one will praise me. No one will think of me as capable. People will think I don’t deserve to be where I am just because I eat. I have to be different and special.
At first, I did not tell anyone about my eating disorder. Transitioning from education into employment seemed like a fresh start for me and I wanted my anorexia to be kept a secret. Pretty soon, I realised this was impossible. Working as a journalist includes shift work. The times are irregular, so my eating will be irregular too. For someone with anorexia, this is quite dangerous. I tend to starve myself throughout my long shifts, mainly because I cannot bare to eat in public and inevitably it does takes a toll on my health. I often feel dizzy, weak, lose concentration and faint.
I know I need to eat so I do make myself go to the canteen to get something small to eat. I stand there, staring at all the options but fail to get anything. I cannot get myself to eat at work, especially on my own. Too many calories, too much fat and I then I realise, I don’t deserve to eat at all. Sometimes it gets too much that I break down in tears and hide away. Anorexia is very controlling and the pressure to be perfect at work is all too consuming that my health is put at risk.
This is why I could not struggle alone anymore so I slowly started opening up. Luckily, I have understanding colleagues who go out of their way to help me eat and make sure I am okay. Even just a chat about my struggles makes all the difference and I feel less alone. I did not expect the level of support my colleagues gave me. I feared rejection and discrimination but the colleagues I have told understood the illness and the impact it could have on my work and knowing this was a relief for me.
I am receiving psychiatric care at a specialist eating disorders unit and have regular appointments there. Getting time off from work has not been a problem as of yet due to the flexibility of my job. My treatment team have also been very helpful, providing a written letter to my employers explaining why I may need time off.
Having an eating disorder at work can be very isolating; this is why talking about it is very important. Even telling one colleague who you can trust can be helpful. If they don’t understand, educate them about it. It will make a difference. Some organisations have an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), where you can seek counselling for any issues you are facing in or outside of work and it is 100% confidential. My work provides this and it is comforting to know they are there whenever I need to use the service.
If you are worried about a colleague who you may suspect has an eating disorder, I would suggest speaking to them privately but do not jump to conclusions. Let them tell you in their own time but do let them know that you are there for them if they ever need to talk. Sometimes, it is nice to know someone is there, willing to listen.
It is useful for employers to find ways they can best help staff struggling with an eating disorder, allowing time off for therapy and medical appointments. Holding staff events and talks about eating disorders and mental health to let them know what support there is available at work, will be so beneficial for individuals struggling. Even taking some time to privately talk to them once in a while to see how they are coping can make a huge difference. Having an eating disorder does not mean the individual is not capable of holding down a full time job. We are still humans and an illness does not have to stop us from living a normal life.