Ramadan: Still in the grips of anorexia

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Every year when Ramadan comes around, I open up about my experience with an eating disorder. It can be such a tricky time for those of us struggling with an eating disorder. For the past seven years, I’ve been strictly told not to fast by medical professionals who were treating me for my eating disorder in hospital. In the past, I had to be monitored extra closely in case my weight dramatically dropped due to fasting secretly.

This year is different. This is the first year that I am not in treatment for my anorexia in seven years, so I feel anxious because now I have a choice. I hate having a choice because I’m more likely to choose the unhealthy one. I’m not being watched anymore and I’m not being threatened with inpatient if I lose weight, so this is the perfect opportunity. I am in no way recovered. In fact, I’d say the thoughts have been creeping back in, especially recently.

A year into my recovery without treatment has been tough. Every day is still hard, and there have been both massive relapses AND recovery wins in the past 12 months and I truly believe this is how it will be for the rest of my life. I don’t think I will ever be fully recovered.

Ramadan brings out a lot of negative emotions and triggers for me. But this year, having a choice to fast or not to fast and still seeing Ramadan as a chance to lose weight and to become sicker is not helping and confirms, yet again, that I am not in a good state of mind to fast safely. I don’t see it as a religious thing. So if I fast, I will be doing it for the wrong reasons.

Rationally, of course I know that I must not fast if I am still in that eating disordered mindset. I know that health and my recovery comes first. But anorexia is so powerful that even if I say I will not take part, I will most definitely act on behaviours because everywhere I go, there will be someone fasting, someone talking about how much they’re “starving” and restricting will be inevitable. Plus, there will be triggering food everywhere and everyone will be talking about food.

I have made the choice, however, to not take part. People close to me have been expressing their concerns about me fasting. I’d be lying if I said I don’t engage in behaviours anymore so fasting in the month of Ramadan can absolutely land me back in hospital.

I’m in a good place career-wise. I’ve got a new job that I love, but I’m worried if I’ll be able to hold it down if I go down that path again. Anorexia makes me not believe in myself. Every day now, it tells me that I don’t deserve this job, that I don’t deserve to be successful. It makes me question if I’m capable of holding down a full time job without getting sicker. It makes me anxious about disappointing my colleagues and managers. It’s been keeping me awake at night worrying about how anorexia, especially in Ramadan, might impact my mental health this year.

In the past, it was anorexia that made me become this successful. It was anorexia’s perfectionism that made me work hard (without food) graduate and get my dream job. People tell me it wasn’t anorexia, but they don’t know how strong anorexia can be. It was this illness that demanded I prove to people that I can do things. The less food I ate, the more weight I lost, the more successful I became…and it worked.

I cannot keep letting anorexia take credit for everything I’ve achieved. I cannot let it take over me anymore. People tell me that I can do things, that I am capable without this illness. Maybe they’re right?

Ramadan is a spiritual month. It’s about health and helping others and about being kind to oneself. I cannot fast because I am sick, but what I CAN do is help others and take care of myself. I can be thankful to God that I am here in this world. I am alive and I am living.

Ramadan shouldn’t be just about controlling yourself from eating food. It should be about taking care of yourself whatever way possible and if fasting isn’t right for your mental and physical health at the moment, it’s okay not to take part.

For others like myself who cannot fast in the month of Ramadan due to an eating disorder or mental illness, why not turn it around and work on your recovery? This year, I’ve come to realise that putting your own health is more important than religion, career or opportunities. Look after yourself first. Make yourself a priority. That is what I will try to do.

This was originally posted on Beat‘s website.

EDAW 2018: Maybe I Am Worth The Fight? #WhyWait

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Eating disorders are a very complicated illness and I believe you cannot fully understand how it is like if you’ve never had one yourself. That’s why there is so much left to do professionally when treating eating disorders.

Anorexia lives inside my head every single day of my life. It wakes up with me, throws abuse at me throughout the day, controls my every thought, every move, every decision. On the rare occasion (actually quite a few regular occasions recently) I challenge it and do the opposite of it. Anorexia is my best friend and my worst enemy.

I believe the NHS has failed me when it comes to my eating disorder but I could look at it a different way. I probably have failed the NHS myself by not complying. I admit, every time I was offered treatment; I didn’t give it my all. I didn’t really want to get better. I always feel like treatment doesn’t focus on a ‘reason’ to get better. Many treatment centres focuses on gaining weight but what is given less time on is getting mentally better. My experience with the NHS has made me believe that eating disorders is only a weight disorder and can only be ‘cured’ by gaining weight.

Years of treatment, my weight has been the main focus, constantly monitored and that has really made me even more conscious about my body and how much I weigh. I scrutinise everything. I can’t even wear thick layers when the weather is cold outside because I have a fear of ‘looking’ bigger than I am, so I resort to wearing less clothes in order for me to look small and thin in public. Every single food I eat, I feel the guilt. I then have to make sure I exercise to burn the right amount of calories off. Maybe I’ve eaten something “extra” that wasn’t planned? That’s two more hours in the gym tomorrow.

What I am trying to say is, I’ve had years of eating disorder treatment, in and out of hospital, but I cannot seem to lose that focus off my weight. It’s always at the forefront. I worry. I panic. I cannot lose that control. But, I am somehow surviving. Maybe eating disorder recovery is worth it? Maybe I am worth the fight? Maybe that’s what I should keep telling myself? Maybe I’ll eventually believe it?

I believe others can stop getting to this stage later in their life if the waiting time for treatment is short and making sure the main focus of the treatment is on the emotional side. Once the mind is sorted (or at least in the process of being sorted) then the rest will follow.

The eating disorder charity Beat say: “On average, 149 weeks pass before those experiencing eating disorder symptoms seek help. That’s almost three years, 37 months or 1,043 days. We know the sooner someone gets the treatment they need, the more likely they are to make a full and fast recovery.”

#WhyWait? Seek help now.

Useful websites and helplines:

Beat, call 0845 634 7650 or email help@b-eat.co.uk

Samaritans, open 24 hours a day, on 08457 90 90 90

Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393

What I Thought of Netflix’s ‘To The Bone’

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TRIGGER WARNING (and contains spoilers)

There has been a lot of controversy about this film ever since the trailer came out. To The Bone was finally released yesterday on Netflix and I was very excited to watch it.

Lily Collins plays Ellen, a talented artist who happens to suffer from anorexia. She is sent to a residential treatment facility under the care of Dr Beckham, played by Keanu Reeves.

What I liked about this film, even though it is triggering, is that it shows how unglamorous eating disorders are. I don’t understand when people say it glamourises it.

Is exercising excessively to the point of collapse glamorous?  Is having a messed up family glamorous? Is being locked up in hospital glamorous? Is vomiting secretly in your room and hiding it under your bed glamorous? Is knowing every calorie in every food glamorous? Is looking like a ghost glamorous? Is feeling weak glamorous? Is waking up everyday body checking glamorous? Nothing about this film is glamorous.

The film makes me sad that this is my life. It makes me sad that this is how I live on a day to day basis. The only parts that made me cry was when Megan, the pregnant patient, purged and lost her baby. It hurts everyday thinking whether I’d ever be comfortable having a baby myself or if I ever could have one. I don’t ever want to be pregnant because of the selfish reason that it will make me fat.

The other part which made me cry was when Ellen’s mother fed her like a baby, with a bottle. I bawled my eyes out at that scene because anorexia turns you into a baby again. Everything is scary. You are always terrified. You just need someone to cuddle you and feed you and tell you everything is okay. You don’t feel safe but all you want to feel is safe. You just want to be looked after by an authortive figure.

Ellen’s mother said maybe one of the causes of her anorexia was that her mother wasn’t there for her when she was a child. This shows how deep rooted eating disorders are. It’s not always about wanting to be skinny to look beautiful. It’s a cry for help. It’s a coping mechanism. I certainly can relate to that scene. It was heartbreaking.

Dr Beckham’s approach reminded me of my psychiatrists approach. He is funny yet serious. He has a different attitude. Not what you’d expect a therapist to be like. He told Ellen she needs to be able to save herself and not wait for someone to save her. That’s exactly what I realised only this past year. It’s such a strong illness and it won’t let anyone save you. It has a grip on you and only you yourself need to find something, a purpose, to be able to get better. You need to save yourself. Dr Beckham spoke with honesty and what he did was he listened to Ellen. Tried to understand how she feels.

Despite all that, Ellen chose recovery at the end. At least the ending was positive and it shows that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. When she dreamt that she was dead was a powerful scene. It even gave me goosebumps to realise that I am alive. I am still alive and fighting this. Death isn’t the answer and its never too late to get better.

I do understand how it can be harmful to some and I’m not going to pretend it didn’t trigger me. When Ellen kept on putting two fingers around her arms trying to see if her fingers touch, I found myself doing the same thing (not that I don’t do this on regular basis anyway). But it’s very real. It shows how disgusting and excruciating eating disorders are. It’s not a life. It’s hell.

I chose to watch it but my advice to those who are still in their eating disorders like myself, especially younger viewers and want to watch it, just be careful and be prepared.

Anorexia: A Letter From My Body

I have been told to write a letter from my body to myself as part of my treatment from anorexia, so I thought sharing it publicly may help.

TRIGGER WARNING

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Dear Habiba,

I wish this was a positive letter but I’m afraid it isn’t. I’m going to have to be blunt with you. You made most of my 23 years of life a misery. You denied me food, the most important source of energy. You made me sit through hunger pangs for hours, even days. I was begging for you to feed me. Even a sip of water would be enough at times but you denied me of that too, leading me to suffer severe dehydration which destroyed my kidneys.

You made my hair fall out and made my nails become brittle. You made me work through the pain, even though I couldn’t concentrate properly. You made me fake a smile, pretending everything is alright, when I know all you wanted me to do was hide away. When my stomach made a hunger noise, you’d punch me, telling me to be quiet and that I don’t deserve food.

On the rare occasion you did feed me, it wasn’t enough or too much too quickly, so much food crammed into me until my stomach hurt. Then you would make me put my head down the toilet, with fingers down my throat, forcing me to throw up everything you just fed me. It happened so often that sometimes nothing but blood used to come up. Then you’d be lying on the bathroom floor crying, telling yourself that this would be the last time but we both know that was a lie. You never allowed me to keep food down no matter how much I needed it.

You never allowed me to enjoy food. You never allowed me to nourish myself. You constantly called me fat and other horrible names. The lack of nutrition made my skin look awful, which you attempted to cover up with a face full of make up.

You made me dizzy and weak but never allowed me to take a rest. You took me to the gym, made me workout for four hours on an empty stomach. You put exercise before anything. You never let me see friends, you isolated me. You never allowed me to sleep or take a rest day. You made me stay awake every night, waiting for 4am on the dot, so you can force me to do exercise in your room whilst everyone was asleep. God, I was so tried and just wanted to sleep but you never allowed me that luxury. Even with an injured foot, you still dragged me to the gym and forced me to burn the calories of the one digestive biscuit you fed me last night. Everyday was a waking nightmare. I was exhausted but you kept on wanting to punish me. Your body. What have I ever done to you?

You destroyed me. You put me on death’s door. You wanted to kill me so many times. Overdosing on 25 pills. Attempting to jump in front of a train and nights spent planning suicide. Thank God you failed. You’re lucky to have me, to still be here.

I know this wasn’t all you, Habiba. I know anorexia was the one who made you do those things. But you are better than that. You are not Habiba the anorexic. You are Habiba the journalist. You are Habiba, who is kind, gentle and funny. I know you can recover. You have been doing well recently and I am proud of you for that. You’ve been socialsing more and going on holiday. Why and how? Because you’re starting to feed me. You’re starting to give me the energy I need to live a fulfilling life. Just think of the more amazing things you can do if you keep feeding me and nourishing me? You only have one body. Please don’t hurt me anymore. Please please take care of me. Haven’t I been tortured enough?

 

Lots of love,

Your body

Battling an Eating Disorder in the Workplace

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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.

This post was published on The Huffington Post and Beat for Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2016.

I Always Feel Invisible

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Of all the therapists I have seen, all the psychiatrists who have treated me (or at least tried to) trying to find out the cause of my eating disorder, one word is always at the forefront. Invisible. Ever since I could remember, I have felt invisible to people. ‘Felt’ is an understatement. I am invisible. Or at least that’s what it seems like to me…

It does sound rather ridiculous but a mental illness has very deep underlying issues and for me, it was mainly going unnoticed during my childhood, teenage years and now into adulthood. Being a naturally quiet person, it is of course inevitable to be overlooked, which is something I have experienced all my life, at home, at school and at work. Whenever I do try to speak up, it never gets heard. It doesn’t seem to matter. Which in turn makes me feel like I don’t matter and don’t deserve to be in this world.

Developing an eating disorder wasn’t a conscious decision. I slowly and gradually stopped eating. It wasn’t for vanity. In fact, after various mental health treatments, it is becoming clear that I developed an eating disorder because I didn’t feel part of anything or anyone. In fact, I never felt I fitted in. I always felt different, ignored and disconnected. I quickly made a name for myself, but in a negative light – “the quiet girl”. I stopped eating because I wanted to be invisible on the outside because that’s how I felt on the inside. I wanted that to show. It was a cry for help. Call it ‘attention’ if you please but it was a reason to feel like I mattered. The more worried people were, the more I’ll get noticed.

I want to be someone who is outspoken and confident because those are the people who are popular and have lots of friends. Confident people are liked by their peers and colleagues and they are not left out. People who are confident, get noticed, get the jobs, get praised and get invited out. Because I am quiet, I feel like people do not really understand me or even want to get to know me, which is the reason why I usually isolate myself even more leaving me to become this very anxious person I am today. I question myself on a daily basis – why am I like this? Why doesn’t anyone seem to notice me? Do people hate me? Why do I have to be so scared of everything? Why can’t I be someone else? Why do I have to be me?

It is easy to blame oneself and others for feeling this way. But I have learnt the disconnection from myself led to the feeling of being invisible to others. Which is why I am on a journey to reconnect with myself. I never felt visible in myself, so how do I expect to be visible to others?

Everything I write will always have some kind of message. My moral and message to this piece, is that if you notice a quiet person, please do not be afraid to approach them. Even a simple “how are you?” can make that person’s day. If you see them alone, make conversation with them. Because when someone actually notices me, it gives me a boost of confidence, raises my self esteem and I suddenly don’t feel that invisible. For someone who constantly feels alone, anyone reaching out like that can make me feel like I belong and that I am worthy.

This post was published in The Huffington Post. 

I Need To Do This For Myself

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For years, I have felt like I needed to recover from my eating disorder for external reasons. I needed to get better to go to university – well, I did go to university and graduated, but I am not recovered. I needed to get better for my family – they were always there, but I am still not recovered. I needed to get better to get a job – I have my dream job – but I am not recovered.

I used the word ‘needed’ for a reason. Of course I needed to get better but did I ‘want’ to get better? Well, considering I am still struggling with anorexia, I realised that I did not really want to recover. Instead, I focused on external reasons rather than myself. I did not feel like I deserved to ever recover.

But recently, I have felt so much more rational, and I truly feel like i do deserve to get better for myself and myself only. Not for anyone. Not for my family, not for my friends and certainly for my career. Because, if I focus on reasons to recover for something or someone, truth is, recovery will fail. It will not work. I have been in hospital treatment for years – no change. I simply wasn’t ‘ready’ to recover.

Now, I do want a life without my eating disorder (though I do believe it will always be with me but I will learn to manage it). Believe it or not, my eating disorder treatment team wanted to discharge me – not because I have gotten better but because I showed no passion to recover for myself. Even though I did not verbally say, “i don’t want to get better” – they soon realised this was the case, because i wasn’t actively making use of the help they were giving me. I took treatment for granted.

Discharging me was a worry for my family. They didn’t want me to get discharged because i am still not better – but is it up to them? No. It is my illness and I should take responsibility for it.

My psychiatrist once told me: “If your heart is not 100% in recovery, then you will never recover. Your family and friends might want it more than you do, but they cannot make you recover. Only you can do that. It is your choice.”

Then it just hit me. I have to do this for myself.  I want to get better for myself. I have achieved so much in my external life and I am proud of that – I now need to believe in myself and do something for me. Get better for myself. That is not selfish, despite what anorexia is telling me.

You need to do this for yourself. Not for anything or anyone else. 

Who says you’re not worth it?