By Hope Virgo
Since I was 13, I have struggled with eating. I once went years without ever eating a proper meal. By the time I was 17, I was admitted to an adolescent mental health hospital. My hair was thinning, my skin had a yellowish tint and my heart was barely beating. I stood in the hospital doorway, eyes welling up with tears. I felt like I had hit rock bottom. I won't ever forget that first day, sitting on the sofa during snack time. Cold sweat trickled down my back as I was instructed to drink this high calorie, high protein drink; I felt as though I had no choice.
I spent a year in that hospital and it was one of the hardest years of my entire life. As my weight went up, I panicked. I was so afraid of getting fat, so afraid of losing control. I thought I would never feel complete without anorexia. But one day, I realized I would have to face my anorexia—or I would die.
It’s been nine years since I was discharged and I’m a healthy weight now. But my recovery hasn’t been simple; there have been times when I felt ready to welcome anorexia back in to my life. Fortunately, I was able to hang in there and I encourage you to do the same.
Here are some of the steps I took that helped me achieve recovery:
Even though I was vomiting after meals, living off an apple a day and exercising at every possibility, I thought my life wasn’t that unusual. I didn't admit I had a problem until I arrived at the hospital, and even then, I struggled to admit it. When people commented on my weight or told me I looked unwell, I couldn’t tell if they were lying. I thought they were interfering, that no one really understood me and that they were all just jealous of my amazing relationship with anorexia. I doubted that something was actually wrong.
But I know now that accepting that I had an eating disorder was the first step in my recovery. I had to constantly remind myself of the facts when I felt fat or felt like giving up. I made lists of reasons why I wanted to recover—to go to university, to run again, to travel, to have a family—I knew I couldn’t do any of that if I was unwell. With time, I learned to tell myself that it’s okay to feel hungry and it’s okay to eat. As hard as it was, I taught myself not to feel guilty for eating.
A lot of my eating is dependent on emotions. When I get overwhelmed with emotions, I switch to focusing on calories or exercise. Not eating was my way of showing those around me that I wasn’t okay.
So, I learned to say the words “I’m not okay,” rather than skipping a meal. Sometimes it took every ounce of strength both to admit I was having a bad day and get myself to eat, but over time, I became more comfortable telling people when I’m slipping. It can be hard to share with others, but it does help.
Last year, my Grandma died after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. I really struggled with her death. I felt completely empty inside, but at the same time overwhelmed with emotion. I didn’t know how I would ever feel better again. I started to run and count calories obsessively. After a few months, I realized I was slipping.
I knew I didn’t want to get unwell again, so with all the courage in the world, I reached out for help. I got in touch with my local mental health services and referred myself. It was tough getting back on track, but I managed it and got better.
When I was in the hospital all those years ago, I never thought I would be okay. I never thought I would wear a bikini and not feel fat, but I’ve managed it. I have come from sitting at a hospital table crying my way through a couple of roasted potatoes, to going out for last-minute meals and actually enjoying them. I never thought a life without anorexia was possible, but here I am, anorexia-free.
I know that fighting mental health problems can be incredibly hard and recovering from them can be even harder. I know that it can feel like a never-ending battle. At times, it can feel like the only solution is to give up. But do not give up fighting. Push on. Recovery is possible and it is worth fighting for. Stand tall and keep fighting.
Hope is a mental health campaigner and author and an ambassador for the Shaw Mind Foundation. Hope suffered with anorexia for over 4 years, before being admitted to a Mental Health Hospital in 2007. She lived in the hospital for a year, fighting one of the hardest battles of her life. Since being discharged, she has fought to stay well. Hope is now at the stage of 'ongoing recovery' and wants to use her experiences of mental health illness to champion the rights of others, inspire them to get well, and help break the stigma of mental illness. Hope has had her first book published 'Stand Tall Little Girl' which tells the story of her recovery from the grips of anorexia.
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