Christmas is the worst time of year for people with eating disorders. The run up to 25th December is filled with dread, nervousness and uncertainty. Last minute Christmas drinks, being cooped up inside, and endless amounts of food just lying about the house. There is also the expectation to eat until you are absolutely stuffed! I spend hours lying awake at night worrying about it all; afraid of what I am going to have to eat, afraid of losing control on the day.
I was discharged from a Mental Health hospital in 2008 at a healthy weight (but with no guaranteed assurance that I would be okay). I had spent the last four years prior to hospital becoming an expert dieter. Pleasing anorexia as if she was my best friend.
I remember my discharge day as if it was yesterday: the cake at the end of the day to celebrate, a card congratulating me on surviving a year in hospital, and highlighting my determination to stay well. But I was still afraid. Afraid that maybe I would lose the fight, afraid that maybe she would drag me down, manipulate me and make me give up fighting.
Since leaving hospital there have been eight Christmases – none of them have been easy, and they have all brought their own challenges. The first few after university I would control everything and turn down a traditional Christmas lunch for neatly weighed out food. I spent one Christmas in Asia where they didn’t really do Christmas dinners – that was a good stress-free year! I struggled through the next few Christmas dinners at home, and the sense of relief I felt when I got to the end of the day was overwhelming: another year done. But I would still lie in bed in the evening and worry about having had too much. I would be afraid to weigh myself. I would feel the guilt rush over me if I had enjoyed the day, or even enjoyed any of the food. Would next year be easier? Would I be able to completely relax on the day? Would Christmas ever be okay for me?
2016 was a rough year. In fact, the whole world had a rough year! I was re-admitted to the mental health system and was terrified of slipping back into anorexia. After six months of fighting – with the support of my mum and my closest friends – I got myself back on track.
But the thought of Christmas still terrified me.
So, I decided to take matters in to my own hands. I was going to take control and do what I wanted for Christmas – and I was going to enjoy it …
So, I crammed my two brothers, two sisters, my mum, my sister’s husband, and a dog around a small table in my tiny one-bed London flat, (with a mismatch of bowls) and we had a brilliant day. I realised we hadn’t spent a proper family Christmas together (with me actually eating dinner) for over 15 years. I was still slightly afraid of putting weight on, afraid of completely letting go, but I managed. I had my coping mechanisms, I encouraged us to take a walk with the dog to get out of the house, and I told myself I didn’t have to eat more than necessary. (And cleaning up after lunch was a good distraction too.)
In the evening, I reflected on the day. I could feel the anorexia pushing at me getting me to add up all the calories I’d had. I felt her shouting at me. But I looked over at my family, some of them squashed on the sofa, some perched on uncomfortable kitchen chairs, and some sitting on the floor with a duvet. I was so lucky to have them. And I knew they were proud of me. That was all the motivation I needed.
I was congratulating the 725,000 in the UK with eating disorders, and the millions of people around the world who were fighting their own mental health issues. I was amazed at the responses I got, and I felt blessed that there were so many people uniting across the world. Millions of strangers, standing together to fight the stigma of mental health issues, and supporting everyone who might be struggling.
On Boxing day morning, I got up at 7.15 and headed out for a run before breakfast. I wanted some ‘me time’ to clear my head. As I pulled on my kit and headed out, I was unsure yet of how far I was going to go. As I headed up to Wandsworth Common I felt her speaking to me. Pushing me down. Telling me to run a bit further.
‘Come on Hope,’ she said, ‘you ate so much yesterday, and you enjoyed it. That’s not what we do is it.’ The taunting continued for the first half of my run. I tried to think about other things but she was hammering in to my thoughts. Taking control, beating me up.
And for the first time ever I told her to:
The first time I said it, I mumbled it. But then I realised she isn’t worth it. She was pushing me down and I didn’t want anything to do with her.
‘SHUT UP!!’ I said more forcefully and I pushed her out of my mind. I didn’t need to go and run a marathon to feel better about myself. I didn’t need her in my life. She added nothing to it. The fact was I had survived Christmas on my terms and I was so happy about it.
I know we will all be at different stages in our recovery, unsure of where we need to go next. Unsure of whether it is all worth it. But it is.
Standing strong over Christmas is what we do. You don’t need anorexia in your life. She is not worth it. I used to think Anorexia was my best friend, but now I know she wasn’t. She did nothing for me. She wasn’t worth it and I really hope you are able to realise this too.
Hope suffered from anorexia for 4 years before being admitted to hospital in 2007. She now lives and works in London. She is a mental health advocate and the first author of our theinspirationalseries™. The rest of Hope’s story will be available in March 2017.