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My heart is broken for anyone suffering with anorexia
EATING disorders are something that many people have heard about but few understand – until someone they know is affected.
But according to latest statistics published to mark Eating Disorders Awareness Week, (February 11 to 17) conditions like bulimia and anorexia are more common than people realise and affect around 1.6m people in the UK.
Jess Griffiths, director of Bournemouth-based charity I-Eat, says there has been a growing demand for its services in the past few years.
“We are getting more referrals than ever before,” she says. Health experts say that genetic make-up and family attitudes towards food may have some impact on eating disorders, but often a number of things will contribute.
“A teenager might feel the stresses of high academic expectations, or social or family pressures. They might be experiencing traumatic events like a divorce, or have concerns over their sexuality.
“Whatever the problem, they focus on food and eating as a way of coping with these stresses,'” says Jess.
And so the destructive pattern begins. They restrict the amount they eat and drink. Their aim is not to starve themselves, but to gain control in their lives.
Instead, the disorder itself takes control and the chemical changes in the body affect the brain and distort thinking. It becomes almost impossible for sufferers to make rational decisions about food.
As the illness progresses, they begin to suffer from the exhaustion of starvation – and there can be serious long-term complications like osteoporosis. Excessive weight loss can also affect fertility and bring a serious risk of heart disease.
But the good news is that it is possible to make a complete recovery – Jess is the living proof. For she battled bulimia and anorexia from the age of 11.
“I felt like I was a flawed person and unacceptable in some way. I over-ate constantly,” she says.
“As I put the weight on, I felt that I fitted in less and less with the popular girls at the grammar school. This reinforced my loneliness and isolation but also caused me more anxiety, which made me want to eat more and the cycle got worse.”
By the time she started university Jess was making herself sick up to 13 times a day. “It is a very secretive illness. I lived in a house of 16 people. There were shared toilets and bathrooms and not one of them noticed.”
Eventually Jess quit university and moved back to Bournemouth and slipped back into anorexia, although she has little memory of this time.
“I was starting to feel my heart stopping as I bent down. My joints were painful and there was a sense that my body was gradually shutting down.”
A bone density scan revealed that her hips and spine were like those of a 60-year-old.
She spent a summer trying to put weight back on and had another bout of bulimia as she approached her target weight. She started counselling, the NHS eating disorders service at St Ann’s Hospital in Poole and became a Christian.
“I found a hope that I deserved to live life to the full. I’m not saying it was always easy. The eating disorder was quite often the first thing I still turned to, knew and trusted.”
Today Jess is married and has two daughters but says she is happy to share her story.
“It shows that complete recovery is attainable, which helps to give people the motivation they need.”
Jess adds: “But my heart is and always will be broken for people plagued by eating disorders.
“When I see someone walk into an I-EAT group, I don’t see a person with anorexia or bulimia, I recognise a person that is hurt by life.”
The charity runs a drop-in group every Wednesday and Friday from 1-5pm and a support group every other Tuesday from 7.30pm-9pm at LifeHouse, 715 Wimborne Road, Moordown. For more information, visit website I-Eat.org.uk or call 07590 378822.
A general debate on eating disorder awareness is being held on Thursday February 14 at 1.30pm at in the House of Commons.