Hope Virgo is author of Stand Tall Little Girl and is a leading mental health advocate supporting employers including schools, hospitals and businesses deal with the rising tide of mental health issues which affect one in four people and cost employers between £33 and £42 billion annually.
Hope is a recognised media spokesperson having appeared on various shows including BBC Newsnight, Good Morning Britain, Sky News and BBC News.
Here she candidly shares her own experience of an eating disorder.
Anorexia became my best friend when I was thirteen years old. ‘She’ was everything I needed and I fully relied on her. She looked after me at all hours and I truly loved her. I knew she would never ever leave me. She was my best friend and I couldn’t get enough of her.
Over the next four years our friendship deepened like nothing I’d ever experienced before. Every time I skipped a meal, she made me feel better about life. I thrived off the praise she gave me and longed to please her more. She was exactly what I needed in life and gave me everything I wanted. Little did I know how dangerous my best friend was. Little did I know the heartache she was causing my parents as they watched their bubbly, outgoing little girl slowly fade away before their eyes.
Those months in the care of the Child Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHs) were hard for us all. I was beginning to lose control of her: of anorexia. I was no longer making her happy and doing what she wanted. My parents would come with me to CAMHs sessions and sit in agony as the doctor delivered news my body was weakening: that I was slowly dying.
I ignored all of the warning signs, convincing myself instead that everyone was lying to me, that they wanted the worst for me. I told myself they were trying to take away the one thing that made me happy with a goal to fatten me.
Nights would fill with arguments and anxiety. I would shout back at my parents, watching tears form in their eyes. While a part of me cared, a stronger part couldn’t let my guard down.
On the rare evenings where I had no energy to argue over dinner and would eat, I’d later purge myself, my mum listening by the door.
I was well and truly the master of deception and while my anorexia was no longer making me happy, I didn’t know what else to do.
Then, just six months after my seventeenth birthday, my heart nearly stopped and I was admitted to a mental health hospital where I then spent the next year of my life recovering from anorexia.
Witnessing me struggle was one of the hardest things life could have thrown at my family. It often felt like a minefield. While I don’t have all the answers, I want to share my experiences here, to help other parents if their children are suffering from an eating disorder.
Avoid talking about calories and diet. We should be encouraging healthy living and healthy exercise in a positive way without leaning on fear tactics. Just the other day, I was sat having a coffee and I overheard a woman say to her daughter, ‘You can’t have that, it has more that 100 calories’. I am not in a place to judge but these types of messages can have a long term impact on young people.
After a diagnosis and the start of recovery:
Meal planning will look different to everyone but for me it was about having control over what was being served up to me at meal times. Being able to pre-plan days at a time (particularly around Christmas) and learning to trust my Mum (and believing she wasn’t going to add lots of extra sauces) helped reassure me. Find meals/dishes which work for the individual (this still applies now to me by the way). I know that I find brunch out an ‘easier’ meal than a dinner somewhere so if I feel stressed, those around me will happily go for brunch instead. It is important that you find happy mediums when supporting people with their recovery.
Reassure your child that you will hold their hand throughout. This may be practically at times when there are worries around portion sizes at buffets for examples (one of the biggest minefields ever!) and emotionally of course. Sufferers need to know their family won’t give up on them and that you will always be there when they need you. For me, as well as having help around portion size, knowing I can always speak to my Mum if I’m having a bad day, endlessly helps me.
Making happy memories that are away from food are also key.
Mealtimes can be so emotionally charged and draining that it’s important to connect over non-food related activities.
Before I went to hospital, mum and I would go for long walks together where we would talk for hours. I loved this time of ours. Create those memories so you have something to hold on to.
Educate yourselves: sufferers aren’t expecting you to know everything about their condition but I guarantee that having a rough understanding will help you all. Ask questions and try and empathise and understand how your child might be feeling.
The recovery period after discharge:
Exercise is not (always) the enemy: exercise was a huge part of my recovery and it shouldn’t be something to fear. For me it was about learning to exercise in a healthy way whether with a Personal Trainer or having someone I could check-in with. I strongly believe if done in the right way, exercise can aid recovery so encourage it.
Avoid saying things like, ‘you look healthy’ because those with eating disorders might well misconstrue this.
Know that recovery is not linear and will look different for every person. Now that I’m 10 years years on from being discharged I can challenge myself more when it comes to food and it’s important to have people who love me challenging me. As parents, you are perfectly placed to do this, in a safe space, where you can encourage your child to try those ‘scary foods’, without judgement.
When we think of people with eating disorders, usually gaunt and skeletal individuals tend to come to mind when the reality is that eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. Just because someone looks okay doesn’t mean they ARE OKAY. Please keep that in mind.
It’s hard work supporting someone with an eating disorder wherever they are at in their journey so be kind to yourself.
I know my brain occasionally still makes me act out and behave in ways I’m certainly not proud of but I know there’s light at the end of the tunnel and that with the right support, recovery is 100 percent possible.
Hang on to the positive days and know that the worst will pass.
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