'Your stress reliever is counting calories' The reality of living with an eating disorder
(*This article originally appeared as part of Her's Mental Health Month.)
"There's a false hope and security that comes with an eating disorder - and you cling onto it."
*Warning: this article includes details of anorexia and bulimia, compulsive eating, and ED treatments.
Hannah was in fifth year of secondary school when she first became conscious of her weight.
Her classmates had started talking about the 'Leaving Cert Stone' - a hypothetical amount of weight that teenage girls were threatened with in the year leading up to their final exams.
The thought of finishing school made Hannah anxious about many things. The first was moving away from home, the second was figuring out what to do with her life, and the third was how she perceived herself.
She says she can remember noticing a physical change in her body during sixth year, but that her old diaries suggest a shift in her mental attitude long before that.
"I started to experience negative cyclical thoughts about myself," she says. "There's repetition wishing I was skinnier, more desirable, smarter, prettier and more likeable."
"People saw a healthy and relatively happy 18-year-old transform into a very unhealthy and unstable person eight months later, weighing a lot less."
Hannah experienced anorexia and bulimia for three years, during her final year of school and her first two years of college.
During that time, she restricted her eating, worked out intensely, and lived by a strict set of rituals. It's a period of time that she remembers as being "long and tedious."
She didn't like eating in front of people and she couldn't eat out. The thought of eating something somebody else had prepared sent her "into a frenzy."
Her disordered eating promised control, but never actually offered any.
"You believe that if you can control this one thing, everything will fall into place," she says.
"When really, your physical and mental states begin to deteriorate as the illness progresses. There's a false hope and security that comes with an eating disorder, and you cling onto it.
"It's hard to describe but imagine that your drug is exercise and your stress reliever is counting calories.
"It becomes a comfortable ritual - it's your best friend, it makes you feel safe, without it you feel that the world is going to come crashing down around you."
An estimated 188,895 people in Ireland will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives.
A 2007 study showed that 1.2 percent of Irish girls are at risk of developing anorexia nervosa over the course of their lives, with 2 percent at risk of developing bulimia nervosa.
Hannah says that over the three years she struggled with disordered eating, she experienced a myriad of physical and emotional symptoms.
Her illness didn't just cause her to lose weight, it also affected her blood pressure, her body hair growth, and heightened her sensitivity to the cold.
She recalls a night in her first year of college when she was in a club with her friends during Freshers' Week. Everybody else was wearing crop tops but she was in two cardigans and a coat.
Her sex drive had reduced to virtually nothing and she was exercising compulsively. She says her periods stopped seven months before her intervention, but that she told herself she "didn't need them because I would never have kids anyway."
"The thought of the weight gain associated with pregnancy terrified me," she says. "My therapist later told me that this was a sign of organ failure and that my body was shutting down."
Once she realised that she needed to seek help, Hannah says that she experienced a lot of guilt.
She found going from counsellor to counsellor - and needing to pay for each session - tough, but eventually she sought treatment from a team in UCC (as well as her doctor and a nutritionist) and found that certain coping strategies were beginning to work.
These included weekly counselling sessions, regular weigh-ins with her doctor, keeping a food calendar, a ban on exercise, and a ban on weighing herself privately.
Hannah says that even though she has not experienced disordered eating in many years, she acknowledges that her thoughts do still need to be managed.
"Emotional illnesses are not like a broken leg," she says. "We don't experience them and then heal and move on. Eating disorders are chronic, and people who suffer from them are predisposed to suffer from them again."
"Today, I don't know what I weigh because I don't weigh myself.
"We should start quantifying ourselves by how funny, smart and interesting we are, and not by how much the meat on our bones weighs. We shouldn't be defined by flesh because we are so much more than that."
Hannah says she later learned that what she looked like, or what people thought of her, weren't going to make her happy.
She says that it took her a while to realise that external reassurances weren't going to change anything and that she needed to "drive her own life."
"It took me three years to love myself," she says, "and three years to separate myself from something that is quite frankly scary, ugly, and terrifying."
"I remember what I have to lose if I return to that frame of mind, and it keeps me moving forward."
If you have been affected by any of the details of this article, you can contact Bodywhys on 1890 200 444 or email email@example.com.
November is Mental Health Month on Her, where we'll be talking to you and the experts about some of the common - and the not so common - disorders and conditions affecting women in Ireland today.
You can follow the rest of our Mental Health Month series here.
Want to get in touch? Email me at Jade@her.ie.