Irish Independent Article
Words tumble over each other as Nicola starts talking. Bright, articulate and aware, the 31-year-old describes the 16-year-long hell of her eating disorder.
Her life is “absolutely horrific”. “I live at home with my parents. I’m afraid to do anything. It’s so humiliating. I lie about everything. I say I’m this and that. There’s this terrible shame of having to admit that I’ve an eating disorder.”
She’s pretty and tiny-framed, with an eager smile and a desperate longing to be free of her disease.
It began when she was 15. There were lots of problems in her life — school, relationships, experiences she would prefer had never happened to her.
“I couldn’t look in a mirror for about 12 months. I hated windows because of the reflection. I hated myself. I hadn’t seen myself but I felt huge.”
She started losing weight. “It was amazing, I felt safest when I was under weight. People left me alone. I was a victim people were afraid to touch, and that felt good. I got attention for losing weight.”
Then she ended up in hospital, on a general ward, between two elderly women who were dying. Her doctor would literally shake her, tell her to cop on, be grateful that she was alive. “The other relatives would come in and the anger in their eyes. I didn’t want to be this ungrateful little cow, choosing to kill myself. I didn’t want to die but I wasn’t happy with living. The conflict was unbelievable.”
She was seen once by a psychologist but the medical staff felt therapy was unnecessary. “I was relieved,” she admits. “As far as I was concerned, everyone was out to get me. I held back. I didn’t even know who he (the psychologist) was. I didn’t want to be on my own with him in the room.”
When she left hospital her mother stayed at home and looked after her and she began to feel better. Nicola started college with the aim of becoming a teacher. But half-way through the course the eating disorder returned and she suffered a breakdown. The college counsellor recommended she try the St John of God’s treatment programme. She was 22.
‘I was so full of hope. I thought, finally I’m going to get better,” she says.
She has successfully completed the St John of God’s treatment programme six times now. It works for her, she believes, because her disorder isn’t based on a fear of gaining weight but on her desperate need for strict control over her eating.
“It’s all very strict on that programme and it suited me perfectly. Other girls would get kicked off the programme because they couldn’t meet their recommended weight.”
The problem, however, was that as soon as she left the treatment centre, she found herself unable to cope with day-to-day life and she stopped eating. At one point she weighed just four stone.
“You’re trying to give up something that makes you feel safe. It’s something in your head. You’re trying to eat because everyone tells you that will make you feel better. But it makes you feel crap. It makes you feel dirty and ashamed.
“It’s not a death wish,” she says. “I live with it every day. I feel like I’m buried alive every day. I wake up in the morning and think: ‘What’s the point of waking up to this?'”
Over the years, Nicola has developed osteoporosis in her back. She stopped menstruating for long periods and she’s now unsure whether she will ever have a baby.
Friendships are difficult, because “they get so angry with me”. She had a boyfriend for a while but he became overwhelmed by her situation.
She has never taken a foreign holiday because she is afraid she couldn’t cope. And she often feels angry with herself for being the way she is.
“I have so much anger and I’m so afraid that I can’t stop this,” she says.
Some 200,000 people suffer from eating disorders in Ireland. There are 80 eating disorder-related deaths every year, making it the most fatal of all mental-health problems in the country.
There are three public beds for sufferers at St Vincent’s Hospital in Elm Park, Dublin. Private treatment programmes at St John of God’s and St Patrick’s hospitals, both in Dublin, bring the total number of places for sufferers to 20 beds nationwide.
Many sufferers, like Nicola, have completed such programmes several times. Nicola is now about to embark on an entirely new treatment programme, at Ireland’s first dedicated eating-disorder clinic.
The Lois Bridges Centre is about as far removed from a unit of a psychiatric institution as it is possible to get. It’s based in Sutton, north Dublin, in a beautifully restored Georgian house. In a huge open plan kitchen, residents will learn to prepare their own meals.
But getting residents to eat sufficient quantities of food is not the main focus of the treatment, according to Teresa Moo head, clinical director.
Moorhead has a nursing background and has known Nicola for several years, through her stays at St John of Gods. She listens quietly as Nicola explains how she’s fine with eating food when it’s handed to her. The difficulty is feeding herself when she’s not in someone else’s care.
‘People assume that someone’s recovered from an eating disorder when they put weight on,” says Moorhead. “But that’s not recovery. Recovery is them going out on a Friday night to the cinema with their friends and eating popcorn.”
“I don’t even know what the inside of a cinema looks like,” says Nicola.
Residents at Lois Bridges embark on several types of ‘talking’ therapies, on a one-to-one basis, in groups and with their families. As Moorhead points out, an eating disorder is a symptom and it will continue to plague the sufferer until the root cause of the problem begins to be addressed.
The treatment model is based on centres in the US and UK, which are proving successful. The main difference between these clinics and traditional centres is that they encourage clients to take responsibility for their day-to-day lives, not just their eating habits.
For Nicola, the new centre is a glimmer of light at the end of a long, dark and very lonely tunnel. She admits she’s almost afraid to hope again, although her eyes light up at the prospect that someday she will be able to go to the cinema with friends on a Friday night and eat popcorn.
She always wanted to be a writer, she announces. As a child, she had a little desk where she would sit and scribble.
Perhaps there is a future feature describing Nicola’s road to recovery from her torment. Perhaps that piece might even be written by Nicola herself.