By Gilian Havey, Freeland Writer
As the cookie crumbles in my mouth, delivering a shot of much-needed sugar, a sudden urge flashes across my mind. I am tempted to grab another, and another, before dashing to the loo to purge. Stilling myself, I engage rationally with my feelings and manage to move on without giving in.
I’m not always so successful.
As a mother of five, and at 38 years of age, I’m under no illusions: I know I’m never going to be strutting down the catwalk; time has taken its toll on my once toned body and I’ve been through four stressful pregnancies. I want to be healthy, not excessively thin. But my anorexic and bulimic urges have always been more about control than any misguided notions of vanity.
That’s why I was unsurprised to read that recent research by UCL revealed that around 3% of women in their 40s and 50s have suffered from an eating problem in recent years. The number, which equates to tens of thousands, is probably just the tip of the iceberg – many sufferers, like myself, do not seek help when they experience problems. Instead, I have learned over the years, that I have to forgive myself when I slip up, pick myself up and focus on something else until the feeling passes.
My first foray into extreme dieting came at the age of 15 when, over the period of a few months, my weight plummeted from a healthy 55kg (8st 7lb), to just under 38kg (6st). What started as a vague wish to compete with my skinnier friend became an obsession that led to me skipping breakfast and lunch, and throwing most of my dinner into the bin.
I have come to believe that eating disorders, like a virus, lie dormant in our system, waiting to strike
Although I was initially motivated by the desire to be thin, looking back I can see that there was more to my illness than simple vanity. A combination of GCSEs, financial worries and feelings of inadequacy led me to focus on the one thing I felt I could control. And once on that path, the feeling of triumph I experienced every time the scales revealed weight loss was addictive in itself.
Despite the fact that I believed I’d beaten my anorexia back in the 1990s, it has resurfaced in various guises throughout my life: at university in my early 20s as an obsession with exercise; as bulimia in my mid-20s when I struggled with the stress of my first teaching post; even in my 30s, when adjusting to the demands of motherhood, I had to fight against the desire to make myself sick.
Since my original bout of anorexia, I’ve never weighed less than 44kg (7st). Something – my long-suffering husband, the thought of my children, or the realisation that I am hurting myself – always drags me back from the brink. The thought of passing on any tendencies to my children also plays on my mind, and I make sure I eat a healthy diet and encourage them to do the same.
But I’ve come to believe that eating disorders can never truly be cured; instead, like a virus, they lie dormant in our system, waiting for the right moment to strike. For me, the urge to diet excessively or – more commonly now – to binge and purge, comes when I’m moving house, am overworked or stressed. The disease is not a silly childhood blip that I can grow out of, but something that I will struggle to keep at bay throughout my life. Like an alcoholic, I am “on the wagon”, never free.
For women like me, the perception that anorexia is a disease of the young and is linked to narcissism is damaging. It’s embarrassing to admit, when teetering on the brink of your fourth decade, that you’ve just gorged on chocolate and found yourself hunched over the toilet bowl. But it shouldn’t be. Eating disorders are an illness; and while they may start with a wish to have the perfect body, the pattern of damaging behaviour that emerges is akin to a drug addiction.
The knowledge that disorders can flare up repeatedly throughout life, or even appear for the first time at middle age, should not lead us to despair, but give us greater understanding of what drives the anorexic brain and how sufferers can be helped. Eating disorders are often hidden, only noticed when a sufferer displays obvious physical signs; this is something acknowledged by the report’s lead author, Dr Nadia Micali, who noted that many of the women questioned told her that this was the first time they had ever spoken about their eating difficulties.
But bringing them out into the light, admitting that we have suffered or are suffering, is one of the keys to addressing the problem. Removing the stigma and challenging the assumptions that persist about eating disorders is the route to greater understanding and better health for those of us who struggle.