Helping you get through tough times

Ask the expert: Harriet Parsons

Eating disorders

Harriet Parsons from Bodywhys was our featured expert in July 2011, February 2012 and February 2013, taking your questions on eating disorders.

Laura says: “Iv been diagnosed with bulimia and my mam Knows but she can’t accept it and she’s a full time carer for my mam who has alzheimers. She says she’s there for me but I don’t feel like she is,I think most her time goes on being a carer. I’m an only child too and don’t have anyone I could lean on for support.
Do you think it’s a good idea to tell my aunties that I’m bulimic?”

Hi Laura

It can be very difficult for parents to understand how it feels to have an eating disorder, and just how hard it can be to move through the recovery process and try to let go of the eating disorder. Sometimes parents need some help so that they can understand what you need from them. Sometimes people don’t understand how difficult letting go of the eating disorder can be, how difficult it can be to start to eat ‘normally’ and more importantly how difficult it can be to deal with all the thoughts and behaviours, the ‘eating disorder voice’ some people call it, when a person is trying to let go of the eating disorder. Recovery is not always straight forward, and often progress cannot be seen from the outside. There can be an awful lot going on in your mind and people aren’t always aware of this, or don’t have an understanding of this.

I can hear from your situation that your Mam is already in a ‘caring’ role, and I can hear that from your perspective most of her time is dedicated to this role and you feel that there is little left for you. At the same time I can hear that she has said to you that she does want to be there for you, and maybe she is struggling a bit with knowing how she can do this. I wonder how it would be for you to help her understand what you need from her? Do you think she would have time to read a bit about how she could support you? On the Bodywhys website we have a resource for parents which you can download and give to your Mam so that she can understand a bit better. Maybe if you have a read of it yourself and see if you think it might help her to understand what things are like for you. Sometimes, understanding that the eating disorder can be like something in your head that is telling you what to do, that it is important to separate you from your eating disorder.. all of these little ways of thinking can help a parent to understand how they can help.

Take care

Harriet

Sophia says:
i feel crap worthles and empty. im ugly and i cant look at myself in the mirror. i just feel like crying all the time

Hi Sophia,

I can really hear how tough things are for you at the moment, and it sounds like you are experiencing a lot of difficult and negative feelings, in your body and your sense of yourself. Often when we are feeling difficult feelings, or feelings that are negative and overwhelming we can experience these in our bodies and feel ugly and empty as you write. If there is something difficult going on, if life is proving to be really hard, sometimes we can turn this on ourselves and feel crap and worthless. Our self, our sense of who we are and our worth becomes the thing that we take everything out on. It’s like sometimes a person with an eating disorder talks about feeling ‘heavy’, even when there is a part of them that knows they are not, but what happens is that the feelings they are storing up inside are making them feel heavy. I wonder can you relate to this at all?

Sophia, I wonder is there something in particular going on for you at the moment that you are feeling like this? Did it help at all to be able to write about how you are feeling? Getting our thoughts out of our head can sometimes bring relief, and it can also help us to get some perspective on what we are going through. I wonder would it help if you thought about emailing Bodywhys email support service alex@bodywhys.ie? You maybe could write a bit more about what you are feeling, or simply get the thoughts out of your head.

You write that you feel like crying all the time which makes me think that not only are you feeling sad, but that you are feeling overwhelmed at the moment, and feeling like you can’t cope with something. I think anyone reading your thoughts will have had a time in their life when they have felt like this, and different things work for different people on how to help themselves. But, if you find that writing it out, getting it all out of your head might feel like a safe option for you then you can do that on the email support.

Things can seem very dark sometimes, and when we are in that head space it can be difficult to lift ourselves out of it. Sometimes just allowing yourself to feel awful, and to let someone know what that feels like can really help shift things. There are people here to listen to you without any judgment or pressure. I guess I just want you to know that.

Take care

Harriet

Claire says:
Hi Harriet,
Im 17 and Im not sure if I have an eating disorder or not. Im very obsessed with food and whats in it and how much I eat Im a very picky eater and I dont like eating in front of people. I always feel fat and I get very anxious and parinoid that people are looking at me if I eat and thinking Im fat and not telling me or that people just think im fat in general. This has been going on for quite a while now, I suffer from depression and have done since I was about 13. Im obsessed with being thin and I think about it every minuite of the day. Although I try to eat normally I do skip meals and starve myself sometimes. Im not sure whats wrong with me or if I have an eating disorder but my thoughts are really strong. Thanks so much

Hi Claire,

Thanks for your question. What strikes me about what you have written is your level of awareness of what is going on for you. It sounds like you are very aware of the food and body thoughts / fears/ anxieties that you are having. This level of awareness is the first and crucial step to be able to deal with these types of issues. But I’ll talk a bit more about that in a minute. Also just to say I can’t really diagnose an eating disorder for you but I can give you some things to think about and help you answer the question.

In many ways, disordered eating is something that everyone experiences to varying degrees at different stages of life, and in this way we can understand how the way we are feeling can have an effect on how we feed ourselves. Where we are getting more into the territory of an eating disorder is when the person experiences a compulsion to engage in, and continue with, disordered eating, and has unrealistic and distorted thoughts which go along with this and support the disordered eating continuing. What I mean is that when a person feels they have to ‘not eat, over exercise, purge or whatever the behavior is’ or else they experience huge fear and anxiety then we are more likely talking about an eating disorder rather than just ‘disordered eating’.

Maybe to make this a bit clearer. What you find when someone has an eating disorder is that the person’s sense of themselves, their self-esteem and self-worth, depends on the person eating or not eating in a certain way. And what happens is that their life becomes centred around ensuring that they can keep the disordered eating going. So, they feel panicky and anxious if they are going to be in a situation where they won’t be in control of what they will be eating and this is why often people start to become isolated from friends and activities. It’s like the more they do it the more they need to do it to feel ok.

Reading your message, I guess the first thing I would ask you is if you feel the way you eat, and the fears about not being thin are interfering in your ability to live your life fully the way you wish? If the obsessive thoughts about being thin are really stopping you from living and thinking freely, then whether or not you have an eating disorder, this is something that maybe you could think about changing and understanding.

You write that you try to eat normally, but often skip meals and starve yourself and I wonder have you been able to notice any pattern to this in terms of how you are feeling. Does how you are feeling influence how you eat? I guess what I’m trying to help you think about is whether you feel that you cope with how you are feeling by not eating and whether at times of stress do you find your obsessing about your weight and being thin gets worse? Again whether or not you have an eating disorder, if you find that this is happening then maybe you need a bit of support around this.

At Bodywhys we think of an eating disorder as a coping mechanism that a person uses to cope with their feelings, and the problem is that when this happens a situation can develop where a person gets really caught up in responding to their life by not eating and the feeling that if they don’t eat then they will feel better. The problem is that this never really works and instead the person gets trapped in a cycle of disordered eating and feeling worse and worse about themselves as well as feeling frightened of letting it go. Can you relate to this at all?

At the beginning I said about how you are very aware of what is going on for you and this is really important because it should help you to be able to think about what is going on and how all of this is functioning for you in your life. So, what I’m saying is that I can hear your concerns and I understand why you have the question as to whether or not you have an eating disorder. If you feel that these concerns in themselves are troubling you it is worth exploring them further and you might find it helpful to contact one of the Bodywhys support services, our email service for example alex@bodywhys.ie. This is obviously on your mind at the moment, and it is troubling you so to get some help and support around it is important. We get emails like yours very often and it is ok to email us with any questions and thoughts you are having. We are a non-directive service so there is no pressure to do anything, it is simply a safe space for you to try and figure out what’s going on for you.

I hope that you will have found some of what I have written helpful for you and that it will help you to answer your question. Please feel free to contact again if you have any other questions.

Harriet

Angela says:
Hi Harriet,
I have pretty much recovered from Bulimia. I was doing the behaviour badly for 18 months when I moved away to college and now I have been recovering for a year. My slip up’s are rare.
I spoke to a college counsellor 6 times over two years and I had huge difficulty trusting her. I don’t think I’ve sorted out my underlying issue. I am overweight and I feel I need to get thin but I have a large appetite. I have been believeing that if I keep trying to be healthy I’ll eventually eat less and get to a healthy weight but I gained back the weight I lost a few months ago.
I hate myself, my personality and my body. My self-harm has increased and Perfectionism is becoming a problem. I’m beginning to see bulimia as an easier alternative and I’m willing myself to fast.
Is it unreasonable of me to see the counsellor when I’m resistant to talking about what upsets me? What can I do?

Hi Angela,

Thanks for your question. I wonder how you felt having submitted it? What I can hear in it is that although you have moved away from engaging in the bulimic behaviours, many of the fears and thoughts about food, your sense of yourself and what is underlying all of this are still there. You write about this very clearly.

Recovery is a process, a difficult process and one that can take a long time. There are lots of things that need to change and be worked through during the recovery process, behaviours being just one. There are also the thoughts and how to deal with them, and there is also the challenge of finding an alternative ‘healthy’ and ‘pro-Angela’ coping mechanism, and it is often this part that takes time. I can hear this clearly in your question. While you have done a great deal of work on stopping the behaviours, there are still underlying feelings about your self, your personality and your body that are being dealt with through your thoughts and by harming yourself. In this way, it is really important that you try to trust what I can hear clearly in your question, i.e. there is still a bit of work for you to do so that you can reach a point where you feel ok about yourself and where you don’t feel the need to turn to self-harm to cope with your feelings.

You write that you don’t think you have sorted out the underlying reason, and it certainly seems from what you describe that there is something else going on for you that is causing you much distress, which you are coping with in other ways, like self-harm, that ultimately are not serving you. These really are not helping you deal with whatever the underlying reasons are in the long term.

You mention trust in your question, and this is so important in the relationship with a counsellor. Trusting the counsellor, trusting that it is ok to be who you are, and that how you feel is ok, is a huge part of what the recovery process is about. It is important so that you can slowly have the space and time to work out how to deal with the underlying issues, and trust that it is ok to mind yourself and respond to your life in a different way. This doesn’t happen quickly, and is often a slow process, but this in itself is often a good thing. Giving up a coping mechanism and learning another one that will stand to you for your whole life does take time, and this is ok. It is a re-learning that it is ok to listen to yourself and it is ok to be who you are.

The perfectionism part is also really difficult to deal with. When we live trying to keep everything perfect, we are really confining ourselves based on very unrealistic standards, but again it can take a long time to be able to let go of this. I always think of this type of perfectionist thinking as a way a person has of making their world safe. As in, if you strive for perfection there is no room for making a mistake and all the feelings that go along with this. However, life is often not this way, and so when we strive for this type of perfectionism it can become a way of punishing ourselves as well. Can you relate to this?

With regard to whether or not it is reasonable to see the counsellor when you feel you are resistant to talking about what upsets you, I would say that therapy and seeing a counsellor is not an easy thing, and for the most part we are all resistant to talking about what upsets us for quite some time in counselling. That’s why counselling can take some time, and that’s why it is necessary to try and see your counsellor more regularly (weekly or so), so that you engage with the process and build up the trust with the counsellor until you slowly feel ready to talk about what is troubling you. Counsellors (should) understand this and understand how important it is to build up the relationship so that a trusting and safe place can be created for you. But it does take both sides, so it takes you going and committing to going, and the counsellor taking things at a pace that you feel ok with.

Being aware, as you are, of the fact that you feel resistant to talking about what upsets you, is also something that you could talk to your counsellor about. If your counselor knew that you were feeling that way, that in itself would help the process become established and you can work on it from there.

The bottom line is that you are very clear that there is an underlying reason for how you are at the moment, and it is ok for you to ask for help and support. Again as I have mentioned in previous answers a safe first step might be to email alex@bodywhys.ie with any further thoughts or questions you have. There is support for you.

Harriet

Keira says:
I feel so alone. Have no friends to talk to. My parents are all praise for my sister she can do no wrong. I keep getting told by my mum how overweight I am. Really need someone to talk to.

Hi Keira,

Sounds like you are having a really tough time. I wonder how long you have been feeling so alone and how long you have been feeling that your parents have been treating you and your sister differently. I know that when we feel criticized it can be difficult to think about talking to that person, but my question would be, whether your Mum realizes just how upset you feel by what she has said to you? I wonder if there is any way you could approach her to try to explain that things are not that simple for you.

From experience, we do understand that people do not always appreciate or understand just how much a person’s sense of themselves is tied up with how they feel about their weight. I guess I’m just wondering if your Mum understood how her comments about your weight hit you really hard (and make you feel like you are all wrong and your sister can do “no wrong” as you have written), would she re-think using these comments. I know from other people who have contacted us that sometimes we assume that people should or do understand how we are feeling, but maybe that’s always the case.. maybe sometimes how we are feeling needs to be explained to them.

You know Keira, we always say to people who are worried about someone, that it helps not to focus on food and weight when trying to talk to them about why we are worried, and your message has really made me think that, from the other person’s perspective, it can be difficult to try and tell someone how what they are saying about our weight, what we eat or don’t’ eat, really makes us feel down in ourselves.. that it can make us feel sad, hopeless, misunderstood and alone. So my question then is, what can we do about it? What can we change about this situation that we are in? How can we let someone know that we are feeling so alone, and most importantly how we can ask for some understanding, support and help?

Your message has made me think about all of these things. Maybe this is a big ask right now, as it sounds from your email that you really are having a very rough time and you are feeling so alone.

Keira, how are things with your friends? What other people and supports do you have in your life? Who else can you reach out to talk to? This may also seem daunting and it may not mean as much because you mention only 3 people in your message – your parents and your sister. So, right now these are the most significant people in your life. I wonder have you felt included in this circle before now, and has something changed recently to bring about this situation. If you would like some further support on this, and maybe some thoughts about how you can let those important people in your life know how you are feeling, you can email our email support alex@bodywhys.ie. Maybe for now what I have said is enough to think about – I don’t want to overload you!

Support is here for you Keira.

Mind your self.

Marie says:
A friend of mine who I work with is I believe suffering from Anorexia, about 18 months ago she went on a diet to lose about a stone, well she is still on this very restrictive diet and her new wardrobe of six 8 clothes are hanging off her, I’m not sure exactly how much weight she has lost but I’d say maybe 3 stone ( she wasn’t above a normal weight to begin with), her diet consist of salads and the odd diet yougurt it is very controlled and unvaried, no carbs are ever eaten…I have talked to her about this and she doesn’t seem to know what the problem is, this person is married and has plenty of siblings, up to this point I sort of thought that her husband or family would address this and try and help her, but it would seem not as far as I know it is only me and some of my colleagues that are concerned about her extreme dieting…in my opinion she needs professional help now, but because she makes me feel like I’m mad when I say anything I don’t know how to ‘break in’ to her psyche…and I care about her too much to do nothing, I don’t really know her husband very well and I’m just not sure how he’d take this I have a feeling he’d make her feel bad for bringing this ‘trouble’ on him however I could be very wrong, am just not sure. ..so what can I do?

Hi Marie,

Thanks for your email. I can really hear how concerned you are about your friend and I can also here very clearly why you have this concern. There are a few practical steps you can take firstly. On our website www.bodywhys.ie we have a very helpful information page on ‘Approaching Someone’ so a lot of what I will say to you here will be there also.

Before talking to someone about a concern it is also really helpful for you to think through what your expectations are about what will happen when you talk to your friend. Having realistic expectations of what you can do, can just make the conversation you have with your friend a little easier. So for example, do you want her to acknowledge there is a problem and try and do something about it, or are you happy to just open up a line of communication with your friend so that even if she is not ready to acknowledge there is a problem, she will know that it is ok to talk to you when she is.

As we all know, we cannot make someone want to change, they really have to want it themselves, but that doesn’t make it any easier for us to watch someone we care about go through this. If you think of an eating disorder as a coping mechanism, if you think of the restrictive eating that your friend is engaging in as the thing in her life that helps her to cope, then it is easier to understand why she is afraid to talk about it, or doesn’t want to talk about it, in case she will have to stop (or be made to stop). As you say in your message, previous attempts to talk to her have ended up with her making you feel ‘mad’ and no progress being made.

I would encourage you to think about the ways in the past that you have approached your friend about your concern and see if there is something you can do differently? For example, I wonder have your attempts in the past been focused on food, weight, what she is or isn’t eating? Often this does become the focus because it is so obvious and easy to talk about, but it also feels very threatening to the person, and they retreat further and put up defenses against this type of conversation. I wonder, if you tried a different approach such as asking her how is she feeling these days, is everything ok because you are really worried about her, i.e. to bring the conversation away from the food focus and more to the level of feelings and how is your friend feeling. This can feel less threatening for a person and can allow them to talk about how they are without feeling the need to defend what they are or aren’t eating.

You ask how to break in to your friend’s psyche.. and there is no definite answer to this. All I can hear from your question is that what you have tried in the past hasn’t worked yet so trying a different approach may bring about a different response. Very importantly, even if your friend denies there is a problem, is that you leave a line of communication open for her, so you are clear that while she may not want to talk at the moment, you are there for her whenever she is ready. Accepting her where she is at is really important. Not having expectations that she will change immediately is also really important. It can take the pressure out of the conversation.

Please do look at the Approaching Someone section of our website, all of what I have written and a lot more is there for you to read at your own pace. It would also be very important to read the parts about understanding the eating disorder as a coping mechanism.

Take care,

Harriet

Mj says:
Harriet,
Just wondering if you know of any organisation/ helpline that could help me.
i’m thinking of attempting to stop using/abusing food/weight so i can try live as a better person. i dont like labeling myself with an eating disorder,but i know that as soon as i take away that …obsession/behaviours.. i can’t handle life, i don’t know how to live without some very twisted behaviors.
My heart is starting to bother me and every time i eat or throw up it hurts a lot more. i know im anaemic but have stopped fainting after trying to take iron supplements so i dont know if that could be the cause or what. Either way, i’ve only recently found a selfish desire to live(before now it was only for others’ sakes). i have beautiful people in my life who deserve so much better from me so i want to stop messing up my body so i can start doing that.
The problem is, as stupid, pathetic and crazy as it sounds, i have no idea how to live without it.(Although i acknowledge as i am is NOT living, its just surviving). So i was wondering if there are any 24hr helplines i could call that i wouldnt be bothering, just to vent at the times when i feel really bad, and before and after particularly scary meals etc? A lot of horrible/ dangerous/ scary feelings come up for me if i don’t prevent it by abusing food/weight etc, and i panic pretty bad and forget why im even trying to change so i thought it might be useful to have someone to be honest with who wont just think im crazy, but ride out the scary/ panicy feelings with me and help me remember that its better to NOT give in to my messed up urges.
Sorry for the length, i just want to make sure you know what kind of helpline i mean because i dont want to ring someone who would rather talk to other kinds of people.
i understand if there are none this is pretty pathetic, i just thought it was worth a try.

Hi Mj,

Thanks for your question and no need to apologise for the length. On the email service that Bodywhys runs (alex@bodywhys.ie) we get all lengths from 1 line to many pages. It is important that you feel you can write as much or as little as you need.

To answer your question directly I will firstly outline the services that Bodywhys run so that you can begin to think about how you can use those services to support yourself through those difficult and panicky moments. Just to say at this point, that contacting our organization doesn’t mean that we are diagnosing you with an eating disorder – we deal with everyone and anyone who has concerns or worries about what is happening in their lives around disordered eating behaviours and the feelings that go with that.

The Bodywhys helpline 1890 200 444 is a listening service. Every call is different, but just to reassure you that people going through the experiences that you have described call very frequently. People call when they are in a panic, when they are feeling overwhelmed by the frightening and punishing disordered eating thoughts.. just to talk about what is going on in their heads. We find that when people are able to talk out loud the thoughts in their head they can then deal with them better.. it’s as if the thoughts are more powerful when they are in our heads and when we get them out they lose some of their strength and the power they have over us. Our helpline is not directive. Nobody will tell you what to do, or what you ‘should’ be doing, we do not talk about food, weight or diet etc. And this goes for all our services. Our focus is on accepting the person wherever they are in their lives and allowing them space to talk it out as much or as little as they wish. Does this sound safe to you? Our helpline is however not a 24/7 helpline.. it is open for 2 hours per day 6 days per week (Mon, Wed and Sunday 7.30-9.30pm, Tues, Thurs and Fri 10.30am -12.30pm). (However, this week is eating disorders awareness week and it is open from 10-5 every day as well as the evening sessions). So, that is one way of getting support for yourself.

Our email support service (alex@bodywhys.ie) is another option (and you can use all of the services together as you wish). As I said people email us all the time about anything related to eating disorders and the feelings and behaviours like you have described. We endeavour to respond within 24 hours and our email responses are always reflective and non-directive – like the answers I have given on the reachout website. As I said, people write emails of any length and at all times of the day and night. Sometimes people feel panicky and worried very late in the night and they find writing out what is in their heads helpful, and that it helps them to calm down, and think a bit more clearly. So, this is an option for you also.

We also have online support groups that run once per week. You haven’t mentioned your age, but we have one for over 18s Bodywhysconnect, which runs on a Mon or Wed evening, 7.30-9pm (we send an email reminder for this group if you wish), and youthconnect which is for under 18s and this runs on Sunday evening (7.30-9pm). Our groups are facilitated by two trained volunteers, and they keep the conversation between participants as supportive as possible and ensure that there is no talk about food weight or the specifics of behaviours. Our groups are based on the idea of mutual support – it is a safe place for people who are going through similar issues to come together and get and give support to each other. There is no topic / agenda set by the facilitators, it is whatever people want to talk about on the night. You also do not have to talk if you don’t want to, you can just listen and watch what others are saying until you feel ready. We get people coming to groups at all different stages, so maybe some are in recovery, maybe in counseling, and others are just starting to think about changing, like what you have described so well.

Depending on where you are we do also run ‘physical’ support groups (Dublin (Temple Bar, UCD and one in TCD for TCD students only), Carlow, Galway and Cavan). The times that these run are on our website www.bodywhys.ie, and they run in the same way as all our services – we don’t talk about food, weight or the speficis of behaviours.. we talk about how you are feeling about what you are going through. In this way everyone can relate to each other even if they have different types of eating disorders.

So, Mj, I guess what I’m hoping you take from this information is that there are many ways you can choose to engage with support, and at a pace that you choose. Taking everything at a pace that you feel ok with is very important. As you have written, when you start to think about living without ‘it’, it feels very scary. And people say that they don’t know who they are without ‘it’.. so it is about you finding out, developing and building up that part of you that is not ‘it’. Does that make sense to you? We see ‘it’ as a coping mechanism and I can hear from your email that you also clearly experience it in this way too. It’s really frightening to think about letting go of that thing that helps us to cope, so it is important to keep in mind that although this ‘disordered eating and way of treating ourselves’ promises to make our life perfect, it never works. It just gets stricter and more punishing and we end up at its mercy rather than feeling better for any sustainable time. Does that make see to you?

There is a lot of emotion and feelings in your message, and I don’t want to overload you at this stage, so I have in the main just answered the question you have asked, but one thing that I can hear very clearly from you is the sense that there is a ‘deserving’ part that is creeping into what you write.. that in some way you are being ‘selfish’ for wanting to be free, be yourself and live without this punishing of yourself all the time. To my ears, the idea that this is ‘selfish’ is the disordered eating side of your head talking.. it is saying that to want to live is selfish of you. And often the fear that people have when they first start thinking about letting some of these behaviours go is that their world will fall apart, that it is not ok for them to do this (so it might be ok for someone else but not for them). But this is the disordered thinking clinging on and not wanting to let you be free of it. Whereas if you listen to those in your life who are important to you, they would say YES, it is ok to be you, we love you and want you to be free, well and happy.. and most importantly Mj I wonder if you can allow yourself to think that it is ok for YOU to want be yourself, and free of this. Letting it go may not be easy, and it may take time. But, that is ok.. it takes time because it is so important. The majority of people need support along the way, so please know that that support is there for you.

Take care of your SELF.

Harriet

Sophie says:
hi i have two questions i need to get out of me .first how do you deal with a divorce when the person who asked for it is your dad + has depression ?!? 2 how do you deal with bieng called fat i am really sad oh and p.s i moved to ireland 2 years ago found a boyfriend i am relly gonna miss will someone help me please !!! :’
i feel crap worthles and empty. im ugly and i cant look at myself in the mirror. i just feel like crying all the timeI feel so alone. Have no friends to talk to. My parents are all praise for my sister she can do no wrong. I keep getting told by my mum how overweight I am. Really need someone to talk to.

Hi Sophie,

There is a lot going on for you at the moment and it sounds like you are having a hard time. I guess what I’m hearing from both the messages you have sent is that, there is a breakup between your parents happening at the moment, which, from what you have written seems to mean that you will be leaving Ireland and your boyfriend. Would that be right? And at the same time as all of this is going on, somebody has told you that you are ‘fat’, as well as your Mum saying you are overweight, while at the same time you are feeling very low in yourself and are feeling very bad about yourself. It also sounds that even though you have a boyfriend at the moment, the relationship between your Mum and your sister is making you feel very alone and isolated. Even writing this I am struck by how much you are having to deal with at the moment, so I wonder can you appreciate that there is so much going on for you.

You write that you feel like crying all the time, which makes me think that you are feeling overwhelmed and sad, and when you consider what you are dealing with at the moment, it is very understandable that you are feeling this way. There is a huge upheaval happening in your life, and as well as experiencing this you are also experiencing a focus of negative comments/ feelings about your weight. I guess the key part of what you have written for me is that you are feeling so low and you don’t feel that there is anyone there to support you at the moment. And my concern would be that all of the feelings you have mentioned (‘really sad’, ‘feel crap and worthless’, ‘feel empty’) would get caught up in the feelings you are experiencing about your physical being. When we feel so down it can be very easy for us to focus our difficult and negative feelings on ourselves, the way we look and our physical selves, because this can give us a sense of control over them, like we can do something about that. However, this is also a false sense of control, because a lot of the negative feelings you are mentioning are as a result of a situation that you are not responsible for.. the break up of your parent’s relationship. (again, this is what I hear in your message but I may have the circumstances incorrect).

You mention the relationship between yourself, your Mum and your sister. I wonder has this changed recently or have you always felt that your Mum treats you and your sister differently? I wonder how it would feel to try and let your Mum know how this makes you feel? Often, when there is a lot going on it can be hard to find some space in which you can express these feelings, but I wonder whether you could think about doing this? It can be difficult to find the words to express how we feel sometimes, and sometimes we can fall into the ‘blame game’ scenario where everyone gets defensive because everyone is hurting and upset. In this type of situation it is important not to lose sight of exactly what you have control over, that is, your own thoughts and feelings. And it is ok to express them and ask for some support and help from those around us. Unfortunately this is not always given, and when this happens it can make it hard to look for support from outside our immediate family and friend circle, but Sophie please know that that support is there for you. There are people who can listen and support you when you are feeling low. The reachout website has for March an ‘expert’ who can give some support around the situation you are in relation to your parents. You have the power to help yourself Sophie, and reaching out as you have is one brave way of doing that.

You have asked me how to deal with being called ‘fat’, and this is hard for me to answer because everyone will have a different reaction to any kind of name calling. I guess first off there are some things people say that we don’t take any notice of, and others that we do.. what they are will be different for everyone, but everyone has their weak spot, and often a ‘bully’ will use that as a way of trying to hurt a person. One way of thinking about it is, that what someone says to us only hurts us or affects us depending on the ‘weight’ or value we give to the comment. If someone says something to us that hurts us then we have to deal with that by thinking about why we give such power/weight/ or value to another person’s opinion of us. And hopefully in the process of trying to understand why we care so much about what that particular person says and thinks about us, we can learn not to take the hurtful comments to heart, and not to let them affect us so deeply. This is not easy Sophie, and that is why when a person is feeling like this they do need some help and support for themselves.

I know there is a lot in this reply Sophie, and you may or may not be able to think about it all right now with all the other stuff going on in your life. I hope that in some way this reply supports you at this difficult time and that it helps you to focus on getting support and help for your feelings rather than turning them all in on yourself. If you have any further questions or would just like to have somewhere to let out your thoughts you can always use Bodywhys email support service, alex@bodywhys.ie.

Take care.

Rosie says:
Hi, i am currently recovering from an eating disorder . i was anorexic for about 4 months and went to hospital for 2 weeks in december. im just wondering , when will my breasts grow back ? is there anything i can do to make them grow back quicker ? and i was well advanced and i was close to getting my period, is that all ruined now or will it happen soon.? I was more advanced then my friends and now there way ahead of me .. it really upsets me ! Thanks

Hi Rosie,

Thanks for your message. I’m afraid I’m not going to be much help in giving you insight into your questions, as they are ones that are better asked of your GP. We do hear from people that as their weight stabilizes and comes back into a normal range that a person’s menstrual cycle will return, however it is not possible to predict when this happens, as it happens at different times for everyone. How would you feel about asking your GP about your concerns?

I can hear you say that this is really upsetting you at the moment, and I wonder to help with the upset that this is causing you, how you would feel about talking about those feelings, (what it means for you to get your body back to ‘normal’ and ‘catch up’ with your friends), with the people who have been helping you get over the anorexia? Are you still in contact with the services that you attended before? I wonder have you got that ongoing support? It is really important for you to try and deal with these difficult and upsetting feelings in a safe way, so how would you feel about talking about them to someone?

If you didn’t feel you could do it that way, you can get support for yourself by emailing the Bodywhys email support service alex@bodywhys.ie, or by calling the Bodywhys helpline on 1890 200 444. Here you can talk out the feelings and try and get a handle on what you feel ok about doing to help and support yourself at this time.

I’m sorry not to be able to answer your questions directly. There are so many physiological factors involved in what you ask that I couldn’t give you a correct answer. But, as they are worrying you so much, I would encourage you to talk to a health professional that you know and trust about them.

Take care.

Lucy says:
Hello
I have recently been made unemployed. I have always been overweight but have started bingeing again. Sometimes after i binge I feel as if I want to rip myself open. I dont want to go on medication as I have been down that road before and I can’t afford counselling. I really don’t know what to do. I’m 44, married and a mother of four. Life just seems so hard at the moment and I am so stressed.

Hi Lucy

Thanks for your message. It sounds like you are dealing with a lot at the moment, and being made unemployed seems to have triggered an old pattern of behavior from what I read in your message. To make the connection for yourself between dealing with a difficult situation and returning to an old destructive behavior is very important, because it helps you to be aware of what function the binging is serving in your life at the moment. From what you have written, it sounds like the binging is happening because of the new difficulty in your life, and in this way that when you are feeling that it is difficult to cope, this behavior is stepping in as a way of dealing with how you are feeling. Do you see it that way I wonder? You do not have to answer any of the questions I put in this message, they are a way of helping you reflect on your situation and see what kind of support you might need for yourself at this time.

So, on the one hand, there is the binging behavior coming back, and I wonder does this happen when you are feeling a certain way? Often people find that they binge when they are feeling overwhelmed emotionally, and it feels like it will help them to deal with that feeling, but as you so vividly describe, the person is often left feeling worse afterwards. As you wrote, it makes you feel like ripping yourself open, and I guess what I hear in this is that after a binge you are feeling like the binge was something else taking you over rather than you feeling in control of your behavior? This compulsion to carry out a behavior such as binging is very common when trying to understand why people continue to engage in disordered eating behaviours, because it is like the person does not feel they have the ability to stop it. It really feels like it is something taking them over. Does this make sense to you? I really don’t want to assume you are feeling this way, but these are the things that come to my mind when I read your message.

And so to your question about what can you do to help yourself at this hard time when you are feeling so stressed. The first step you have taken already, and that is to try and think about what is going on for you and begin to make the connections between what is happening in your life and the return of these behaviours. This is something that is not easy, and it may take time to get a handle on it in some way, but you have begun this process and the growing awareness of yourself will serve to help you find the appropriate help and support for yourself.

Self-help is something that you can begin while you are thinking or while you are finding some other help that you can afford and manage in your life. Having four kids also makes it difficult sometimes to find the time to give yourself a bit of a break in the day. But giving yourself some time in the day to be still and quiet with yourself to get a handle on how you are feeling is really important to help not feed into the overwhelming feelings that can trigger the binging behavior. Bodywhys has a self help tool, the binge eating booklet which is quite practical and is designed to use on its own or better still, while a person is starting some kind of therapeutic help. It can help you to deal with the binges and to think about how to get a handle on these difficult behaviours. It is not a ‘cure all’ but it might help you to begin to get a handle on things while you are thinking about what the next step may be. You can get a copy by emailing your address to info@bodywhys.ie

Another option for you, depending on where you are located is to attend one of the Bodywhys support groups. This is a safe place where you can talk about how things are for you, and get some support for yourself. These groups are free and you can come whenever you want, so you don’t have to commit to going every month if this is not feasible for you with family commitments. There is no pressure to talk unless you feel you want to, and there is no discussion of food, weight or specifics around behaviours because people at the group will have different types of eating issues and everyone will be at a different place in their lives. The group can be really supportive and might be an option for you at the moment when you are trying to help yourself feel less stressed. Here’s the link for the information on the support groups http://www.bodywhys.ie/supportServices/support-groups/

I know you said you can’t afford counseling at the moment, but just in case you may not have considered any low cost counseling options, on the Bodywhys website there are some lists of low cost counselors as well http://www.bodywhys.ie/gettingHelp/services-directory/service/

Lucy, we hope that something in this reply will be supportive for you at the moment. There are lots of other support services for people in similar situations as you describe so if you would like to look at those you can see them here www.bodywhys.ie But, most of all, I would like to acknowledge just how difficult things are for you at the moment, and that looking for support for yourself is really important so that you can get a handle on things for yourself. And your acknowledgement of an issue is hugely important and is not something that people do lightly. If you would like to reflect on what has been written here, you can email the Bodywhys email support service on alex@bodywhys.ie

I wish you well Lucy,

Harriet

Emma says:
Is Thinking Your Too Skinny And Overly Eating And Weighing Yourself An Eating Disorder ?

Hi Emma

Thanks for your question. I cannot say categorically that when a person thinks they are too skinny, and engages in over eating and excessive weighing it is an eating disorder, because to figure out if a person has an eating disorder you need to understand the role or function that these thoughts and behaviours are serving in a person’s life.

So, for example, if a person has a distorted image of themselves, if they are not seeing themselves in a realistic way and this is causing them to suffer (if it is upsetting them and driving them to behave in certain destructive ways) then this is an issue, but I can’t say if that is an eating disorder.

If a person changes their eating behaviours as a way of managing the feelings they are having about themselves then this is more getting into disordered ‘territory’, but again is not necessarily an eating disorder. If a person feels compelled to continue with the disordered eating behaviours in order to feel ok in themselves, so that if they try to stop the behaviours and find they can’t or this makes them feel very anxious, and like their world is falling apart, then this is getting into a more problematic area. One way of thinking about it is if you imagine a spectrum, and on one end you have ‘normal’ disordered eating (as in, the way everyone engages in some kind of disordered eating in a little way in our lives), and on the other end you have ‘eating disorders’, then the point at which a person crosses from being on the ‘normal’ disordered eating side to the more ‘eating disorder’ side is where compulsion comes into the picture. So, if the person feels compelled to continue with the overeating and excessive weighing in order to feel ok, then this is more likely to be an ‘issue’ that needs looking at and maybe some help and support to change, whether or not they have an eating disorder.

What I would say is that if you, or the person you are writing about (from your message I do not know if you are talking about yourself or not), is finding that this change in feelings towards your / their body, and the change in eating behaviours is causing you / them worry and stress or upset, then that is enough of a reason to seek out some more support to help you/ them deal with whatever is causing this distress. Do have a look at the FAQ section of the Bodywhys website where you will see the question ‘Do I have an eating disorder?’ http://www.bodywhys.ie/faq/   and this may also add to what I have written here. Having read this you may have some more questions and I would invite you to feel free to email the Bodywhys email support service alex@bodywhys.ie with those if you wish.

Thank you for your question, I am sure that it will be useful for others who may read it.

Take care.

Harriet 

Geri says:
Hi I am interested in self help. Can you reccommend a good CBT book i could use. I am a 46yr old female struggling with bulemia and anorexia, im in the throws of it, i keep falling off the band wagon, relapsing over and over, pretty draining!!! I need help with my motivation and focus, i appreciate any help you provide me, thanks in advance. I find it hard to ask for help and i quess im a slow learner, the fact that i havent got it yet and left this behind me yet! Help! Geri

Hi Geri,

Thanks for your message. The first thing that strikes me, is that you are being a bit hard on yourself feeling like you are a ‘slow learner’ and that you ‘haven’t got it yet’. Any type of eating disorder is incredibly difficult to get out of, let alone if you are swinging between two ways of being, with anorexia and bulimia. Also, needing motivation and focus is easier said than done, and sometimes it can help to think that is not all about will power. When something takes us over in the way an eating disorder does, we can need some extra help and support to get ourselves out of it. I am wondering have you been trying to get out of it on your own or have you tried getting some support or help for yourself, e.g. seeing a psychotherapist?

Different treatments, and different combinations of help and support work for different people. There is no right or wrong way of trying to recover from an eating disorder. At times a person may manage very well on their own, and at times they can need extra help, and help from an outside person who can both support and help the person to recognize in themselves the reasons why they are doing what they are doing. It can be difficult.. and often it is, understanding ourselves that is the most difficult task of all.

In terms of books, the Bodywhys website has a list of books which you could have a look at http://www.bodywhys.ie/resources/library/

It might also be interesting for you to read about recovery on the Bodywhys website also http://www.bodywhys.ie/gettingHelp/recovery/

Here you will see that there is no one path to recovery and recovery does mean different things to different people. I can hear your frustration that you feel in the throws of everything, and that you feel that you keep lapsing into old behaviours. It can be hard not to get stuck into all or nothing thinking about ‘falling off the band wagon’, but it is important to try and take time to reflect on what has happened that has pushed you off it, to try to understand in yourself what the triggers are and what led up to you needing to cope with whatever it is through controlling your food and body. This process takes time, it is a re-learning process and that is why it can be helpful to have support while you are doing it.

Please do see the different support services that Bodywhys offers, as there may be one there that you might try to see if it helps you at this time. We are here to support you and I hope that something in this email will be of support to you, and if nothing else will help you to think about not being so hard on yourself about not getting it right’ all the time.

Thank you for your message,

Harriet

Emma says:
have a 22 year old sister who has been suffering with anorexia for over two years now. One 12 weeks stay in our local hospital. She is now complainig of suffering from anxiety type feelings the last two weeks. She has spoken to her gp but we are unsure of what other supports she can get. I understand your service is for young people but we are at a loss and could really do with some help. We are waterford based and she is in college in cork.
Kind regards.

Hi Emma,

Thanks for your message.
Having anxiety, and anxious feelings is not uncommon when someone is in the recovery process from an eating disorder.

The anxiety (and sometimes people will say they feel ‘panicky’) , at different points, and can come and go very quickly, or linger. The anxiety in an eating disorder is usually linked to the letting go of some of the eating disorder rules, or by experiencing an internal conflict between the ‘eating disorder thoughts’ and the person’s attempt to let go of the eating disorder behaviours and thoughts. In this way, it can be helpful to frame the anxiety in a positive way, in that it means that something is shifting for your sister, and that hopefully this is a sign that she is trying really hard to let go of the food control.

However, to cope with the anxiety, a person needs a lot of support and help, because it requires a huge energy and strength to not give in to letting the eating disorder behaviours relieve it. In this way it can be helpful to think of an eating disorder as a coping mechanism, so it essentially becomes the person’s way of managing difficult feelings, for example anxiety. In this way, anxiety can also be a trigger to go back to eating disorder behaviours as a way of alleviating the anxiety. So, it is really helpful that you are aware of this, and that your sister gets some help and support with this.

Your sister is welcome to use Bodywhys support services which are as follows:
Telephone helpline 1890 200 444 – open for 2 hours per day 6 days per week
Email support – your sister can email alex@bodywhys.ie and write out everything that is in her head, as much or as little as she wants, and she will get a supportive, non-directive listening ear and information response.

Support groups – we do not have a group in Waterford, we do have face to face groups in Carlow and Dublin. These are free and drop in. They are based on the idea of mutual support so while there are 2 facilitators there the group generally determines what is discussed at each session. The facilitators do not have a set agenda. People attending are under no obligation to speak during a session. The facilitators ensure the environment is safe for all attending. I know due to location this may not be ideal for your sister, but maybe one of our family / friends groups is something you or your family might benefit from. http://www.bodywhys.ie/supportServices/support-groups/

We also have online support groups, which your sister could use. She can register for this group via our website www.bodywhys.ie. These online groups happen once a week, wither on a Monday night or a Wednesday night starting at 7.30. Again there are 2 facilitators present to ensure that ground rules are kept and that the group remains a safe place for everyone.

It might help to reassure your sister that in all of our support services we have the ethos that we don’t talk about food or weight, or the details about what people are doing. Rather our focus is on how people are coping and feeling about what is going on for them and in that way everyone can relate and support each other.

For yourself, it is also important to get some support. It may be helpful to have a read of the Bodywhys website, especially our page on recovery, and on understanding the eating disorder as a coping mechanism. This may help you to support your sister at this difficult place she is in at the moment. It may also be helpful for yourself and your parents if they are in the picture to read through our resource for parents which can be downloaded from our website, or if you email us we can send you a copy.

I hope that you find something useful in this message. And I hope that you can hear that the anxiety at the moment may not be a sign of things getting worse (although it may not feel like this for your sister), but it may be a sign that the eating disorder is ‘kicking up’ because your sister is fighting so hard to be free of it. If the anxiety continues, and if your sister does start to find it overwhelming, do go back to the doctor and talk it through.

Also, just to say that if you need information on psychotherapists / counselors in cork there is a list on our website under the ‘getting help’ section, services directory.

Thanks and wishing you both all the very best,

Harriet

C says:
Hallo Harriet.

I’m checking in to say thanks ……..

I have struggled for many years with an eating disorder. It’s not been easy and life has been rather complicated but right now I feel like I’m in a better place and making slow but steady progress on my road to recovery. I made the decision last year to seek help which was in itself a big move. It’s not easy. I didn’t know what to expect or where it would take me. I set out looking for a quick fix but soon realised that it would take a lot more than that. It’s been challenging, there have been ups and downs and it’s been an emotional roller coaster. I meet with my therapist weekly and I’ll be the first to admit that i don’t always look forward to it. It’s a big commitment but I think it’s been the cornerstone of my recovery. Like I said it’s not easy and I still have a way to go but I think it is important to reach out and ask for help. The Bodywhys website was on my radar for many years and it was my starting point last year once I decided for myself that it was time for change and a new direction in my life, so thank you. I would urge others who are struggling to reach out. It’s not easy but it’s worth a shot.

Thanks.

C

Dear C,

Thank you for taking the time to write your message. I must say it has made my day, and it is so helpful for us to hear that in some way we have encouraged someone to find support and help for themselves. Your description of where you are at and where you have come from is very powerful, and although I can hear, and I know, how tough this is, being able to reclaim some of your life for yourself is wonderful to hear. So, C, thank you for writing, and I hope that when others read your message they too will feel they can reachout and get some help and support.

Mind your self.

Harriet

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