Anorexia left Ally Stableford on the brink of death and she even attempted to take her own life when she was in the grip of the disease.
However, Ally has now beaten the eating disorder and is now studying to become a mental health nurse so she can help others afflicted by the condition. She tells AASMA DAY her rollercoaster story
LIKE a demon sitting on her shoulder, Ally’s eating disorder was like a bully who was with her all the time, determined to drag her down.
Ally, now 26, who lives in Leyland, near Preston with parents Dorothy and Chris, explains: “The eating disorder manifested itself through constant negative voices telling me not to eat and that I was fat and worthless and would never be good enough.
“It was through viewing the anorexia as a demon on my shoulder that I was eventually able to recover from it.
“I have been able to separate it from me and have finally had the power to answer back to it.”
Ally’s struggle with food began at the tender age of nine when she was at primary school, even though she was a normal body shape and size and was neither overweight nor underweight.
Before it started taking over her life, Ally had always loved her food and tried everything and was never a fussy or faddy eater.
Ally remembers: “My first memories of having issues with food are from when I was nine and at primary school.
“I used to take a packed lunch into school and became too embarrassed to eat in front of the other pupils.
“I was scared that if the items in my packed lunch were different to everyone else, I would stand out and be the odd one out.
“It was around that time that I became really aware of my body and began looking at myself a lot more and I became unhappy with what I saw.
“I had always been a confident child up until this point and, all of a sudden, my confidence just disappeared.”
Ally, who went to Woodlea Primary School in Leyland followed by Balshaw’s High School, says that her body image problems became a lot worse when she began high school.
She says: “I started perceiving myself as overweight and, when I looked in the mirror, I hated my reflection and would just see fat everywhere.
“I became quite fixated on being invisible and thought that if I made myself as small as possible, I wouldn’t be noticed.”
While there was no one incident which triggered off Ally’s eating disorder, she believes there were a number of factors that did not help.
“I did a lot of dancing when I was younger – mostly ballet and tap – and there was a lot of attention on body shape and having the perfect body for a dancer at the dance school I was at.
“As I started to develop, I really wanted to hide myself away. I was embarrassed by my body but I could not cover it up at dancing because of my leotard.
“I feel this made my worries about my body even worse.
“Starting high school was another factor. I felt completely out of my depth and just didn’t have any confidence.
“I became really shy, but instead of seeing this as the big change of going to high school, I internalised it towards myself and my body image.”
Ally began controlling her food intake by cutting out lunches. She would take packed lunches to school, but instead of eating them, she would sit with her friends at lunchtime as normal but no food would pass her lips.
Instead, she would take her sandwiches back home and hide them away in her room to throw away when her parents were out.
Ally explains: “I thought that being thinner would make me happier and more confident.
“As I started to see I was losing weight, I felt better about myself and I realised I could lose more weight if I skipped more meals.”
Ally’s friends did not confront her directly about why she was not eating her lunch, but they alerted teachers who called Ally’s parents to make them aware Ally wasn’t eating her lunch.
Ally says: “The phone calls home continued throughout high school.
“I don’t think my parents and teachers thought it was an eating disorder at this stage. I think they felt I was just going through a phase.
“I think my parents knew there was something wrong but they did not know how to deal with it and were too scared to get help.”
Ally then began skipping breakfast by making it and pretending to take it up to her bedroom to eat.
However, she kept a roll of plastic food bags in her room and emptied cereal into them to dispose of at a later date.
She then started making her evening meals smaller and cutting out foods she thought would make her gain weight, such as potatoes and pasta.
Ally recalls: “I don’t remember feeling hungry. I just felt more in control and I thought I felt happy.
“Looking back, I realise now I wasn’t happy because there were constant arguments and upset at home and my parents were worried about me all the time.”
Ally’s teaching assistant mum and project manager dad would sit and watch Ally to make sure she was eating, but Ally was in complete denial about her eating disorder.
“I kept lying to them and telling them I was eating breakfast and lunch and that there was nothing wrong with me.
“My parents knew I was lying but I think they were scared to seek help as they thought that if I went to a doctor, it would go on my medical records and prevent me getting a job when I was older.”
Despite eating very little, Ally managed to function fine throughout high school and her weight stayed pretty stable as she was still eating her evening meals. After leaving school, she went to Runshaw College to do her A-levels and put a lot of pressure on herself to achieve highly.
Throughout college, Ally began to eat more, but started compensating by binge eating.
She explains: “Other people probably did not think of it as binge eating but, to me, they were binges because I was so used to restricting.
“If I gave into eating any of the foods I thought of as bad, such as ice-cream, I would class that as a binge.”
It was when Ally went to the University of Cumbria in Lancaster to study primary school teaching that the eating disorder completely took over her life.
Ally remembers: “I had moved away from my parents and, with no one to check up on me or tell me to eat and make me meals, I was completely at the mercy of the eating disorder.
“I practically stopped eating altogether.”
Ally realised there was something wrong with her behaviour as she acted differently from everyone else and did not want to go out, drink alcohol or go for meals.
“I did not spend any time with my flatmates. They would get together for meals, but I would stay in my room.
“I knew this was not right, so I went to see a counsellor at the university and told her I was struggling to eat and disliked my body.
“I wanted to eat, but I was scared of food.
“I did crave food – mostly sweet things which I had deprived myself of for so long.
“But when it came to eating them, I just could not do it as I thought as soon as I ate something, I would put on weight.
“I remember once giving into temptation and buying a packet of Chewits and eating them all.
“But after eating them, I calculated how many calories I had consumed and went straight to the gym to burn off that exact amount of calories.”
After six months at university, tutors became worried about Ally, who lost two stones while at university and she was asked to have a break and get herself well.
Ally’s parents took her to a doctor and she was referred to the NHS eating disorder service in Chorley.
Ally says: “I had a few appointments and assessments but I think I was still too ill to accept their help properly.
“I knew there was a problem, but I still felt fat so couldn’t make myself change my behaviour.
“I thought my answer to getting better was to return to a different university and do a different course. So I changed degrees to Food, Nutrition and Health as I thought it might get rid of my fear of food and I went to the University of Huddersfield.”
However, when Ally returned to university, she was even worse than the first time.
She says: “I restricted my food intake even more and also started using laxatives.
“I was surviving on a Cup-a-Soup and an apple a day.
“I then began feeling the physical effects of the eating disorder on my body.
“I was exhausted and my joints were painful. I was getting bruises everywhere just from my body pressing against the mattress.
“I even started finding it difficult to walk to the bus stop which was only a 30-second walk.
“I was struggling to function during lectures and my tutors noticed my weight had really dropped.
“I realised at this point that I didn’t want to live like that and wanted to get better. But I felt so low and couldn’t see a way out.”
Ally called the eating disorder service for help but after finding out she only weighed six stones, they referred her to the Priory in Cheadle, where she was admitted as an in- patient where she remained for nine months.
Ally says: “It was a huge culture shock as it was my first time in hospital and all the control was taken away from me.
“You had to eat six times a day – three meals and three snacks – and you were supervised during and after to make sure you didn’t purge or exercise.
“After nine months, I was OK enough to return home. I was still living a restrictive life, but was eating enough to survive.”
However, after two years, Ally suffered a setback and began restricting her food again and also purging and her weight plummeted again.
But as she had had a glimpse of a normal life, she sought help a lot quicker this time around and was admitted for a further six month in-patient stay.
Ally reached the ultimate low when she tried to take her own life at the age of 21 by overdosing on paracetamol.
Ally recalls: “I did it because I could not see a life without anorexia and I didn’t want that life.
“I was found by staff at the eating disorder unit and I remember waking up in a general hospital realising I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want to live the life I was living.
“That was my turning point. I was then in a better frame of mind and more committed to recovery.
“I saw other people get better and this gave me hope.
“But I also saw people who were a lot worse than me and I know of six people who were in there who have died of anorexia.
“This shocked and scared me and I didn’t want that to happen to me.
“You think you are infallible and even though you are warned what you are doing to your body and organs through anorexia, because you can’t see it, you don’t believe it.
“I found my determination again and realised I wanted to live.”
Ally began looking into becoming a nurse and after spending another year continuing with her recovery, she began training to become a mental health nurse at the University of Central Lancashire and is now in her final year.
Ally is now a healthy size 10 weighing eight-and-a-half stones and has a healthy BMI and considers herself fully recovered.
She explains: “I don’t have anxiety around food any more or feel guilty after eating and I go out for meals with friends and family and enjoy it.
“I just listen to my body and eat when I am hungry and am no longer dictated to by the eating disorder.
“My ambition is now to finish my degree and qualify and work in an eating disorders unit so I can help other people.
“Eating disorders do kill people and have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness.
“But I want to give people the message that you can recover, no matter how dark a place you feel you are in, if you ask for help from trained specialists.
“The body recovers quicker than the mind and you can get to a healthy weight and still struggle with anorexic thoughts.
“I no longer have these thoughts and my confidence has improved and I love life again.
“I felt guilty for a long time for what I put my parents through but they are a lot happier now that I have recovered and we are a lot closer as a family.”