This week is Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder.
A Lancashire woman shares her tale of how anorexia almost killed her. AASMA DAY finds out more.
“I remember lying in bed and thinking I’m not going to wake up tomorrow, I am going to die.”
These are Anna Kulbaki’s honest and heartbreaking words as she describes her battle with anorexia and how poorly she was.
As a teenager, Anna fought a hard battle with anorexia avoiding food at all costs and constantly trying to control the number on the scales in front of her.
In the end the illness nearly killed her. Her muscles were wasting away and her bones weren’t developing.
Anna, 22, who lives in Fulwood, Preston, has now recovered, is maintaining a healthy weight and has a better relationship with food.
The former Archbishop Temple school pupil is sharing her story as part of Eating Disorders Awareness week to help shine a light on the devastating impacts of the illness and how it is possible to recover using expert support from organisations such as Breathe Therapies in Preston.
As a young adult, Anna stared death in the face, her muscles had wasted away and at her worst she had a BMI of 13 – weighing just over five-and-a-half stones.
Anna, a former Runshaw College student recalls: “I was 17 and in my first year at college when I first started to get unwell.
“I had always been a high achiever and I had a lot of things going on in my life which I couldn’t control, including family illness and the pressures of growing up and studying for my A-Levels.
“I started weighing myself and I felt like the number on the scales was the one thing I had control over.
“I wasn’t eating. I thought if I didn’t eat X and Y, it would come to Z on the scales.
“I’d be sent off to college with a packed lunch but I didn’t eat it. My parents thought I wanted to eat healthily, but I wasn’t eating at all.
“The number on the scales was never low enough. I wanted it to be lower and lower all the time.
“I had suffered some unrelated kidney problems so for a while I tried it pass off as that, telling my parents I wasn’t eating because I was unwell with that. I didn’t need any help.”
For Anna, the realisation of just how much her appearance had changed came following a teary encounter with her grandad.
She explains: “I went with my mum to visit my grandad. And when he gave me a hug goodbye he was crying. When I asked my mum why she said it was because he was worried about me, they all were.
“People could tell in my appearance, but I didn’t know they could.
“I still didn’t think I was skinny enough. I enjoyed it when my clothes didn’t fit and I wanted to keep seeing the number on the scales going down.”
It was at that point that Anna sought help and went to see her GP. Five years on she still sees the same GP.
Anna went on to receive treatment at a specialist clinic and between the ages of 17 and 19 spent between three and four days a week there as a day patient. At home her parents worked to a routine that Anna would have received as an inpatient.
She says: “I had no muscle. At 18 I was wearing aged seven jeans. I looked like a completely different person to how I look now.
“If I walked past a bus stop the kids would make comments like ‘Have you seen that girl?’
“At that time, I felt like I was never going to get my life back. I used to think this is my life forever. For me, the hardest thing was to eat.
“My parents were really supportive; my mum was always there for me and helped me.
“But the element of control didn’t go away, it just shifted.
“I would only eat exactly what was on my meal plan and I would make sure my mum followed the ingredients, so if it said to use one tablespoon of oil, I would make sure that’s all she would use.
“I said I was willing to put on weight but it had to be on my terms.
“During this time, I had one-to-one therapy for depression, I took part in group self-esteem days, family therapy and I was on medication for depression.
“I still suffer from anxiety and have my low days- but it’s nowhere near as bad as it was.
“Over time my relationship with food has got better and I now weigh nine stones five pounds.
“I’m eating normally on a day to day basis and I haven’t had a relapse.”
Anna, who is now studying interior design and architecture at the Manchester School of Arts, says she hopes by raising awareness of eating disorders people will know how to deal with the subject.
She says: “I had lots of people come up to me at college and at church saying ‘Look what you’ve done to yourself.’ I think people thought I’d stopped eating because I wanted to be thin. It wasn’t, it was the control.
“Of course, it wasn’t just how I looked. My quality of life deteriorated too. Birthdays were a nightmare, Christmas, any social stuff involving meals.
“Now if I’m invited to go for a birthday meal I’ll go, but then I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to be around food.
“It’s such a deceitful illness, I was lying to everybody.
“Suffering anorexia through puberty meant I struggled to develop. Between being 17 and 20 I didn’t have a period.”
Anna says the support from the people at her church also made a huge difference to her recovery. Even at her lowest points she didn’t feel alone because of the wider network around her.
While being treated, Anna also attended art therapy sessions run by Breathe Therapies and met founder Shelley Perry at church, where she borrowed Self Help Books through Breathe’s sister charity organisation SEED.
When Anna was discharged from hospital, having missed any celebrations for her 17th and 18th birthdays, her family threw a party and raised money for SEED.
Now recovered and enjoying student life, Anna says she feels ‘blessed’ to have had such a strong support network around her.
She says: “Everyone is just relieved that I am alive. For a long time, I had a battle going on in my head where I was telling myself ‘this isn’t normal life.’
“At first I was trying to get better for other people, I’m an only child and didn’t want to leave my parents with no daughter.
“But, at the end of the day, I thought I have got to do this for myself.
“You have got to want to get better. I beat myself up for a long time saying ‘just eat’ and it was hard work to get to that point.
“I think early intervention is key. The less the illness is engraved in a person’s way of life the easier it is to treat.
“If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental health and eating please seek help.
“Go and see your GP or access other charities and support.
“There is a lot of help out there and however alone you feel there is always someone out there who is willing to listen and wants to help.
“Your illness does not define who you are and I believe even when you feel unbelievably hopeless and like you want to give up on life - with the right support you can fully recover from an eating disorder.”
Anna says there isn’t a quick fix to getting better and for her it was a long two years of treatment to help her get to where she is today.
She also says more needs to be done to help people understand that an eating disorder is a mental illness, not a choice.
Through her studies, Anna is submitting a project based on developing a space which caters for people suffering an eating disorder who might not be able to get treatment straight away.
She is using her own experiences to develop her plans.
As well as forming part of her studies, the idea will be entered into a national competition based on challenging misconceptions of illnesses.
Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder which can affect someone physically, psychologically and socially.
They involve serious disturbances in eating behaviour, such as extreme and unhealthy reduction of food intake or severe overeating as well as feelings of distress or extreme concern about body shape or weight.
An eating disorder is not based on food, there can be several contributing factors which can lead to one emerging, but no defined cause has been established.
Contributing factors could include: genetics, psychological factors including other mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety or feeling a lack of control
What is anorexia?
Anorexia (or anorexia nervosa) is a serious mental illness where people keep their body weight low by dieting, restricting their food intake, vomiting, using laxatives or excessively exercising.
People battling anorexia can often have low self esteem and see the weight loss as a positive achievement. It can also contribute to a feeling of gaining control over body weight and shape.
What is bulimia?
Bulimia is a serious psychiatric illness characterised by recurrent binge-eating episodes (the consumption of abnormally large amounts of food in a relatively short period of time).
Binge episodes are associated with a sense of loss of control and immediately followed by feelings of guilt and shame, which then leads the person to compensatory behaviours such as self-induced vomiting, fasting, over-exercising and/or the misuse of laxatives, enemas or diuretics.
What about other disorders?
Some people don’t fall into these specific categories and are diagnosed with an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS).
This means they have some, but not all of the typical signs of eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia. This may take time to understand and clarify tailored, relevant treatment.
What are the signs?
Every eating disorder is different for each person, but signs and symptoms can include: repetitive dieting, avoiding eating, excessive exercising, development of obsessive body checking behaviours, social withdrawal, extreme body dissatisfaction and intense fear of gaining weight.
What help is at hand?
There are a number of specialist agencies and organisations which provide support in different ways.
At Breathe Therapies, based in Poulton and Preston, the approach is centred on the individual and tailored to their needs, treating the cause and not just the symptoms.
This enables the individual to understand themselves and why they are in this position, with appropriate treatment for depression, anxiety, stress and anger management issues.
Breathe Therapies offers a multi-disciplinary team consisting of mental health nurses, clinical psychologists, dieticians, nutritionists, art therapists, and hypnotherapists to help suit individual needs.
Breathe also offers support for parents, partners and family members too as this greatly increases the probability of recovery.
By focusing on all of these aspects, Breathe aims to ensure long term recovery and relapse prevention, by equipping individuals with the tools and resources they need to actively recover and live a fulfilling life free of suffering.
SEED (Support and Education for Eating Disorders) is a registered charity based in Preston and provides a network of resources, education, training and support for sufferers, their families, friends and carers around eating, food and weight-related issues.
• For more information about managing weight management advice e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or call: 0800 0883151