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Eating disorders: Laying bare the illnesses that 'thrive in secrecy'

A woman has revealed the reality of living with an eating disorder in Scotland.

Myth: Eating disorders seen as the 'cooler' illness. (file pic)
Myth: Eating disorders seen as the 'cooler' illness. (file pic)

by Mary McCool

Ellen Maloney's eating disorder was not caused or impacted by her feelings on weight, height or general body image.

At age 12, through no specific trigger, she experiences feelings of becoming overwhelmed while living in Edinburgh, and in an attempt to "freeze time", she simply stopped eating.

She spent years in and out of various hospital wards, shuttled to "highly inappropriate" units across the UK as NHS professionals attempted to combat her mystery illness. This included three months in an adult psychiatric ward in Newcastle at age 14, while funding was sought to place her in an appropriate facility.

In 2015, 725,000 people were living with an eating disorder in the UK - anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating. Anorexia is the rarest, affecting 10%, and up to 25% of those affected overall were male.

But for Ellen, harmful misconceptions exist in the media and the public eye, perpetuating the idea that eating disorders are a visible illness, rather than one that "thrives in secrecy".

Here are a few of the myths.

'Eating disorders are seen as one of the cooler illnesses to have'

As she sought medical help, Ellen's illness was labelled as a number of afflictions including depression and psychosis (after a period of self harming), before she was finally given help in an eating disorder unit at age 16.

Now age 33 and back living in Edinburgh near family, Ellen has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) and calls her condition a "work in progress".

In order to keep her eating habits regular and manageable at home she maps out every element of her day, from eating, drinking and going to the toilet to opening her windows and checking emails.

"People don't seem to get the reality of what an eating disorder is like," said Ellen.

"People don't understand what it's like to eat the entire contents of your fridge, including frozen chicken and vomiting it up.

"It's not all 14-year-olds going to hospital and ending up with an inspirational story on Buzzfeed."

'It's very much seen as a choice'

NHS patients must be under a certain weight before receiving treatment - a "problem" within the sector and for patients according to Ellen.

But what about when it's not visible?

Ellen said: "I can't just eat normally, that doesn't even make sense to me. It's a language I don't speak.

"It's a mental illness, it's not a physical one. You can't tell by looking at someone if they've got an eating disorder."

'Unless you're seriously underweight you don't have a problem.'

Guided by charities such as Beat, Eating Disorder Awareness Week (February 22 - 28) is an international awareness event, fighting the myths and misunderstandings that surround eating disorders - but is it a friend or foe to those affected?

Ellen said: "This is the week that's talked about among people with eating disorders, to prepare yourself for newspapers with the before and after photos, that show people at their lowest weight.

"Don't do that. It just keeps the stereotype going.

"People with eating disorders aren't all underweight. Most people are a normal weight. People die at all kinds of weights."

https://www.b-eat.co.uk/support-services/in-your-area | default

'This will always be with you'

While lacking in funding, the NHS is now better equipped to help people long term - Ellen herself works with a small team who provide services such as therapy and meal support.

She said: " I want to make it clear that recovery is 100% possible. The statistics for a full recovery show a gloomy prospect because this is a difficult illness to treat, that thrives in secrecy, and services are chronically underfunded.

"Waiting lists for therapy can be months, if not years. Then for the 'lucky' people who are diverted to a good service (which is very much dependent on where you live), the process of therapy involves unravelling everything you think and believe about yourself; it's long, it's painful, and it's far from easy or linear.

"But with the right support, and hard work, a full recovery is absolutely possible for every sufferer."

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