What you believe about your own appearance.
#MentalHealthAwarenessWeek 2019: The first of 5 anonymous blogs this week exploring different experiences of how mental health impacts the way we view ourselves.
Warning: contains content that some people might find upsetting
I first started controlling my weight on and off from the age of 14 as a response to struggling with issues at home which I felt overwhelmed by and too young to understand. I was naturally skinny as a child and at this point it wasn’t about wanting to ‘look thin’ more that I felt a level of increased comfort and confidence from exerting control over something.
I would hide the food I was meant to have eaten, rather than dispose of it in a bin, as if deep down I wanted someone to take this as a cue to fix things because I didn’t know how to start a dialogue. I couldn’t honestly put into words what needed fixing it was just a vague feeling of being different, not good enough, and not fitting in.
When I left home as a teenager, I felt like the proverbial square peg, I didn’t know how to find comfort in convention, often feeling as if I was viewing the world through Vaseline smeared glass, an onlooker who didn’t understand the blueprint. I made friends easily but then would struggle to feel connected and involved. I started to warm to anyone who self-identified as a misfit, particularly if this was displayed with sartorial flair interpreted by my teenage self as the confidence to thumb one’s nose at society. Society: this strange concept, like an organisation which required some kind of entry code, one I had clearly not been furnished with.
This intensified greatly after I was raped at the age of 19. My response was immediate, I dealt with what had happened to me by walking 12 miles a night on an empty stomach and making myself sick when I got home. Contrary to the reality that this act would make a person feel tired and unwell the more I walked ‘mentally away from the incident’ the better I felt. It was at this juncture that I started to equate my strict control over food with feeling more powerful.
I became an expert in calorie counting, no longer viewing food through a lens of taste, appeal or nutrition, meals became merely a mathematical equation and the rule was that calorie intake must never go over 1000 a day and extreme over-exercising must be maintained. I didn’t want to look ‘womanly’ or attractive to the opposite sex. I didn’t want to be noticed. I just wanted to keep walking, limit eating and continue feeling invincible.
By the age of 22 I was diagnosed with ME and no longer physically able to over exercise, but the non-eating approach had become my hardwired reaction to stress.
I didn’t ask for help or access services, though my sister spent years trying to nudge me in that direction. By this time I had a child and extremely violent ex-partner and I felt very firmly that this was not the time to give up the only weapon in my arsenal; all my resilience and self-esteem by this point was so strongly wrapped up in my cast iron control over food that I honestly felt back then that speaking to a therapist would mean having to give up my only strength and return to feeling weak and scared.
In truth, I was only masking emotions and living on auto-pilot. I didn’t see myself as others did. I didn’t notice the negative effects. I equated thinness with coping and I would feel genuine anger towards those who would push me to eat more. I didn’t tell people what was going on.
My self worth was now unequivocally wrapped up in how skinny I was. My moods would fluctuate if I gained weight. I felt strangely proud of my ability to be thinner than my friends, confident that this meant I would always be able to outrun danger with my finely honed body always prepared for flight. Plus now I had started to notice that being a dress size 8 was often met with positive reinforcement or envy from dieting colleagues. I now had something which society deemed acceptable, finally I could tick one box. In truth I wasn’t finely honed at all, I lost muscle and became weaker. I spent more time curled up with books than socialising.
As the years passed, I met each stressful event with the same response and eventually it took its toll. I was in my 40s when I finally found myself suicidal and asking for help from psychological services. I remember my first session of CBT, sitting with legs and arms folded, a hat pulled low over my eyes, I announced “I doubt you’ll be able to help, life’s shit and people are largely really awful”
Eighteen months later my therapist helped me to change my viewpoint, I gained 10kg and for the first time in my life, since the age of 14, I had a BMI which nudged into the healthy range. I have maintained this weight, though I do not pretend I walked off into the sunset, smiling.
My mental health is an ongoing process, often a series of setbacks and remissions. What CBT taught me is to recognise sooner when I am slipping and to use some of the coping techniques I was taught rather than rely on my old unhealthy ones. I still struggle with issues surrounding identity and how I view myself within society and I am currently on the waiting list for psychotherapy, but I am still here, and more days than not I feel pleased about this.
What I would say to others...
What I can say at this juncture with a little more confidence is this:
- What you believe about your own appearance, all the assumptions you make (which feel like certainties) won’t ever be how other people view you.
- How you feel about your body, including your height, shape, and weight may have a much deeper root than where we assume identity and image stem from and talking therapies can help us to explore this.
- Feeling different, utilising unhealthy coping mechanisms, punishing your own body - these can all be legitimate responses to trauma or anxiety. It doesn’t make you a failure, sometimes we need help to start to be able to better understand our responses to the world and to examine a different viewpoint.