I never really know how to best go about introducing myself, or what I do, to other people because I am fortunate enough to have a pretty varied work life. Essentially, I am a Counselling Psychotherapist (or just 'a therapist') - this makes up the majority of my working life. But, I also spend a reasonable amount of time teaching, researching, and writing. My main area of interest is Eating Disorders, and people often introduce me as 'an Eating Disorder expert'….but that makes me cringe a little bit, because, can you ever really be an expert in another person's experience? I don’t think so.
Eating Disorders are a complex problem - and although this week (Eating Disorder Awareness Week) provides us with the perfect opportunity to raise awareness of these illnesses - I actually see that as my full time job. Eating Disorders are hugely misunderstood… by the general public, my professionals, and sometimes even by those who are living with them.
At the heart they are a collection of mental health illnesses which are characterised by distress which is attached to food, weight, body shape or size (perhaps all of the above). However, contrary to common belief Eating Disorders are not usually about vanity; instead they are a coping mechanism. Just like drinking too much or self-harm.
One of the most important facts about Eating Disorders is that they come in all shapes and sizes. Often when you bring up this topic people envisage emaciated individuals who are literally starving to death. However, that type of case represents less than 10% of clients.
If you were to spend a day as a fly on the wall of my clinic (which is based just outside of Chester, in Cheshire) you would see all types of people walk through the door. From teenagers, to those who are retired. Men and women. Yes, some are underweight - but mostly my clients "look normal". You can't look at someone and tell if they have an Eating Disorder.
Therapy and recovery from an Eating Disorder can be a long and difficult journey. Sometimes people perceive that the individual should "just get over it", but it is NEVER that easy. Actually, I think Eating Disorders are one of the hardest illnesses to face, because the person has to come face to face with the thing they struggle most with (food, and their body) every single day, for the rest of their lives. Plus, there are often other issues present such as past trauma, depression, anxiety, obsessive behaviours, and self-harm.
Yes, some people are lucky and are helped significantly by a dozen or so therapy sessions, but often I spend months, and sometimes years, supporting someone on their healing journey. Recovery is not linear; there are many ups and downs. Good days, and bad days. There is no way to be sure how long the journey will take, but it's an honour to be part of the process.
One thing we do know is that the sooner someone gets help, the sooner they will recover. And also, the more chance they have of recovering. However, there is a lot of stigma surrounding Eating Disorders which means people are often ashamed of coming forward and asking for help - especially if they don’t look unwell. This is why it is vital that we raise awareness. The more people that understand Eating Disorders are mental illnesses that need prompt and thoughtful support, the sooner people will stop struggling in silence.
If you want to learn more about Eating Disorders feel free to head over to my blog www.mentalhealthbites.com , and don’t forget to share your learning with someone else.