Approximately 1.25 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder.
Of that number, around 10 per cent have anorexia, which is defined as a serious mental illness where ‘people are of low weight due to limiting their energy intake’, according to BEAT.
21-year-old Emily Hewitt from Bedfordshire recently posted an open and honest account of her six-year and ongoing battle with anorexia that saw her spend only 55 minutes with her family on Christmas day after she had to be tube fed the festive meal.
She said the eating disorder, which started when she was about 15, was triggered by “an accumulation of past trauma, body confidence issues and using the control of food when everything else felt out of control”, as she was the only one who could dictate what did or didn’t go in her mouth.
Emily explained the ‘darkest time’ of her life:
I was admitted to a specialist eating disorders unit. That five and half month admission was the darkest time of my life. I was fed through a tube because I just wouldn’t eat.
I had all my possessions taken away to protect me from myself. I believe I had a complete mental breakdown. I was sectioned, I had to defer my place at uni, I saw my family for 55 minutes on Christmas day after having my ‘Christmas dinner’ fed down the tube.
It was horrific. The trouble is, eating disorders warp your sense of ‘normal’. Food was bad. They were making me fat. To everyone else, they were saving my life.
Before that, Emily battled the illness, weight loss and her spiralling mental health and panic attacks, managing to make her way through her GCSEs, college and she got into her dream university.
It was a huge move for her to make to go to university in London and she was ‘left to fend for herself’ by her local mental health team, and rarely went home.
Her eating was very restricted and she ‘couldn’t bare to eat in front of others’. She just about completed her first year after her halls resident manager ‘practically held [her] together’.
Emily had a nasogastric tube to feed her and she sent this photo to a friend saying ‘I’m so big already, why are they force feeding me more’.
A real wake-up call for Emily was when her friends spoke up about their concerns for her. When they told her they were ‘scared to look at her’, it really it home.
My friends told me that they were scared looking at me. That they were terrified they might lose me. Being told that I could actually die, didn’t sink in at first.
Then it hit me like a brick. It wasn’t myself that I cried for. It was every single person I love, that loves me. Every person that’s held me together until this point. It would break them if I wasn’t here too.
This photo was in Emily’s original post, but she told me that it is edited because she was actually losing more hair than she realised. The unedited photo is lower down.
Talking about how she felt when her friends told her that, Emily said:
Anorexia’s body dysmorphia messes up your perception of yourself, and also because of the stigma, people tend to not say anything. So the fact I was told, that really struck a nerve.
I felt it wasn’t fair to be making my friends so uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be the ‘sick friend’. I wanted to be seen as me and treated as Em. I was always thinking ‘if you’re treated like you’re going to break, you will’.
As a friend of someone with an eating disorder, it’s hard to know what to say, how to say it and when to say it. Emily said ‘more often than not people feel uncomfortable and they so scared of saying the wrong thing they say nothing at all’.
It is however part of the illness to convince yourself you are fine and that what you’re doing is okay, so she said people keeping quiet might translate as ‘well no one’s said anything so I must be fine’ in the mind of someone with an eating disorder.
Here is the unedited version of the photo.
She explained how her mind works when anyone comments on how she looks:
It’s difficult though because equally we tend to change everything into ‘they think I’m fat’. In my opinion and from people I’ve met and spoken to, hearing ‘you look so well’ is ‘you look like you’ve gained weight’.
I always tried to hide what was going on. To my family especially. I thought by doing this I was somehow protecting them from the monster I deemed myself to be, but I realise now that the worry I put them through was quite the opposite.
Emily said it’s important for loved ones to say something, but it is crucial to “listen to the sufferer and not attack them”, saying the “illness manipulates you” and has caused her to lash out and shout at people who don’t understand despite coming from a place of love.
She told us:
Telling me ‘just eat’ isn’t going to fly with someone who’s entire world revolves around the opposite.
In terms of the UK’s mental health service, Emily said that despite some ‘brilliant’ members of staff, it has a ‘long way to go’ and she was often left in the lurch and discharged from hospitals too early because of lack of beds.
One day, Emily went from convincing herself and everyone else that she was fine, to scaring herself and suddenly wanting to put on weight for the first time.
I was in my flat and I’d gone in to get my phone, I looked in the mirror and I didn’t even recognise myself.
I turned my head and a clump of hair fell from my head. I’d surpassed the weight goal I’d set myself and for the first time I actually scared myself.
I went to see my younger sister’s show. She’s a dancer currently at a performing arts college and my absolute idol. I watched her beam. I then saw several friends’ degree shows and I felt my heart crumble.
I’d jeopardised all the things I’d previously wanted. What I knew I had the potential to do. I looked at my friends all laughing together, going out for dinner and I’d make up some excuse because that’s an absolute no go.
She realised she ‘would never and had never thought more or less of them because of their appearance, so why would they do that?’. She said:
The only person standing in my way was me.
Currently, Emily is deemed ‘quite physically unwell’ and the prospect of another hospital stay is ‘definitely on the cards’, but she has now truly committed to recovery.
She ‘set herself free’ when she wrote a Facebook post sharing her journey with anorexia. Explaining why she wrote it, Emily said:
I’d hidden from everyone, keeping everything secret. I guess from fear of judgement, being abandoned, but if I was lying to everyone I couldn’t truly commit to recovery.
I also felt it was so important that people understand how deadly eating disorders can be. I’ve been told many times the strain I’m putting on my body and I always thought, ‘Yeah but it wont happen to me’. But it does.
I want people to understand, to know what to look for to catch it early so there’s a greater chance of recovery. To look out for others and also themselves.
Emily is still battling anorexia but is ready to beat it, saying:
The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate of all causes of death for females 15-24 years old. Without treatment, up to 20% of people with serious eating disorders die.
I will not be part of that 20%. I will get better. To live my life. To help others. For my friends and family and most importantly, for myself.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, and want to speak to someone in confidence, please don’t suffer alone. Call BEAT Eating Disorders for free on their helpline 0808 801 0677 or sign up to their web-chat service.