New mum Jeni, 32, takes the time to tell us her recovery story and just why family matters.
I find this time of year a real struggle, not only have we just come through a festive period in which rich food and over indulgence seems integral, but we are now confronted with the onslaught of “New Year Diets”. There are diet foods being pushed from every angle, magazine articles telling us why we must lose weight and tone up for the new year and seemingly endless TV adverts for Weight Watchers, Fat Fighters, The Biggest Loser, Slimming world et al.
Calories, fat, weight loss, exercise and self-criticism seems to be everywhere. The reason I find this time of year so difficult is because of my relationship with the disorder anorexia nervosa. I suffered (I use past tense because I refuse to believe I will succumb to the illness again) anorexia for many years during a crucial time in my life, from teenage to adulthood.
I was asked to write about my experience because I am one of the lucky ones who managed to beat and survive the disorder and now I try and raise awareness as to just how serious and damaging eating disorders are.
I guess my dysfunctional relationship with food and my body image began in my early teens. I was never a fit young person and certainly had a lot of “puppy fat”. When I hit 15/16 and my singing and performing became a focal point I found it tough to dedicate time to school work and exams as well as being on stage, this is where my control issues came to a head and my anorexia really began to show.
My memory and concentration levels dropped and I found it difficult to stay awake during lessons. I was trying to do it all, by singing with the National Youth Music Choir (which was touring) and being a teenager studying for A levels whilst maintaining my illness. I was hoping to study musical theatre at the Welsh College of Music, but my body and mental health was so ravaged by the disorder that this was never to be. I suffered most severely with anorexia from between the ages of 16-20 - what I now consider one of the most important stages of a woman's life and a time which influences the rest of your life path.
My A-level results were so bad I didn't have a choice of which music college to attend, I had to stay at home with my parents (I'm afraid to say part of me was desperate to get away in order to continue hiding my disorder). The next few months and years are very blurry.
The reason for my breakthrough (I think most recovered anorexics are able to identify a breakthrough moment whereby they choose to re-embrace life and start fighting) was my mother (not solely, but mostly). She was distraught, asking me how much I thought I weighed. "Seven stone" I uttered with true conviction, I honestly believed it. For reasons unbeknownst to me I actually got on the scales that day and when they read nowhere near that I was shocked.
I couldn't believe it, I knew that a 19 year old should not weigh that little. At that point I could actually see the hurt I was causing my parents and agreed reluctantly to go and see someone.
At that time eating disorders weren’t understood so well and didn't have the support networks available today. I had small amounts of therapy, but I’m unsure the counsellor at the time knew quite how to establish the many factors which made up the triggers for my eating disorder.
My family was amazing in their support and tolerance whilst I slowly began to recover.
I don’t advise any sufferers to “go it alone” as we did, but the avenues, at that time, didn’t appear to be there for support and for me this personal management seemed to work, along with a weekly weight management food counsellor, I guess I was in control of my recovery.
My mother was and still is an amazing help to me, she listened to me, talked through every aspect of my feelings and put up with my incredibly slow but successful recovery.
During my recovery I managed to get a part time job, which then became a full time job in retail. Over the years I've managed to work my way to a job in risk management in the city.
I also now have a very healthy attitude to sports and am a keen runner. I've undertaken a triathlon and the London marathon to raise money for Beat and raise awareness for eating disorders.
I was told by Doctors I'd done too much damage to my body over my teenage years and I would probably never have children. My husband and I are very pleased to say I've just given birth to our first baby, Evelyn. She is now 3 months old and has truly opened my eyes. She is our miracle baby and we must show her how to grow up and to have a healthy attitude to everything in life.
The days when every waking moment was consumed by mental arithmetic to work out how many calories are in different foods and what I would allow myself to eat are gone, there is no way I can ever allow myself to be that person again. My family comes first.