A few weeks ago, I was informed that I was going to receive a phone call from the Duke of Cambridge.
This will definitely be etched in my mind as one of the most amazing and profound moments I’ve ever had.
I sat watching and waiting for the phone to ring at 10.15am on Thursday 4th February.
My general approach to any important meeting now is to just ‘be myself’. At times in my life, I’ve been crippled with anxiety and fear about talking with anyone. I have learned that questioning and over analysing myself has not often led to a positive outcome for them or me. Today was no different. Even though I was speaking to someone incredibly important, I had confidence that I could speak openly and honestly.
I felt like our conversation flowed with ease. He wanted to hear all about how support staff working alongside people with eating disorders have been impacted by the pandemic. He wanted to understand how the pandemic had changes roles and approaches to supporting young people and wanted to hear about the challenges we’d experienced.
We looked at some of the positive things that have emerged through the pandemic such as moving appointments, therapy and training online. I explained how this had broken down barriers in families having to travel miles for appointments for specialist treatment.
I talked about how I had three children at home and how having them at home had often caused my mind to be elsewhere and I’d found it harder to concentrate.
What struck me during this conversation was the Duke’s empathy, compassion and concern for me as a recovered person working in mental health. He asked me several times if I was ok, whether I had stayed well, how I de-stress and who is within my support network. I felt like I was talking to someone who really valued the work I do and also valued me as a person.
The Duke of Cambridge ended the call by thanking me for my efforts over the past year. It was so humbling to receive his thanks. Whilst I was honoured to receive this message personally, I do feel I want to share his thanks with all the teams I interact with across my different areas of work. The amazing and often unnoticed sacrifices that people have made to support those who suffer with eating disorders has been astounding. We have all felt like we’ve had hard times over this past year, no one has been immune to that. I have huge respect of all of those who have continued to support others when they themselves have felt anxious, scared or fearful about the future.
Is fear truth? I have many conversations about this with people. How much can we rely on our thoughts and feelings about ourselves, situations and people? I’m normally fairly blunt with people I work with and say that….Well….You probably didn’t end up with a mental health issue if you were thinking everything right. There has to be a change in our thinking to move forwards. This doesn’t always mean that situations change around us or relationships change. However, we do hold the keys to changing our own thoughts about ourselves. This can help us get better but it also shows us that sometimes our thoughts lead us to a fearful place. It can feel like truth and feel real. I wonder whether recovery can really happen until we’re willing to admit that we’ve got something wrong in our perception of ourselves or others? It’s a challenging place to get to.
This week has involved such a variety of work situations. However, during one of my 1-1 sessions with a lovely lady this week, she pulled out this message that she had received in a fortune cookie at a restaurant. We both had such a giggle because it was so funny that she happened to receive it, however, the message is so true.
Throughout the different work and life situations that I have encountered this week, all the people needed hope. We can’t live without it. When we are in the middle of difficult life circumstances whether that is an eating disorder or something else we all need to know that life is going to be better than it is at the moment. If we don’t believe that then it makes things very difficult to change.
A few close friends that are very special to me both shared this video on Facebook this week. I wanted to share it with you because it brought tears to my eyes.
There are times in our lives when we need help to get free, we can’t see how to do that or where to start. If we let others help us they often can help start the process. The end of the video is just beautiful and it shows such freedom. If you do anything today, let others help you, let them give you the hope you might need in this very moment.
I have had many conversations over the last few weeks about the care available for people suffering with eating disorders. There has been a lot of information about it in the media, including news articles about the waiting lists for care and the lack of support available. This was the news article publicised in the guardian this week http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/jun/14/eating-disorders-long-waits-nhs-treatment-lives-risk (please only read it if you are prepared to see a picture of an underweight person sitting on a bed).
I have the privilege of travelling around the UK visiting Adult Inpatient Eating Disorder Units assessing them for the Royal College of Psychiatry to ensure they meet a set of national standards. What I see time and time again is a frustrating system. People get admitted to hospital and are released back in to their communities. They get 24-hour help whilst they are inpatients and then they may attend a day programme (if they are lucky). However, when they are discharged, they can sometimes rely on only one appointment per week with a therapist.
Someone said to me recently that a normal person makes around 250 eating decisions per day. I’m sure that for people with eating disorders, each of those decisions takes a lot longer and there will be a lot more of them (in fact, those decisions can steal away your whole day). When someone is an inpatient, those decisions are mostly taken away from them and they are encouraged to each enough to restore weight. The difficult stage in the recovery journey is when the person is a healthier weight and has more emotions than they used to. For some people with eating disorders a low weight can control some of the anxiety they experience at a normal weight. When their weight starts to restore, they begin to feel these emotions again and they can feel very scary indeed. This is often the point when less support is available.
I attended a multi family therapy session this week where I was supporting families who were receiving support from the NHS. I had a long chat with the other healthcare professionals about recovery and how it is maintained. The truth is that weight restoration is a battle (and I would not want to belittle anyone going through it at this current time). However, the second part of recovery is understanding your fears and anxieties and learning how to manage them. Quite often when you have weight restored, you not only have extreme fears about being a ‘normal weight’ but you also have a whole set of feelings about life that you didn’t always experience when you were underweight.
So, quite often at a normal weight, you still have the same fears about your eating choices and you also have extreme fears about life. Is it any wonder that people ‘dip their toe’ into the choppy waters of recovery and then run back to the sand where it is safe? Not only do they get more support when they are on the sand, but they get more support at this stage because they are physically unwell. The sea is unpredictable and the waves toss you about. It feels like there is no one there to save you.
I offer a different explanation for the lack of provision for inpatient beds within the UK. There needs to be more support for those who have weight restored but haven’t learned to process the other fears they are experiencing once they experience the defrosting experience of their recovery. It is overwhelming. You need to know it is ok. You need to feel ok with experiencing pain. You have to learn not to trust a lot of what your brain tells you. I think so often that people can’t recover because they don’t receive the support at the most vital stage. They aren’t told that experiencing more emotional pain is normal (although why would anyone want to believe that?!). For some, therefore, they retreat back to the sand where it is safe, even though it can be physically destructive. It is their place of safety.
Yesterday evening I had the privilege of attending a premiere for two short films about eating disorders. It was special in that my mum (Madeleine) and I were in one of the short films. For years my mum has supported me not only in my recovery of various eating disorders but she has always remained in the background and supported me as I set up a charity and now moved on to other work.
I always knew that she had a totally different story to tell of my recovery, she remembers the different phases I went through. The bulimic phases, the anorexic phases, the low phases.
What particularly stood out in my mind recently was when she said that when I was in an ‘anorexic phase’ that I was unreachable. She said that it appeared like I zoned in on what I was doing but that I felt far away and not even there. I know that I don’t even remember those times really, they went past in a blur and I think part of me did go somewhere when I was very low in weight. The only healer for me to be reachable was to eat and give my brain and body the medicine it needed to be able to function properly.
For years and years my mother has watched me give inspirational talks and listened to me as I talked about the battles I faced. She has not had an opportunity to talk about the battle she faced every day watching me make choices that hurt her and me.
I think what is less heard about is the carers view of eating disorders. The pain that they feel watching their loved ones battle each day. It’s not just the person who has the eating disorder who makes those countless eating choices every day but it’s the caring person who’s trying to support them and help walk them through it. To be able to get the balance right between supporting and not controlling has to be one of the most difficult skills to be learned in supporting people in to recovery.
My mum is very humble about the support and impact she had on my recovery. She has not had a voice to speak about it until now. When I saw that the opportunity arose for families to be interviewed for a film, I knew it was time for mum to have her platform. It was her time to speak and to feel the warmth and strength I often feel from people who admire our great struggle through. So, on the first day launching my website (during national carer’s week), this first post is dedicated to her and for any others who are supporting those with eating disorders. I admire your strength and your courage to continue to support people who are journeying through such a tortuous illness.