An Eating Disorder is about more than weight

To mark Eating Disorder Awareness week  I have written a post about eating disorders and how they can happen to anyone of any size. I hope that this will break down some of the stigma associated with having an eating disorder.

I was 17 the first time I made myself sick. It was Christmas time and I was on a diet. I was planning on going Debs dress shopping in the January sales and I was dreading it. I’ve never been a skinny girl and the idea of going shopping filled me with dread. I was convinced that the only way to ensure I got a dress to fit was to starve myself in the few months beforehand. It was going ‘well’ and I had dropped a lot of weight through a combination of eating more healthily and exercise.

However, I found the temptation of food at Christmas to be difficult. I ate some roses. Even when I was eating them I knew that I shouldn’t be. I had made a list of foods that were ok to eat and stuff that I couldn’t have and chocolate was definitely on the ‘don’t eat’ list. I felt so guilty. I immediately ran to the bathroom, locked the door and forced my fingers down my throat. I had to be rid of the evil calories that were in my body. Very naively I felt like I had found the secret to lose weight fast. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Little was I to know that making myself sick was to become a huge part of my life and would become an addiction that I would go on to struggle with for twenty years of my life. Twenty years I can never get back, and twenty years of absolute torture.

Often when we hear or think about eating disorders we see the more extreme cases of anorexia were people are literally dying at a skeletal weight. But the fact is that people all around you are coping with eating disorders and are a much more normal weight, and you might never even know that they are struggling.

That was the case for me, I was a normal weight but my behaviours around food became far from normal. I was obsessed with everything that I ate. I would be so strict with myself during the day allowing myself to live on very little. Sometimes if I was feeling generous I would allow myself an apple and that would do me for breakfast and lunch until I went home from school. I would be feared with absolute dread at the thought of going home to eat a dinner and would start obsessing about it each day the minute I woke up.

My parents and siblings had no idea that I was struggling with bulimia, they had noticed that I had become very picky about what I was eating but that was as much as they knew. I only ate vegetables or small amounts of chicken and avoided carbohydrates if I could. If I did eat carbohydrates, I felt so guilty that I would rush to the toilet immediately and make myself sick. It was my secret and no-one else knew. But it began to become a secret that I just couldn’t keep to myself.

I began to lose a lot of weight and people began to comment telling me how well I looked. People at school would make comments and I would shrug them off saying that I was exercising more and that the weight was coming off healthily. But before long my friends started to become suspicious they knew I wasn’t eating lunch and was suspicious that I wasn’t eating dinner either. They also knew that I was tired all the time, and was becoming more obsessive about calories and what I ate. Teachers at school also began to notice that I wasn’t doing aswell as I had been and I started to not hand in my homework and fall asleep in class.

In reality I had a full blown eating disorder and it was taking over my life. But it wasn’t until one of the teachers at school made an appointment for me to visit my GP that I realised what was going on. My GP asked me lots of questions about what I was eating and asked about my attitude to food and weight. I told him that I had been making myself sick and had started to use other extreme ways to help me lose weight. He mentioned the words Anorexia and Bulimia and I was taken aback.

I knew that I had become a little obsessed with food and how I felt about my body but I felt that an eating disorder was something very skinny people got, and I wasn’t very skinny. However, the doctor explained to me that people off all weights and sizes developed eating disorders and that he felt that my behaviours indicated that I had developed one.

My teacher at the time was concerned about me and invited my parents in for a meeting to discuss what was going on. I was absolutely terrified because my parents had no idea as to the extent of my dieting behaviour. As far as they were concerned I was on a diet but what teenager wasn’t. My mum was really upset when she found out what had been going on and life at home became difficult for me as my family monitored everything I ate and when I used the bathroom. I became more secretive about what I ate and when and my family became more confused as to how to help me.

Fast forward a year and I did well in my leaving certificate and got into college. When I went to college my eating disorder got much worse as I had no one monitoring what I was eating or when I used the bathroom. My weight fluctuated. While I was still at school I was referred to a psychologist but it wasn’t until almost 2 years later that my appointment came up. I often wonder if my life would have been different if I had received the appointment two years earlier when I really needed it. Instead my eating disorder became a huge part of my life and stayed with me all throughout college.

Fast forward to today and I still struggle with my weight. I recently relapsed after two years of being in recovery. It’s something I think I will always struggle with and that can be frightening.

If I could say one thing to anyone who is going through a similar thing I would say- take a risk and reach out for help. You may not get it straight away but you deserve to be happy and you cannot be truly happy when you struggle with an eating disorder. I would really recommend Bodywhys as a support service and they have email, telephone and online support which can really help when you are struggling.

If I could say one thing to that 17 year old who first made themselves sick I would say- you are more than your weight and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Also, I would remind myself that you don’t have to be skinny to have an eating disorder as it can affect anyone of any age.

Finding my way back

One step at a time…. 

Muckish Mountain and Lough Na Boll

Marie Duffy was at rock bottom and exhausted from fighting the dark depression that had been a regular visitor for all of her adult life. Long stays in psychiatric wards had become common and she felt lost and unable to navigate life that was overshadowed by overwhelming suicidal thoughts. She moved from Dublin back to the Irish rural countryside of her childhood and started walking each day in an effort to silence the unhelpful noise and busyness in her head. She tells her story of how she reclaimed her life by embracing nature and literally taking life one step at a time. 

Into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” John Muir 

As I walk further into the forest, I can feel myself in awe of the nature that surrounds me. The leaves are autumnal colours of rusty orange and brown and lie on the ground like a carpet that someone has rolled out in front of me. 

I can hear birds singing and calling out to each other. The rustling of the wind among the trees makes it sound like they are having a conversation and whispering to each other. They remind me of the Enid Blyton book ‘The Far-away tree’ which I adored as a child. Even though it’s just me and my dog Molly walking, I have never felt more connected to my surroundings or to myself for that matter. For the first time in years I have a smile on my face and I’m not even faking it. I’ve come a long way over the past 12 months and I know that my daily walks in nature has played a huge role in helping me reclaim my life back from a dark depression. 

Let’s flashback to 2014 when things were very different. I was extremely depressed and ended up spending the best part of nine months on a psychiatric ward. I was suicidal and couldn’t see anyway out from the darkness that had seeped into every cell of my body and despite my best efforts, refused to budge. Over the next four years I spent a lot of time in and out of hospital often for months at a time. No matter what I did I was unable to escape from the deep depression that had taken over my life. I constantly felt hopeless and overwhelmed but tried not to show it. But even I knew that I wasn’t very good at it. I wore a mask and I was really good at keeping that mask in place. I’d meet friends, go to work with the mask firmly in place. Then once I got home, I would retreat to bed and stay there until I had to somehow drag myself out to face the world again. Mentally, it all just hurt too much and I wasn’t completely sure why. I knew living like this wasn’t really sustainable, but I had no clue what else I could do.  

In 2018 at my wits end, I decided to move back home to the small rural village where I had grown up. I hoped the change would help me reclaim some power of my life again. Despite trying many many different things, nothing seemed to block the feeling of absolute despair that I felt, each minute of every day. 

Living in Donegal I knew I was surrounded by beautiful beaches, rugged coastline and deep forests. But because of the deep depression I was in, I was oblivious to all this beauty that surrounded me. 

Moving home was challenging and I found it difficult to motivate myself to do anything. One morning I came across an article in a newspaper on something called Green Exercise. The article spoke about the benefits of exercising outdoors in green spaces and the health benefits of it. I started to research more about the benefits of green exercise or eco-therapy as it is sometimes called. I read that exercising in nature was actually more beneficial for your mental health than in a gym. The more I read about the benefits of eco-therapy and green exercise the more excited I became. The research told me that some of the things it helped with was a boosted immune system, reduced blood pressure, reduced stress, reduced anxiety, improved mood and improved sleep. It all sounded too good to be true. It was then that I decided it was time to get off my ass. One step at a time, literally and metaphorically. It was time to kick my depression in the ass once and for all. 

I bought myself a pair of walking boots and decided that I would start walking every day in the beautiful nature that surrounded me. I didn’t think it would make much different to my mood but I knew that it couldn’t make me feel any worse. 

At first I really struggled with drumming up the motivation to walk. I was taking a lot of medication which made me extremely tired and all I wanted to do was sleep. I was also good at using sleep as a way to avoid and shut out the negative thoughts in my head. It took all my energy to drag myself out of bed every day and I would spend the rest of the day counting down the time until I could go back to bed.  

There is substantial scientific evidence that shows that spending time in nature is good for the mind and the body. When you combine exercise with time in nature, research by the University of Essex shows us that its more beneficial than exercising in a gym or inside. 

I knew I had nothing to lose by going for my first walk. I started off slow by walking for 20 minutes twice a week. I can’t say that I really enjoyed it at first, but I persevered. The one thing that motivated me was that our family dog loved joining me on my walk and her enthusiasm was infectious. For the first few weeks I walked on one of the beautiful beaches that was a 5-minute drive from my house. I loved walking on the golden sand and listening to the waves crashing as they came ashore. I noticed that I was starting to enjoy it. Within a few weeks I was walking three to four times a week. I hadn’t noticed any dramatic change in my mood but I knew it was better than lying in bed and avoiding my life. 

I started going to a local forest and immediately noticed how calm and relaxed I was both during the walk and in the hours afterwards. There was something special about being surrounded by trees that made my walks even more enjoyable. I discovered that in Japan, in a bid to tackle stress related disorders, they recommend that people spend time in forests.  They call it forest bathing or Shinrin- yoko which translates to ‘taking in the forest’. It has become extremely popular with millions of Japanese people taking part in Shinrin-yoko each year.  

The Japanese are definitely onto something and I knew that my forest walks were helping my mental health enormously even if I hadn’t had noticed it at first. 

One interesting study I read in the UK tested the effects of a weekly dose of oceans, forest or other natural environment, on patients suffering from depression. It found a 69% increase in mental wellbeing in just three months. That’s pretty impressive by anyone’s standards. 

Here in Ireland we have eco therapy and green exercise becoming more popular around the country. Ireland’s rich forestry, beaches and rugged coastline means that it is a perfect place to promote such initiatives.  

I discovered that there was an organisation called Solas that promoted green exercise in my locality in Donegal. Solas is the Irish or Gaelic word for light and it is a green exercise programme that involves walking in the rugged Irish countryside. I joined their programme for a while and found it helpful.  

Solas was set up in 2005 by a Health Service Executive manager Brendan Hone. He was aware of the huge benefits of exercising in nature for physical and mental health and wanted to offer a mental health service that was different from what was on offer to people. The concept of Solas is very simple. Its motto is to walk, talk and listen with each other, all while walking in nature. 

 As well as being in nature and the benefits that gives, peer support and knowing that you are not the only person experiencing mental health difficulties can be empowering. Solas participants walk three days a week and could walk up to 10km each day. The day starts about 10.30am over a cup of tea and participants decide where they would like to walk by choosing a route from a large map on the wall of the surrounding walks. The group are transported by minibus to the selected route and walk for a few hours before coming back and eating lunch together. After lunch there is an hour where participants do mindfulness or work on personal development. 

I spoke to the coordinator of Solas, Christina Greene, and asked her about the programme and how it could benefit someone’s mental health.  “We know walking has huge benefits for body and mind and that walking in nature is even more beneficial than walking in an urban setting that does not have any green spaces. The research tells us that the greener the space the better the outcomes.” 

Research by the University of Essex shows that even spending as little as five minutes in nature can be good for your mental health. Christina agrees with this and says that you don’t have to be walking huge distances to feel the benefits on your mental health. 

 “When walking in nature it’s not necessarily about the distance. It’s about connecting to nature and looking at the beauty that surrounds you and really appreciating it”, she said. “Our participants tell us that they feel better after walking and connecting to nature really helps them manage their mental health.” 

“We know that green exercise boosts mood, improves sleep and lowers blood pressure. It also helps to lower rumination which has a huge impact on improving a person’s mental health. Having a closer connection to nature is really important. 

“The benefits of being in nature are huge. In Ireland we are surrounded by beautiful beaches and forests, but we don’t utilise it like other countries. In Japan they have Forest bathing and it has really established itself as a tool to manage both physical and mental health. Science tells us that the chemistry of the air in a forest is different and spending time in one is beneficial.” 

Christina has seen first-hand that Solas has had huge benefits for its participants and has seen people go on to help others after completing the programme. “Solas is very simple. It’s about getting out and walking in nature no matter the weather. A lot of previous participants have gone on to show real leadership by using their lived experience of mental health to help others.” 

For anyone who is interested in taking up green exercise Christina has this advice. “Just give it a go. Stop and take notice of the nature around you. It’s not just about the physical impact walking has on your heart. It’s about looking up and using your five senses to notice the natural environment around you.” 

The research on the benefits of green exercise is huge. Attending Solas motivated me to get out in nature. But that motivation has lasted much longer than my time at Solas. I try to walk everyday now, and it has helped me keep the dreaded black dog at arm’s reach. I still experience mental health difficulties, but I am able to manage them much better than before. 

I have experienced firsthand the ways exercising in nature can help and cannot recommend it enough. It has allowed me to live a life that is not completely defined by mental illness and has helped me when other interventions have not. 

I encourage you to give it a go. All you have to do is lace up those walking shoes and start by putting one foot in front of the other. Don’t expect a huge difference at first but if you keep getting out there you will notice the difference and you won’t regret it. 

As we celebrate World Mental Health day we must remember that reaching out for help does not always mean that you get it

Below is a blog that I posted a few years ago but I feel that a lot of it will still resonate with people. Take a read below.

Today is World Mental Health day and you may have read a lot of mental health stories in the media. Stories of people who have reached out for help, and have come through the darkness to the other side.

I know from my work as a mental health advocate that it is so important to reach out for help, and to encourage people to do so. But I’m completely torn, because I also know the realities of reaching out for help and it’s so bloody hard.

The fact is that not everyone who reaches out for help has a good experience. In fact many people may need to reach out time and time again before they receive the help that they so badly need. We always hear of the good stories, someone reaches out for help and with a bit of support for a couple of months they feel better and move on their life. But it’s important that we also know about the ‘not so good’ experiences of reaching out for help.

I’m so glad that people get to experience first hand help from the mental health services, and that they get to move on and live their life.

Now, I know how important it is to share stories of people having successful attempts at reaching out. It’s encouraging to hear of the success stories where people have reached out and got the help that they so badly need. We need to share those stories. But we also need to be honest and let people know that sometimes they may not get the help that they need. The truth is that the mental health services are far from perfect, and resources are stretched across the services.

Reaching Out For Help

You may reach out for help, and find that you just don’t get the response that you had hoped. It might be to a friend, family member or even a health professional. Now, unfortunately that’s not ideal, but the truth is that it happens. In fact it happens all the time. I’m pointing this out, because every time I reach out for help and am greeted by a response that just isn’t helpful- I feel like a failure. I feel like I can’t even ask for help right. ( It might sound strange, but when you are in a really negative mindset you believe that everything is your fault.)

What I feel would have helped me was knowing that a fairytale experience is not true for everyone, and that’s perfectly NORMAL!

It doesn’t mean that you are undeserving of help, or that you have done something wrong. It just means that you may have to be clearer in asking for what you need, and spelling things out for people. I think it’s important that people know this. I know in the past I have always been reluctant to talk about the realities of asking for help because I was afraid that it would put people off from seeking help for themselves. But I feel that if we don’t at least let people know the realities of the situation out there, we may in fact be doing more harm than good. People need to know that there isn’t always a fairytale ending, and instead of worrying that it might put people off asking for help, we should instead arm them with the knowledge on how to deal with the situation if this is the case.

Reaching Out When In A Crisis

I’ve made it clear of the realities of asking for help, but there are a few other things I want to say.

First of all, If you are in a crisis, it’s important that you let someone know that. I know how hard it is for me to admit to someone else when I’m in crisis. I feel like I’m afraid to tell them how bad things really are. If they ask me the right questions, that I will try to be as honest as I can, but if they don’t ask the right questions, I might not have the courage to admit to them how bad I feel.

From my own experience, I’ve learned that you have to use your words to describe what is going on for you as best as you can. it’s important that you are completely honest with the person you speak to. This is no time for subtleties. Be blunt if you have to be. Just don’t keep suicidal feelings to yourself.

If you are in crisis, let them know that. If you are thinking about suicide, and more importantly on acting on those thoughts- then you need to very openly and bluntly let someone know. You need to let them know exactly what is going on in your head.

Make an emergency appointment with your GP, or go to your local A+E. ( A+E can be extremely stressful so try and go along with someone who can sit with you as you may have a long wait. Contact a help line like Pieta HouseFreecall 1800 247 247 or text HELP to 51444, or call Samaritans on 116 123.

If you are already a user of the mental health services, make an urgent appointment with your psychiatrist, Community Psychiatric Nurse, or Counsellor. If you have to do this over the phone and are speaking to a receptionist, be clear as to how important it is that you are given an appointment.

You Deserve To Feel Better

There’s something else that I want you to know. No matter how bad you feel about yourself- you deserve to feel better. I know right now that I feel that things will never improve for me. I feel like every glimmer of hope is gone. But somehow, I am managing to hang on. To be honest I don’t know how, but for now the fact that I am is enough.

I’m engaged with the mental health services and have been for a long time now. Sometimes I feel like I’m wasting my time. I get frustrated, I get angry and most of all I get so upset. I know that the mental health professionals are trying to help me, but there are so many times when I wish they would just all back off and leave me alone. It would have helped me to read about other people in the services who feel the same, and to realise that it is perfectly normal. I’m trying to remind myself of that every day.

Don’t Let Previous Experiences Of Asking For Help Put You Off

Whether your past help-seeking efforts have been positive or negative, don’t let a bad experience stop you from finding someone who can help. Asking for help again after a bad experience is extremely brave. One thing you can do to prepare yourself to make sure you have the best chance of success, is to remind yourself that you deserve help. You deserve to feel better, and no matter what you have to keep fighting for the right support.

My doctor recently told me that “Even problems that seem hopeless have solutions”, and no matter how bad I feel I try to remember this. It might not feel like it right now, but things can get better. But doing it alone is almost impossible. There are loads of people who want to help you get through this, start by letting them help you.

50808 Support Text line

50808 is a first of its kind for Ireland. It is a free 24/7 text service, providing everything from a calming chat to immediate support for people going through a mental health or emotional crisis – big or small.

From breakups or bullying, to anxiety, depression and suicidal feelings, their Crisis Volunteers are available 24/7 for anonymous text conversations. Their aim is to provide immediate support in the short term and connect people to resources that will help them in the future.

Free-text SPUNOUT to 50808 to begin.

Dealing with this new way of living

Wow… What a few weeks it has been. The Covid 19 virus has managed to spread itself far and wide across the world, and it looks like it will keep us social distancing for the foreseeable future. 

I’m very lucky in that I live in rural Ireland. I can hear the birds singing outside, I can go for a 2km walk and feel the fresh air on my face. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to be living in a town or city when you are unable to go for a scenic walk or for some even leave the house.

When you are dealing with mental health difficulties, something like the Covid 19 virus can really get you down or lead to increased levels of anxiety. You may feel anxious about catching the virus or that someone in your family will. The daily news conferences held in each country releasing the figures of infected people and the large death toll is so overwhelming. It seems that nobody is safe from this virus. 

I know I have had to cut back on watching the news updates as I could feel the familiarity of anxiety rising in my chest just waiting to catch me unawares. But this time I was prepared for it. I knew that it would settle if I stopped worrying about the what ifs and what could happen, and instead take each day as it came.

Some days my motivation is zero and I just feel like staying in bed all day and avoiding everything, but I know how detrimental that is to my mental health so I am trying to fight that.

So how am I getting through it? I’m trying to set myself a routine that I stick to. I am trying to do as many things that make me feel good as possible. That includes walking (I’ve let this slip over the past few days), writing in my notebook about anything and everything, speaking to friends and family each day via Facebook or phone, and limiting the amount of Corona virus news online.

We are living in a strange time and it’s ok to take things easier than usual. Try not to let unhelpful thoughts take over because they can embed themselves pretty quick in your head. Do try to get some exercise in, you don’t even have to leave your house. Look on Youtube for some fitness classes that you can follow straight from the comfort of your own home.

There are also lots of online courses that have been made available for free that you could check out. But don’t forget that it’s ok to take things slower than usual. There’s a lot of pressure for us to rely on distraction to get us through. While this is good for a while it too can become exhausting so don’t try to do too much. Just remember that you’ve got this…

I’d love to know how you are coping wherever you are.

Let’s not fake how we feel anymore

Let’s be honest. Living with mental health difficulties is exhausting. I’ve been there. I’ve told myself that I’m worthless, I’m selfish, I’m ungrateful, and that it would be better for everyone if I wasn’t around anymore. There’s so much talk about mental health stigma. But to be honest I didn’t need anyone else to judge me when I already did such a good job myself.

If you feel lost, sad and have zero hope of feeling different again. Please just hang in there. It’s ok to take a deep breath and slow down. If you need to take some time out than that is perfectly okay. It’s okay to not be okay and it is most perfectly okay to ask for help. Help is real.

You might be cursing me right now saying that it’s easy for me to say these things. But I speak from experience. I have been in that place where you want to give up. Disillusioned by everything, and only able to see the negatives and unable to recognise any positives in my life.

Listen carefully when I say this. You. Have. Got. This. Even when it feels like you don’t. You might wonder how I can be so sure of this. I’ve learned from personal experience that it is possible to live a life, despite what depression tells me. Depression lies.  Continue reading “Let’s not fake how we feel anymore”

Saying hello to 2020

I’m ashamed to say that this blog has been seriously neglected. I had hoped to blog more often in 2020 but here we are in February and this is my first post.

Last year back in September I spoke about the new wellness cafe that I have been involved in setting up in Letterkenny. It’s the first wellness café in Donegal and I’m happy to say that it is going from strength to strength.

We meet every Thursday morning from 10.30am-12 noon in An Grianan Theatre and each week we are seeing the same people returning and new faces coming along all the time. We are seeing numbers increase all the time and the fact that people keep coming back shows us that there is a need for such a service.

Since September we have had a number of guest speakers come in and speak to our café members. We have had all sorts of people such as pharmacists, dieticians, people from the Donegal Library service, someone talking about budgeting and lots of other topics.

We have a suggestion box which we ask our members to leave suggestions on what we can improve and what types of things they would like to see at the café. The feedback we have received has been really good and it’s been interesting to hear from people that the café and meeting up with others over a cup of tea has become a really important part of their week and is something that they look forward to each week.

The best thing about the café is that it is a joint project that behind the scenes there is amazing support from the Donegal Mental health services who ensure that we have a psychiatric nurse attend every week. We also have wellness café facilitators who are mental health service users and who are involved with the café.

The café is for anyone so if you are in Letterkenny on a Thursday morning please call into the theatre and say hi. We would love to see ya.