Mental Health Awareness Week: A Personal Story of Struggle

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW15).  While as a society we become more aware of statistics around the subject and a number of steps have been taken to try to work around stigma and promote messages about recovery, still so often we forget so often about the individual behind the statistic, the loved ones watching on and desperately trying to help but unsure what to do or where to turn to. So here is a blog I have written about my own struggle with mental health and an eating disorder that almost claimed my life but in sharing I hope it encourages others to tell their story, to show that anyone can suffer at any time but there is hope.

Kate Moss may have said that ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ – I can testify this is not true!  What follows is an account of my journey into and out of anorexia.

As a child I was always what people would call ‘a little chubby’, food for me was a comfort, an escape, a way of making myself feel a little better. Though suddenly a little food wasn’t enough, it became the more the better, having a bad day have a bar of chocolate or six, pass an exam go out for a three course meal and no matter how I was feeling, good or bad, food was a way of feeling better!

By the age of 19 I had reached 27 stone in weight, not a good feeling to have to go to Glasgow, London and America to be able to buy clothes.  Then in the second year of university began my unhealthy relationship with dieting – I wanted to be the thinnest I could because this weight was more than enough to carry and was a shell to hid behind.  ‘If I was thinner I would feel better’, ‘if I was thinner people would find me more attractive’. So the diet and the desire to get down from a 52 inch waist and a 5xl top began.

At first it was a healthy approach and over the months the weight dropped, down to a more respectable 15 stone.  Following a stay in Dublin for my post grad the weight began to creep back up, I returned to Belfast for work where a colleague said to me ‘goodness you lost all that weight and now you’re starting to put it back on’ – then my healthy diet, took an unhealthy turn, every time I looked at myself I could think about and see in my reflection was a grossly inflated version of me – I would become the thinnest I could I resolved!  I would make sure that no one ever said that to me again.

Emotionally I felt like my life was out of control and the only thing I could control was food.

So I limited myself to 700 calories a day and went for an hour and half power walk everyday!  The weight poured of me …. 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10 stone.  I felt great, well at least I thought I did but in reality I was only really kidding myself!  People were beginning to notice that I was starting to look unwell – but me I had never felt so great!

10, 9, 8 stone ….Now we were down to 500 calories … a weight watchers yoghurt for breakfast, one for lunch and three garlic mushrooms for my tea with a small bit of salad … same thing every day because I knew I was losing weight that way suddenly my social life was gone I couldn’t be around friends cause I was afraid of having to go in somewhere to eat, the trousers were getting smaller and the tops were going down to children’s sizes!  Weekly trips to the doctor who I tried to kid for as long as I could, watching peoples faces, people who I knew but with a sunken face, they no longer knew me …. People thought I had cancer and were afraid to speak about it! Though I was starting to get tired and my body was starting to hurt! Not being able to lie in bed at night cause the mattress hurt you! Up at 4am cause you couldn’t sleep, my life was dictated, every day I lived the same experience … over and over again!

7 stone – I remember it as clear – the first week of Wimbeldon 2009 – the Thursday night, I walked to Lisburn with mum to do some shopping  – walking home I didn’t feel well at all – I wanted to get home asap!  So home it was, imagine me in the height of summer, pj’s, dressing gown, hot water bottle, blanket and I was still freezing!  Though on the plus side I now had a 26 inch waist I was wearing tops for 11 year old boys! aged 24 and 6’2.  Surely now my life could begin!  I was as thin I was ever going to get!  The next day I had an appointment at the doctors, I remember crying in the waiting room I hurt that much as I sat on the chairs, my whole body ached, all my energy was gone! My doctors words ‘we need to do an ECG’ Ok I thought – the nurse had to do it twice …. ‘wait till i get the doctor to have a look at this’ Ok I thought this was standard procedure ….. My doctor came, looked at my shivering body on the bed as I lay there in my underwear – then she truly knew just how bad I had become, stomach sunken, legs fragile, rib cage very evident through my skin…..  ‘Jonathan it’s bad news’ Oh what’s wrong I replied ‘We can hardly find a pulse’ …. ‘You need to sign yourself in at the hospital …..’

I broke down in that doctors surgery – suddenly I realised what I had done to myself ….  I can’t go to the hospital, I don’t want to be signed in ….. She said ‘ok, you can go home for a couple of hours and think about it’ … I went home and broke down again with my mum and my sister!

Things needed to change!

I started out dying to be thin – now I was just dying!

In America there is the Trevor Project a response the amount of young people taking their own lives because they are gay…. the tag line of the movement is ‘it gets better’ well I want to say to anyone out there struggling with an eating disorder or mental heath in general ‘it gets better’. Not initially but day by day it gets better, it gets better with each small step towards recovery.

I got help – I was able to go to  the health service and was referred to a specialist …. slowly but surely the weight increased!  2 pounds here and 2 pounds there  10 months later I was back up to my goal weight – I would be lying if I said everyday still isn’t a battle but one thing I know is that I never want to be that thin again.

To anyone struggling with weight and mental health issues – be honest with yourself – admit that you have a problem because only when you do will you be able to get better – only then than the journey to wholeness begins!  If you would like to talk with someone who has been there and gone through the situation.  Email me abernethysmile@hotmail.com and I would be happy to listen!

Resources for mental health:

  • what concerns me

    very honest & forthright article, very well written

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Thanks for posting your personal story. Greater understanding can only generate better support for those who fall foul of psychiatric illness rather than fear and ostracising. You’ve detailed very effectively the insidious narrative of many mental health problems that can make them so intractable.

  • Carl Mark

    A brave article,
    every year hundreds of young people take their own lives, mental illness knows no barriers, rich, poor, green, orange, black or white it is insidious and deadly.
    all around us in advertising, magazines, social media etc. telling us we must conform to the idea of perfection they push.
    But their has been some progress, 20 years ago mental illness was something to be kept within the family, it was something to be ashamed of.
    Almost like being gay, of you had one in the family you didn’t talk about it. that thankfully is changing.