My Life with an Eating Disorder in a Larger Body

I guess my story began at the young age of 7, when, as a ‘chubby’ child, I was encouraged to go on a diet (in a misguided attempt to help me get control of my weight at an early age) and I never really stopped dieting from there.

At 9, I recall my schoolteacher completing a maths exercise where all the children in my classroom were weighed and then lined up in order of weight – and of course I was at the highest end of the line-up (this memory brings a feeling of immense shame). Following this were a number of incidents at school regarding my weight, and unkind comments, often from the teachers.

At age 13, I recall my dieting habits changing into periods of severe restriction, and on a few occasions, I actually fainted due to this. Of course, the restriction was often followed by excessive eating – and so the cycle began.

I first purged at the age of 17. This soon became an ingrained habit and at 18 I reached out for help from my GP; who told me not to worry and that I’d grow out of it.

Leaving home and moving away to further my education was a catalyst for the Bulimia (as I self-diagnosed at the time) becoming a huge issue and a daily battle for me. My weight was a little over the healthy range, but the purging kept it from increasing, at a huge cost to both my physical and mental health.

After education, I spent many many years struggling with Bulimia and, what I later understood to be, Binge Eating Disorder. I was always so unhappy with the way my body looked and desperate to control the weight gain, through purging. I was severely depressed during most of this time too, and experienced suicidal thoughts.

A year before my daughter was born (when I was 28), I went back to my GP to ask for help. This time I was taken seriously and referred for psychiatric support. I attended psychotherapy sessions for a number of months and felt I was getting somewhere finally, unfortunately my therapist then left the practice, and I don’t recall every being given the option of a new one. Following this, I continued to challenge the Bulimia side of my illness, however the binge eating continued and the weight gain I had managed to keep at bay for so long, became a big issue – rising over a year or so until it reached the morbidly obese category.

After my daughter was born, I so desperately wanted to be a ‘good mum’ for her, and to be mentally and physically well, however the Bulimia returned with a vengeance. The binge eating had by this time become a massive problem too, and so I could never manage to lose the weight I’d gained over the last couple of years, and continued to be morbidly obese from the age of 30, until only 2 years ago.

At the age of 48, having heard about ‘First Steps ED’ for a number of years, but not having reached out for help, I finally made a self-referral for support. At this point I was working in social care (which had always been my dream) but was struggling to stay in work due to the enormous amount of daily purging occurring (often purging at work as well as at home) and the huge toil this was taking on my physical and metal wellbeing. I decided that I had to do something, it was ultimately the wish to have a career where I helped others, which led me to deciding to help myself.

I had a number of counselling sessions through First Steps ED, and during these sessions I agreed to ‘let go’ of the desperate need to pretend to everyone that all was well. I firstly took some time off work (around a month in the end), I started to work on my eating impulses (eating small amounts regularly – trying to learn to listen to my body – something I had never done before). I also let go of the secretiveness of my illness, I told friends and family, I opened up at work, I challenged the shame I’d always felt.

After this period of counselling and time out, I finally found a way to live my life without the eating disorders which had controlled me for so very long (31 long years in fact). Despite still being morbidly obese, I also started to develop some peace with my body, I started to wear the bright clothes I’d always craved to, I dyed my hair crazy colours and I held my head up high and became the person I was always hiding from becoming.

Unfortunately, one year after I overcame my eating disorders, I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes along with arthritis of the hips. I knew I needed to do something about my weight, but I also knew that going back into the mindset of dieting may well have led me back into the eating disorder cycle I never wanted to return to. Over the years I had read a lot about weight loss surgery and had, at times, dipped my foot into the pool, soon realising my poor mental health and ED behaviour would never have supported such a drastic decision.

I spent a year researching the various weight loss surgeries, the good and the bad stories, the risks and the benefits. I considered an NHS referral to the Tier system but found out I would be waiting for around 3 years and may still not qualify for this. I then started to look into paying privately for the surgery.

In October 2020 I went ahead and had Gastric Sleeve Surgery. This was almost 2 years ago now and, apart from a couple of ropey weeks at the start, my post-surgery story has been very successful and without any hitches (although it’s important to note, this is not always the case – and anyone considering any weight loss surgery should carefully weigh up the risks against the benefits). I have stabilised at a healthy BMI, I feel fit and healthy, I exercise a moderate amount, I eat meals with others without any shame, I go out and do the things I’d always avoided due to my weight, my Diabetes has gone into remission (hopefully for ever) and, although the arthritis is still there, I feel I have given my body many more years of being mobile and relatively pain-free than it would otherwise have had.

Looking back on all of this, I feel there were so many missed opportunities in my life because of both my excessive focus on my weight, and the eating disorders. There were childhood dreams never realised, friendships and relationships lost, career opportunities not followed through, wonderful experiences never experienced.

I don’t know if, had I never been consumed by my eating disorders, I would have still been morbidly obese as an adult; But having reached the age of 50 and being the size I was (with the history I have) weight loss surgery and the psychoeducation and counselling I received for my disordered eating behaviours have given me a healthier and happier life, both now and hopefully in the future.

Now at the age 52, I have not only found peace with both my disordered eating and with the body I have been battling with for most of my life; I have also found a career working with individuals with severe and enduring eating disorders. As a Peer Support Worker, I hope that my own experience of eating disorders, and my recovery, will be beneficial to those I support through this – which is a wonderful outcome to my story, and something I could never have believed possible in the past.

Contributed by Shirley Peacock,
NHS Peer Support Worker