Why I started my Eating Disorders - In The Open project




I'm Richard and I have anorexia nervosa. I'm 42 but to look at me you firstly would probably think that I look unwell (I do), and you would almost certainly think I look older than I am. How did I end up with anorexia at 42?

The first time that my eating disorder became apparent was the day I was told to leave home by my stepfather (my mum never intervened). I had friends, who put me up in a caravan at the bottom of their garden. Suddenly, I would only eat a slice of toast with mustard, and hot water with a drop of milk. My mind was taken over with an obsession to lose 2 lb per day. I made myself sick after the toast and I began to exercise.

I cannot tell you that I had never heard of anorexia before then. I may have seen the occasional news story, but I didn't realise I had anorexia until a few years later. At the end of my twenties I stopped a substance problem I'd had. I realised that I could no longer starve if I was serious about wanting to stay drug-free.

I attended OA (Overeaters Anonymous, which is for anyone with food and feelings issues) and ended up being guided into having three meals a day. The incredible thing was, I did that for six years. Large portions, big desserts; that was my recovery. Except - eating, although it's far better than the starving - is not enough if you have anorexia. Anorexia is a very serious mental illness and has the highest death rates out of all of the mental illnesses. So I was eating but would be highly emotional if I was late for a meal by five minutes. Within 15 minutes I would shake and become tearful.

I didn't experience a sudden fall from grace; it was a slow and steady progression. The odd day of being food-free; then I'd be on best behaviour for a while. On September 16 2014, I stopped eating completely. It was my longest fast - my anorexic brain has none of this rough, harsh, cruel "STARVE" - and after 51 days, I felt so sick I took myself to A&E.

They referred me to crisis team who, as far as mental health were concerned, were wonderful. I will forever be in debt to one member of the team who allowed himself to listen to his instincts on a day that I didn't attend. I was put onto two psychiatric medications (which have done what they are meant to do) but they both had side effects of increasing appetite.

May 4th 2015 - I stopped eating; another fast. I was now under Care Plan Approach and in a new area. My CPN and Psychiatrist got me eating disorder input and then I got detained under the Mental Health Act. My psychiatrist tried to reason with me but I was absolutely convinced that my body was "as strong as an ox and I can live without eating".

I was also referred to an eating disorders unit and I quite happily went, but it really was the wrong environment for me. I left the clinic and now I have an eating disorders therapist, dietician, community psychiatric nurse and psychiatrist that I trust completely. They will act and intervene in order to keep me alive. They will challenge me and will also let me lead them. They really have listened to me and worked with me and I really do feel part of a collaborative team where we all take responsibility.

I made two decisions when I left the clinic; that "I am going to completely accept my anorexia" and "I am going to be happy". I have been able to achieve both of those. My team and I decided I needed to be on a risk management plan, because I was going to lose weight, and they wanted to ensure my health and wellbeing.

Initially I agreed to have 800 calories a day, because I wanted to stay out of hospital. I split my daily food into six meals a day and that feels safe. It feels secure. Because I feel safe I now enjoy the food that I have.

Then something awful happened. I made a comment on social media about accepting my anorexia, being happy, and now that my weight is as it is, I actually like some of my body. If you have a mental illness, then all previous skills and experience suddenly disappears. The reaction I had made me feel as though you are definitely not allowed to be happy when you're clearly so ill, and you have to protect other people from the pain of seeing you ill and happy.

Then I found me. I FOUND MY VOICE. I very politely explained that I will never again suppress my feelings and opinions to protect other people. Suppressing emotion has contributed toward the severity of my eating disorder. As an adult, I can hear other people's views and disagree with them. I accept that both views and opposing emotions are real and I will always consider what others say, but I will remain true to myself.

What happened that day has been the motivating factor behind my project, 'Eating disorders - In The Open'. The project invites anyone with an eating disorder to submit a video 1-5 minutes long of their experience of their eating disorder. I have made a three-part documentary about mine.

Why such public honesty? Self-honesty is the biggest gift we can have. I have been ashamed of having an eating disorder since I had it, and have been overwhelmed by guilt. Shame and guilt always drive me into silence. Shame and guilt have been my shadow so I hold this shadow in front of me when I am honest. They have become a light to my path and my honesty has changed me. I am true to me.

I then realised this needs to be an opportunity for everyone with an eating disorder, who wishes it to be. Standing together in honest voice we become a powerful force. We can build peer networks and support each other. We can also challenge stigma, discrimination and oppression.

I am building up contacts, tweeting, developing Google+ pages, getting the channel out to people with eating disorders (there is also a page for families/carers/professionals). I have developed new skills especially with IT. My confidence has grown so much - in less than a week. I feel so much stronger that I have deleted the third part of my documentary and recorded a new third part, because my belief in and desire for recovery has grown as I have spoken with more and more people in recovery from their eating disorder. I can see that there is no excuse. We do recover.

My project - eatingdisorders-intheopen.org - will soon be developing into a charity and we are seeking people to be on the committee to help us to develop the project. Find out more here.

For support and further help related to eating disorders, visit the charities MGEDT (Men Get Eating Disorders Too) and BEAT (Beating Eating Disorders)