On guard against that hungry feeling

THERE are now believed to be 1.5m people with an eating disorder in the UK, both diagnosed and undiagnosed. As a recovery group moves to a new base in Ipswich, features editor TRACEY SPARLING hears a young Suffolk woman's story of learning to cope with bulimia and anorexia.

By Tracey Sparling

THERE are now believed to be 1.5m people with an eating disorder in the UK, both diagnosed and undiagnosed. As a recovery group moves to a new base in Ipswich, features editor TRACEY SPARLING hears a young Suffolk woman's story of learning to cope with bulimia and anorexia.

AMY has worked nine shifts in the last eight days - throwing her energy into a career which her teachers once told her she was not intelligent enough to manage.

She has qualified as a nurse and now cares for patients on a busy hospital ward, after facing her own inner demons which drove her to the point of being hospitalised herself.


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This articulate and confident young woman in her early 20s, has suffered from bulimia and anorexia since she was 14. Yes she's slimmer than average, cites tiny Kate Moss as an inspiration, and admits she is sometimes tempted to 'slip back', but both she and her family hope the decade-long sentence they have endured is finally coming to an end.

Sitting at the kitchen table on a rare day off work, Amy cups a mug of hot tea in her hands as her mum, who has been her constant companion throughout the illness, looks on.

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“It started when I was doing my GCSEs at school, then again at the age of 18, then 22…” Amy shrugs with a rueful smile.

She tells how she moved secondary schools when the family moved up north, and hated the new school. The aversion to school is what she thinks triggered her illness, and by the time they moved back to Suffolk Amy was a year behind with her education. Teachers told her she wasn't good enough at science or maths to get the nursing job she'd wanted to do since a very young age, then she had to re-sit her GCSEs and later fluffed her A-levels. She said: “My friends were doing A-levels when I was still doing GCSEs so I felt left behind. I hated school and I just wasn't academic. I'm a perfectionist so if I don't think I could do something well I don't try.”

As a teenager she used to shut herself away in her bedroom and cut herself off from family life.

One day the school rang up to say they didn't think Amy was eating properly, and then the truth came out that she was making herself sick after meals. Amy's mum said: “It was a shock. It makes you feel hopeless, and helpless.

“She didn't engage with us. She used to spend so much time on her own upstairs.

“We did keep doing the normal family things and always had a sit down meal in the evening, always. After her dad and brother had left the table we would sit and chat, talking about anything rather than let her go upstairs to get rid of it. The secrecy was very hard to deal with and I hated seeing her eyes look so dead, and her cheeks look hollow.”

Amy also found it difficult to make friends, and going out was impossible when the most important thing to avoid was food and calories. She tends to harbour obsessions, and plunged herself into schoolwork to the point when nothing else got a look in.

Amy said: “It got so bad at one stage, I was on the verge of being hospitalised.”

After initially seeking help elsewhere, Amy's mum found the Eating Disorder recovery group in Ipswich. Together they attended every meeting religiously for a year, mainly helped by psychotherapist Frederike Jacob.

Amy's mum said: “It's not like you can go to a doctor to get her better - a lot of doctors won't even talk to parents because of confidentiality. Also, the person has to want to get better themselves. But Fredericke and Mary (McDermott) do involve parents as much as possible.

“At first I cringed at the thought of going to a 'help group', and it was tough to start with, but nobody judges you, you can just sit and listen if you want, and it's first names only.”

Amy said: “Fredericke treats the whole person rather, than just their medical or psychological needs.

“The group has expert speakers on all sorts of subjects like alternative therapies, depression, and osteoporosis. It also helps to meet other people who are maybe slightly worse, or slightly better than you. That helped me gauge my direction, which was hopefully up! We end up having a laugh and a giggle and you can start to see how pathetic your behaviour is - you have to have a sense of humour or you'd go insane!

“Talking to Fredericke helped me externalise my concerns rather than holding them inside. She also tells you to imagine the eating disorder as a gremlin sitting on your shoulder, that you need to knock off that shoulder.”

Amy said getting thin was never the trigger for her illness: “I felt so unhappy I didn't know what to do with myself.”

With hindsight she can see she was trying to gain control over her life. She added: “I think certain types of people, like perfectionists, are prone to it.”

After attending secretarial college in London Amy did a receptionist's job which proved too boring so she signed up for a nursing course. She said: “Fredericke played a very big part in it. She knew I could do it. I think you learn more, if you step off the conveyor belt, of doing GCSEs, then A-levels, then university, then a graduate job. When the time comes to start work you have a little bit more to offer. So I'm just a late starter!

“I couldn't have done it without her and Mary. The time they've given us is invaluable.”

Experts say you can get better from an eating disorder, and Amy said: “I think it does leave you, but not completely. You can gain a certain awareness to keep on top of it, but for me it's very easy to slip back into it if I'm not careful. I still like that feeling of being hungry and that's what I have to be careful of.”

Today she is looking forward to enjoying her career, and making plans with her boyfriend of a year.

She added: “I do still worry what people think of me, but I've almost go to the stage where if people don't like me I can say 'stuff it!'

“I'd quite like to write a book about my life one day. It'll be proactive and in the form of a short story, not anything depressing like so many books about eating disorders are.”

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The interviewee's name has been changed to protect her anonymity.

The Bread for Life Campaign surveyed 900 young women aged between 18 and 24 and published their findings as their 'Pressure to be Perfect' report in 1998.

When it came to the media, 61pc feel inadequate compared to the media's image of beautiful women 91pc felt it was bad that the media always portray so-called perfect women, 89pc wanted more average sized models used in magazines, 63pc wanted fewer dieting features.

Amy said: “I don't think the media influenced me when I first got ill, but it's more important now to eight, nine, ten-year-olds who are exposed to a lot more pressure. I don't think children can be children these days, they all seem to be mini adults.”

For Amy, being slim was not the reason behind her illness, but she said: “Seeing images of thin airbrushed models everywhere could be detrimental to certain types of people, because they might strive for what is unachievable.

“The only person I would want to look like is Kate Moss and if anything she's put a bit of weight on recently, but I wouldn't want to look like Keira Knightley.”

She added: “The new idea of weighing children in school to tackle obesity, is something schools will have to deal with very carefully. If you say to children 'you should be such and such a weight for your weight, and this BMI,' it could become an issue for some children, and some could go too far the other way.”

The Eating Disorder Recovery Group run by Frederike Jacob and Mary McDermott, has existed for 15 years.

It is affiliated to BEAT,a national charity which helps people affected by eating disorders.

The group welcomes anyone whose life has been affected by difficulties around food, to help them, their family and friends. Frederike said: “Meetings are held on the every second and fourth Thursday of the month when we have discussions and we also regularly invite speakers. It is an open group, confidential, and no referral is necessary.”

On December 1, the group moves from its base in Foundation Street, Ipswich, to 46-48 Westgate Street (above the PDSA charity shop). The first meeting in the new premises will be on December 13. There is no meeting on December 28 and the group's new programme starts on January 10, 2008. The cost is £3 per person. For more details call 01473 421669.

A disorder like anorexia nervosa was first written about by physician and minister John Reynolds in 1669. Bulimia nervosa was not recognised as a clinical condition until 1979.

Anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of age, sex, cultural or racial background, although the people most likely to be affected tend to be young women aged 15-25.

Research has shown that your genetic make-up may have a small impact upon whether or not you develop an eating disorder. Traumatic events can sometimes trigger an eating disorder: bereavement, being bullied or abused, an upheaval in the family, long term illness or concerns over sexuality.

Approximately 10pc of people with eating disorders are male, though among schoolchildren this may be as high as 25pc.

While the incidence of anorexia nervosa appears to have remained fairly constant, bulimia nervosa appears to be increasing rapidly. Experts have suggested a five-fold increase in the incidence of bulimia over a five year period from 1988 to 1993, with up to 18 new cases per 100,000 population per year, and anorexia claims up to 11 new cases.

Experts fear binge eating disorder and other eating disorders are likely to be more prevalent than either anorexia or bulimia, although no statistics are available.

Source: www.b-eat.co.uk

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