It's good to be back. After taking almost a year out to focus on my own health, I'm back and raring to go. I've been on quite a journey this past year (excuse the cliché, please) and I'm now so motivated, so focused, and so energised. I've learnt to work at my own pace, to say 'no' when I need to, and to show myself some compassion and not just be compassionate towards others.
Becoming unwell last year was definitely, in part, due to the fact that I wasn't allowing myself enough down-time and respite. Instead I was putting myself out there for anyone and everyone who asked for, or needed, my attention, care and hard work. And I love doing everything I can to help anyone I can, but if there's one lesson I've learnt, and one lesson that from now on will be my message to others, it's:
Love yourself as much as you love those around you. You deserve compassion, kindness and care as much as anyone else, and it's OK to say 'no' and allow yourself time and space to relax and recharge.
Now I know that's easier said than done - heck it's taken me almost a year to come to terms with that fact. But it's true. And without remembering it, we're all going to burn out and succumb to the stress and non-stop busy-ness that everyday life brings. Or our underlying niggles of self-doubt, or 'I'm not good enough', or 'I don't deserve that' will become louder and louder until they become our confounded beliefs.
I have learnt so much this year and so much of it I will treasure and pass on to as many people as I can. I began 2014 happy, healthy and committed to helping others through my work as a nutritionist. However personal circumstances caused a part of my past to surge back into my life at full pelt and knocked me to the floor. An insidious illness I went through during my teens and thought I'd overcome returned, the beast was back. And that beast was anorexia.
I had anorexia throughout my teens, until in my early twenties I became reasonably stable. There were little relapses here and there when I was overwhelmed with stress, and I was always a little underweight, but generally I was happy and healthy. So as I was in a place I considered as recovered as I could be (weight restored, all obsessions and compulsions non-existent) I gathered my folders of recipes and food facts and I signed up for a course in Clinical Nutrition so that I could teach others how to enjoy food whilst remaining healthy, how to live their life to the full yet still have time to prepare delicious home-cooked meals, how to lose weight without feeling deprived or restricting themselves. I knew I could teach people in a way that they needed to be taught, and once I was qualified, and now armed with medical knowledge as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of nutrition, I felt a sense of duty to help others improve their relationship with food and with themselves. This is why my approach, with each and every client, is non-faddy, non-restrictive and entirely holistic. So many nutritionists and 'weight loss experts' out there will tell you to cut out carbs or cut out fat or to not eat after 6pm or whatever other nonsense fad is bouncing around, but I will NEVER tell a client to do that. I have experienced the horrendous effects of cutting out entire food groups and of restricting my calories to such a low level that my brain's way of trying to convince me to increase my caloric intake is to force me to think about food every waking moment.
It may seem odd to some that a person with a history of anorexia would want to work in the field of nutrition. Some may believe it's inappropriate and wonder, "How could she possibly be in a position to teach others about nutrition, health and weight if her brain is warped by an eating disorder?". I have heard that exact thing said about me, and it hurt, because no matter how unwell I was in the past, and despite anorexia returning last year, my brain, my intelligence, has not been damaged. Even in the depths of anorexia I could tell you what a healthy portion size looked like or what a healthy weight looked like, but one of the unfathomable things about anorexia is that the rules and standards you apply to yourself are not applied to others; things that you know are 'normal' and healthy for everyone else are 'bad' for you because there's always a sense that, "I don't deserve that. I don't deserve that pleasure, I don't deserve to be healthy.". In my experience of anorexia, I knew I wasn't eating enough, that I looked emaciated and what I was doing was dangerous, but it's a psychological illness that manifests physically, and with the patience, love and guidance of friends, family and the professionals who worked with me, I was able to reach into the emotional pain I was struggling to cope with, work through it, and release the pain and fear I'd been holding inside.
As soon as my illness hit me last April (and it really did hit me almost literally over night when my 'personal life' world was turned upside down and my heart was smashed to pieces), I knew I had to stop work. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to be teaching others about health and nutrition while I was ill. But I am now healthy when it comes to my body image, my weight and my attitude to food. I have restored my weight and I'm committed to continuing to treat myself well, to ensure I remain healthy and happy. Having had anorexia throughout my teens, I essentially have an extra ten years experience of studying nutrition, food labels, recipes etc. Perhaps at the time I was studying these things for an ultimately negative purpose, but now that I am better I have to take some positive out of that negative experience. I have to take what I've learnt and use it in the best and most appropriate way I can.
I so passionately believe that health, weight loss and even weight gain (for people recovering from an illness or who are struggling to maintain a high enough weight, for example) must be approached with care and compassion. Instructions, rule books, finger-wagging punishments and judgmental attitudes will only drive people's self-esteem into the ground. I know how important it is to consider a person's entire self: mind, body, soul - their lifestyle, their likes and dislikes, their emotional relationship with food, and so on.
So here I am, so grateful for experiencing everything I have during the last year because I have learnt so much and I have so much to share and so much to give. For anyone who may be questioning my ability or wondering how someone who has only in the last few months become healthy again after a short relapse into anorexia (I was unwell for seven months, spent three months restoring weight and in intensive therapy, and have spent a few months just maintaining this level of health, re-discovering 'me', nurturing myself), I want to reassure you. I am physically healthy and I absolutely do not have a 'warped view' of what is healthy, what constitutes overweight and underweight, what healthy portion sizes look like, how many calories or grams of fat one should have each day - I have been given the all-clear by medical professionals to return to work and, let me tell you, I can't wait. My experience with anorexia means I truly, honestly understand what it's like to have issues with food that affect every area of your life, and issues with your body, self-esteem, body image and self-confidence that can lead to negative self-talk, body dysmorphia, unclear boundaries with food and weight, and a whole number of issues around food.
I intend to reach out and guide as many people as I can, to learn from my experience and share with you what I've learnt in order to show you that there is light at the end of the tunnel, you can have a great relationship with food, you can have a wonderful relationship with yourself and your body, and you can find true joy in your life when you treat yourself the way you deserve to be treated: with compassion, respect, care, kindness and love.
www.b-eat.co.uk (National charity supporting anyone suffering from an eating disorder)
www.syeda.co.uk (South Yorkshire Eating Disorder Association, based in Sheffield)
www.eating-disorders.co.uk (UK based treatment for eating disorders and professional training)