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This is the story of my recovery from an eating disorder. I don’t pretend to speak for all people with eating disorders. I am sharing my own personal experience in the hope that it will provide some insight into what it can be like to suffer from this illness; also, to communicate the hopeful message that effective treatments are available, and recovery from an eating disorder is possible.

My eating disorder began when I was fourteen. Eating disorders don’t tend to go away without treatment, and sadly mine was to hang around for the best part of twenty years before I felt able to seek help. During this time, I did outstandingly well at school, got a degree from the University of Oxford, fell in love, married at twenty-one, worked in corporate banking and ran a successful business with my husband. I appeared to be the sort of person that other women envied… Yet I was living in my own private hell.

Year after year, I made myself sick every time I ate and binged secretly several times a day. Life felt chaotic and my eating disorder governed every single decision that I made. By the time I was in my mid-twenties the constant vomiting had taken its toll and I had lost so much enamel from my teeth that I needed intensive specialist dental treatment. I was desperate to be rid of my eating disorder, but shame prevented me from seeking help, so I continued to suffer.

My first pregnancy (at the age of 30) was healthy. Like most women, I had a strong urge to be well before and during it. My husband and I had longed to start a family and we were both overjoyed to be expecting a baby. The problem was, I had been ill with an eating disorder for so long that I couldn’t remember what normal eating was like and I felt too ashamed to ask for advice. When I first met my midwife early in pregnancy, I hoped that there would be a standard question, “have you ever suffered from an eating disorder?”  or “have you ever had problems with eating or losing weight?” and I steeled myself to make my confession. She asked me about asthma, diabetes, heart trouble – a whole list of questions related to physical health – but the question I needed never came so my problem remained a secret.

I bought a book about what to eat while expecting a baby and allowed myself to let go of my rules about food. I had a wonderful pregnancy and felt happier than I’d ever felt before in my life. After giving birth to a beautiful son, I was adoring motherhood, then ecstatic with joy to be pregnant again after ten months. Life seemed perfect.

But that’s when the problems really began: just when I was least expecting it, all those fears about food, body image and self-worth crept up on me again. Eating less helped me feel in control when everything else seemed out of control. This was a familiar coping strategy for me… Yet before I knew it, I was out of my depth.

Gradually, the amount I felt safe eating got progressively smaller and the range of foods I allowed myself became progressively narrower. All the usual medical checks on the baby were fine, but I didn’t feel healthy and I was scared that I might be harming him too. I was getting thinner by the week, the shape of my baby becoming visible through my skin as the bump grew. At night I would lie awake, starvation gnawing at my insides as my baby stirred innocently. A sensation which should have inspired joy and comfort was the source of overwhelming guilt and self-hatred. I felt evil. I had longed for children for so many years, and felt tremendous love for the tiny being growing within me, so how could this be happening? I kept thinking, “I must get up and eat something; my baby is telling me he’s hungry…” But, to my shock and self-revulsion, I remained powerless and passive. I was terrified that if I started eating I would never be able to stop. So I just lay there in silence, tears pouring down my cheeks.

Despite my intense shame, I tried to seek help from GPs and midwives several times while I was pregnant, but without success. I wasn’t assertive enough to speak plainly, and nobody picked up on my hints or asked the right question. If a health professional had asked me compassionately, “Have you got an eating disorder?” I would have been so relieved, but it just wasn’t something I could find words to volunteer. I was convinced that everyone would think I was disgusting and selfish.

I did not gain any weight at all during the course of this second pregnancy. My GP and midwife urged me not to worry (“We don’t tend to worry about the mother’s weight”). I began to feel as if I was just a convenient vessel in which my baby could grow for nine months, preparing himself for the world; and that being a mother meant sacrificing the rights to any status as an individual whose health was important for her own sake.

By some miracle, my son was born healthy. But my euphoria and relief soon turned to guilt and self-hatred at what I had done and my eating disorder grew stronger. I concentrated all my energy into nurturing my children tenderly while starving myself cruelly. By the time my son was nine months old I weighed just five and a half stone. Wild with hunger, every few days my control would snap and I would binge uncontrollably then be forced to spend hours making myself sick in a vain attempt to make myself pure again. But it was hopeless for the rot was deep within me. Despising myself, I went to bed each night wishing it would be my last. My eating disorder was relentless and ruthless and the most terrifying thing was knowing that its voice was louder than the cry of my own baby.

I entered treatment ambivalently. I felt pessimistic about the chances of therapy making any deep and lasting positive difference to my life. However, my choices were narrow because my physical health had deteriorated. Moreover, watching my children grow made me certain that I wanted to change. Soft and cuddly, spontaneous, guileless, wholesome, raucous, vivacious, strong, and devouring all of life: these children were everything that I loved, and everything that I was not. Their lives had to be different from mine.

Through receiving CBT, my whole perspective on myself, on life, was dismantled piece by piece, and rebuilt. Gradually, I began to feel some compassion for myself, and despair turned to tentative hope. The first glimmers of light entered a dark place, and simultaneously began to ignite the belief that one day maybe I could get better and do the same for other people.

So began my own hopes of one day training for a job in which I could help others work towards recovery from eating disorders. Such were my relief and gratitude at being liberated from my eating disorder, that I felt an overwhelming urge to spread the good news and help others. While I completed my treatment, I began campaigning to raise awareness about eating disorders during pregnancy. I ran training sessions for health professionals and gave interviews on national TV, radio and in the press.

All that happened about fifteen years ago, when I was a patient being treated in the very service where I later became employed as a Senior Clinician. I went back to university as a mature student for ten years, completing a Master’s degree in Psychology, then qualifying in Interpersonal Psychotherapy and Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapy. For four years while my children were young, I also worked as a volunteer drug and alcohol charity worker and a volunteer researcher and clinician for 2gether’s Eating Disorders Service. I believe passionately and strongly that, as clinicians, we have a duty to know the effectiveness of the interventions we offer. Therefore, while working at the eating disorders service, in my own time, I designed and ran several quantitative outcome research studies in the field of eating disorders. Two of these I have published in peer-reviewed academic journals and presented at international conference, and I am currently writing up two more quantitative outcome studies for publication. In addition, I have run regular recovery workshops for current patients of the eating disorders service and, as lead for service user involvement, enabled patients and ex-patients to have their voices heard and their creative work displayed and published, which has given me huge pleasure. Nowadays, I constantly and consciously appreciate being mentally well, every minute of every day. My children are glorious teenagers aged 15 and 16, my husband and I celebrated our Silver Wedding Anniversary last year and I have worked for 2gether for five and a half years.

For me, it feels personally important to be speaking out and in doing so, fighting against the stigma and prejudice that are still associated with mental illness in our society today. As a society, we have made so much progress in this area, but as we all know, there is still some way to go before mental health achieves parity with physical health. When I was asked to share my story on social media for Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I was offered the opportunity to do so anonymously. However, for me that would defeat the purpose. I like to think that, for every time I speak openly and unashamedly about my own experience of mental illness, another tiny nail gets hammered into the coffin that will one day bury stigma and prejudice.

Zoe Hepburn is a Psychological Therapist in 2gether’s IAPT service, Let’s Talk.

For support and information on eating disorders, visit Beat Eating Disorders.