A 33-year-old East Riding woman says she is “living on borrowed time” after a 20-year battle with anorexia has ravaged her body and destroyed her life.
The intelligent over-achiever has a law degree and a high-flying job with the Hull-based City Healthcare Partnership, and yet anorexia is the “demon” which dominates her day - from waking at 4am to exercise, to counting and weighing every morsel of food that she consumes.
Bravely speaking out in the wake of the tragic death of TV star Nikki Grahame, who died last Saturday from an eating disorder which was exacerbated by being at home in lockdown, the woman said being at home isolated and being unable to go to the gym has made the illness so much worse for her, and many like her.
“I can understand why Nikki just gave up, because it is just relentless.
“We are the same sort of age and I think I am on borrowed time, and I have accepted it. I have chest pains, my blood results are abnormal and I have kidney problems.
“I can see my ribcage and collar bones and the logical part of me thinks it looks disgusting and sees I’m skin and bones.
“It sounds crazy but I can’t stop it. It’s an addiction.”
The woman, who does not wish to be named, said she used to be terrified about how the disease has ruined her health, but she now accepts it.
“I can’t stop it, and I am over being terrified, I have accepted it.
“I was sad when I heard about Nikki but she is at peace now, she doesn’t have to have this constant battle anymore.”
Prior to Covid, she was ‘managing’ her illness. “I went to the gym two to three times a day and when they announced the first lockdown I cried my eyes out. I was managing okay to some degree before, but part of what I do is over-exercising so that I can eat.”
Now, she wakes at 4am to run or walk while no-body else is around as she has been shielding due to an auto-immune disease, and says her day is punctuated by running, working, and then exercising some more.
She has been averaging 140,000 steps a week while consuming a daily diet of yoghurt for breakfast, tuna salad for lunch, and chicken salad for dinner.
Weighing just seven stone and 5lbs and standing at 5ft 6ins tall, she has a BMI of just 17.6, and has survived on exactly the same three meals for twenty years – even to the exact brand of yoghurt.
Even drinks are restricted to just water and black coffee, which are carefully recorded in her daily food and exercise diary.
Thinking back to what triggered her eating disorder, which started when she was 14, she struggles to explain how it started. “I honestly could never tell you. I try and think back but I can’t. I know I was doing my GCSEs and I have always been an over-achiever and strived for perfection.
What is anorexia?
"A girl in my village said she idolised me because I was the best anorexic she knew, and I look back and think how heart-breaking that is. But I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did.
“My lowest weight was while at university when I was six stones and four pounds. I was living by myself with no parents to watch me so the anorexic side of me loved it. My mum used to cry herself to sleep at night at that time.”
She says she stabilised pre-Covid but she is now struggling with chest pains and bone stress fractures as the disease takes an increasing toll on her body.
She has recently been diagnosed with pericarditis – which is inflammation of the lining around your heart. Her GP said it is linked to her anorexia, as a body starved of calories will break down its own muscles for fuel, the heart being the most important muscle.
“It’s such a destructive disease. It’s like having a devil and an angel on your shoulder. It is so hard and it does consume you. I have tried so hard to recover.
“Being at home in lockdown has made it much easier for the anorexic side of me. You don’t have to try and eat in front of your colleagues, and I can log into my work and then log off and go and exercise.”
All of her meals are weighed and logged daily, which takes up to two hours a day.
But there was one day in lockdown when she’d queued for food at her supermarket, and found that the brand of yoghurt she eats was out of stock.
“I had a complete tantrum and threw my basket on the floor. It sounds crazy but I just couldn’t cope with it.”
The woman, who has been actively treated for the illness for two decades through a range of local services and charities, has advice for anyone who has a loved one who is showing signs of having an eating disorder.
“Don’t wait. It took six weeks for me to access services when I was 14. It starts to set in during that time. I was exercising and I’d not go to school so that I could go running. It’s so addictive as you start losing weight, and before you know it, you can’t stop.
“Just get that person help now. I hid it for so long, until it got to the point where I couldn’t hide it any longer.
“For someone with a strong personality they can perhaps get over it with the right help, but for someone like me who has to be the best at everything, I couldn’t. I am good at being anorexic, but 20 years down the line, they could be just like me.”
She also wants to see celebrities being more accountable for the weight loss images they post.
“People idolise thin celebrities, but anorexia is absolutely not glamorous.
“Social media sites like Instagram show you celebrities with photo-shopped bodies and it makes me so angry. It’s fake and it portrays something as positive which is not. I used to idolise Nicole Richie who was skeletal, I wanted to be like her. I can’t have children, but if I did I would ban social media.
“The Internet has a lot to answer for as well. I follow help pages for anorexia, and I get requests sent from people saying they can help me lose more weight. The anorexic voice takes over and I find myself scrolling and I have to stop myself before it drags me back down.”
She hopes that by being so honest and open about her illness, she might help others spot the signs in someone who needs help.
“If I can help just one person it is worth telling my story, because I want to stress how utterly destructive it is.”