Living with Anorexia and OCD – Guest Blog By Kate Winter
“I’ve been thinking about writing a blog post on the subject of Anorexia and OCD for a long time , but at that point I wasn’t quite ready. However, having spent the best part of a year sleeping on a plastic hospital mattress, in what proved to be both the best and worst time of my life, I knew that one day I would feel compelled to put some words down. If writing this helps me in a purely cathartic sense then I’ll be satisfied. However, if reading these words helps or educates anyone else, even just a smidgen, then I will be thrilled.
The thing about mental illnesses is that they can be invisible to the naked eye. Furthermore, they are grossly misunderstood. And yes, still stigmatised. It’s “time to change” our perspective, or so we are told. Eating disorders are mental illnesses, NOT lifestyle choices, let me make that clear. If I had been given a Kit-Kat for every time someone has told me about their poor body image or occasional binge on a family bag of Doritos I would have reached a healthy weight a hell of a lot quicker. Eating disorders, or Anorexia in my case, can be linked to body image and feelings of “fatness”, but not always. A symptom (and contributory factor) of Anorexia may also be an unhealthy relationship with food, but not exclusively. Indeed, I have never felt fat. I have never actually wanted to be thinner.
There have also been times, even in the darkest depths of my illness, where I have eaten “normally”, very much to the confusion of those around me. I recall someone at work suggesting that I must throw up after meals (I never did) or else how could I eat so much and remain so thin.“Oh, I have a fast metabolism, it’s a nightmare really…” would have been my response. I do have a fast metabolism and am naturally slim, but the reality was that what I ate in private I really did wear in public.I ate normally around family, friends and colleagues, whilst over-exercising and eating dry chicken and flavourless broccoli behind closed doors.
Similarly to Anorexia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a mental illness, NOT a lifestyle choice, let me make that even clearer. OCD is not about having a preference for the labels on your Heinz Baked Beans to face the same way in the kitchen cupboard, nor is it about having to have the volume on your car stereo on an even number.
OCD is my life. Whereas I remember a life pre-Anorexia (oh Domino’s Pizza, how I missed you!), I cannot recall a time when I have not been obsessed by numbers, patterns and rituals that I “have to do” in order to feel “ok”. I recall sitting in group therapy and explaining to a group of fellow Anorexia sufferers that when my rituals go perfectly the euphoria is equivalent to having a multiple orgasm. So why the hell would I want to give this up? Why do I want, and need, to beat this illness?
Well, because OCD is like having that orgasm with a partner who abuses you, over and over again, and yet you continue to go back for more. On the surface I always did a good job of playing the part of someone who was happy, healthy and carefree, but underneath I was in a perpetual state of anxiety, which could only be alleviated by constant counting or checking. In my twenties OCD eventually filtered into every sphere of my life, so perhaps it was inevitable that it would take a hold of my eating and exercise regime and, before I knew it, I was being admitted into hospital for treatment for Anorexia.
A therapist once described my illness as “atypical Anorexia”, which at the time only reinforced my belief that I wasn’t ill enough, or thin enough, for the treatment that I was given. I now know these sort of feelings are common amongst eating disorder sufferers, and that my self-worth was simply so low that I did not feel deserving of any meaningful help. At the same time, there were elements of both Anorexia and OCD that I found so comforting that I didn’t really want to give them up.
However, the notion of my illness being “atypical” stuck with me, and I believe has been instrumental in helping me understand and manage it. I use the term “manage” because I do not attest to being fully “recovered”. I do believe that full recovery is possible but, having previously relapsed and been sent straight back to hospital without passing go, I now try to focus more on my small everyday achievements rather than on my remaining struggles that reflect how far away I still am from leading a fully recovered life.
Furthermore, I find it interesting that we use the term “recovery” to describe Anorexia, in much the same way as we do drug and alcohol addiction, but do not apply the term or notion to other mental health issues. Eating disorders, and OCD to some extent, seem to sit in the murky grey area between addiction and illness as far as public discourse and understanding is concerned.
So, why did the therapist describe my illness as atypical? Well, because it seems to have stemmed directly from OCD and my excessive desire to be in control – rather than being related to body image and my relationship with food. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, weight loss has never been a goal of mine; it was more a by-product of my rigid eating behaviours. For example, there was a time when I would only eat at exact four hour intervals. This meant that if my meal was due at midday but I missed it by one minute (usually by being distracted by a colleague who, in that moment, became the subject of my irrational internal rage) I then would not allow myself to eat until 4pm. However, if I wasn’t hungry at midday then Anorexia and OCD would have to battle it out – either I eat when I am not hungry and feel “greedy”, or eat and satisfy the demands of the compulsive behaviour. Well, OCD always won that battle.
Likewise, when creating a pattern for exercise, whether it be minutes ran or reps/sets lifted, I have always struggled to do MORE if this meant breaking my pattern, even though doing more may have burnt an extra calorie or two.
My counting rituals were at their worse when I was inpatient. This makes sense, as I must have been desperately grasping to control something, anything, in an environment where all of the control had been taken away from me.
At times I was physically unable to leave my hospital bedroom unless the time on my digital clock was at a time, number or pattern that I had allowed. It also meant that for months I would count every bite of food and every sip of water that I consumed, creating the most elaborate patterns and sequences in my head if the nurses ever prompted me to deviate from them as part of my treatment.
From my time spent in hospital, and the ongoing therapy that I receive, I have realised that if OCD has been so inextricably linked to my Anorexia, I can use it to my advantage in helping me inch closer to that elusive recovered life.
This means that last year I devised a meal plan that would make me gain weight. It included chocolate. And Malbec. I devised an exercise plan that included a balance of cardio, weight training and yoga. The plans were adapted in line with whatever happened at my weekly weigh in, but essentially I stuck to them. I subsequently gained weight and started to come back to life, albeit still in a rigidly controlled manner.
I am now at the stage where I have gained enough weight that my thought processes have become more rational, and I am less inclined to rely on OCD behaviours to make me feel happy, or less lonely. I am still following a meal and exercise plan because I still have more weight that I want to gain, however I can feel myself becoming less obsessive about it by the day. Indeed, a few weekend’s ago I had lunch out with a friend followed by dinner out in the evening – neither of which were on my plan for that day. I then disregarded any temptations to restrict or compensate with excessive exercise the following day because I simply reverted back to my meal plan.
So, my goals over the coming months are as follows:
1. Gain a few more kilos. Preferably on my boobs.
2. Continue making steps away from my meal plan, to the point where spontaneous office cakes don’t faze me.
3. Continue to keep my cardio down and my weight training up. This should help with the boob gains after all.
4. Continue to challenge other OCD behaviours that I have, which is the subject of a whole other blog post…
5. Remind myself every day of how far I have come, and be grateful for the support (both personal and professional) that is offered to me when my heart and mind is open enough to receive it.”
With Kind Thanks to Kate Winter.
Please note: Kate wrote the above blog last year and we are happy to report that Kate is way further along in her recovery journey now!
Follow Kate on Twitter: @BimsWinter