Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2023: "I thought my body was a write-off – but it’s never too late to recover"
To mark Eating Disorder Awareness Week which takes place from 27 February - 5 March 2023, writer Charlotte Oliver reflects on a life filled with choice, options and hope post-recovery – and why her recovery from anorexia prompted her to freeze her eggs
"Yes, you can still have children."
Tears welled at the corners of my eyes, overspilling from the torrent of relief that surged within. In just six words, the fertility doctor had answered a question that – for over ten years – I’d been too scared to ask. A question that had haunted and taunted me through the darkest days of a decade-long battle with anorexia. A question that had continued to pester and goad me throughout recovery, and for the years that followed, even when I’d left my sickness firmly in the past. I was, for all intents and purposes, fit and healthy; the wounds of my eating disorder had healed. Yet the residual fear that I’d wracked my insides beyond repair lingered. Now, being told that my fertility was not, after all, a long-lost cause, felt like a gift that I couldn’t squander. Not again.
This week marks Eating Disorder Awareness Week – and also, two weeks since I finished my second cycle of egg retrieval. My body is still swollen from the two-week hyper stimulation of my ovaries; my stomach is still dotted with punctures from the needles I injected; and my left hand still bears purple blotches from the canula on the day of my procedure. Six months after being given permission to, potentially, envision a future with my own biological children in it, I have 19 eggs on ice. I also have something that has finally thawed: the capacity to hope.
When you live in a nightmare, you don’t dare to dream. Hope is wastefully sent to landfill. When it’s a nightmare of your own making – or, rather, your mind’s making – the act of dreaming becomes even more superfluous. It’s like you’re trapped in a locked room, and it’s you who’s swallowed the key; the only way out is in. This is the reality of living under the shadow of an eating disorder. And so, even when, by some miracle (or, in truth, by a lot of heavy grafting), you manage to find the secret door marked recovery and make it to the other side, the act of hoping is still far-fetched.
It's no surprise that the rate of recovery from eating disorders has a way to go; it is, to put it simply, a minefield to escape from. Studies have found that, while 46% per cent of anorexia patients fully recover, 33% improve and 20% remain chronically ill. While it’s important to note that more people may eventually recover after a non-supervised period of time, the numbers are still upsettingly low. Why? For one thing, admitting you have a problem and yielding to the assistance on offer (if there is any to begin with) is the highest hurdle one can jump. After all, for many people, eating disorders are physical manifestations of their need for some control – giving that up is, quite literally, stomach churning. Then, every step of the way, your demons command you to fight the system, not the illness, and resist at all costs. They dig their claws in as if you’re a hand puppet, folding to their will.
Recovery is the vessel - the healthy body you need to live the life you want.
In my experience, my eating disorder – my Edith, as I came to call her - did everything she could to prevent recovery. She promised me refuge from anxieties that lingered; she distracted me with obsessions and compulsions that left me breathless; and she tormented me with the assertion that it was "too late" to recover in any case. The scars ran too deep, the body was a write-off – so, she hissed and scoffed, "What’s the point?"
Today, I’m proud – and forever grateful - to say her voice has been silenced. It took a few false starts, culminating almost four years ago in a seven-week stay in an NHS inpatient unit. During that time, I – for lack of a better word – celebrated my 30th birthday. I also attended, via Zoom, the wedding of one of my best friends, tears streaming down my face as I sat in the hospital communal area, staggered at my sorry state. Another of my best friends gave birth to her first daughter while I remained inside; people’s lives continued while I fought for the chance to get on with mine.
And so, I did, in the summer of 2019, when I left hospital and stepped into the sunlight – the August sun beaming down upon me like a spotlight, keeping its watchful eye upon me as I swapped a life locked up for freedom. I never looked back.
So, where and why does egg freezing come into this? Obviously, it’s a highly personal journey – and a privileged one at that. I myself was only able to afford the opportunity thanks to the parting gift of my beloved late grandmother, to whom family mattered more than anything. It’s also not a sure thing – indeed, I’ve been advised that those eggs on freeze are a last resort, and certainly will not guarantee motherhood. But the choice I made is bigger than the sum of its parts. It represents something that I want – this week more than ever – to trumpet loudly to all those still suffering: that there is a life to be lived on the other side. Recovery is the vessel - the healthy body you need to live the life you want. It’s the mountain you’ll climb, the ocean you’ll swim in – or simply the meal deal you’ll buy from M&S without those voices screaming inside your head.
I also have something that has finally thawed: the capacity to hope.
Eating disorders feast on scarcity; they leech and banquet on pain; they alienate loved ones and annihilate dreams. But there is a way out. The first step is admitting you have a problem; the second is to ask for help – and the third is to fight the battle of your life. What you then choose to do with it is completely up to you. For me, that meant finally asking a much-dreaded question, taking steps to improve the prospects of the answer, and giving myself permission to do that one thing that for so long was forbidden: hope.
Eating disorder recovery
Recovery is different for everyone, but below are a few guidelines from Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity:
Don't be afraid to ask for help. Sometimes it can be easier to write down how you are feeling and share it with someone, than it is to speak with them.
Find activities that bring you joy and keep you calm when you're feeling low or overwhelmed. This could be listening to writing, phoning a friend or writing in a journal.
Practice gratitude and write down your positive qualities.
Try not to compare yourself to others in recovery. Find your own path.
More advice from Beat READ MORE
Eating disorder support
If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat 365 days a year on 0808 801 0677. Beat also offer online support via web chat and email, visit beateatingdisorders.org.uk.
You can also contact your GP for support.
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