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Annabelle

Age at interview: 22
Age at diagnosis: 14
Brief Outline: Annabelle was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at the age of 14. She stayed at hospital on three different occasions and got better through the help of a great dietician and therapist. She now works to help other young people with eating disorders.
Background: Annabelle is 22 and a Maths student at university. She is single and lives in a shared apartment. White British.

More about me...

Annabelle describes having had “a very bad relationship” with food since the age of 10. The attitude to food at home wasn’t always helpful, she felt pressure to lose weight at ballet school and was bullied. Annabelle started skipping meals and was gradually losing more weight. She was severely underweight when her Mum took her to the GP but her concerns were shrugged off. After seeing a different GP Annabelle was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. At the time, the diagnosis felt “laughable” to Annabelle who associated anorexia with skinny people she’d read about in magazines.
 
Annabelle was admitted to a hospital where she stayed for 18 months. After discharge her weight yo-yoed for a few years but she was coping better. After her first year at Uni, she was taken into hospital again. Annabelle said she had gotten “to worst ever”. Her internal organs started failing and “everything went wrong” with her body. For Annabelle, this hospital experience was “dehumanising and degrading” and says the only positive thing she gained from her stay was weight.
 
Annabelle’s life changed at a private psychiatric clinic. She only stayed six weeks but with the help of a great therapist, and the other people there, she was on road to recovery. Annabelle had developed osteoporosis and was also told that her hormone levels were so low that if she wouldn’t gain weight she would risk being able to have children. This made her realise that she needed to look after herself and value her health in a completely different way.
 
Annabelle is active in supporting other people with eating disorders. She is a Beat (Beat Eating Disorders) young ambassador and runs a local support group. She wants people to understand how serious eating disorders are; she has lost three friends to anorexia. Annabelle encourages people not to blame themselves for having an eating disorder and to reach out for help. She says her life now is “so much better than I could’ve ever imagined”.
 
 

The GP told Annabelle she was just naturally slim, when she was actually very underweight....

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Tell me a bit more about the first time you went to the GP?
 
Okay the first time I went to the GP again it was quite an old fashioned GP I think he was quite old in his ways, and he was a bit arrogant. And my Mum said, “Oh she’s very thin. She’s not eating.” And he said, “Well go on then, let’s weigh her.” 
 
So he did my weight and height, and my BMI came out as very underweight. It was, it was really quite underweight, but he said, he said to me, “Annabelle, do you think you’ve got an eating disorder?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Well I don’t think she’s got an eating disorder.” He said, “There are lots of people that just stay at this weight for their whole life, and your daughter must be one of those people. She’s just a very petite girl. She’s very slim for her age, very petite. And she might fill out when she’s older.” And he said, “But, but I think you’re just,” he told my Mum that she was being over, like over worrying and over protective, and that she should just leave me alone. And of course I agreed at the time, I was like, “Great.” I was like, “I told you Mum, overreacting.”
 
 
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Annabelle thought it was laughable she could have anorexia and even her GP told her she was just ...

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And the GP asked me these questions and I said, “No, no, no I haven’t got anything wrong with my eating. I’m fine”, like “Don’t be ridiculous.” So he said, “No she’s fine, she’s just, just a petite girl. There’s a difference between having an eating disorder and being petite, and naturally slim.” So I sort of went away, and would be like, “Told you so.” And this happened a couple more times, and my Mum just got so fed up because she could see clearly that something was wrong. So she took me to, she took me to a different GP and the GP immediately said, “I can’t believe she hasn’t been diagnosed before. Like definitely without a doubt you know your daughter is anorexic.” And I, at the time, just thought it was laughable. I thought that you know, I’ve read about anorexic people in magazines and like, “I’m not one of those. I’m not; it’s not that extreme you know.” It’s not like I ate nothing, I eat something and you know I, I just, I didn’t, I didn’t think it could happen to me.
 
 

Being admitted was a surreal experience for Annabelle. She felt different to the “real anorexics”...

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And so I went in. I remember, I remember this place so distinctly it was, I mean it was only, it was 8 years ago. But I remember going in and I was, I don’t know it was just such a surreal experience. I was pretty terrified and I was, I couldn’t believe how, what did I do to get here? I remember the staff going through all of my belongings and searching me and searching my suitcase and I was just like, “Oh my Gosh, I’m like in prison or something. Like it’s weird.” And meeting all the other people on the unit and still thinking, “What am I doing here?” I met the other girls with eating disorders and I thought, “Oh my Gosh, they’re like real anorexics, but why am I bundled with them? Why am I not? I’m not like that. I’m not I’d, I shouldn’t be here, I don’t deserve to be here. And it was, it was hard actually, it was really hard being in treatment.
 
I think it took me several months to accept that I had a problem. Even when I was in hospital, even when I was admitted to hospital. Because, and I think it made me, what made me realise was that I just found eating so difficult and gaining the weight, it was so, it you know, I was absolutely crazy, you know I was in tears over I don’t know a potato or something. And it was a very, very slow process. A lot slower than I thought it would be. I had, in my mind I thought in three months I’d be out, and I’d be able to eat all the things that I used to eat, and I’d be at a healthy weight, and I’d be all happy la-la-la, that’s the end of it. But unfortunately it wasn’t like that. I ended up staying there for 18 months, because I just kept taking one step forward and then a few steps back or, you know it wasn’t a straight line.
 
 

Annabelle explains the difference between the supervised and non-supervised tables on the ward.

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We all sat on a table. There was, well there was a supervised table and an unsupervised table. And the supervised table was for people that were either really struggling with their meals, or they’d just come in. It was like the default setting where you go in, you go on the supervised table. I was on there quite a lot. And on the supervised table it’s obviously supervised by a member of staff and then there was probably about maybe three eating disorder patients. And if there was more they’d have another member of staff. And it was one to, one to three was their, the minimum.
 
So yeah they’d sit and they wouldn’t make a, they wouldn’t just like sit there and, they’d like chat so it was fine. But they just, they were just there for support and, and to make sure that you’re not hiding food or throwing it out of the window.
 
And there was an unsupervised table where you could sit with anyone, you could sit with um people with, you know they didn’t have eating disorders; you could sit on your own if you wanted to, sit with a member of staff,, and it would be a lot less formal. And you’d just eat and get on with it. But on the supervised table you’d have to wait for the last person to finish, and you’d have to ask for permission to leave the table or to get your dessert, things like that. 
 
And how did you find the meal times?
 
I found them quite stressful. Especially when I knew it was like a difficult meal that involved maybe a fear food or something. I’d find it very stressful and it was, I felt very self-conscious being supervised. I did. Even though they weren’t making a big deal necessarily, I just feel like, “Oh they’re watching how I eat. I’m really struggling with this, but I don’t want to say anything to upset anyone.” Yeah this kind of thing. And when it was like the last person, you had to wait for the last person to finish, that was quite awkward, whether it was me or someone else, it was always quite awkward, you were sort of sitting there like, “So...” 
 
And I think on the non-supervised, it was better but I think I was a bit, I mean I was quite a misbehaved one, and I would get up to mischief and I think that’s why a couple of times I was moved back onto the supervised table.
 
 
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Staying in a private clinic for 6 weeks was the 'best thing' Annabelle ever did.

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And I think my parents could see this, and they were so, they really wanted to see me well, and I’m really grateful to have parents like those, and they did research through Beat actually into the kinds of other, like alternative kinds of institutions that you can go into, and they found a private place a private treatment centre for all kinds of addictions and eating disorders and depression and things like that. And it was quite expensive, and I was just like, “No, absolutely no way, you’re not paying. That’s not fair. I’m not having you pay anything. That’s ridiculous.” Like, “I’ll do it myself rather than having you pay.” But of course I couldn’t do it myself.
 
But they kept on at me with this idea, and I just thought, “They’re not going to give it up. Okay I’ll go for an assessment.” And I went for an assessment and for some, for some reason I ended up being admitted a few days after my assessment. And I thought it was crazy, I really did. It was quite, I think it was sort of American influenced, and it was quite happy clappy and that hold hands, and there were all these like big drug addicts like holding hands and praying and stuff. It was like, I was like, “Oh my Gosh where am I?” Like, I cried on my phone, on the phone to my parents, like, “It’s a weird place. They’re all weird here. What am I doing here? This is crazy, in the middle of nowhere.”
 
But strangely enough it became the best thing I ever did. And it just changed my whole way of life, and yeah, I mean just the way I think, everything. I learned so much, and I made some amazingly good friends. And I think the most important thing, and the thing that helped me most was the staff because they were just so like caring and so amazing. And they really went out of their way to help. But it’s not like, because at other places that I’ve been to you just know that they’re just doing it to get paid and they’re like “Eeergh,” when can we go home? I’m just sitting here watching you.” But these people you know, a lot of them had first-hand experience of something. Whatever it be, some of them eating disorders. And it was really, it seemed to be their mission in life to, to get people well. And I really appreciate it.
 
So I was only in there for about six weeks, and when I came out I wasn’t there yet, but I was, I had a more positive outlook and I thought to myself, “I can do this.” But I was still finding it hard. 
 
 

Annabelle realised if she carried on with anorexia nervosa she might jeopardise her chances of...

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And you said you had that sort of the health scare and that was a big factor?
 
Yeah. I think it just really, it brought me, I don’t know; back down to earth or something. Like it made me realise that your health is just so important, you know it really is your wealth and I think previously I’d kind of just taken it for granted, or not cared, I thought it just doesn’t matter. But it really made me think, you know, it’s, I, anything’s worth, I, I’d go to any lengths just to improve my health. Yeah.
 
And you were told that you have to also start putting on weight so that your fertility won’t be affected?
 
Oh that was a huge factor. Because yeah obviously I haven’t had any periods for years, and my gynaecologist was just like, she did a blood test and she said, your hormones are just like really low. Like indicating you’re going through the menopause. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is really scary.” Because that, above all in life, it sounds really strange, but my like goal above career, above everything, I wanna have children. And I guess it just made me think, you know, I have to, I have to have children, I have to do this. And I have to put on the weight. If that’s what I have to do, I have to do it.
 
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Annabelle was counting calories obsessively. She would never eat food if she didn't know how many...

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I do write things down, not a lot actually because well I’m a Maths student, and I quite like numbers, so I did it all in my head and I was, and that was another thing that was going on in my head, it was the constant calculating, and also going over it twice just to double check that I’d got the right amount, because it would just be so awful if I’d got it wrong.
 
So I’d always work out things, and estimate calories, and I’d read all these books that had amounts of calories in. I wouldn’t eat a food unless I knew what calories it had in it. Yeah I mean from the age of 10 I’ve known about calories and started counting them now and again. Yeah and it, it’s really hard once you know all there is to know about calories, to forget it. Like I wished that I could but even now I still, I, of course I know what calories are in things.
 
Do you still find yourself counting them?
 
I try not to, but I do, sometimes I just can’t help it, it’s a very automatic thing like, it will be like a subconscious thing that I know how many calories I’m eating.
 
 

Annabelle used to have food and eating rituals which made her feel safer.

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Yeah. I, well, I ate very like slowly and methodically. I’d eat everything separately, I’d cut it up into little pieces which I’d get, always get told off in hospital for doing. I’d have to eat at certain times. I’d have to what else did I do? I liked eating with certain cutlery and bowls. I’d have to, well I’d have to weigh things out, I don’t know if that’s a ritual, or just something that I was doing to count calories. But I can’t remember what else I did. Yeah I think that was it.
 
Okay. Do you remember for why you did that?
 
I don’t know, I think it was like, I think I started off because I thought if ate slower I’d feel like I was eating more. And I’d feel less hungry. And kind of make it last longer. But then it just became a kind of like, I just felt safe doing it. I just felt like I’d rather do it this way, I don’t really want to, this is how I do it, and I’m a creature of habit and I like doing it this way. And that applied to everything, like the bowls, the forks, like, I don’t know, yeah, strange.
 
So it just became your thing that you just did then?
 
Yeah. And another thing I used to do is I used to hoard food. I didn’t used to eat it; I just used to keep it in a drawer in my room. Like anything, like if I went to somewhere and there were like little mini pots of jam or, sachets of sugar, or pots of milk, or biscuits that you get in a hotel I’d take them. And I’d put them into a drawer and hoard it all. I think maybe my thinking was that at a later date when I could allow myself this food, it would be there. So I wouldn’t have missed out on an opportunity. But I never got to that stage, and they just went off. But I just used to hoard food.
 

Annabelle burnt herself in the bath when she tried to keep warm. She could barely walk or hold...

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Oh gosh, so many, I mean so many things go wrong. Well I think the cold was awful. It was like right through to your bones, it was like no cold I’ve ever felt before, and it was just like cannot get warm kind of cold.
 
I remember I used to like burn myself in a hot bath every day because it would relieve me from feeling cold for two hours, because I’d like be burned basically. And also, but then getting in a bath itself wasn’t comfortable because it was hard. And that all, I remember like my, like the bones that are around my bum and like, on the bottom of my back were like so protruding, it was just so, like I couldn’t sit on a hard seat. I couldn’t sit on the floor like, I remember sitting on the floor, I had to put like cushions if it was a hard seat, I’d have to put big cushions on there. Like I’d just wake up with bruises just because I’d been lying on a bed, I’d get bruises and sores, like really painful sores all over my back.
 
What else? Oh I had like a really bad back. Like because I couldn’t, and my back had lost so much muscle that I it was really under so pressure holding my head up, and so, but I couldn’t stand up or walk for very long because my back would ache so much I’d like keel over. And I had a lot of physio on my back for it, to like make it get better. I got headaches also because my, because my neck wasn’t holding my head up very well either because it was so weak. I just felt like generally weak and dizzy walking around. I had to wake up about five times during the night to pee which is really funny, but apparently it’s a symptom, because you like, you lose loads of muscle so you like lose bladder muscle as well, which was annoying, especially because I didn’t sleep well either. That’s another thing; I just didn’t sleep well at all. I was just exhausted. Yeah it was, oh, yeah horrible.
 
 

After not having her periods for years, Annabelle's hormone levels were disrupted. She wanted to...

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And you were told that you have to also start putting on weight so that your fertility won’t be affected?
 
Yeah. Oh that was a huge factor. Because yeah obviously I haven’t had any periods for years, and my gynaecologist was just like, she did a blood test and she said, your hormones are just like really low. Like indicating you’re going through the menopause. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is really scary.” Because that, above all in life, it sounds really strange, but my like goal above career, above everything, I wanna have children. And I guess it just made me think, you know, I have to have children, I have to do this. And I have to put on the weight. If that’s what I have to do, I have to do it.
 
 
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Annabelle said she only realised later how helpless her mum must have felt when she was very ill.

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What about your Mum? Do you know how she reacted? 
 
Well I think she was relieved to get a diagnosis, she was, because I think, because that’s when they then referred me on to an outpatients unit which was a great relief to her. But yeah, I think she must have felt, it’s only now I realise how like helpless she must have felt, knowing there was something wrong but not getting the right answer from the GP and not, even though she was trying she just couldn’t control what I was doing, nor could I control it. But she must have just felt so out of control. Frustrating
 
 

Anorexia nervosa changed Annabelle’s family dynamic to constant arguments about her eating.

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You said at the time there were lots of arguments at home. What was family life like?
 
Strained. 
 
Was it around eating?
 
Yeah very much. Because aside from that our family is usually okay, thought we have, I have tiffs with my brother or sister, well I used to when I was younger and you know maybe my parents would argue about the washing up now and again. But generally it was good. But the eating disorder completely changed things and I became really tense and really awkward, and meal times when all the family sits together, supposed to be you know really happy, chat about how your day’s been or you know if you’re at breakfast what the day’s going to be like, but it just wasn’t like that anymore, it was like the focus was on me, what’s Annabelle eating, is she eating enough? Let’s try and cater for Annabelle. What do you want eat Annabelle? Will you eat this? Will you eat that? And you know sometimes my Mum would say, “You’re not leaving the table until you’ve finished that.” she started making me drink these supplement drinks, and I think she was just so frustrated; she was almost trying to force them down my throat. She was like, “You’re not leaving the house until you have that. I’ll ground you.” It was, hard. It was really, and it was really upsetting for everyone I think.
 
 

“Don’t be ashamed and don’t blame yourself.” Annabelle encourages everyone to seek help. She...

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I think I would have told myself to not feel ashamed that you’ve got an eating disorder. And not blame yourself. To get, to ask for, help. And don’t feel afraid about asking for help and don’t feel embarrassed by it. To use everything that’s available to you, like the B-eat websites, the B-eat helpline. Online chats they’ve got now, they’ve got a lot of resources. Read self-help books which I didn’t read. And know that no matter how bad or good your situation is, like if you’ve got disordered eating then you have got an eating disorder and you do deserve to have treatment. And never, you know think that you didn’t, you didn’t do it well enough, or something. 
 
And to value, I wish I’d valued my health a lot more, and thought about that, and thought about how serious it is. Because I completely, do you know I just thought it’s not serious, you know. Like some people are thin. But you know three of my really close friends they’ve passed away, and they were eighteen, nineteen, and twenty two. And that’s, that is how serious it is.
 
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