For many people struggling with an eating disorder, the culture of blame surrounding their illness is something they and their loved ones will be all too familiar with. We blame ourselves, our families blame themselves, our friends blame themselves, we blame the thin-is-in culture, we blame that kid at school who called us fat. Anyone and anything that could've had an effect gets the finger pointed. But how much of the development of an eating disorder can actually be hung on these factors and how much of it is down to genetics?
Introducing Catherine. Catherine is 16. She often gives away food. Upon being confronted by her concerned and disgruntled friends and family, Catherine explains that she is fine as she is. In fact, she is doing God's work. Catherine is Catholic. Her diet quickly becomes more and more restricted. Quickly all she is surviving on are the meagre amounts of bread and water she accepts at communion. She explains that she cannot eat more and that her ability to eat so little comes as a gift from God. In fact, it also makes her feel closer to God. Catherine loses the use of her legs in her 20s. She is so weak and in so much pain, she begs god for relief and to be allowed to eat. She is still not able. At the age of 33, after 17 years of starvation and in agony, Catherine dies. So, who is Catherine? She may sound familiar, her story is one that many would've heard in the media or in connection to a loved one with am eating disorder, although her reasoning is not one we often hear today. This is the story of Saint Catherine of Siena, who died in 1380.
A young woman starving herself, denying she had an issue, eventually desperate to be relieved of her torment but unable to find a way out. Sound familiar? I would argue That environmentally, Catherine and I are at opposite ends of the spectrum. I do not practice any religion, unlike Catherine, I live in a culture where being thin is regarded as beautiful (in popular culture at least), I have access to education and a whole host of opportunities. Our surroundings could not be more different, yet our symptoms undeniably similar. I whittled my diet down to a ridiculously limited and tiny amount. I denied it being an issue. Starvation gave me a sense of controls and serenity. I oscillated from being high as a kite from the endorphins of starvation and able to run miles in a slightly manic way, to sheer exhaustion where my entire body ached so much I felt unable to walk. Our symptoms can be connected in so many ways, parallels of madness and distress drawn, so what does this mean? Well, in my opinion it gives heed to the notion that anorexia is not just a sociocultural illness, rather, there's a lot more going on. Anorexia has appeared time and time again in different cultures and times. Granted it is more prevalent in some, but surely we cannot blame culture alone? The answer, genes my friend, DNA. There is progressively more and more research charting the biological in the development of anorexia, to identify the genes that pre-dispose some to the illness and hopefully help combat anorexia. This could mean innovations in medication (at present, there is no proven medication for anorexia), it could also help with prevention. If the genes were identified early on, a closer eye could be kept on those who were predisposed to the illness. You may be asking whether I am trying to argue that environment has nothing to do with the development of an eating disorder? No, that's not it at all, what I'm suggesting is that it's not simply one or the other. As professor Janet Treasure so aptly put it "the genes load the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger". There's a reason that when my friends diet or are hungry, they become irritable, lethargic and prickly, yet when I am underfed, I become slightly more euphoric and in my own little dream world. The buzz those pre-disposed get to an eating disorder is addictive, where as most people experience discomfort. I'm not saying it's all sunshine and roses when I'm starving, hell no, what I'm saying is that my experience is different and something that I'm naturally more drawn too. I find all of this new research and information incredibly interesting and actually quite comforting. Since the beginning of my illness, I've felt immeasurable guilt, I'd hate the fact that I couldn't "just eat". Indeed, even those close to me would ask why I just couldn't. I felt stupid, concerned people thought I just wanted attention, that I was choosing this, when all I really wanted was to be lift alone to shrink away and starve. The guilt I felt as my parents, brother, friends, boyfriend, cried over my rapid deterioration was a pain beyond that of my protruding bones and clawing stomach and I didn't understand. If it really were as shallow and self indulgent as just wanting to look like a model (as is often suggested), then why couldn't I just give up this ridiculous notion and eat?! The theory and solid proof that, like any other illness, my DNA plays a huge part in it, helps alleviate some of the guilt. My hope is that as more and more research is done and we gain a better understanding of the disease, we will be better able to combat anorexia's claws and some of the 'stupid girls who won't eat' stigma will be gone. For all those who do feel that way, I challenge you to sit ten minutes with someone in the throws of anorexia as they try to eat. My friends and family will vividly describe my tears, physical shaking, sobbing and clear horror over meagre amounts of food. Never did they see a casual 'ah, no thanks, I'm watching my weight'. Being forced to eat was a torture for me. I feel proud to speak of such experiences in the past tense. Things are not perfect, but I have made huge strides away from that shadow girl. Only today, upon seeing a old and long time friend and being told I look good again, I was once again struck by my change in outlook. My brain did not go into total overdrive telling me he meant fat, he actually admitted to worrying that's how I'd react, but instead, I was happy to be closer to my normal self. Able to chat away, eat with friends, travel to visit and generally just have the ability to be myself again. Thea poignantly told me the other day, as she sat and cried after seeing my show, that she was "just so proud and happy". She said she was happy to not get a feeling of utter terror when she received a call from an unknown number these days that it was someone calling to tell her my heart had given up. That is the truth of what anorexia does. I do not plan to be like saint Catherine of Siena, I plan to continue living and enjoying my charmed and rather ridiculous life, filled with acting, musical theatre, tequila (Sam Burnard), cocktails and champagne (Thea), cheerleading, fitness, baking and the all important FOOD. I also plan to help others do the same. I'm meeting one of my fellow dragonfly girls over lunch tomorrow to plan and discuss, but as things stand, we have some updates:
Dragonfly are currently supporting 2 charities: The Succeed Foundation and Charlotte's Helix. I've previously explained Succeed's fantastic work, but Charlotte's Helix is a far newer addition to Dragonflies support network, so I'm going to go into a little more depth. Charlottes Helix are trying to carry out more research in to the role of genes and DNA in eating disorders, basically everything I've been speaking about in this post. As well as fundraising (more info firer down), I also want to ask for assistance for Charlottes Helix from all those who read this who themselves are suffering or have suffered from anorexia at some point in their lives to send off a sample of their DNA to them. They're trying to reach 1000 samples, something that should be easily achievable. It's painless to do and could really help with groundbreaking research. The link is as follows, take some time and just do it if you can!
Right, so now on to our fundraising plans for both of these amazing charities. We have 2 major plans this summer coming up that fall into this category. The first is (fingers crossed) a fun evening of food, drink, dancing and debouch, with all we can raise going to these 2 amazing charities, helping them to do their great work in preventing eating disorders. We're in the final planning stages of this, so I can't release TOO much info, but either the first or second weekend in September are ones to keep free, you don't want to miss out, we have wonderful things planned and all for a good cause too!
The second plan is....a tough mudder. Yes, you have read that right. I am planning to get covered in mud, jump over barbed wire, get soaked and generally put myself through a whole array of hell that anyone who knows me will understand is going to be a sight to see. But hey, I'm just happy and proud that my bots is now strong enough to do it. It's not something I can really do alone (how would I get over the barbed wire without a boost?!) so calling anyone interested, strong and supportive (in good health guys), who is interested in being part of the dragonfly team, get in contact via Facebook or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Your support really would be much appreciated. Sponsorship details will also soon follow, to all those not quite up to the challenge, but taken by the hilarious notion of the girl who loves glitter rolling around in mud!
I may actually have further updates tomorrow following lunch with the lovely Beth, but for now, after a long ramble, keep your eyes peeled. As always, support would be greatly appreciated. Right now, I'm really really keen to recruit help from:
A. Someone good with money- planning an event is REALLY bloody hard, especially one where you want to raise money for a charity, having someone on our team to act as treasurer would be greatly appreciated. You need to be trustworthy and know about money (not just how to spend it on pretty table decorations, quite the opposite in fact). If interested, Facebook or email is the one again. It really wouldn't take much time and being part of a charitable trust will look great to employers etc.
B. People good at event organising. Again, it's hard work, I'm very lucky to have a fab support network as always, but those willing to muck in and help out would be again, appreciated. Please whack over an email or Facebook message me if you're interested.
Always interested in any other helpful offers, so keep in touch.
Thanks as always xxx