Chai Brady focuses on the challenges of eating disorders
Body image is a huge issue for many, especially with the concept of a ‘perfect’ body being perpetuated in much social media which nowadays permeates everyone’s reality, but that may be a small, even non-existent factor in the reasons someone develops an eating disorder.
A range of disorders characterised by abnormal or disturbed eating habits is how it’s defined, although this may not seem like it would be tough to notice, a person can hide it from their family and friends for so long that it becomes an emergency situation.
For mother-of-three Cora McEvoy (40) from Drogheda, she was on death’s door before being admitted to St Vincent’s Hospital for three months to regain her health.
Food started becoming an issue for Cora when she was a teenager, but it was between her Leaving Cert and college that the problem accelerated at an alarming rate.
“I was admitted because I was at such a low weight. It had started a year and half before that, it was Leaving Cert year and I was really feeling the pressure and it was my way of coping with this transition in life from secondary school into college – into the next phase of my life,” Cora says.
“I’m grateful I was admitted at the time, I really was on death’s door. I don’t think I would be here if I wasn’t admitted. My heart went really, really weak and was failing.”
After spending three months in hospital with bedrest, her mental health had improved, particularly because her body was getting the nutrition it needed.
However the issues reared their ugly head on and off until she was 26 years old and pregnant with her first child. Cora says: “When my son came along life was different for me, there was a big shift and I didn’t have the relationship with food that I used to have.
“Don’t get me wrong I still have issues, not so much with food, but my eating issue started with anxiety, down deeper to depression, then my coping mechanism was food. I still tend to, from time to time, suffer bouts of depression, life can throw a lot at you. But I now know the things that I need to do when these feelings come.”
From February 25 to March 3 it’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week and Bodywhys – the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland –have organised events to heighten knowledge among professionals, volunteers and more.
With several events including an eating disorders conference and a workshop for families/carers and a programme for parents, carers and family members – there’s no doubt the severity of the issue has been and will be further highlighted.
Founded in 1995 the core of what Bodywhys does is provide support, information, listening and understanding to people affected by eating disorders as well as family members and friends. This is done through helplines, online services, support groups and programmes for families. They are also involved in body positive talks in schools, awareness talks and more.
“I think really there’s more awareness than there is understanding,” says Barry Murphy of Bodywhys.
“I think people have a very brief understanding, maybe they’ve heard a couple of terms but don’t understand the day to day reality of it. There’s obviously a lot more to eating disorders than the actual signs and symptoms as such, it’s important to get the message across that it’s not ultimately about food.
“An eating disorder is a serious psychological illness with many different layers and complexities. It can unfortunately lead to a person in some circumstances dying or taking their own life as well.”
According to HSE statistics, 188,895 people in Ireland will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives and approximately 1,757 new cases occur in the country each year in the 10-49 age group.
The Health and Research Board found that 14% of admissions to psychiatric units and hospitals in 2017 were children and adolescents with eating disorders. The findings show a stark gender divide with the issue, as females accounted for 89% of eating disorder admissions.
“There’s a sense of compulsion that comes into the picture as well, the feeling they have to engage in these behaviours to be in control, to punish themselves, to feel okay,” says Barry, adding that this is connected to the ‘eating disorder voice’.
The voice, or inner critic, can be driven or maintained by the eating disorder. It creates a feeling of helplessness, undermines a person’s confidence and makes it difficult for them to trust their own decisions and abilities.
Part of what it can do is create certain rules in relation to food, weight, body behaviours and distort logic that conflicts with a person’s rational thoughts – contributing to emotional stress.
A good first port of call to get help is to go to a GP, and they may refer a person on to a psychiatrist or specialised service according to Barry. Those suffering or believe they may have issue could also be assisted by dieticians or counsellors.
Recognising the signs of an eating disorder can be extremely difficult, particularly for family members as they may not notice gradual changes in weight or eating habits.
For Cora, her mother and father would have noticed changes in her habits. She wanted to take up swimming and instead of getting a lift Cora wanted to walk to school. On Saturday the family would normally have “a big fry” and she wouldn’t eat it, she says: “It affected them a little bit, but they thought nothing of it.
“Then my friends stepped in, they would have noticed my lunch would be half eaten or not at all, or a change in my eating pattern that I wouldn’t eat junk food I would have brought in fruit. Then obviously losing weight then too,” she says.
“My friends brought it to the attention of my teachers and they brought it to the attention of my parents.
“Living with family, they don’t notice it, if you see someone all the time you don’t notice the weight loss, at the time I was saying it wasn’t an issue and I’m eating fine – and I was managing fine.
The closer it got to her Leaving Cert her parents focused on trying to encourage her to get through it, but it was after that Cora “drastically” lost weight, which led to the hospital admission.
Cora described her eating disorder as her “little crutch in life”, and just like an alcoholic or someone addicted to drugs, you don’t want that taken away. “You try and give every excuse underneath the sun to keep your behaviour going so that was, in my head, my way of life – this is how I want to live.
“But then it got too addictive, I did understand, when I did get very low in weight and then exercising got really addictive as well, I knew this wasn’t right – I knew this wasn’t the proper behaviour. I put my friends out of my life.
“I couldn’t get myself out of that hole, thinking back now I would have died – hand on my heart – I couldn’t change my behaviour I couldn’t change how I thought about things. I wasn’t getting help at all.”
Cora says that 20 years ago many people didn’t recognise the seriousness of the condition and would say “she’s just looking for attention”.
“They don’t see the bigger picture, they don’t see how uncomfortable you can feel in your body, how crazy you feel. Your head is just pounding because you literally cannot cope with the thoughts that are coming in, you can’t process them and you just feel awful within yourself.”
However, now the mother of Jack (12), Jessica (8) and Joey (4), Cora is in a much better place with her mental health, saying that yoga, walking, meditation and mindfulness have helped her get to where she is now. Despite still battling mental health issues from time to time, she’s much better equipped to control them, rather than them controlling her.
Those affected or seeking assistance regarding eating disorders can contact Bodywhys at 1890 200 444.