“I think it would be nice if the care system treated people as individuals,” says Lynn Crilly, counsellor and author of Hope with Eating Disorders; “as no two people are the same, everyone’s experience of an eating disorder is unique, sadly the way we think about them does not seem to have changed over the last 20 years”.
Eating disorders are one of the characteristic illnesses of our time – we are quick to bandy the term ‘anorexic’ about across all manner of public forums and pepper our conversations with it when discussing degrees of thinness but how much do we actually think about the implications that one little word – or any other umbrella title for a catalogue of eating related illnesses, really has?
Having trained as a councillor following her daughter’s own illness, Crilly’s book is a pragmatic guide to helping parents, friends and carers of anyone with an eating disorder to cope with the impact it has on their own lives, but in turn has also proven beneficial to sufferers themselves: “When my daughter was ill I read so many books and took her to see so many different people and eventually I stopped – none of the treatments seem to be working , a lot of the books were filled with horror stories – most were so negative and implied that it would never end. The main thing I wanted to prove was that eating disorders are not a life sentence.”
Between all those pictures of skinny celebrities and big red circles in magazines however, berating people for being too thin, too fat, too imperfect, too perfect … surely it is few and far between who remain untouched by any concern or preoccupation with what they do or don’t eat? When does a bit of faddy eating develop into a real problem? “When it becomes detrimental to your health or starts to have an impact on your life,” says Crilly; “traditionally a lot of diagnosis has been based on Body Mass Index (BMI) [a method of assessing health based on a person’s weight and height] but the parameters with that are huge – bulimia is not always characterised by weight loss or gain and anorexia starts long before it shows the physical symptoms.”
What is striking about Crilly is her positive approach: “Someone once asked me what would have happened if my daughter hadn’t got better, but ultimately it just wasn’t an option. What I do doesn’t work for everyone; I have a good success rate, but as the book shows, if one thing isn’t working for you – try something else. The effect on the family and siblings as well as the sufferer is huge – eating disorders are relentless and push everyone concerned to their limits. However I do firmly believe that in a lot of cases if everyone stays positive and works together things can and will change.”
This is perhaps something that is all too often forgotten – it is very easy to trivialise eating disorders as something superficial – it’s the media’s fault, the A-listers’ fault, the fashion industry’s fault we cry in a desperate bid to assign blame, but really it is an illness like an other – landing uninvited in your world and casting an almost nuclear fallout across everything you do.
Crilly’s approach is sympathetic but ultimately recovery-focused, so alongside information on what constitutes a whole cavalcade of different eating disorders is advice on long term treatment options and short term coping solutions ranging from counselling to complementary therapies for all involved and highlighting her assertion that eating disorders are not simply about body image: “self confidence and stress and lots of other factors come into it. Complementary therapies can help carers to relieve some of the stress for a while and for sufferers finding a way to feel good in your body is extremely beneficial. The mind of someone with an eating disorder is running at 120 miles an hour – a massage or Reiki can help them to slow down and think clearly for a moment.”
Perhaps the nicest thing about Crilly’s ethos is not only her down-to-earth outlook, but her warm, maternal attitude that belies the subtext ‘we are all in this together’ – both in terms of a sufferer and their loved ones, and because she is right when she says that eating disorders have accessed our universal psyche even pervading everyday language – it’s something we all need to address.
So where do we start and what can we do about eating disorders? “In a general sense, there’s such a lot of pressure on everyone and we all deal with that differently: some need to change the way they eat – so few people eat three meals a day and food is all too often used on a reward basis. Most people also sit at a desk all the time rather than getting out and about which isn’t good for feeling comfortable in our own bodies,” Crilly muses – betraying the hazy problem in that there is no one cause of eating disorders.
However when it comes to individuals she is emphatic: “If you think someone near you could have a problem, don’t be afraid to confront it. The next best thing you can do is learn as much as you can and talk to them about it – don’t wait for it to go away. If you are suffering yourself then find the courage to talk to someone you trust. It’s a big step to take but there are many different options and there is definitely hope.”
Hope With Eating Disorders is available on Amazon, £9.99
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