Imagine going to the doctor, and being diagnosed with stage one cancer. How would you feel? Scared? Distressed? Anxious? But also, perhaps, relieved: relieved that it had been caught early, thankful for the speedy referral by your GP, blessed that your chance of making a full recovery was a hopeful 90% rather than the pitiful 15% had your illness been diagnosed at a later stage. You’ll be offered extensive treatment that, although unbearably gruelling, targets the cancer and eliminates it from your body. You’ll be supported through appointments and surgeries and tests and follow-ups and everyone will be on your side and by your side; caring and compassionate. And with any luck, you’ll recover. Cancer will become a distant memory from your past, a blip, an insignificance in comparison to the wonderful things you see and experience. You get to live your life, because your illness was diagnosed early, before it was too late.
Now imagine you’re experiencing the early signs of an eating disorder. You’re confused, ashamed, afraid. Suddenly, you’re anxious about food, preoccupied with your body, fixated on losing weight. You’re isolating yourself, your work is suffering and you can’t sit still. So you go to the doctor. You ask for help.
And you’re turned away.
The doctor looks at you. He puts you on the scales or he inspects your teeth or calculates your BMI and there are no warning signs, no alarm bells. You’re a healthy weight; your Body Mass Index is normal; your teeth are undamaged. There’s nothing wrong with you physically, so there can’t be anything wrong with you at all. Except you can’t eat. The list of foods you’re too scared to eat becomes longer each day. Your reflection makes you want to rip your skin off. You feel trapped in your body. You can’t go out with your friends anymore because what if there’s food involved? You can’t rest, you can’t concentrate, you can’t sleep. But the doctor said you’re healthy, so it must be all in your head.
That’s right: it is all in your head. Because eating disorders are mental illnesses, first and foremost. Just because the suffering cannot be seen does not mean it doesn’t exist. You can’t see cancer, but a sufferer would never been sent home with the implication of ‘come back when it gets worse’, yet eating disorder sufferers are perpetually denied treatment due to the fact they don’t conform to a certain criteria. They are routinely told – though perhaps in subtler ways – that they aren’t thin enough; their BMI isn’t low enough; they don’t purge often enough. Too many sick people are refused help in the most delicate stage of the illness, a stage where if measures are taken and sufficient treatment offered and engaged in as soon as possible, anorexia can be beaten without enduring years of recovery attempts and relapses, hospital admissions and inpatient wards, a life lost to a cruel and conniving disease.
As it stands, 41% of eating disorder sufferers wait nine months or more before receiving treatment. Nine months is a long time: it’s long enough for an egg to be fertilised, a foetus to be developed and a baby to be born; its long enough for a initially treatable tumour to metastasise and spread, becoming terminal. It’s long enough for anorexic beliefs and behaviour to become irrevocably imprinted on the brain and all the more challenging to overcome. It’s long enough for the likelihood of recovery to diminish and for the hope of a life without anorexia to become ever more distant.
Too often, anorexia is seen as a fad. Teenage girls wanting attention or boys self-conscious in the changing rooms. Models starving themselves for the catwalk or celebrities dieting for the red carpet. But anorexia goes so much deeper than that. It is not a fad. It is not a choice, a diet or a phase: it is a serious mental illness with the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric condition. 20% of sufferers will die, from either physical complications or suicide.
Only through treating anorexia as soon as symptoms appear, regardless of weight or physical health or appearance, can these numbers drop.
Only through obliterating the stigma around psychiatric illnesses can these tragic statistics be lowered. Only through equalising mental and physical illness in the eyes of medical professionals can these conditions finally be beaten.
Only then, can recovery for everyone become less of a dream and more of a reality.