Anorexia: An Uphill Battle

I have been working with my client Caroline for over a year now. Throughout this time we have worked closely together in order to help her see food and exercise more positively. At times this has been very hard, I had to completely adapt my approach as a Personal Trainer in order to understand what Caroline was going through. We have now got to a place where Caroline has progressed so much that she would love to tell her story in order to help others who may be going through something similar. This was very hard for Caroline to do, but she now feels ready to openly talk about everything. I am very proud to be a part of this journey and to see how well Caroline has done to overcome her past. Keep going Caroline, I’ll support you all the way!

Caroline Cassels- My Story

I have been sitting here for hours trying to think of the best way to say this because there isn’t an easy or simple way to say what I want to say. The weeks leading up to Christmas are probably the most stressful for me – more so than the summer. I am talking about “perfect body” syndrome and it’s not only me who has to deal with this torment.

Only a few of my closest friends and family are aware of this and, after four years, I am ready to come out and tell my story, set out my fears and explain why I am only saying this now.

Anorexia is one of the biggest killers of all mental illnesses and it is so misunderstood by a large percentage of the population… and I am only one of the many suffering with this illness.

From the age of twelve I went to boarding school and hated every moment of it. I was not ready to be away from home. I went to boarding school because we lived overseas and the country we moved to had no secondary school English language education. I met some amazing friends along the way. Sadly not all of us keep in contact, but I haven’t forgotten the memories we shared.

When I was 17, my friend and I wanted to shift and “tone” some unwanted weight and wanted to look good for the upcoming summer. We both did remarkably well and in four months we transformed our bodies and felt great. It was also a time of maximum pressure as we studied for our A Levels. I was struggling and didn’t think I was going to pass any of them. I felt I needed to take control of something. Enter exercise and food.

I started working out to an exercise video with my friend. But, while she did it “normally”, I did every single day with no rest, sometimes even twice a day. It then made sense to control my food and I started weighing every single gram of cereal, potato, grain of rice and I didn’t even notice I was doing it. I was consumed by food. I isolated myself from my friends. I would never eat with them in the dining room. Instead I bought the lowest “Count on Us” meals from Marks & Spencer, lock myself in my room and eat each bite reluctantly, limiting myself to 800 calories a day. I wasn’t able to think properly. My creativity disappeared, my personality vanished. I didn’t laugh. I wasn’t myself anymore. While all my friends were with their boyfriends, out on dates or with their friends shopping, I was worrying about my body and how I looked, feeling like a failure. I didn’t even notice guys anymore. My sex drive had gone. I didn’t care about boys. All I was fixated on was food. I became obsessed with it and banned all the “bad” foods. So, instead of treating myself, I thought looking up menus online would make me feel better, but it only made things worse.

On Mother’s Day in 2011, when my parents came back to the UK, I organised at three course lunch out with my family. I had planned to go to the gym straight afterwards and burn off all that I had eaten. Instead, this was the day my illness came to the surface and became real. I stepped on the treadmill getting ready to do my 20 minutes of intense running. But, because I had pushed myself so hard all the days before, my legs were in agony and I couldn’t run. I didn’t want to run. I didn’t want to be in the gym. I could feel my eyes watering and there I was, standing on a treadmill on a Sunday afternoon in a busy gym, crying. The Personal Trainer who was on duty pulled me off, sat me down to tried to figure out what was wrong. He knew something was wrong, but I chose to look the other way.

Once my A Levels were over, I had a three month summer break. Most people had the best summer of their lives. I had the worst. My eating disorder got worse. I started going to the gym every day for 3 hours a day, burning every calorie I consumed. I was 48 kg, weak and weary. My mum then took me to our GP to see what was wrong, I explained and all I remember her saying was, “Do you think you have a problem?” It was then, after 9 months of mental and physical destruction, I finally admitted to myself that I had an eating disorder.

Admitting that I was and I am anorexic was the hardest thing to do. But little did I know that the road to recovery would be even harder: challenging myself everyday with foods that I was terrified of, aka “fear foods”. My mum would plate up my dinner and I would shake and cry at that extra piece of chicken she put on my plate. There were times when I felt it would be easier if I just ended everything. I thought that if I didn’t exist I wouldn’t have to cope with the voices in my head telling me that if I eat, I would get fat. I thought that nobody would care if I died. Who would come to my funeral? That dark period lasted the whole of the summer and is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. You are isolated, alone and fearful of everything.

James & Me
James & Me

Once the autumn of 2011 began, I had a place at a secretarial collage in London. This was the best thing that had happened to me that year – a fresh start. But my demons seemed to follow me wherever I went, never leaving my sight. Christmas came round very quickly and the drug that I heavily relied on, the gym, closed for two weeks for refurbishment. Now, for most people, they would have used it as it a time to rest their bodies. But I needed the gym, I needed it to breathe and to calm myself down. So I ended up taking a temporary gym membership at the local gym for those two weeks.

This was, without a doubt, the best thing that ever happened to me. This is where I met the love of my life, James. He was handsome, kind, talkative, funny and just a nice person to talk to. He didn’t care that I was sweaty or my hair was in a mess. He saw me. I had never felt so special before. It was me he was looking at. After a year of being friends, we finally became a couple. I had never been happier, with someone who loved me just the way I am.
I told James about my eating disorder and that I was still in therapy. He was so kind and understanding about everything. But there were still obstacles that would come my way. I was still unhappy with my body and wanted to change. James was himself a Personal Trainer at the time and recommended one of his colleagues to me. I learned a lot about the fitness industry, nutrition and the body. I felt great, but I was still strict with my food.

That summer James and I went to Miami, Florida, for a holiday. Miami was renowned for its fitness lifestyle and beach bodies. I thought I could handle it. After my change with nutrition and exercise I thought I looked great. James said I looked fantastic. I took one look in the hotel mirror and was reduced to tears. At 17% body fat and a decent amount of muscle, I hated the way I looked. I refused to step out of my hotel room for 2 days. James and I argued most of the time. I honestly thought that was it, our relationship is over. But he reassured me how good I looked and that there is no such thing as the “perfect body”. I know that if someone hasn’t been through the same thing, they will never understand what you go through, but the support was what I needed the most.

A year later, and I am sitting here writing this, with my bowl of Total Yogurt and apple and on the phone to James, who is now away at Uni. Writing all this makes me realise how much I have gone through and how far I have come. But it isn’t only me who is going through this. One in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year (boys and girls – yes, boys too!). Anorexia is the biggest killer of all mental illnesses. It’s such a misunderstood illness. People think we are seeking attention. But they couldn’t be more wrong. We want to please everyone so much that we forget about ourselves. When life doesn’t go the way we planned, we need to control something – and the easiest thing to control is food.

Most people don’t have a healthy relationship with food. Those who are striving for the “perfect body” usually do it either by cutting calories, going on low carb diets, etc. When you start to obsess over it, it controls your life and it becomes your life. I have still have my moments now and then and, even when I have deprived myself of so much, I then binge on anything that I can get my hands on. It’s a vicious cycle that is hard to stop.

With the right Personal Trainer and being given a balanced diet, I have finally found my peace with training and food. That is why, in the summer of 2016, I have chosen to compete in a bikini competition (a bodybuilding competition, but a more feminine category) to prove that I don’t have to starve to get the perfect body (my idea of the perfect body, that is – no one else’s) and to gain confidence in my appearance.

Anorexia is no longer an illness, it’s a part of who I am. I still have my moments where I binge on food and then punish myself the next day or, in time of stress, I go back to controlling my food. But it’s a journey that I am a part of whether I like it or not.

I guess my message is to get people to understand anorexia and eating disorders in general. I am not going to lie: they mess you up big time and it won’t go away. But you learn how to deal and cope with it. I can’t stress enough that the “perfect body” doesn’t exist – even for men! A muscular guy wants to look bigger than he actually is, because he doesn’t think he is good enough. Mental illness affects more men and women than people realise. So when someone comments on how people look in photos or about their weight, I hope they really think about whether their comment is going to help that person or destroy the only bit of self-confidence they have.

I hope this has given an insight into anorexia and why my fitness journey and my promotion of food is so important to me. I am not here to preach, but to make people aware how common it is and to help others feel there aren’t alone – because they are not.

My Brother, Mother, Father & Me

I was lucky and privileged enough that my parents could pay for private treatment and send me to a brilliant treatment centre, The Surrey Centre. My therapist and my dietitian were the best people I could have asked for to guide and support me through my journey. Not only did they help me, but they also helped my mum with how to handle having a child who has anorexia. I could ring them 24/7 and they wouldn’t mind. I can’t begin to thank them enough for what they have done for me and how much they are helping other girls and boys who are in the same position I was in three years ago.

I also need to say a massive thank you to my parents, brother, family and my boyfriend. You have always been there for me when I needed to cry, talk or just to listen and console me. I didn’t think it would be possible to return from, but I managed – and it’s all thanks to you. But in particular the one person who I cannot thank enough, is my mother. Throughout this whole journey she was the one who started it with me and helped me through my darkest times. She is not only my mother but my best friend. She came to counselling sessions with me, listened to me when I needed her to and came through for me when I needed her the most. She brought me back to life and, if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. So mum, thank you, for everything.

Please show your support to Caroline by sharing this in order to help others who may be suffering, let them know they are not alone!

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