OPEN­ING UP ON EAT­ING BAT­TLE TO HELP OTH­ERS

Carmarthen Journal - - Front Page - ROB HAR­RIES 07890 546505 robert.har­[email protected]­di­awales.co.uk

AS I sit across from Char­lotte May, I see a healthy and at­trac­tive young woman.

She doesn’t, though. What she sees is some­thing else en­tirely, some­thing that does not ex­ist ex­cept in her own mind, and no mat­ter how many times she is told oth­er­wise a part of her will al­ways feel “fat”.

“I’m still too big,” she says, openly, sat in the can­teen of the univer­sity that she at­tends in Car­marthen.

“I hate my body. I al­ways will. I just have to learn to live with it.”

Char­lotte is com­plet­ing a de­gree in so­cial stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Wales, Trin­ity Saint David. She is here, study­ing at the age of 27, be­cause of anorexia. She is grate­ful, at least, that she is here at all, be­cause she went to sleep one night con­vinced that “it was the end”.

Anorexia has taken so much from Char­lotte. Ul­ti­mately, it stole her youth.

She wants it back but it’s clear that this is no re­cov­ery in­ter­view with a happy end­ing. The war has be­gun and it has been won, to a point, but it will wage for­ever in her mind.

Char­lotte is orig­i­nally from Lla­narth in Ceredi­gion. She started to strug­gle with anorexia as a young school­girl.

“I was about 11 when it started,” she says with some de­gree of trep­i­da­tion. This in­ter­view has clearly taken some courage on her part.

“It all hap­pened sud­denly. I was very un­happy be­cause I changed schools. I left pri­mary school and went to sec­ondary school and I couldn’t take it, the un­hap­pi­ness.

“I had re­ally bad OCD (ob­ses­sive com­pul­sive dis­or­der) so I thought I was a freak. I then lost all in­ter­est in food – I just didn’t want it and I wasn’t hun­gry.”

As Char­lotte pro­gressed through sec­ondary school her con­di­tion im­proved. She got bet­ter and lived the life of a ‘nor­mal teenager’ for a few years. But, at 18 things got worse.

A new ob­ses­sion of go­ing to the gym had taken hold and com­pli­ments on her ap­pear­ance were not greeted as such by Char­lotte but were taken as trig­gers for more ex­treme re­ac­tions. She wanted to look bet­ter. She wanted to do more. She wanted to be thin­ner.

This dan­ger­ous cock­tail of in­ces­sant ex­er­cise and un­der-nour­ish­ment went on for a year un­til a doc­tor re­alised what was go­ing on and forced her to get help.

“I went to see the doc­tor for some­thing else,” ex­plains Char­lotte. “He re­ferred me to an eat­ing dis­or­der spe­cial­ist. I couldn’t be­lieve what I was hear­ing. I was in com­plete de­nial.”

At this stage Char­lotte was eat­ing just one small meal a day.

She con­tin­ues: “I couldn’t go out with friends or fam­ily for food be­cause it would be awk­ward. I didn’t want to eat – es­pe­cially not in front of

peo­ple. I would feel like a pig. I would feel that peo­ple were look­ing at me think­ing I was fat.

“So I learned to ig­nore hunger to the point where I didn’t no­tice it.”

At her low­est point Char­lotte weighed less than half of what would be deemed a healthy weight for some­one of her height.

Her body mass in­dex (BMI) was 10. It should have been be­tween 18.5 and 25.

“I went into hos­pi­tal for treat­ment,” she says. “I had to go to a spe­cial­ist unit in Eng­land be­cause there is nowhere in Wales that treats eat­ing dis­or­ders. I was there for 10 months and then I came home.

“But I wasn’t right so I ended up go­ing back and forth for about five years. Even­tu­ally they wouldn’t take me back be­cause they thought there was noth­ing else they could do. They had done ev­ery­thing they could to help me.”

Then, one night, Char­lotte had given up. She had given up on anorexia and on life. She thought it had beaten her and she gave in. She went to sleep for what she thought was the last time.

“I could feel my heart in my chest. I was so thin and I couldn’t move. I didn’t have the nerve to tell any­one so I thought I would just go to sleep and that would be that.

“I thought that was the end and that I was go­ing to die that night.”

Her body fought back, some­how find­ing the strength to carry her through that night so that she could fight an­other day, an­other week, an­other month.

A long stay in Glang­wili Hos­pi­tal in Car­marthen fol­lowed. She was dis­charged and started univer­sity in 2015. She is still a stu­dent, hav­ing changed cour­ses, and is work­ing hard to get the de­gree that she hopes will form the ba­sis of a ca­reer in so­cial care.

These hopes are real and they ex­ist be­cause of the sup­port that Char­lotte has re­ceived from fam­ily and friends and from peo­ple in the field of men­tal health care who have helped her get to the posi- tion she is in to­day.

“My lec­tur­ers at univer­sity have been bril­liant and my friends and fam­ily have been amaz­ing,” she says.

“And there’s a woman called Wendy Bell, a men­tal health spe­cial­ist based in Car­marthen, who has ba­si­cally kept me alive. I wouldn’t be here to­day if it wasn’t for her.

“It was re­ally, re­ally hard for my fam­ily. My mother said that one point she didn’t want me to come home. She didn’t want me to leave hos­pi­tal be­cause she was wor­ried what might hap­pen, what I might do to my­self if I was out­side a hos­pi­tal en­vi­ron­ment.”

Char­lotte looks healthy now but I can’t help no­tice the fear that still lives in her eyes. She won’t even tell me her cur­rent weight as she is wor­ried that I will think she is fat.

I tell her that she is not and she smiles and says “thank you” but then the fear reap­pears. She doesn’t be­lieve me – not for a sec­ond.

“It’s an on­go­ing bat­tle,” she ex­plains. “I’ve spo­ken to peo­ple who have been through a sim­i­lar thing and they tell me that they are over it now. It’s a time in their lives that they can look back on and close.

“I can’t do that. It will al­ways be there.”

That doesn’t mean that it has to dom­i­nate her life in a way that it once did, how­ever. Char­lotte says she can now do things that she never could be­fore. Things that I con­sider sec­ond na­ture, like go­ing out for a meal with my friends, en­joy­ing Christ­mas and all the trim­mings with my fam­ily, and not think­ing about food all the time.

Part of her re­cov­ery is help­ing other peo­ple who have been through the same thing. She is hop­ing to set up a sup­port group based at the univer­sity af­ter Christ­mas for peo­ple strug­gling with eat­ing dis­or­ders and those who self-harm.

She wants to do it be­cause she knows there are other peo­ple out there who are liv­ing the life that she once led and that they need some­where to turn. They need some­one who un­der­stands.

“Eat­ing dis­or­ders are not some­thing to be ashamed of,” says Char­lotte, de­fi­antly.

“I was ashamed for so much of mine but now I’m try­ing to be as open as pos­si­ble to help other peo­ple. I’ve started my own In­sta­gram blog where I talk about how I’m feel­ing about food and what helps me.

“I have known all my life that I want to help oth­ers but I just didn’t know how. Hav­ing gone through this and al­most died from my body giv­ing up on me it has made me see that I need to be healthy for my fam­ily and friends.

“And one day, if I learn to like my­self, maybe I could do it for me, too.”

Char­lotte isn’t fat. She still can’t see what every­body else can see. But maybe, just maybe, through help­ing oth­ers, one day she will.

Char­lotte spent years in and out of hos­pi­tal.

Trin­ity St David stu­dent Char­lotte May who, up un­til re­cently, has suf­fered with anorexia, at her low­est point weigh­ing just 5 stone.

Pic­ture: Adrian White

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