OPENING UP ON EATING BATTLE TO HELP OTHERS
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.