Written by Juliette Burton

Health

Taking control of eating disorders

There’s been an unprecedented rise in eating disorders in teens. Overeating and anorexia were the flip side of the same coin for Juliette Burton and both nearly killed her. She tells Standard Issue about her ongoing recovery.

weighing scalesNone of us are what we seem. When it comes to eating disorders, appearances can be especially deceptive.

I was overweight as a child, struggled with OCD from eight years old, was diagnosed with anorexia aged 14 and with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder at 16. I was first hospitalised aged 16, sectioned aged 17 and spent my 18th birthday in hospital. Before I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act, I was told I was a month away from dying and, if I’m honest, I didn’t care. I had lost myself within my illness and didn’t want to be found.

The condition that dominated my medical records, however, was eating disorders. Having learnt not to like my body at a young age, from school bullies, magazines, adverts, I felt uneasy inside my physical self. When the pressures of growing up got harder to handle – exams, changing body, expectations that I was meant to live up to – this unease turned to obsession.

I began cutting back what I ate to find some control within what felt like an uncontrollable world. I felt as though I had found a solution to the panic and pain I couldn’t vocalise for fear of being misunderstood.

It was easier to focus on something I could affect: what I ate and my weight. I began getting thinner. The high I felt from eating less and less coupled with the intoxication of losing myself within that obsession clouded my vision. The thinner I became, the less I could see it. Focusing on every minute ounce of flesh was easier to focus on than the terrified feelings I had of life being lived for me, my life spiralling into something I didn’t want it to be.

I lost sight of fun, I distanced myself from my friends and family and I turned more and more towards my illness. I was taken out of school for therapy each week and then was hospitalised for the first time. After that admission I wasn’t allowed to return to my school, for fear of my effect on the other girls. Looking back, I feel I was already being pushed away, marginalised from continuity and acceptance.

“Focusing on every minute ounce of flesh was easier to focus on than the terrified feelings I had of life being lived for me, my life spiralling into something I didn’t want it to be.”

I tried to get back into education, going to three separate sixth form colleges to try to get my GCSEs and A levels. I had been expected to get 11 A*s at GCSE and straight As at A level. Instead I was sectioned for anorexia about a month after sitting my AS levels. The doctor told me I was a month away from dying but all I saw in the mirror was someone I hated. Feeling the bones made me feel invincible, as if I had the control I longed for.

I was submerged in an illness that really is fatal. It is not attention-seeking or a lifestyle choice. Anorexia is dangerous and took a deathly hold over me. No one could reach me; the anorexia minx whispered sweet nothings into my ear about how fat, disgusting, unworthy I was and how the only way to become worthy was to not eat, eat less and less. My body wasn’t worthy of being nurtured or fed; I didn’t want to look after it. That’s why I feel passionately that we must educate young people about how nutrition works; how to look after bodies to ensure they place health above appearance.

When I was sectioned I spent three months in that hospital. I was so underweight and under such stress I had naturally occurring psychosis, where my mind ‘checked out’ and I began hallucinating audibly and visually. Hearing voices and seeing things no one else could see. I was put on anti-psychotic drugs.

A year after leaving that hospital aged 19, I went from a size four to a size 20 in around six months due to compulsive overeating disorder. Both overeating and anorexia were the flip side of the same coin, for me. I used both to numb the pain I felt.

In the years following I struggled with bulimia. For me, and for many, eating disorders become a shapeshifter; that anorexia minx whispered I was fat, disgusting, not good enough, and when I gave in to my urge to eat I found I didn’t want to stop. I physically couldn’t stop. Like an alcoholic using alcohol as his drug of choice, I used food. I was powerless against this addiction. It was life-ruining. I locked myself in my bedroom to try to prevent myself from eating. I would pass out from the pain of binging. I could not stop myself.

“When I began to lose myself within compulsive overeating I felt utterly, heartbreakingly confused. For so many years I had identified myself as ‘anorexic’ – not daughter, actor, writer, friend. I was my illness and had found an identity in that.”

To anyone who accuses me of being weak willed, I direct them to how ‘strong willed’ I had supposedly been during my anorexia. Eating disorders are not about willpower. They are illnesses. They are not about weaknesses. They are enticing solutions to emotional problems. The real strength is in asking for help. And that is terrifying because of the amount of stigma attached to having mental health conditions – thanks to those who say it is weakness or weak will.

When my anorexia first set in, I had felt a rush, an increasing high of unreal ‘self-esteem’, which wasn’t to be trusted. This was a part of my illness. When I began to lose myself within compulsive overeating I felt utterly, heartbreakingly confused. For so many years I had identified myself as ‘anorexic’ – that was who I had become. Not daughter, actor, writer, friend. I was my illness and had found an identity in that.

Suddenly I had lost all I had become. And I was losing the control I had rigidly relied upon. I was disgusted with myself. All I wanted, longed for was release from the thing that I hated: my body. I fantasied about killing myself and felt I had nothing to offer anyone, least of all myself. How wrong I was. I’m so grateful to everyone who helped me survive that terribly dark time. Now I live in a life filled with light.

In the hospital where I was sectioned we had a varied diet, filled with salads, rice, vegetables, fish and meats. I gained weight – gradually – and thanks to physical activities such as Pilates I at last began to see food could be used to fuel my body to live a life I love. But I was still ill. When coming out of that hospital I was faced with the same pressures of finding a future, a place I couldn’t see or control. I lost myself within food again and delayed growing up, delayed taking responsibility for my life.

I had been taught so strongly from so many external voices to hate my body because it would never be good enough, pretty enough, perfect enough. I had no chance of living up to that unattainable beauty I saw all around me – I felt like a failure at life before I’d even begun living it and I wanted out.

weighing scalesAt first I was sure everyone was making a fuss about nothing regarding my anorexia. Now I know how dangerous it can be. I never wanted to be an overeater, I knew how much it was destroying my body, but when you hate yourself, you want to destroy what you hate. And even on the days you don’t entirely hate yourself, that’s when it becomes clear how much of a hold this illness has over you because you still abide by its rules, its dangerous, life-threatening rules.

I broke the cycle at various points in my life. I now look back and see certain times when something shifted – whether that was being in the hospital where nutrition was taught in a healthy way and realising food wasn’t an enemy, or when I realised I was powerless against my addiction to compulsive overeating and my own ego couldn’t rescue me, or when I realised I had something valuable to offer by having a voice, being honest and making people laugh onstage in my work.

Recovery isn’t an instant thing; my recovery is ongoing, a journey, a pathway upon which I will face new challenges and need to seek new tools to help me negotiate the road I’m now committed to walk upon. I don’t want to opt out any more.

In my ongoing recovery, I have turned to groups, charities like Mind and B-Eat; I use honesty, CBT techniques, mindfulness techniques, meditation techniques, talking therapy (I still see a psychotherapist), learning to reach out to accepting, understanding friends and say, “Hey, I’m struggling.”

I also use the nutritional guidance I’ve been given over the years and rely upon that to help my understanding of how to nurture my body to be at its healthiest. Exercise and relaxation techniques are also of great importance, but being connected to others also committed to being well and looking after themselves is my most vital tool, because we can all help each other remember where we’ve come from and where we’re going on our journey of recovery.

“Being connected to others also committed to being well and looking after themselves is vital, because we can all help each other remember where we’ve come from and where we’re going on our journey of recovery.”

It has taken me years to learn all of this, and I am still learning every day. Starting a journey of recovery opens the door to a whole world of education and opens your mind to new levels of empathy. It is vital that everyone knows resources like Mind or B-Eat are out there and that every person, no matter their background, is able to access a variety of treatment. It isn’t one size fits all. Different treatment styles work for different people. We must provide access for all.

Our bodies are extraordinary and worthy of respect – whether that comes from ourselves, from others or from the advertising industry who keep selling us this ‘perfect’ ideal we’re meant to fit in to. The pursuit of ‘perfection’ is the most pointless quest – because it doesn’t exist. And yet, for many, this is how a life-threatening eating disorder begins.

If we could create a world where we are less focused on how we look on the outside, then that could be a world where mental health is more manageable and where future young men and women won’t have to go through what I went through.

We are all fighting battles internally no one else knows about. But if we are able to be more open and honest – all of us – we don’t have to fight that battle alone. Then we can focus on celebrating what our amazing bodies are capable of doing.

Juliette performs Look At Me at Leicester Square Theatre on Jun 17 and 18. Click here for tickets. She’s also at the Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh, from August 16 to 21. Click here for tickets.

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Written by Juliette Burton

Juliette Burton is a docu-comedian, actor, writer, thinker, dreamer, doer and person. She has a history of mental health problems and loves The Muppets. These two things are in no way linked.