Age-Old Anorexia: The Lifelong Mindset

Friday, 19 December 2014

It's not often I share my personal work on here, but I feel like this feature particularly deserves to be read. I had the pleasure of interviewing the most humble and inspiring woman about her lifelong battle with anorexia and it really opened my eyes to the daily challenges other people face. As a society we're all very quick to judge, jump to conclusions and take things for granted, so it was an honour to put this lovely lady's journey into words. I hope her story inspires you as much as it did me. Enjoy...

For most, a Saturday evening is typically spent curled up in front of the TV with a side serving of good food. But for 54-year-old Sharon, who has been battling anorexia since the age of 12, trivial tasks like eating make her life far from normal. Nicole Cottrell reports.

Adolescent girls may spring to mind when eating disorders are highlighted but it is misconceptions like these which may cause unlikely sufferers to fall through the cracks. The transparent lack of support available for older women who do not reflect the typical stereotype could be failing them instead of steering them onto the road to recovery. Sharon Birkitt, of Harlow, Essex, painfully recalls how anorexia was triggered in her teenage years due to the bullying she endured from teachers and pupils in secondary school, leaving her desperate to physically mould herself to fit in. Growing up as a fussy eater who had a phobia of people eating around her, Sharon’s obsession with food quickly spiralled out of control causing her to plummet to a mere six stone. 

Secretly disposing of food in her bedroom, Sharon struggled to recognise the illness that was beginning to encompass her. She says: “I stopped eating to get slimmer until I realised it was the one thing I could control. I was unhappy about everything to do with myself. I’d be hungry but I wouldn’t eat. That was the test – whether I could stay in control. I made excuses that it wasn’t me that didn’t want to eat. I couldn’t eat - it wasn’t my choice. I was so proud of how thin I was.” Along with anorexia, Sharon suffered with Body Dysmorphic Order (BDD) which caused her condition to deteriorate: “Every time I ate I felt myself grow and I hated it. I would look in the mirror once and feel fine but an hour later I’d look three times the size” she says.

Sharon praises our health system for the amount of support available for young girls but expresses her concern for older women like herself who may not have access to external support networks. “There’s so much help available for youngsters these days which of course is great, but it would be wise to provide support for women more my age. We might learn to live with it as we grow older but it’s still in our heads” she says. Although Sharon’s condition became more stable as she entered her adult years, the mum of three feels like there is still an inner demon to fight. She explains: “I was prescribed laxatives by the doctor a few years ago. One day I must have taken between 10 and 15 because I felt thoroughly disgusted at what I’d eaten.

“If I could have made myself sick and spared myself the pain of taking laxatives I would have, but I have a phobia of sick. I was tempted to take them again last year but I’d like to think I wouldn’t revert back to my old ways. Deep down, I know I can’t put my children through that again.” Sharon, who cares for her father full-time, tries to have a positive outlook on life and likes to think she will learn to feel more confident with her appearance. She says: “I don’t struggle typically anymore but I know the second I look in the mirror I’ll look like a blob. I only weigh nine stone but I can’t seem to shift my anorexic mindset.”

Kerry Prior, 39, is the manager of Community Organisation for Problem Eating (COPE) in North East Essex and recognises that support for older women is not as prominent as it is for teenage girls. She says: “I’m very concerned about the NHS funding cuts in this mental health area. We have no adult funding at present and have to turn away many responsible adult sufferers. We only have an NHS service for very severe adult sufferers now. Unfortunately, the funding cuts have halted our progress at COPE with early intervention for adults which would actually save the NHS more money in the long run. 

"Despite this, we're so lucky to have limited early intervention because due to costs, many areas don’t have the benefit of this service.” Kerry feels it is important to offer help to men and women of all ages as more people die from eating disorders than any other mental health condition. She adds: “Sadly, many health professionals do not understand the problem and don’t act on it. We recognise that many young boys and girls are affected but also a significant amount of older women around the menopausal age.” 

While funding may not be at the forefront of tackling the mental health issue in Essex, private practitioners can provide an alternative support route for all ages. Michelle Kuzak, 52, is a psychodynamic counsellor specialising in eating disorders at the Avalon Clinic in Chelmsford, Essex. The therapy Michelle offers helps clients understand the root cause of their problems, equipping them with the knowledge to cope with further difficulties. She says: “Anorexia is an illness which is predominantly perceived to affect young girls, therefore ruling out older women. Many women I see have had this illness for many years and have learned to live with it due to not having the correct support when they were younger.”

Michelle feels that the disorder stems from a need to feel attached to something as well as a lack of a sense of identity. She says: “The lack of identity leaves people needing something more than ever and in my opinion attachment and addiction cannot be separated. “Anorexia is a mindset that evolves but never totally goes away. People who have recovered know that when life suddenly throws a curve-ball, the voice can return in times of stress and difficulty.” Anorexia remains a dormant mindset in sufferers meaning the volatile illness can erupt at any given moment, but perhaps the question should be asked whether it’s important for early intervention to remain in the spotlight or if the focus should shift to shattering the age stereotype indefinitely.

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