health

For these 9 women, isolation has made their relationship with food even more complicated.

This post deals with disordered eating and might be triggering for some readers. The women in this story are known to Mamamia but have chosen to remain anonymous. Stock imagery has been used.

When I shared a call out looking to speak to anyone whose relationship with food has been affected – positively or negatively – by isolation during the pandemic, the responses flooded in.

Because for anyone currently living with or who has previously lived with an eating disorder or a form of disordered eating, a change in routine can spark so many different feelings, thoughts and behaviours.

WATCH: Singer Kasey Chambers shares her experience with an eating disorder in the video. Post continues.

Video by Mamamia

Between the months of January and April, Australia’s national eating disorder and body image charity The Butterfly Foundation saw a 94 per cent increase in help-seeking behaviour via their webchat platform. They’re also receiving many calls from people and carers who are facing a very unique set of challenges and triggers during this period. This is a good thing because it means people are seeking help, but it also highlights just how big a role change plays in our mental health, especially in rural and regional areas.

“For anyone who has experienced or is currently experiencing an eating disorder, a change in routine, along with heightened levels of stress and uncertainty, can lead to a significant increase in eating disorder behaviours and thoughts,” psychologist and manager of Butterfly’s National Helpline Juliette Thomson told Mamamia.

“Eating disorders can thrive on isolation so during a time where most people are house-bound, it is critical to stay connected with family and friends as well as health professionals and your support team.”

Everyone’s experiences with disordered eating are different. Some say they’ve found this period particularly hard or shameful. Others feel “it’s been a godsend”. Below, nine Australian women share how isolation has impacted their relationship with food, and the strategies that are helping them navigate the path through.

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1. Nina, 24.

Previously, I received treatment from ages 16-18 for an eating disorder that developed when I was around 12. Recovery is not linear and I struggle to believe I will ever be free from all disordered thinking, but pre-COVID, I was in a good place. For me, routine was part of my recovery. I had regular exercise classes that kept me mentally and physically strong, and to have that removed out of the blue, as well as being home all the time surrounded by food, I struggled from day one.

I found myself comfort eating, noticing weight gain and then restricting food intake for days… then the cycle would repeat. I found myself crying in Woolworths a couple of weeks ago because they didn’t have one of my ‘safe foods’, and I just felt so lost, and so hungry. It was that day that I decided I needed to go back to treatment and I made the call.

2. Ella, 30.

I’ve always struggled with food guilt, particularly when spending time at home during the holidays when you naturally eat more. But this year before isolation, I took a leap and started working through the intuitive eating process with my dietitian, and it has been incredibly freeing. I no longer experience food guilt (which is beyond liberating, I can’t even tell you), and I’m listening more instinctively to my body during this time. Seeing the improvement has been such a relief. I’ve felt body shame my entire life, but I’m much more accepting of my body now, and focusing on all the positives. Despite being in a larger body, I’m completely healthy, and really finally accepting that weight does not equal health.

3. Alana, 32.

I am definitely starting to recognise I have an issue with disordered eating. The longer we’re in iso, the more I have struggled with binge eating. I’ve been exercising, but the food aspect of it is getting tough.

I’ve always had issues with food. I’ve fluctuated in weight all my life but it’s become more apparent during COVID-19 because I always have access to it and live alone. When I’m at work, because there’s structure, I tend to have a better relationship with food, but there’s definitely been a recent shift I’m noticing more and more. It’s taking a huge amount of mental energy to stop mindlessly reaching for food every five minutes.

4. Jen, 45.

My daughter has been living with an eating disorder since the age of 15. My experience with her eating disorder mainly relates to how isolation has changed her interactions with the rest of our family. I was feeling quietly confident about her future – she had just gotten through Year 12 well and was enjoying uni when coronavirus hit. She is now obsessed with the food we are all consuming, and dinners are often traumatic for her as someone is ‘eating too much’ and someone else isn’t ‘eating enough’.

For example, if her sibling goes for a run, doesn’t eat breakfast one morning or leaves some meat on their plate, she must discuss it with me. Conversely, she also wants to discuss her dad’s portion sizes and her other siblings’ lack of activity during isolation. I think anyone with a fear of weight gain would find iso challenging, we just need to get her back to the outside world so her mind can be filled with other things again. It’s too easy for those with disordered eating to slip back into warped thinking when they’ve got so much spare time.

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LISTEN: Mia Freedman speaks to Anne Tonner about her experience of raising a teenage daughter living with an eating disorder in the episode of the No Filter podcast below. Post continues after audio.

5. Kelly, 23.

I have had disordered eating since I was a young teenager. It’s reared its ugly head in so many forms. The most recent has been binge eating. In a corona-free world, I would take a healthy lunch to work and do everything you’re ‘supposed’ to do. Then, I would reward myself with snacks that are the equivalent of full meals. I did my best reward-bingeing on my previous hour drive home from work. As soon as I pulled into the driveway at home, the shame would hit and at some point, I’d be forced to do the dreaded, shameful collection of my many fast food wrappers hidden in my car from my husband and friends.

It’s a cycle that’s been ongoing for four years. But isolation has helped me to break that habit. At first, I was nervous about lockdown – how would I hide my snacking, how would I manage bingeing when I’ve got the whole pantry at my fingertips all day? Turns out it’s been a godsend. I’ve found online support meetings to attend that I’m more comfortable joining than in-person ones. Being in my home and controlling the world around me has reduced my anxiety and stress-induced binges. I’ve formed eating patterns that suit me, choosing foods in my pantry rather than fast food. I’m also having open conversations with my family about my bingeing habits.

6. Eden, 25.

I’ve always had an unhealthy relationship with food, however, I was first formally diagnosed with an eating disorder at 19. I’m currently a size 22 and this year, I began treatment with my psychologist under the new Medicare eating disorder mental health plan. Prior to isolation, my eating disorder was definitely still an issue in my life, but I was able to do things like eat lunch with my co-workers in a normal way and I was seeing my psychologist fortnightly.

Multiple factors have meant my eating disorder has become worse in isolation. I actually ended up leaving my job and am now unemployed because I found I wasn’t able to work from home and manage my eating disorder, it was having too much of an impact on my mental health. Another issue was food not being available when I wanted it. Eating disorders generally come with a lot of “mental rules” you set for yourself, such as only being able to eat one brand of yoghurt. When everyone started stockpiling food, that became impossible. I was having panic attacks lining up for the supermarket and felt so much more pressure. I also have been impacted by the general concerns around my body changing in isolation, and the idea on social media of the “isolation glow up.”

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My psychologist has been great at helping me to see how completely unrealistic that is and how it is completely normal and expected for our bodies to change during a global pandemic, and that it would actually be quite abnormal for my body to not undergo any changes during a time when my diet is changing, I’m moving less and I’m under a lot of pressure and stress. I’ve upped my psychology sessions as I found myself needing that extra professional support. I’m feeling in a much better place.

7. Mel, 28.

I’ve struggled with disordered eating on and off since my teens. It’s mainly triggered by a lack of control, so when iso started, it didn’t take long to feel like I needed to use my time at home to lose weight, or at the very least, not gain weight. I’ve put myself under a lot of pressure and seem to have reverted back to very old binge and purge habits. I just found out I need to go back into the office shortly after two months away, so I tried one my work pants. Of course, I hated the way I looked and felt, and was upset I hadn’t ‘made the most’ of the time. I’m not proud of this or myself, that I’m still reverting back to dangerous behaviours and thought processes 15 years on.

8. Lisa, 26.

I lived with an eating disorder in high school that affected many life choices I made for a good while after that. Although I’m recovered now, I will always have “quirks” when it comes to food and eating. It’s been… interesting to see how they’ve rebranded themselves during isolation.

On the one hand, I’m very happy I can plan and know what I’m eating every day, and on the other, it’s been disappointing to see how quickly I’ve regressed back into those food “rules” I used to have, simply because I have the brain space to think about food and I have greater access to food in the house. I’m combating this by cooking more, meditating and reminding myself how far I’ve come. I think I will come out of this stronger, but it’s something I have to work on every day.

9. Melissa, 27.

I’m someone who has been living with an eating disorder for a long time and isolation has helped me immensely. I’m working from home, so I don’t need to plan meals and am able to eat at any set time. No one is calling the cakes in the kitchen “naughty”, no one’s asking about what I’m eating or commenting on how they’re “being good” at the moment. My day is unstructured, so I can eat whenever I want and am finding I’ve had no real sudden urges like I would in my normal life to binge or purge. I feel really indifferent about food for the first time in AGES.

Help strategies if you’re experiencing an eating disorder in isolation.

 

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Eating disorders are serious and complex mental illnesses with serious physical consequences that don’t discriminate. They occur in men and women, young and old, rich and poor, and across all cultural backgrounds. They also have a ripple effect on family, friends and carers – people we’re now spending a lot more time with.

If you are looking for ways to support yourself during this time, here are Thomson’s main points of advice.

“Reach out and ask for help. Remember, you are not alone and you don’t have to battle daunting thoughts or feeling all by yourself. I would recommend talking to someone you trust about your concerns or talking to a health professional. This is now possible through online video conferencing and the phone, so speak to your GP or health professional.”

“Above all, remember to be kind to yourself.”

For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation‘s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or email [email protected]. You can also visit their website, here. The Butterfly Foundation have also just launched their MAYDAYS campaign around #PushingPastPostcodes to break down the geographical barriers to accessing eating disorder treatment and support services in rural and regional areas. You can find out more here.

Feature image: Getty.

Has your relationship with food changed since being in isolation? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

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