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Anorexia ordeal that left Northern Ireland woman tearing her hair out: 'I worried some nights going to bed if I'd even wake up in the morning'

Medical student Harriet Davis from Lisburn explains to Una Brankin how anorexia has left her literally tearing her hair out, her treatment at the famous Priory Clinic, and the video she has made to raise awareness of eating disorders

Preparing her one daily meal is an ordeal for Harriet Davis. It takes a supreme effort for the Lisburn-born medical student, who has suffered from anorexia since her early teens, to plan, cook and eat anything remotely substantial.

The resulting anxiety she experiences had led to trichomania, a condition that compels her to pull out her long, dark hair.

"Making my own food is a struggle," she admits. "Every meal is a problem. It takes a lot of effort to do just one, I dread the end of the day. The students I share with in Lancashire are aware of my condition.

"I've spoken about it, but I don't feel there's much they can do and I don't want them to feel they have to be my carers. The hair pulling is another problem. It has got very thin over the last year because it's continuous. It has really got to me."

Quietly spoken and polite, Harriet (24) was in a better place this time three years ago when she spoke to this reporter about the treatment in London she'd received for her eating disorder. Now, following a relapse, she has made an awareness-raising video for a young people's charity Fixers to challenge the stereotypes about anorexia and bulimia.

The professionally produced short film makes the point that a person doesn't need to be "stick thin" to have an eating disorder. Once dismissed, in the early stages of her illness, by a GP who said "I've seen worse than you", Harriet hopes the video will highlight the need for early intervention with eating disorders.

"GPs need to know when to refer people to specialist services and what help is available in the area - in the past I've felt like GPs haven't known what help was around and what could be offered to me," she says on the phone from Lancashire.

"I want my film to show people in the medical profession, as well as the general public, that not everyone with an eating disorder is going to be stick thin. It starts before you get thin and depending on the type of eating disorder you have, not everyone with it actually gets thin."

Harriet was only nine when she began to feel uncomfortable about her weight. There is nothing in her background that would foreshadow her condition. She recalls a "happy and secure" childhood in Ravarnet, Co Antrim, with her brother Johnny (27) and her parents Elaine (59), a librarian, and John (64), a professor of agriculture and food economics.

Musically talented, she did well at school and attained a grade seven in piano in her fourth form. But, by 15, Harriet had developed what was to become a life-threatening eating disorder. As in many cases of the illness, body dysmorphia was a factor for the pretty young schoolgirl.

"I felt like I'd gained some weight and I wanted to lose it," she recalls. "I started dieting and I got very restrictive very quickly. I felt like I looked bigger than I was and I really wanted the positive feeling of losing weight and looking thinner. Also, there were quite a few deaths in the family in a short space of time and, looking back, I think it had a big emotional impact on me."

When her condition got worse - and in the absence of a specialist unit in Northern Ireland - Harriet was admitted to St George's Hospital in London, where she received treatment for seven months before being discharged.

The future looked bright at last, and Harriet enjoyed her first year at the University of Lancashire. So much so that she stopped taking her medication, feeling she didn't need it. The results were disastrous.

"I had no real support here, except the GP at the university," she explains. "He was better than some I've had and he did try. He would weigh me and when he saw me getting worse, he referred me to a local eating disorders service that had just been set up.

"But I was too far gone then. Being off the medication, I felt very strange, detached and tearful, and I panicked. The only way of coping was to control what I ate. I struggled to eat anything."

Constantly cold, Harriet knew her system was breaking down. She began to fear death.

"My hands and feet were numb constantly, and I worried some nights, when I went to bed, about my heart and if I'd wake up in the morning," she continues. "I lost motivation to talk and interact with others, and my friends didn't know what to do or say to help me."

Harriet ended up in the Priory in Glasgow, a branch of the private clinic in London frequented by celebrities, as there were no beds available for her in Lancashire or nearby Preston. Her mother had wanted her to come home for treatment, but Harriet felt she'd receive better help from the specialists at the Priory.

"I didn't want to be put into a general ward back home, which still is the only option for eating disorders there. Mum hadn't realised how bad I'd got. By the end of my second year I knew I'd end up in hospital, but I just couldn't tell her until the last minute.

"Mum came to see me every other week. It was hard at the start, but I had a very good experience in the Priory. I thought I was well enough to leave after a few weeks but they said I'd benefit from a longer stay."

After attending therapy groups, working on weight gain and meeting with an occupational therapist, Harriet was discharged from the Priory in July 2015. She attends an eating disorder service in Lancashire, and can speak to a counsellor on the phone between times.

But she feels it isn't enough: "They can only see me twice a week at the moment. My priority is not ending up in hospital again. It takes six weeks to apply through the NHS for private care - it's a very slow turnaround and very frustrating.

"I want to get better. I don't want to end up in hospital again."

Contrary to the stereotype of the anorexia constantly monitoring their weight, Harriet is the opposite.

"I don't know what I weigh - it's too distressing for me to see it when I'm weighed," she says quickly, the anxiety underlying her rushed response. "People don't really comment on my weight, except mum. It's not the first thing she says when I see her. It takes a few days.

"But with eating disorders, that becomes your whole identity - you're not the girl who can play the piano, not the girl who studies medicine. You're 'that girl with anorexia'. You become the eating disorder.

"I really feel for people in Northern Ireland," she adds. "It's so hard, you have to travel to London for specialist treatment, and that makes it harder to reintegrate afterwards. Twenty-four-hour specialist care is what's needed."

Harriet resumed her medical studies in 2015 and recently made her awareness-raising video for Fixers, with the help of a producer and some professional actors. Shot in shadowy black and white, it features Harriet and her cast - which includes a young man - speaking directly into the camera from Harriet's script: a series of comments that sum up the common misconceptions surrounding eating disorders.

Aimed at both the public and health professionals, the message is clear: it's not just young girls that suffer from eating disorders. Both sexes and a range of ages are affected.

Despite her continuing battle with anorexia, Harriet is determined to finish her course. She hopes to specialise in neurology or paediatrics.

"If I didn't have medicine I think I'd just be in and out of hospital because I wouldn't feel like I had a purpose in life," she says. "I'd advise anyone who is suffering from an eating disorder to find something in life they are passionate about.

"Let your drive be focused on a constructive rather than destructive purpose. Realise that you can be 'rescued' by doctors and nurses, but to recover, you also need to become your own 'rescuer' and use the tools you've been given to cast off the blanket of the eating disorder. Create a new way of comforting yourself."

Having abandoned the piano throughout her illness, Harriet has recently taken it up again. She would like to come back home, eventually.

"My plan is to qualify and practise for a couple of years in Scotland or London. Then I'd like to come and raise a family near my parents. I'd love to have kids of my own and for them to grow up seeing lots of their grandparents, like I did."

Harriet's video for the Fixers charity can be seen on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AmGZ4gJsXDM

Eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder affect an estimated 1.6m people in the UK, with many more suffering in silence.

In the absence of a specialist care unit for sufferers in Northern Ireland, the Eating Disorders Association (EDANI) plays a valuable role in providing support, information and understanding to people with eating disorders, as well as their families and friends.

A charity based in Belfast city centre, EDANI has a national focus, operating services across Northern Ireland.

Its aim is to raise awareness of these disorders and to support people who are affected by providing a safe space to talk about their disorder.

It currently has two part-time members of staff who conduct the day-to-day business within the organisation and a small team of dedicated unpaid support workers.

See www.eatingdisordersni.co.uk

Fixers works with young people aged 16-25 across the UK by providing them with resources to help them campaign on issues they feel strongly about. The charity has helped more than 19,000 youngsters to have a voice in their community on issues such as cyber-bullying, self-harm, suicide or transphobia. For more information or to make a donation to fund more Fixer projects, visit www.fixers.org.uk

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