Ahead of charity FightED’s course this month to raise awareness of eating disorders, Linda Stewart talks to Millisle mum Suzanne Hunter and Belfast schoolboy Matthew Moore about their struggles with illness.
Suzanne Hunter (34), a former civil servant, lives in Millisle with her partner Andy Blain (38), children Kayla (8) and Ryan (7), and step daughters Rachel (13), Abbie (11) and Katie (8). She says:
My eating disorder started when I was in secondary school, when I was around 13 or 14. To be honest, I don’t know what the trigger was — it was just something that developed. However I did have pretty low self esteem and felt overweight even though I wasn’t at the time. I’ve always felt like that, even as a child.
I just started restricting what foods I ate and having negative thoughts about eating in my head. It wasn’t a severe condition then. While it was an eating disorder — I didn’t even know I had it. My parents thought I was going to school dinners but I wasn’t.
Then in my 20s things got easier and I was fine when I was pregnant. But after I had my second baby I started restricting what I ate again, and it just got worse. Then in 2015, I wasn’t really eating anything at all and that’s when I went into hospital. Nine months before that was the first time I got treatment.
A couple of people had asked me if I was eating properly but I just kept saying ‘yes’. I would never admit it to anybody.
I didn’t speak to friends or family about it until I knew I was going into hospital. And that was the first time I had talked about my eating disorder.
I’d been to see my doctor about something completely different but he knew by looking at me that I’d lost weight. He noticed that my weight had dropped a lot and referred me to the Eating Disorder Service. If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t have asked for help.
At first I still didn’t think I needed help. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me.
Before going into hospital, though, I realised that I was unwell. My weight had dropped so low — my BMI was 13 (the average BMI for women age 20 and older is 28.7). And the people I was seeing at the Eating Disorder Service encouraged me to agree to go into hospital.
I spent six months at a psychiatric ward in Holywell Hospital in Antrim. And two weeks after I had been admitted, I was rushed to Antrim Area Hospital because my heart rate and temperature were so low.
Going into the hospital probably saved my life from a physical point of view. It took me a long time to realise — even when I had been hospitalised — that everybody needs food to live. People think this disorder is about eating — but it’s about what is going on in your head. It’s a mental illness. And it’s hard to explain to other people as well as being difficult to accept.
When I got out of hospital I was okay for a couple of months and then I started to lose weight again.
In October last year I started going to the IST (intensive support team) at Woodstock Lodge four days a week. That helped me regain the weight I lost and maintain it. I see an eating disorder therapist once a week now, and she is brilliant at her job.
It was probably hardest on my partner. He sees the struggle that I’ve been through on a daily basis. I try not to let it affect the kids. We always try to sit and have a family meal together at dinner time because I think that’s very important for the children.
I’m still recovering and it’s not something that can happen overnight. To be honest, I don’t know if it’s possible to ever fully recover.
If you compare an eating disorder to somebody who has an addiction — are they ever fully recovered? I think I’ll always have some battle in my head against it and that’s something I’m going to have to learn to live with and not let it control me anymore.
While I have had great help from medical staff I think, in general, support for those with an eating disorder here is not as good as it should be. We need a specialist unit which is dedicated to treating those with eating disorders, staffed by people who are trained and have experience with this illness.
Struggling with anorexia is a constant battle between the voice in your head and others who are telling you that you need to eat.
When I eat something I have a huge amount of guilt for doing so.
And that is something I have to deal with everyday.”
Belfast Boys Model School pupil Matthew Moore (17) lives in north Belfast with mum Claire, a nurse, his dad Paul (49), a hire controller at CP Hire, his sisters Lydia (12) and Grace (10), and brother Sam (10). He says:
Growing up, I was fascinated with dinosaurs. I was a typical boy and enjoyed sports and movies.
But things started to change at school in the summer of 2009 when I was going into P7. I was bullied and it was very bad. While I had a lot of friends during this time at school, a number of people led by one particular individual, started calling me fat. They kept doing it, and I started to have negative thoughts about myself.
The bullying was constant and it got to the point where I thought ‘if they are saying it, it must be true’. I remember looking at photos before P7 and, at the time, I thought I was fat — but looking back I was an average size.
As a result I began to deceive my family so I wouldn’t have to eat.
Every morning I would get up at about 6am, go down and pretend that I’d had a bowl of cereal. I’d put a bit of milk in the bowl and a couple of cornflakes.
Throughout the day I barely ate anything and would scrutinise the fat content and the calories on food containers. The average boy eats about 2,000 calories (a day) and I would have been eating 500-750 calories.
Of course this affected me — I had no energy and was very lacklustre. I remember the dinner ladies used to say ‘Are you okay? You’re very pale’.
I would exercise after meals and the thoughts in my head told me not to eat.
During this time I did get help from a counsellor at Street Beat, which is a charity for young people, and then saw a specialist at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, to help me deal with my feelings.
When I was 11, I weighed 5.5 stone. Everyday when I got in from school I was ready to sleep by 6pm because I felt so tired all the time.
After going to secondary school, though, my self-confidence started to grow and my mindset changed.
The worst part about the illness was the impact it had on my family. I put them through hell because I wouldn’t eat anything.
I remember my mum and dad crying. My mum cried every day. If it wasn’t for them I don’t think I would be here today.
My aunt Elaine and uncle Tom would encourage me to eat meat they had bought which they said was from a local butcher’s which specialised in low fat food. But the low fat steak was actually from M&S.
They would print off labels and put them on food just to get me to eat.
That is how they got me to eat and I just kept doing it.
Once I saw my mum in the car putting a label on a package from Tesco and I was angry at her. I was so annoyed that I wouldn’t eat for the next two days.
Now, though, I realise how bad it was for my family. Because of the upset at home I started to eat — for them.
Gradually I began to eat normally again and I’m eating constantly now. I think I’m making up for lost time. A close friend, who also suffered from a mental illness, helped me. He enabled me to talk about what I was going through.
Anyone who’s in the situation I was should listen to their family. They are only doing it because they love you.
For a while I was self-conscious about my body but now I’m happy with the way I am.
A couple of years ago I didn’t want my eating disorder mentioned at all, but I’m very open about it now. I don’t want others to suffer. I’m in year 14 now at and want to be a counsellor. I’m also a mentor at my school — all I want is to help others.”