The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman

Standard

This is the true story of how Laura Freeman was diagnosed with anorexia at 14 and how the food described in books helped her to recover.  I’m pleased to say that Laura, thanks largely to the support of her wonderful mum, is now doing well, with a successful writing career, a nice husband, and a double first from Cambridge; but she went through a very rough time.

This is an interesting book, even though her taste in books isn’t that similar to mine, but I’m probably the wrong person to be writing about it.  I know all about binge eating disorder, and I can understand bulimia, but I find anorexia difficult to relate to.  But Laura does a wonderful job of explaining it – through the prism of seeing her mind as a library, in which the books have all fallen off the shelves and got in a mess.

Books and food.  She doesn’t talk about whether there was any connection in her mind between books and food *before* she developed anorexia, so I assume that there wasn’t one.  Now, I grew up reading books in which everyone was always eating.  And we’re not talking a cup of tea and a biscuit – we’re  talking huge slabs of cherry cake, crumpets dripping with butter, and “young bathtubs” of whipped cream.  And sardines, but we’ll ignore that bit: I don’t like sardines.  The Malory Towers and St Clare’s girls were always having midnight feasts, with goodies from their enormous tuckboxes (strangely unaffected by rationing). The Chalet School girls ate vast quantities of cream cakes and fancy bread twists.  The Five Find-Outers spent so much time eating sticky buns in the local cafe that it’s a wonder they ever had time to search for clues.  The Famous Five, the Mystery gang and all the others consumed large picnics followed by equally large high teas.  Even the Ingalls family, who lived in the middle of nowhere and had no money, were always eating Ma’s “good” food.

Is there some sort of connection between all that and my eating disorders?  No: I honestly don’t think there is.  Probably because there’s never much connection between the amount of food eaten by characters in books and their weight.  About the only one who worried about her weight was Caroline Scott in the Wells books, who went through a phase of turning down second helpings of afters … before magically losing all her “puppy fat”, developing a perfect figure, and being swept off her feet by a handsome Spaniard.  In about 1987, a kind old lady assured me that I’d lose my “puppy fat”.  I’m still waiting.  And, anyway, none of them eat for no specific reason, or to punish themselves.  They only eat at “occasions”.  Like midnight feasts.  I really want to say that I’ve just discovered the answer to eating disorders, and that it’s that you need to have high teas and midnight feasts with a gang of mates rather than eating your way through the contents of the fridge (or, if it’s empty, the freezer) for no reason whatsoever.  How lovely what that be?   But, sadly, it isn’t, because if I ate even one of those high teas, I would put on 3lbs.  This does not happen to people in books.  Lucky them!!

There’s a definite negativity about overweight characters in books, though.  It’s just that their weight is shown as a character trait (a bad one) rather than as a function of what they eat.  It’s OK for Frederick “Fatty” Trotteville to be fat, because he’s supremely self-confident, but it’s made very clear that no-one would want to be like the unfortunately-named Alma Pudden, or Linda Fischer, or even Hilda Jukes who gets picked on despite having a very kind personality.

Strangely – well, strangely to me – Laura Freeman doesn’t see it like that.  She picks up on books portraying being thin as being a negative thing.  The examples she gives are Charlie Bucket and his family, painfully thin because all they can afford to eat is cabbage, Anne Shirley being very thin when we first meet her, because no-one’s really looked after her until she goes to live with Matthew and Marilla, and Mary Lennox looking “thin and yellow” because she’s been living in “unhealthy” India.  I suppose I take the point.  There’s a lot of talk in books about feeding people up, especially after they’ve been ill.

She doesn’t mention that until the end of the book, though.  Most of it is an account of the different books she read as she recovered, and how the food described in them, and the way in which it was described, appealed to her and made her want to try it.  I suppose that’s what I should be writing about, but they weren’t really my favourite books, so I haven’t really got much to say about them.  Interestingly, they weren’t the sort of books you’d usually associate with food.  The writings of the First World War poets.  And Charles Dickens: the only food I associate with Dickens is the gruel which poor Oliver Twist had to eat in the workhouse.  Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie.  Elizabeth David’s recipe books.  Harry Potter.  They aren’t my books, as I’ve said, but it’s a wonderful account of how books can help people, and I’m so glad to know that Laura is now doing so much better.

There are more books about eating disorders than there used to be, but it’s still a subject that’s not talked about very much, and this is a really different take on it.  I feel like I’ve just written a load of stuff about myself rather than about Laura’s book, but books like this are important for people who’ve got their own issues, and you’re bound to try to relate what they say to yourself.   An interesting read.

Eating Disorders Awareness Week

Standard

  British Eating Disorders UK (BEAT)’s summary – “Binge eating disorder will affect one in fifty of us in our lifetime, it is the most common but least understood. It isn’t about being greedy or lacking in willpower, but a serious mental illness which many suffer with alone, often with the fear of how others might react the reason they don’t reach out for help”.  I’m not responsible for the poor syntax 😉 , nor am I responsible for the clashing colours, but the meaning’s clear enough.   They’ve also pointed out on their website that “binge eating disorder is linked to low self-esteem and lack of confidence, depression and anxiety” and that “some people gain weight because of emotional difficulties, and being overweight can also lead to emotional difficulties”.

This is Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2021, with the focus on Binge Eating Disorder.  Everyone’s having bad days during lockdown: if you’re someone who struggles with Binge Eating Disorder, you may well be finding that some of those bad days trigger eating binges.  If relatives or friends tell you that they’re having a bad day, you’ll probably try to comfort them by telling them that hopefully tomorrow will be better and they’ll be able to put it behind them.  That doesn’t work with Binge Eating Disorder – the scales don’t care that you were having a bad day, so an eating binge will probably lead to weight gain, and then you’ll feel even worse about yourself, and it makes it that much harder to move on to a good day.  Scales are very mean like that.  So you’re probably having some pretty rough patches.

This isn’t meant to sound like a whingefest, just an attempt to highlight a problem which is often hidden.  Thank you to BEAT for highlighting it.  And almost a year of the pandemic is exacerbating a lot of mental health issues, especially in parts of the country which have been subject to extra restrictions.   If any of these are affecting you, have a lot of virtual hugs from me xxx.  And, on a totally different note, Happy St David’s Day.

It’s a chicken and egg situation, and also a vicious circle.  Oh dear, using two clichés in one situation isn’t very good English either, is it?   If you’re someone who has issues with overeating, and if you’re genetically prone to being overweight, then you’ve probably been called names for as far back as you can remember.  Society doesn’t half vilify overweight people, and that’s from early childhood onwards.  That probably led to low self-esteem, and may well be linked to anxiety and depression.  If you’re someone who’s genetically more likely to develop anxiety and depression, then you’re probably also more likely to have issues with food and eating.  Round and round it goes.

Just personally speaking, my worst days with it were when I’d just left university and was applying for jobs.  I filled in application form after application form, went for interview after interview, and got rejection after rejection.  When that happens, however much people tell you that there are loads of applicants for each place and that the constant rejections don’t mean that you’re a failure, it doesn’t half feel like you’re a failure.  But all sorts of different things can be triggers, and obviously it’s different for every person.

As with any mental health condition, some days, and some weeks, months and years, will be bad, and others won’t.  But lockdown is making things pretty difficult for everyone.  We also keep being told that obesity is one of the major factors leading to hospitalisation if someone has contracted Covid-19.  That’s a medical fact and I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be spoken about, but it’s adding to the feelings of guilt and shame and inadequacy that surround eating issues.

Also, one of the main causes of eating disorders is a need for control.  That sounds strange, because, with eating binges you lose control, but then you feel terrible because you lost control.  Feeling trapped can be a major trigger, and we’re all trapped at the moment.  Roll on March 29th, April 12th, May 17th and June 21st, eh?!

If you’re struggling, please shout.  If you suspect that someone else is struggling, please be nice.  Please don’t make comments about how much someone else is eating, and please, please don’t tell them that they’re fat.  One in fifty people are affected by this – that’s a lot of people.

Thanks again to Beat Eating Disorders UK for highlighting this.  There’s a lot of it about.

 

Freddie Flintoff: Living With Bulimia – BBC 1

Standard

Please, please be careful what you say about other people’s weight, or any other aspect of other people’s appearance: you don’t know the damage it could be doing.  And, if you’re struggling with any aspect of your mental health – unsurprisingly, given the current circumstances, mental health charities are reporting a worrying rise in the numbers of people experiencing problems – please, please ask for help.  I know that not everyone’s up for famous people baring their souls, but evidence suggests that it does encourage others to seek help, especially men who tend to be more reluctant to open up than women do.  A lot of the focus in this programme was about how many men don’t seek help, and it was brave of Andrew Flintoff to speak out, and also brave of the others who took part to do so, especially the family of a man who tragically died as a result of bulimia.  It’s estimated that 1.5 million people in the UK, of whom 25% are male, suffer from eating disorders.  Hopefully this programme will have helped people to feel that they’re not alone, and that it’s OK to talk about it.

It wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  I thought he was going to say that it was linked to coping with the pressure of fame, especially during the difficult period when he was England captain during the disastrous Ashes tour when we lost the series 5-0 and he was involved in the pedalo affair.  However, he was insistent that it was all about food and weight, and that it started when there were nasty comments in the media – notably from the Sun – about his weight and fitness levels.  The specialist whom he saw didn’t seem convinced by that, and said that it was never all about weight, but everyone’s different.

I, personally, quite genuinely can’t remember a time when I didn’t identify as “The Fat Girl”, and I don’t know what it’s like to have a normal relationship with food because I never have done.  One of the other people interviewed for the programme said that, in his case, it started in his teens, and was a form of self harm and linked to other things that had gone on in his life.  I think that’s probably more typical than what Andy/Freddie was saying and I found that easier to identify with, but we need to understand that everyone’s experience is different.  It’s very difficult with sports players, because weight can affect their performance, and, especially with a team sport where one player’s performance affects others, some fans and commentators and reporters are going to feel that they’re entitled to pass comment.

Maybe people’ll think more carefully after this.  I’ve heard Gary Barlow talking about the upset caused by “fat lad” comments in the media, as well.  It’s not really that different to calling other kids names in the school playground, which is how it started for a lot of us.   With a lot of people, it’s linked to depression and anxiety disorders, but most people’s problems are so interlinked that it’s hard to separate them.  Andy/Freddie was insistent that, with him, it’s purely about weight.  But we’re all different.

What Andy said about feeling guilty whenever he eats, and only feeling good about himself if he’s losing weight, though, is something that a lot of people will recognise, whether or not their own eating issues are linked with other things.  It was interesting that he didn’t actually know a lot about the condition, despite having battled it for over 20 years, and seemed quite surprised to be told that the amount of training he does was linked in with it.  He spoke about the pressure of trying to keep up his fitness levels during his career, and it was mentioned that sportsmen are 16 times more likely than other men to suffer from eating disorders, because of that huge pressure.  Some people do struggle more with their weight than others, and it’s very hard to deal with that.  You can read all the books and go to all the counselling sessions but, if you’re someone who puts on half a stone because of one weekend away, it makes things very difficult.  That’s hard enough for anyone.  I can’t imagine how difficult it must be if you’re under that amount of external pressure and scrutiny about your weight levels.

He also talked about how he hid it.  He told his girlfriend, now his wife, that he made himself sick after eating, but not the extent of it, and we saw him going into the toilets at Lord’s and explaining how he’d plan how he’d make himself sick during matches without anyone else knowing about it.  It was very distressing, and it just showed how someone can be struggling like this without anyone – relatives, friends, colleagues – knowing.

He also talked about feeling that he wasn’t entitled to have a problem.  There was once an episode of Casualty in which comment was passed about it being amazing that people in the West had eating disorders when so many people didn’t have enough to eat.  To some extent, eating disorders, like addictions, are seen as self-inflicted problems.  He actually seemed very reluctant to admit that he wasn’t in control of it.  And he’s happily married, with four lovely kids, and had a successful career as a top-class cricketer and is now enjoying a career as a successful TV presenter.  And, hey, he’s a big tough bloke from Preston.  But eating disorders can affect anyone.

The programme’s attracted a lot of praise, and hopefully it will help people, as well as helping Andy/Freddie himself.  There isn’t nearly as much stigma around mental health problems as there used to be, but we’ve still got a way to go.  Especially with men.  Please don’t suffer in silence xxx.