My battle with anorexia – and how to improve NHS eating disorder treatment

This piece was commissioned by guest editor Jon Ashworth.

When I was 13 years old I met this best friend. She was everything I wanted and everything I needed in life. She held me each night when my parents argued, she drew me closer when I was having nightmares about the sexual abuse. She gave me value and purpose. I longed for more and more of her. I longed for the reassurance she gave me, she kept me on track and motivated me to keep going. She was exactly what I needed. My anorexia was everything to me and I knew if I made her happy, life would be okay.

The reality was that whilst anorexia seemed like my best friend she was also killing me. Slowly but surely. Strengthening her grasp around me, suffocating me. Fast forward four years and I was referred to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services in Bristol, where I grew up, and then joined the minefield that is the mental health system. Not quite knowing what was happening and still not really sure why I was there, I didn’t think anything was the matter with me. I couldn’t quite get my head around the fact that people wanted to take my best friend away from me.

Fast forward another eight months and you will find me bent over on the bathroom floor. The shower on, the radio on loudly and me vomiting over the toilet. After making sure every bit of food was out of me I would have a quick shower, then head to my bedroom to exercise into the early hours of the morning. Lost and alone, feeling completely isolated, it was those nights that I didn’t feel like Hope Virgo anymore. I was so unhappy. I hated looking round my room this lingering smell of vomit and sweat, vomit stains on the carpet from when someone had been in the bathroom… calorie books hidden everyone.

One month on, my heart nearly stopped and I was admitted to a mental health hospital when I spent the next year learning about food, learning about talking, focussing on recovering. That year in hospital was the hardest year of my life, the battling to get well and managing my increase in weight as my brain seemed to take much longer to make any changes. The care I got in hospital was great, patient and person-centred with a care plan specific for me. If it hadn’t been for those nurses and the other hospital staff my death certificate may have read: “Jennifer Hope Virgo, aged 17, Cause of Death: Anorexia”. But because of that care I survived! 

The thing is I had to wait months and months before there was real intervention. Eleven years ago when I was unwell there was less understanding about mental health, so maybe that was an excuse – but there is absolutely no excuse now for young people being left in the lurch. Absolutely no excuse for young people being turned away because they aren’t actually “suicidal” and absolutely no excuse that more is not being done on preventing people getting worse.

I spend a huge amount of time in schools and hospitals sharing my journey of recovery to inspire others, give them hope that they can get well and make sure that they know they are not alone. I meet hundreds of people who have been stuck on waiting lists for months, young people who ask me whether they need to lose weight so they can look more “anorexic” and young people who have completely given up on getting any support and resided themselves to feeling the way they do for the rest of their lives. A mental health problem is serious, and it can be scary. I know it was for me. Those evenings when I didn’t understand why my anorexia was making me act the way it was; those evenings when I would be found vomiting into a pillow case in to my room whilst my body began to crumble away.

There are too many young people out there right now left to manage on their own. People who are put on waiting lists for months on end whilst they are left stewing over what their brain is saying.

I am not naïve: I know the NHS is in a difficult position at the moment and there is a lack of funding available. But the time to act is now, and we need:

  1. A focus on early intervention and prevention so people get the help they need before crisis hits. We know that the longer people live with a habit the harder it is to break.
  2. Equipping GPs so they know what signs to look out for in case someone is struggling with their mental health.
  3. CAMHS must stop rejecting referrals and offer some therapy to the individuals struggling.
  4. Ring-fencing money so that we make sure that the funding being allocated to CAMHS is being spent in the right areas.
  5. Keep talking about mental health – not just the “fashionable” mental health problems, but all mental health problems. The momentum that we have around mental health is amazing but we cannot afford to let this slow down. Everyone should know mental illness is nothing to be embarrassed about.

With more and more people talking about mental health, we need to make sure the right support is in place for all these young people. I want to see a world where people are getting that support before they hit crisis, where when I go and do talks about mental health people aren’t telling me they are still on a waiting list.

It is essential these changes to CAMHS are made before we lose and entire generation to the ever-growing mental health crisis.  

Hope Virgo is the author of Stand Tall Little Girl and a leading advocate for people with eating disorders.

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