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Gemma

My name is Gemma, im 24 years old and I am diagnosed with an eating disorder, depression and anxiety.

I had a very normal and loving childhood with a very supportive family, I was participating in lots of activities and genuinely a very happy child. Apart from being a fussy eater (which isn’t unusual for children) I loved food, especially chocolate !!

When I was 16 I left home to spend 5 years training in a dance school, here I was subjected to a very intense, demanding and judgmental environment. I believe this is when my mental health struggles where triggered. As you can imagine this profession is incredibly image orientated and extremely competitive. I became very aware and critical of my body, I developed an intense fear of weight gain and felt very uncomfortable in my own skin. (This wasn’t helped by countless criticism from staff and 8hrs a day in front of a full length mirror in leotards and crop tops!). I felt like I was failing and was an inadequate dancer, however hard I tried I just never felt like I was good enough!

that’s when I began to think to myself ” if I lost a couple of pounds I would be better at dancing” and “all the best dancers are so skinny” and “I’m too fat to be a dancer, if I’m serious about dancing then I need to try harder and lose weight”. So that’s what I tried to do, and it worked, I was getting a lot more compliments and was being noticed more in class. I had more energy and more confidence, what I was doing was clearly working and I got so excited.

I started of slowly however, just cutting out unhealthy foods such as chocolate and sweets and attending the gym in the evenings after college. I was having a steady weight loss and felt amazing. But half way through my second year of training, I experienced severe tonsillitis, I lost my appetite and ended up losing 10lbs in two weeks. Although I felt very poorly and unhealthy I couldn’t deny The high I was feeling after losing that amount so quickly! I thought if I felt this good now, imagine how good I will feel after loosing more! Suddenly my weight lose didn’t feel fast enough so losing more weight and faster soon became very important to me and was all I could think about.

For the previous year I was suffering with very low self esteem and low mood, nothing I did could lift my spirits and each day at dance school was becoming more and more difficult. But since I began controlling my food my mood begun to lift, this was such a relief as I had identified a coping mechanism for my depression and anxiety!

Even though things where going well I found I began to fear food and became completely consumed by the thought of it. From being ill I realised that if maybe I reduce my food intake further and maybe even skip a meal here and there my weight loss will speed up. I then began trying lots of different extreme diets from detoxes to fasting. I would make excuses to go home for lunch rather than sit in the cafeteria so no one would know that maybe I was only having a cup of tea that day. I came to the point where feeling healthy and having energy wasn’t important to me I only wanted to be as skinny as possible, this had a huge impact on my dancing, as I was feeling faint and lacking energy, however as I was feeling a failure in dancing I didn’t care anymore and was intent on sticking to my diet. I finally felt in control of something and it felt good. I couldn’t control how my teachers viewed me and my dancing but food and weight was something I could be successful at.

About 6 months from when my disordered eating started my flat mates finally confronted me, they expressed their concerns and said if I didn’t get help then they will inform the principle (My principle is a very strict, very unsympathetic person who doesn’t hold a lot of humanity. All of the students are petrified of her and she is incredibly unfriendly. She is not a nice person at all!!) so this is the last thing I wanted. My friends said that they could see how much I had lost and that they were concerned for my health. I knew what I was doing wasn’t Normal, however I felt in control and knew I could stop if I wanted to so I didn’t need help, I was fine! (Although looking back now it was obvious I wasn’t in control and I was absorbed in my own little world) I knew I couldn’t accept putting on weight and I wasn’t ready to let go of something that had become so important to me, but I really didn’t want the college involved, so I agreed that I would let my friends help me and I would eat a little more.
I also agreed to go and see my GP, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

Unfortunately I didn’t have the confidence to mention anything to do with my eating habits (not sure if it was the confidence I was lacking or I didn’t mention it deliberately as I didn’t want to stop). Here I was prescribed antidepressants which thankfully helped to lift my mood.

For the rest of my time at the dance school I coped like this, I kept my food intake very low, however always ate a meal with my flat mates in the evening so I could convince them I was fine. I made up for this by working extra hard in the gym the next day. Im also very sad and disgusted in myself to say that I discovered purging (deliberately making myself sick after meals), although disgusting and shameful this felt like a life saver to me at the time as I could make everyone happy by having meals with them however also giving myself the comfort of knowing I could rid myself of the calories after.

After graduating dance school I then went on to successfully working within the dance industry as a professional dancer. I was lucky enough to travel with my job seeing beautiful parts of the world, including 6 months in Panama with a Mexican circus and 7 months in Crete touring a variety show. On the outside looking in things looked amazing however I was struggling more than ever. The costumes we were required to wear were sometimes very revealing so my body image was at an all time low. The shows were in the evenings and I always feared eating before performing as I was scared I wouldn’t fit my costumes. With the circus sometimes we would have 3 shows a day, As a result of this there would be days that maybe I wouldn’t eat at all. Purging unfortunately also became a regular occurrence as it was much more difficult to skip meals than it was at college, so I was feeling pretty unwell and faint most of the time. But sadly I became A master at disguising my symptoms. When I came home from my last contract I knew things needed to change.

In January 2019 (3 years after Leaving dance school) I finally became aware of how bad things had gotten and realised I was no longer in control (I never was) and needed to seek help. With the amazing support of my counsellor I managed to summon the courage to go to my GP and finally admit to my issues around food. She then sent me to have an assessment at a specialist hospital in Oxford where I was officially diagnosed with Atypical Anorexia. I have been receiving treatment with them for the last year and am currently in the middle of an intensive CBT course specialised for eating disorders. I have 2 sessions with the psychologist a week and am currently having fortnightly bloods. I am incredibly lucky to be receiving this support from such an amazing service and also even though I have neglected my body for a long time I am extremely lucky to be in good health.

One of the hardest things I have ever had to do was to tell my parents. My mum came with me to my first GP appointment so has been aware about my depression and anxiety, however telling them about my eating disorder felt almost impossible as I didn’t want them to be ashamed of me. I waited till after I had begun therapy in Oxford before I told them as it was very important to me to be able to tell them I was safe and receiving the care I needed. I wanted to tell them not so they could help me or try to fix me, but so I could have support and my hand held through this battle I am facing. I really struggled finding the courage to tell them so I ended up writing a letter, I knew I would struggle to find the right words so by writing a letter meant i could take my time and make sure it was worded exactly how I wanted it to be. I could explain things in depth and be as reassuring as I needed to be. I was very sacred to tell them as I knew once I had told them I couldn’t take it back, I was anticipating their reaction to be ashamed and disgusted…… I was so wrong, they couldn’t have been anymore supportive and loving, yes it was a very difficult thing for them to find out however they have been amazing and I am forever thankful. (Mum said she already knew anyway, oops!).

up until this day I am still absorbed in an unhealthy relationship with food and body image. But the important thing is I have finally made the decision to fight it and to begin recovery, it is definitely not easy and there have been many MANY occasions where I just want to give up but I have begun my recovery journey and that’s what matters, I know it’s not going to be easy and will not be a quick fix, I’m sure there will be many more hurdles and step backs to face but it will all be worth it when I can say with pride than I won the hardest challenge of my life.

Unfortunately this has also ended my dance career. I have come to the conclusion that I am not mentally strong enough to cope with the dance industry, and for as long as I am within that world I will never be able to let go of my eating disorder. So to make a full recovery I accepted that I need to hang up my dance shoes and follow a new career.
My eating disorder and depression/anxiety is an illness I am struggling with at the moment and it is not who I am, I just have a poorly brain which is needing a little extra attention and TLC.Thank you for reading my story! I am signing of with a ; and not a full stop as this is not the end and only a chapter in my journey!

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