by Hannah Brown
Happy Easter, Happy Holidays or simply Happy Weekend! School is out, the half term is here and for most people the Bank Holidays provides a very welcome break from the daily grind. You wouldn’t think it, or perhaps you do, but holidays and festive periods can cause discomfort and anguish for some people.
For some, including myself, the thought of the typical Easter overindulgence on chocolate and Lamb Roast with all the trimmings is simply terrifying. You may have friends, colleagues, peers or neighbours who, like me, suffer from a mental illness that puts a brick wall around their happiness, and ultimately their freedom.
Aged 19, I started to build that wall through an innocent diet – very slowly and naïvely, brick-by-brick I built a wall around my happiness and found an unfortunate friend in Anorexia.
In hindsight, I wish more than anything that I had recognised the damage I was doing, and the life that I was restricting myself to, but hindsight is a truly wonderful thing – isn’t it?
Mental illness and in particular eating disorders don’t take a day off. They infiltrate the mind, set up camp and build their wall. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Easter holidays, Christmas or even your birthday – that wall remains strong and defiant. It means that those precious family moments seem terrifying, the enjoyment of which seems simply impossible.
I recall Easter as a young child, counting the eggs each year and begging my christian Mum to let us indulge in the fantasy of the Easter Bunny – alas, we were so hard done by! But there was never a fear attached to the Easter Egg like there is now. In fact as we got a little older we would buy Eggs simply for the enjoyment of them – weeks before the weekend celebrations.
Easter Sunday, and a day for the family. We would gather around the table, Grandparents in situ, the food was always rich, scrumptious and plentiful. Easter Egg for pudding, snack and tea for the rest of the day!
At no time was there a fear. At no time did my mind wander onto thoughts synonymous to those of my future eating disorder and at no point was I stopped from enjoying life to its absolute fullest.
Now let’s fast forward, maybe 5 years, to a time where anorexia has ravaged both my soul and identity. My mental and physical health had deteriorated to such an extent that it was defiant and strong in its placing within my life.
The Easter Eggs stopped, the family meals were avoided. I found myself dreading any sort of celebration and everything that the day should have encapsulated: What will I do where relaxation and indulgence are everything? When in this situation, food is a source of comfort and celebration. How will I quieten and calm my screaming head demanding that I get out, to avoid the social situations that I once found so much glorious comfort in?
The reality is that for some people, perhaps even yourself reading this, a holiday season can spark a real anxiety that to those watching from the outside will be completely incomprehensible. But just like Easter is really so much more than simply a chocolate celebration, Eating Disorders are so much more than just about the food. Depression is not a case of cheering up. Anxiety is not going to be “fixed” by giving yourself a shake.
Understanding, compassion and care form the triad for recovery from these illnesses, and that can start with YOU, that can start today with YOU speaking about how you might be feeling or asking your friend if everything really is OK.
There is no shame in opening up about your mental health, there is no embarrassment to be felt by admitting that actually an Easter Egg is really an overwhelming conquest. For me, whilst I am far into my recovery journey, I still have that niggle, that uncomfortable itch at the back of my mind that stops me from ripping open the foil and diving in. The little voice at the back of my mind still tries to scream at me even though it is now slightly more muffled.
So what can you take from this blog? Well firstly, if you are scared about any holiday or festive period, please don’t feel alone. There will be other people in a very similar situation and the most powerful thing you can do is to reach out for help and support. Secondly if you recognise within a friend or loved one that something is not quite right, find the courage to speak to them, do so with kindness and genuine concern because the hand of friendship is sometimes all it takes. And thirdly, relax – the pressure that we feel is often self-perpetuated, emphasised by cultural and media influences. Ease off yourself, there is no expectation on yourself apart from to be honest.
AnEarToHear is my own peer support site, which enables anyone to get in touch via private email and simply have a chat about what you are going through. I don’t pretend to have the answers, and nor am I a professional expert but what I certainly am is an expert through experience and if I can reassure you, even just for a minute that you are not alone than that is a job well done.
Happy Easter, whatever that might look like for you. Stay calm, stay reassured and stay in control – maybe even try a little chocolate. After all, nothing tastes as good as chocolate feels!
About the author: Hannah Brown is the founder of her own Peer Support service which she runs for people with Eating Disorders. Her peer work encourages compassion, understanding and empathy at a time when people need it the most. She writes and speaks both publicly and through her own blog, focusing on her own experiences, having suffered personally with Anorexia Nervosa.
She works closely with professionals in order to signpost others to appropriate service providers, consults on inter-client relations and is a proud member of the East London NHS Foundation Trust for which she actively campaigns. Her newly-formed Yoga class continues to develop and offers specialised support for those with Mental Health issues and concerns.