From Silent to Speaker: The power of honesty in finding my passion
When I entered the world of full-time work I was 23. By this age, I had a 10-year history of anorexia, a 14-year history of disordered eating, an inpatient stay and darker moments than I’d like to go into under my belt (which I needed to hold up normal clothes as I definitely wasn’t recovered by any stretch of the imagination). The idea of talking about my illness was genuinely abhorrent to me. I didn’t want anyone to know I wasn’t ‘normal’. But 12 years later, not only did I talk about my illness, I did it publicly, almost becoming the "poster girl" for eating disorders and mental health awareness in an organisation of 23,000 employees. I’ve been doing this for three years and I’ve even made it my career. Lots of people ask me how and why I do this, so this seems like a good place to start.
Let's go back to 2008 with a very brief history of my illness. I started showing symptoms of an eating disorder aged just 9 – I binge ate in secret to deal with grief and disruption following a family bereavement. The ensuing weight gain and persistent comments, bullying at a high-pressured private all-girls school and my own perfectionism and low self-esteem (and undiagnosed ADHD) led me to extreme dieting and weight loss. All of this led to a diagnosis of anorexia a week after my 14th birthday.
In the simplest way possible, my eating disorder was and always has been, a way of preventing me from processing and feeling difficult emotions. It’s very numbing, and focusing on my weight and shape is a very effective way of preventing what’s really bothering me from creeping through the cracks. My eating disorder got better, then worse, then worse again until I was admitted to hospital two days after my final exams at university. A subsequent relapse a year after leaving led me to move home to live with my parents and slowly recover from the depths of my illness. After about six months of only getting out of bed to go out drinking with my friends, I’d only had a seasonal job in retail and struggled to get my head around the idea of working anywhere. But I had to get better and wanted to move in with friends, so I needed to pay rent and got an admin job working for a large insurance company.
I’d only ever worked in retail or bars before, so full-time office work was a huge culture shock. I was undergoing outpatient treatment with mixed success and was intensely private about my diet and weight. I told people I was ‘just one of those lucky people’ (didn’t mention the purging) and restricted obsessively before team meals and drinks. To be honest, the culture of constant conversation about weight and food and never-ending cake afternoons for various reasons abjectly terrified me.
I had to tell my manager privately about my eating disorder as I needed the time to attend appointments, but I don’t believe she, or any subsequent managers, really understood what that meant until I really started educating people about eating disorders. The oft-known trope of seeing someone eating ergo they are recovered is hard to shake off when those around you have a limited understanding. Once I asked my manager if I could move teams, or even seats, as the team next to me ran a Weight Watchers group where they stood weekly on scales, shouted out their weights and goal weights and wrote them on a board which they displayed next to my desk. I was undergoing weight gain treatment at the time and it was unutterably triggering and detrimental to my recovery. I felt too uncomfortable to ask them to stop, so I asked that I be moved. My manager sort of chuckled and said she thought I was being a bit dramatic.
Throughout my time and various promotions working there, there are a few lowlights: the bonus one year which was a fish and chip van with a free meal for everyone (I got nothing as the idea of eating it filled me with horror and the idea of complaining or asking for an alternative was almost as bad). The time I was told I wasn’t serious about my career because I couldn’t face the idea of a rich meal out with excessive alcohol consumption with visitors whilst pregnant with my first child, or when I was asked how I’d manage the additional stress of a role I was overqualified for due to my ‘tendency for mental illness.’ None of these things encouraged me to open up to people around me, with managers being the only people I told out of necessity. I stopped wanting to tell anyone because I felt like a freak. Eating was something that came so easily and was such a natural part of socialising for everyone around me. Lots of my peers formed close friendships over lunches while I could only make excuses when the inevitable anxiety of eating a meal in a restaurant overwhelmed me. I opened up to a couple of colleagues who I considered friends, but never in a workplace setting.
I became a Beat ambassador in 2016 and started doing media work. An article appeared in a local paper where I said that a work Christmas meal had once made me feel so uncomfortable I’d rather have sat naked in front of my colleagues than eaten in front of them came out. A few people in my team commented on it to me, always followed by ‘you’d never know to look at you’, and ‘you hid it so well’ (in an almost congratulatory way).
By 2019, I’d had enough. The Wellbeing messaging had started to talk about ‘healthy eating’ and after they printed out all the calories on the free fruit provided to colleagues, I cracked. I wrote to them and said they didn’t consider eating disorders at all in their messaging. Someone from our local Wellbeing team reached out to me and asked if I’d think about organising an awareness event, so I did. It was reasonably small and I got someone in from a local charity. But the people who attended were impressed and contacted higher-ups in HR and Diversity and Inclusion. They asked me if I’d consider writing a story on our intranet about my illness and my time working there.
To start, I was excited. I’d written my own blog for a while and I liked speaking in public about my recovery and journey there. I wrote the article and nervously waited for the go-live date. Just prior to it, I let my manager know. He came back and said ‘Are you sure about this? What if people treat you differently?’ I was so gutted and anxious. I couldn’t stop thinking about the judgement and negative response. But I spent some time over the weekend thinking about it and by Monday, I went back to him with this: ‘Then that’s your problem. If people start treating me differently for what I’ve always been, then the problem is them, not me.’ I was sick to death of lying, hiding who I really am, to save the feelings of the people around me. Then I rewrote the article and worked into it that question to show the ridiculousness of it.
Did people treat me differently? Nope. Quite a lot of people reached out and thanked me for my honesty. A couple apologised for inappropriate comments or actions they’d made in the past. But more than that, people started reaching out and telling me about their own worries, past or fears for their loved ones. Then they started asking me for more, to do more awareness events, to share my experience or advice. One of the proudest days of my life was being asked to organise a seminar led by the Clinical Director at Beat on Eating Disorders in the Workplace. I started being asked to consult on messages that went out about wellbeing. I was asked to join the Disability Network.
I started to find my way and who I really was like this. I’d spent so long hiding who I really was that I was actually in a career that I liked a bit, but didn’t love. I found this new passion for supporting people with their mental health and being an honest role model. I lobbied for greater support, approaching one of the in-house medical experts to ask if I could run an eating disorders support group. He said no, but told me I inspired him and he wanted to facilitate my development so he asked me to write a monthly blog about my illness published on the intranet. I was asked to represent the company at external speaking events and went on to co-chair the Disability Network, making it the most popular network in the organisation and even being nominated for an award for my work. I created mental health safe spaces and people just kept coming to events, crashing our booking tool on the first day.
I found out what I really loved, and it was helping people and making a difference. Raising awareness about issues that people find awkward to talk about. One of the first people I spoke to about eating disorders offered me a secondment in the Diversity and Inclusion team and I found where I was meant to be. After 18 months of working there and in Corporate Responsibility, I was ready to move on and found a new role with a different employer.
I started there in February. Conversely to May 2008, when I would rather have died than let anyone know the real me, in my first three weeks working in an organisation of 24,000 people, I stood up and told my story, my real life, to over 250 people for Eating Disorders Awareness Week. My team and my manager all know about my illness and go out of their way to ask me how to make team events more supportive and inclusive. I don’t feel super comfortable eating in front of new people and my team never try to force or pressure me to do anything I don’t want to. They accept me for who I am and are happy if I’d rather just have a drink and eat something I’m more comfortable with later. Being in such a supportive environment actually made me challenge myself more than I ever would have and before long I found myself slowly being more comfortable around them and working within manageable limits to be a part of everything they do. Team events aren’t organised around food or drinks, last time we played electric shuffleboard! But ultimately, none of this would have been possible if I hadn’t taken that first step, swallowed my anxiety and said ‘The problem is not, and has never been, my eating disorder.’ People respect that honesty, no one will ever judge you for opening up. They might not know what to say or do, but that’s an opportunity to help them learn.
You might be wondering what people will think of you if they know the truth. I can honestly say that letting people know the truth about me changed my life for the better in ways I never thought possible. You might not feel ready but what helped me was knowing that secrecy was allowing my eating disorder to continue. If everyone knew, it would be way harder to carry on and I was ready to let it go.
If you feel ready, take the leap, swallow the fear and know that the reaction you imagine in your head is a billion times worse than it will ever be in real life. Telling the truth has been freeing for the first time in my life and my eating disorder has never been further behind me.