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  • Paige Gilliat

Nursing with an Eating Disorder

Since I can remember, I have struggled with my mental health. I was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa in 2010 and have since been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Throughout my experience with anorexia, I’ve had inpatient and outpatient treatment. But unfortunately, these treatments have never got me to a place where I could leave anorexia behind. I thought it would be sensible to recover before heading off to university, but I began to get impatient and thought moving 200 miles away from home would be the answer. In my mind, moving that far away would allow me to start fresh and leave the eating disorder at home. As you can guess, though, the eating disorder didn’t stay at home and instead came with me as my shadow to university.

I knew from a young age that I wanted to work with children. First, I wanted to be a play specialist (someone who organises playful activities with children at hospital to maintain development, reduce anxiety, and monitor a child’s progress). However, I realised I wanted a role more hands-on in medically caring for children. I decided that I wanted to train as a paediatric nurse, so off I went to complete my training, once again with the eating disorder at my side.

Throughout my life I’ve always felt like a failure, feeling inadequate at the things I’ve tried. These feelings came with me to university, meaning I was determined to do my best in my nursing training. This meant I didn’t have the typical university experience because I couldn’t pull myself away from my studies, feeling as though nothing else mattered than getting the best grades and proving myself as a nurse. I had friends at university, but because of the endless pressures pushed on me by my eating disorder in terms of navigating anorexia and my studies, I didn’t feel that I could go on nights out, or out for meals, or even change up my routine. Most plans at university are spontaneous and I couldn’t manage this, so I missed out on a lot of events and opportunities to get closer to people. Despite all this, because of my hard work and determination (which are traits of anorexia but can also be used for the greater good), I qualified as a paediatric nurse in 2019.

Trying to get a job as a Newly Qualified Nurse comes with challenges, but the situation becomes much trickier when you throw an eating disorder diagnosis into it. The eating disorder can fill you with a lot of self-doubts; feelings of not being good enough, questioning your ability, and simply not having the energy to write semi-decent applications where you talk highly of yourself and appreciate your achievements. Despite this, I found my passion for paediatric oncology nursing during my training. A lot of people had mentioned not specialising early in your career, but I knew I had found my passion and wanted to dive into it. I applied for a role in paediatric oncology nursing, and as part of the application process, I had a call with Occupational Health. As we were on the call, the dreaded question “Do you have any mental health conditions?” came up. They explained to me that an eating disorder wouldn’t affect my application, but unfortunately, a few weeks down the line after being offered the job, I had a phone call. I’d moved 100 miles from home, and despite meeting the BMI criteria, engaging in therapy, and attending all my training, I got a call to say my offer had been retracted. They explained that they felt I wouldn’t be capable in the “highly stressful, demanding and sensitive environment” because of my diagnosis. An assumption and a half may I add, and I’m pretty sure this counts as disability discrimination.

Now, I could’ve taken this as a massive step back and my eating disorder tried to force me away from my dreams. Telling me I had failed, I’d never be good enough, and that I couldn’t achieve things even when I tried. Classic eating disorder thoughts. However, I didn’t let it hold me back. As I said, I am a very determined person and my passion for oncology nursing is so strong that I couldn’t let anything get in my way. I spent several months, unemployed, continuously checking job websites. A job listing for another nursing oncology role came up at a specialist hospital, so I applied. Once again, I was successful in my interview! The temptation to lie about my diagnosis was strong, however, as part of the Nursing and Midwifery Code of Conduct, I knew I needed to be honest. It turns out that honesty really is the best policy, as 3 years on and I’m still working in oncology, and I adore what I do.

A dream of mine has always been to be a mum, but because of my eating disorder, the chances of me conceiving are reducing. At the moment, the only glimmer of satisfaction I get out of life is my job, and that’s because I am in a position which means I can care for poorly children as though it was my own child in that situation. At that moment, with that child, I put aside my “selfishness” of not wanting to be alive and use the little energy I have to focus on the children and their parents who need my support because they are going through such a challenging time. When I am at work, my focus is fully on the children and their parents, but outside of work my eating disorder still takes hold.

Whilst I love the work that I do, my eating disorder and anxiety can make the job even more challenging. I often feel worried about my shifts, so much so that I can’t sleep, staff shortages, and mistakes I might make being overworked. Eating disorders fill you with self-doubt, and this plays out in my job. Often, those who work in caring roles such as nursing are the most vulnerable of us all, and that’s the reason we’re there. The reason is that we are caring, empathetic people, and what’s needed for the role. For unwell children, they need someone who cares about them and is empathetic with the situation, but it does mean that it can be hard to not take the burden on, take it home, and never switch off.

I also find it difficult when people say to me “If you’re so good at caring for people in your nursing job, why can’t you care for yourself?” I get where they are coming from with this, but it’s so much easier for me to care for someone else than it is for myself. I have worked through this in therapy and concluded that caring for someone else heals the part of me which hasn’t been cared for. Whilst caring for others is important in my role, I’ve also found it’s about finding the balance and having my limits and boundaries in place to ensure that I look after my own mental and physical well-being and my patients are.

Recently I’ve started MANTRA therapy, and I am at a difficult crossroads where I may have to take some time out for myself to engage in my recovery. Whilst this feels difficult, because all I want to do is my nursing, I know that I cannot continue with my passion and nursing if I don’t prioritise my health. My job is my life, and whilst my passion and care for others is what makes me so good at my job, I equally recognise that I must give energy to myself and my recovery, otherwise, I won’t be able to carry on doing the thing that I love. For any nurses out there, who are in a similar situation, putting yourself first can feel like the most unnatural thing to do, but actually, in helping yourself you will be helping so many others down the line. Not only because you will be able to practice nursing, but because you will have your own experience of recovering and you will be able to share this with others to prioritise themselves too.

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