THE term ‘eating disorder’ conjures up images of teenage girls and young women in their 20s. The reality is that an eating disorder does not discriminate among age and gender.
“We need to talk about eating disorders in older women”, says *Sarah, a 38 year-old woman who remembers over-eating and intentionally purging from age eleven.
Sarah has struggled with a variety of eating disorders.
“I have gone through many cycles with it — patterns of restriction, binging and purging. As someone in their thirties, it was much harder to source adequate help than when I needed it as a teenager.”
Sarah looks back on her life and explains how parental negligence and growing up with parents who were possibly suffering from mental health issues has played a huge part in her eating disorder. Left to fend for herself at home for long periods of time, she says: “I didn’t have anyone at home to guide me in how I should eat and when I should eat.
“When you are a young child, your body learns physically how to eat and when to eat. You learn what types of foods will nourish you. I didn’t have that, and my primal instincts kicked in.
“There was no-one there to make my dinner after school. So, I would get hungry and go to the cupboard and eat a whole packet of biscuits because I was too young to use the cooker at age seven. From a young age, my body was trained to starve and binge.
“When I was a child, there was no adult in the house when I got up in the morning. No-one to give me breakfast or give me a lunch to take to school. So, I lived on what was accessible. I ate what was in the bottom cupboards in the kitchen, which was mainly bread and cereal.
“I remember once eating half a loaf of white bread one day when I came home from school because I was so hungry. Afterwards, I suffered horrendous cramps. To relieve the pain, I purged. I learned how to relieve the feeling of being full. I thought this was normal.”
Sarah maintains that because she never learned to eat properly as a youngster, this led to disordered eating patterns. After binging and purging, she would often feel a deep sense of shame. This cycle became her normality.
Sarah had a period of recovery in her adolescent years and her early twenties. She attained her primary degree and masters and was working as a social worker. Life was on track.
However, in her early twenties, she was sexually assaulted. She blamed herself for the incident and her eating disorder was reawakened.
She says: “I was assaulted in my early twenties, but only reported the incident in my late twenties, which triggered PTSD. I used the eating disorder to cope. A report was sent to the DPP. My file was returned, marked ‘No further action’, which had a really negative impact on my life.
“I started to restrict to lose weight because I hated myself so much. I wanted to literally shrink away to nothing, be almost asexual. I was in my late twenties and I started to starve myself. But the body is not designed for starvation. As a result, I started to binge. I’d feel incredibly guilty after that, so I would purge.”
Sarah was unable to work after the assault. Her eating disorder began taking over her life. Because she was an older woman suffering with an eating disorder, Sarah says it was extremely difficult to access adequate health care and treatment.
Because she had no income, she spiralled into poverty. She couldn’t pay her rent and had to live in her car for a period of time.
Sarah explains how her feelings of isolation affected her.
“When you’re isolated, your head tells you that you are useless. I started to ask myself, ‘How did I get to this stage?’ Because I had a good lifestyle. I went to college. I started working full-time at a job I loved. I started comparing my situation to my past.
“I didn’t have the confidence to present myself to people. I thought I was the worst person in the world. That I wasn’t worthy of life.
“When the assault happened, I had a job. I was one of these people deemed ‘worthy’ by society. You feel very unworthy when the people around you, the legal system, don’t deem you worthy enough to protect you. Then, it is a slippery slope.
“You lose your job. You are on the dole. You feel nothing but useless because you are receiving handouts.”
Sarah began to claw a way back into her life when she started seeing a therapist at the Eating Disorder Centre in Cork.
“I took baby steps. I started to learn about how our bodies work. I was getting caught in cycles and I couldn’t get myself out of them. I had PTSD after being assaulted but I didn’t know that. After the assault, it was like someone had flicked a switch and I lost who I was. The trauma manifested as an eating disorder.”
Along with counselling sessions, Sarah turned to art in an attempt to heal.
“I use art to present myself to the world. My baseline is that I am a bad person and I am taking up someone else’s space in the world, someone who deserves it more than me. So, I try to make up for that belief through art, by creating something beautiful.”
Sarah continues to work hard at her recovery. After a long period of therapy, she was strong enough to go back to work.
“I love my work, when I am able to do it. I have had to park it a lot because of my own struggles.”
Sarah has worked with many community groups, mostly disadvantaged, and voluntary NGOs.
“I get most meaning from moments where I feel I did something kind for the people I work with, even if in a small way.”
Sarah says that there are many women of her age and older who are living with an eating disorder.
“I’ve met women just like me, crying out for understanding. Too afraid to say what is happening in their lives.
“Eating disorders in older women is not well received by health professionals and the general public. It must be even harder if you are male and you suffer from an eating disorder.
“It’s dangerous because the longer you are in an eating disorder, the more ingrained the behaviour becomes. Therefore, the harder it is to get out of it. There are very few places for older women with eating disorders to seek help, bar the Eating Disorder Centre in Cork.”
Sarah offers words of encouragement to older people who are suffering with an eating disorder in silence.
“If you can, say it. Have the courage to say, ‘I have an eating disorder’. Try to do that. You are a lot more likely to suffer less in the long term if you tell someone your secret.
“Be prepared for a long road to recovery. Some treatments might not work for you. But, if your first steps don’t work out as you anticipated, don’t blame yourself. Keep trying.”
* Sarah is not her real name.
For more on The Eating Disorder Centre see www.eatingdisordercentrecork.ie/