A chat with: eating disorder activist – Hope Virgo

Hope Virgo is an eating disorder activist, and creator of the #DumptheScales campaign and an author.

This is your warning that this post will be discussing eating disorders, although I’ve done my best not to include potentially damaging or triggering information if this topic is a bit much for you then you might want to click off this blog post and read something else.

Hope’s Eating Disorder story

“At the age of 13 I was finding life tough. I didn’t enjoy much about it and to top it all off I was sexually abused by a close family friend. I felt so much guilt around this. I felt trapped and didn’t know who to talk to. I absolutely hated those feelings and hated feeling anything. That is when I became best friends with anorexia.”

“My days and weeks gradually began to be revolved around food. I would sit in lessons at school day dreaming about the next time I could exercise or plan for how I would miss dinner that night. One Sunday I announced I was now a vegetarian so wouldn’t be able to eat any meals with the family if there was meat,” the activist explained.

Hppe spent the next few years of her life, rebelling, going out, sneaking into clubs, and not eating.

“I was doing what the anorexic voice in my head told me to do and I was so good at it. Over the next few months I learnt new tactics to lose weight and as my parents began to interfere with my eating I pushed on, stuck with it and made myself happy. I didn’t care about upsetting my family, all I wanted was to be the best at being anorexic. “

“Little did I know my love affair with anorexia was soon to end. Little did I know that a year later my heart would nearly stop and I would be admitted to a mental health hospital where I would live for the next year of my life.”

The Road to Recovery

“My hospital admission saved my life. Not only did it give me the skills I needed to manage in the world outside but it helped me to accept that I needed support.”

“I didn’t admit I had a problem until I arrived in the hospital. And even then I struggled with this. I remember my hospital admission date as vividly as if it was yesterday. I stood there in the entrance with an oversized pink white stuff jumper on, a denim skirt and a thick pair of tights. The girls in the hospital commented on my weight and said I looked so unwell. I couldn’t work out in my head if I thought they were lying or not. “

Hope explained that she thought people were interfering and that no one understood her. At the time hope felt that they were jealous of anorexia and her “amazing friendship with her.”

It’s not uncommon for people with eating disorders to personify them with names like Ana, Mia, and Ed.

“On my first Friday in hospital my key worker got me to draw myself and then she drew round me. The image was completely different and it really hit home. My body image was so distorted. I had to constantly remind myself about the facts when I felt fat and when I felt like giving up – it was hard work but I knew I had to accept that I had an eating disorder so that I could get better.”

Life in Recovery

“I still don’t hundred percent know why I had anorexia and there are times when I try and work it out. I can sit up for hours reflecting on my life, and trying to work it all out.”

“One thing I do know is that a lot of my eating is dependent on emotions. The truth is I struggle to feel things and when I get overwhelmed with emotions I prefer to switch off and focus on calories or exercise. And sometimes when expressing feelings felt too much, by not eating showed those round me that I wasn’t okay. So what I learnt to do was to sit down, eat a meal and then say ‘I wasn’t okay’.”

“For so many people this might seem like an easy thing to do but for me it wasn’t that straight forward. It took every ounce of strength to eat a meal on my plate, and then to admit I wasn’t okay. But I guarantee you it is better this way.”

“Even after I was discharged from hospital there were times when I would message people and let them know I was having a bad day or I felt fat. This would then help me to remove the guilt around keeping going with eating.”

#DumpTheScales

“When asked to imagine someone suffering with an eating disorder, most will imagine a stick thin, gaunt looking girl. But this is not the reality of eating disorders.”

“Despite the guidance too often individuals are turned away from receiving essential support because they aren’t skinny enough to be considered at risk. This leaves the individual feeling like they aren’t worth getting that support, feeling like a “fake”, potentially losing more weight to hit that target and in some cases feeling suicidal. This is why I’m calling on the government to review the eating disorder guidance delivered by clinicians.”

“We know that early diagnosis is a critical element in the success of treatment for eating disorders and by the time ‘obvious’ signs of eating disorders have manifested, it is likely that the illness will have become ingrained in the individual, and therefore much more difficult to treat. If we want to prevent people getting more unwell, save the NHS money, prevent hospital admission and save lives we need to have this review and ensure that we get full implementation of the clinical guidance around diagnosis.

“After I started sharing my story of recovery I shared that I had been turned away from services and realised that this didn’t just affect me but effects so many every day.”

Hope Virgo portraits; Author shots and general PR use; Earlsfield, London; 23rd July 2019. © Pete Jones pete@pjproductions.co.uk

The Stigma

According to Hope, one of the things people can’t understand about eating disorders is the fact that you can’t see yourself the way others do.

“I get up each day and look in the mirror. Some days I see a normal-sized, athletic shaped girl. Other times I see a huge person staring back at me.”

“Before I got admitted to hospital I didn’t think I was that thin. I didn’t believe it when the outpatient teams told me I was going to die if I didn’t start eating and when everyone said I looked so unwell with my size I thought they were trying to make me fat.”

“But on the first Friday in hospital, after a long three days of trying to eat, tears and feeling completely alone my key worker came in to see me. She got me to draw myself on huge paper how I saw myself and then she drew round me. The images were amazing how they didn’t match up. After initially thinking she had somehow lied to me, I realised she might be right and it was that point that I realised that maybe my perception of myself was all wrong.”

For those in Recovery

I know how hard it is to trust those round you. And I know how hard it is to learn that people care about you. But there are people who do and there are people who love you deeply. Start small if it is easier by simply saying you are not okay and then over time elaborating on these feelings will get easier.

“Something that really helped me was realising that the false sense of purpose and value anorexia gave me was rubbish! That it wasn’t long lasting and I could find this happiness elsewhere. I had to learn who to talk to those around me instead of relying on anorexia to reassure me.

I know you think anorexia is your best friend. I know you think anorexia gives you everything you need. But please know it doesn’t. The fight is hard yes!

I am not going to pretend it is easy but fighting to get well is so worthwhile. Fighting to beat that voice in your head is what we all need to do. What we all must do. It is scary asking for help but it one hundred percent helps.

My book has allowed me to get the message out to so many that despite recovery being hard work it is 100% worth it.

Learn more about hope over at her website, sign her petition, and check out her book Stand Tall Little Girl.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder please reach out for help.

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