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Opinion — Lockdown didn’t hinder my eating disorder, it helped it

Recent research shows lockdown didn’t affect people’s mental health in the way we thought it would. As restrictions lift, so will the obsession with body image.

Trigger Warning: this article contains mention of eating disorders.

Living with an eating disorder means constantly competing.

Competing with yourself, competing with the people around you, and competing with the media. If you’re addicted to exercise like me, it means running that one extra mile every week. If you’re addicted to feeling hungry like I used to be, it means cutting out that one extra food group every meal.

But as the days, weeks, and months accumulate, that competition intensifies. Until suddenly you’re so far ahead that you feel alone and helpless. That’s what suffering from an eating disorder feels like, or at least what it felt like for me.

Until the world fell victim to a pandemic. A Lancet report found that while many people facing financial stress have experienced substantial, life-changing suffering, global stress and anxiety levels dropped lower than pre-pandemic levels within a couple of months.

For the first three months, it felt like time itself had frozen. Scientists predicted an upcoming mental health crisis. For many, including myself, being stuck inside and stripped of our normal ways of socialising proved extremely difficult.

I spent lockdown in my hometown in Northern Italy, where the rules meant we couldn’t even go outdoors to exercise. Soon, social media and other news platforms were bursting with stories about the ‘Quarantine 15’, which was very triggering for people like me.

It enabled the competition mindset. To prove people wrong, I was going to get in the best shape of my life.

Running was off the table though. So I took to indoor HIIT and yoga, which — as you can probably guess — just wasn’t the same. There was no runner’s high, and I felt the weight of this accumulating on my stomach, my legs, my face.

In the kitchen, where I had been planning every meal meticulously for years, buying only the least calorific, nutritionally optimal ingredients, limited access produced a similar issue.

In a time when it felt like our world was turned upside down, food served as a comfort for many. For me, it felt like being trapped in the same house as your worst enemy.

Eventually, however, there was a silver lining. The pandemic withdrew everything many of us had once taken for granted and forced us to hang on to the little highlights of everyday life.

Cooking lunch and dinner seven days a week for a family of four became exciting. I found myself getting fully immersed in the art. I read books, scoured the Internet, and every day, I was plating up a new cuisine.

With more time to focus on how I could make my family smile — my sister was graduating secondary school with no holidays or parties on the horizon — I developed a new outlook on food.

Next came putting time aside for more sleep, caring for my skin, and listening to my body and its every need. With my physical health improving every day, my mental health followed suit.

There were no more bargains with myself. No more: ‘If I don’t eat lunch, I can allow myself dinner.’

Of course, my eating disorder didn’t just disappear. Years of orthorexia can’t be just reversed over a few weeks in isolation. It can take a lifetime for some people to recover.

Until December 2020, I was still living on two meals a day and covering 100km a week. I was still a slave to my phone’s step-counter, and I was still eating the same salad every day — telling myself that if I slipped off of this strict regime, no one would like me anymore, even my body-confident, food-loving boyfriend.

In January, when the UK was still in its darkest days of lockdown, I spent my evenings and weekends cooking with my flat mates, nurturing our newfound love for food. And then I tried something I never thought I could. I ate breakfast. Then lunch. And dinner.

Then I repeated that the next day. And the next.

And soon, it was a daily habit. Suffering from orthorexia means being addicted to rules. Now I had new rules, and there was no going back.

My body never felt better. I no longer fell asleep during university lectures, and I was writing an article a day. My runs had never been faster, and I had more time on my hands to call my loved ones.

The change was small, yet the impact large. My fears of an increase in the scale numbers had been debunked — I was finally on a secure path to recovery.

In April, 12 weeks into my experiment, I fell ill. Turns out juggling third-year of university, a part-time job and running a society can take its toll. I was bedridden for five days, which meant no exercise.

Up until then, I’d still been running long distances and making up for my days off with 20km walks. Staying in bed wasn’t just a challenge. It was torture. I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror because I was so disappointed in my body. For being sick.

And that’s when I hit a turning point. My body? It didn’t look any different. Contrarily, my skin was glowing, my eye bags nonexistent. Being locked inside, whether it’s for a global pandemic or personal illness, can sometimes be a blessing in disguise.

With restrictions completely lifted on 19 July, and life going back to its fast, relentless self — I’m not alone when I say my mind is filled with doubts about maintaining this positive mindset.

Questions like ‘what if I can’t fit in my daily workout?’ or ‘what if I reunite with friends who marvel at my comfortable new body?’

It can take years for people suffering from EDs to recover, but one comment for us to spiral.

It’s only natural we’re going to feel some anxiety as restrictions lift, but it’s important to remember that support exists — and maintaining internal self-love is at the core of how we react to things changing around us.

If you’re looking for resources, this article gives some tips on dealing with restrictions lifting. Beat UK also provides an array of resources to help you or a friend/family member if struggling with an ED.

 

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