LETTING HAPPINESS SHAPE ME
How Laura Phelan survived anorexia and what she wants YOU to know
When Laura Phelan was 13 years old, she decided to “get healthy”.
Within several months, her goal to “eat less and exercise more” had developed into an eating disorder. One year later, anorexia threatened to take her life. The Gorgeousness Programme met Laura for lunch, laughs and sunshine and this is what she told us:
“The most terrifying thing for me was that I didn’t know I had no idea that I had a problem. At first I was just doing a workout and eating chocolate afterwards like any normal teen. But then I remember buying a pair of jeans and thinking how great it was that I could fit into them, and wanting to stay that size, things spiralled. I became obsessed with food and exercise.”
Laura’s eating disorder began at the start of Year 9. By December the symptoms were beginning to show.
“I became more and more withdrawn from friends and family. My mental health declined because when you are starving you can’t think properly. In May I was pulled out of school. My weight had dropped significantly. I began to see a family behavioural therapist for a while but it didn’t help. It got to the summer and I hit rock bottom.”
“By this point my hair was falling out, I couldn’t function properly and I was falling asleep in my lessons. I remember looking in the mirror and not seeing what everyone else saw. Even when we went shopping for clothes and everything I tried on was too big, I wondered what was wrong with the clothes and why they wouldn’t fit me. I just didn’t realise it was me with the problem.
My doctor sat me down and said that if I didn’t start eating, they would section me. I was told they’d put a tube into me and I’d go to hospital and I wouldn’t be able to go on our family holiday. My family holiday was the highlight of my year and frightened that I’d miss out, I began to eat a bit more. I put on a tiny bit of weight to please everyone but by the time I went on holiday to Ireland, I’d started restricting my food again.”
“Whilst in Ireland, one of my little cousins turned to me and said, “Please eat something. I remember thinking, “You are four years old. I can’t do this to her!”
At this point people would come into the room and leave crying because they were so shocked by how I looked. I couldn’t go on funfair rides because they couldn’t get the buckle to fit me.”
Laura describes the anorexia as a bit like being possessed. She says, “It was as though I couldn’t see that anything was wrong. I was addicted to the euphoria of being hungry all the time. But actually, I was dying a slow death.”
On her 14th birthday, she sat on her bed and thought, “This isn’t right. I think this could kill me.” Her knee-jerk reaction was that her life wasn’t that important and that even if she tried, she wouldn’t be able to get better.
“I actually sat there and thought it would be acceptable if I died like this … which is horrendous. It was at that point that I snapped and thought, “Oh my God. I am fourteen and your life doesn’t matter to you?!” Looking back, the eating disorder was like a crutch; a support system. And I couldn’t imagine living without the crutch. I thought, “If my crutch isn’t there, then how am I going to survive? It was almost like a shield, a protection around me. But that day, I made a decision. I went down to see my mum and said to her, “Mum, I think I’m anorexic.” I then said, “You take control. I’ll eat what you want me to eat. I’ll do this.”
Laura continues, “Up until that point I’d been trying but I wasn’t really committed to getting well. When I returned home to the UK, I began to bake with my gran and grandad. They were phenomenal for my recovery. I remember having my first piece of chocolate and it took me two hours to eat it and I was hysterical but pushed myself to continue. It would take me two seconds to eat that chocolate now.”
“I went to see my therapist, I started to gain some weight, I went to a dietician. I engaged in my recovery and it was the hardest thing I ever had to do but it was also the best thing I’ve ever done. As I began to put on weight I went through a period where I absolutely hated the way my body looked. This was tough as the voice inside my head was saying “You look terrible. You’ve gained weight. You’ve failed.”
“If I’m honest, the recovery process was hard. By the following Christmas I was weight-restored. I had my menstrual cycle back but internally I still had a long way to go. I was still obsessed with being a size 6 which is not my normal body shape. I then had to have therapy until I was 16, I had photophobia and was a shell of my true self.
Things that helped me: I did drama at school and went on my first girls holiday at 17. Essentially, I went after life and life began to shape me. I started to become happy through experiences that weren’t related to eating or exercise. They were all about living in the moment and being a normal teenager.”
“At 19 I went to Berlin, drank my first beer and ate loads of delicious breads. I didn’t really even gain weight, my body just took on a shape that was natural for it to be. By the time I went to Uni, the voice in my head that once told me not to eat, faded away. I met new people and built new relationships. Nowadays I just love talking to and meeting new people, possibly because I’d isolated myself with this one inner voice for so long.”
After leaving University, Laura went on to become an Eating Disorder Specialist Therapist and the founded her company, Phelan Well. She now works 1 to 1 with clients, writes about mental health, wellbeing and eating disorder recovery, as well as delivering workshops to help people look after their wellbeing from the inside out. She is an ambassador for B-eat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity and a Mental Health trainer for Mind Charity.
When we asked Laura to look back and consider what she needed – and didn’t need – in the midst of her eating disorder, this is what she said:
1. What I didn’t need: Diet Culture
I didn’t need a bombardment of knowledge around dieting or what size clothes there were. My body hadn’t even finished developing, so I did not need any of that information. I didn’t need an overemphasis on food, what is a superfood or the macros or red flags on doughnuts.
What I did need:
I needed positive education around food and how it fuels the body and also how lucky I am to have access to food. I needed to be shown how to have a good relationship with food, how to eat regularly, choose what I liked and to get in a bit of the green stuff.
2. What I didn’t need:
Over attention to appearance. There is so much more to people than what they look like.
What I did need:
I needed attention on self worth, on personality on what makes you unique as a person and how great that is. For someone to tell me that I was so much stronger than I gave myself credit for. I didn’t think that at the time, but looking back I now realise what a strong person I was.
3. What I didn’t need:
I didn’t need to be labelled depressed or anxious or anything like that. I didn’t understand how I was feeling and couldn’t articulate that to anyone else. All I knew is that sometimes felt weird. My eating disorder was a coping mechanism for emotions that I didn’t understand.
What I did need:
I needed people to be there. I needed someone to say, “I am here for you if you feel funny.” Or, “If you’re feeling something and there’s an emotion you don’t understand, come and talk to me about it.” No judgement. Just listening.
Read this post and think that you might have an eating disorder?
This is what Laura would like YOU to know:
Don’t keep going inward. Don’t go any further in. You need to catch yourself now – today. Express what’s going on. Tell someone. Even if you don’t know quite what is happening, tell someone how you’re feeling.
Take it seriously. I’m not scaremongering here, but don’t keep saying “it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine.” Don’t brush this under the carpet.
Don’t mistake control for happiness. Don’t mistake control for feeling safe. If we’re living a life that is limited by restrictive rules and negative coping skills, something is up. Catch the flame before the fire starts. Go and talk to someone.