The reality of life with an eating disorder
This Eating Disorder Awareness Week, we spoke to Gabrielle Humphreys, a 24-year-old PhD student at the University of Liverpool, who has turned her own experiences with eating disorders into a research-led career
By Sophie Swift
Harvard Medical School have published findings that an estimated 90% of people who develop eating disorders are female. One such woman is Gabrielle Humphreys: currently in the second year of her Psychology PhD at the University of Liverpool where, after a lifetime struggle with food, she has chosen to specialise in addiction.
Gabby grew up in Yorkshire with her family and noticed at a young age that she was anxious around food. She recalls crying at lunchtime in primary school and being considered a ‘fussy eater’. As she entered secondary school, PE lessons became stressful; she had, like so many young people at that age, become self-conscious. She did not dislike her body, but was always aware that she wasn’t the thinnest
It wasn’t until Sixth Form that Gabby’s negative eating habits intensified. She was suffering with her mental health and had been diagnosed with depression. Behaviours similar to those of Binge Eating Disorder (BED) then began to develop, although it was never diagnosed at the time. BED is where a person will eat large portions of food until they feel uncomfortably full.
Like many young people, Gabby went on to university, where she stayed in catered accommodation and developed a favourable relationship with food and eating. During her second year, however, things took a bit of a turn. Like many students, Gabby and her friends had gained weight during their first year away from home. When one friend decided to join Slimming World – a friend that Gabby felt was already thinner than her – panic set in and she began restricting her own consumption.
Initially it was small fry – not snacking as much and trying to encourage a healthier diet. But over time this grew to weighing herself several times a day and randomly selecting a target weight. This was encouraged by positive affirmation and compliments on her appearance from those around her. Over time, she found that keeping up such a strict regime was intense; she missed eating and would binge. But binging then led to purging – something she kept hidden from her friends and family.
As someone that has studied Psychology for more than five years now, Gabby is now aware that many people tend to be in denial of their conditions. But even with her training, she still found herself to be one of them – and didn’t recognise that her lifestyle was unhealthy for years. In 2020, she began taking medication for her Bulimia and is now in a more settled place with her disordered eating behaviours. ‘It’s still very much a battle in my mind and there’s often so much guilt,’ she says. ‘I’m much better, but can still spiral. My disorders are still present but they’re less controlling now.’
With us now right in the middle of Eating Disorder Awareness Week in the UK, we were keen to know how and where Gabby sought help and what she would encourage others to try if they ever found themselves in a similar situation.
Gabby explained that she never had a ‘lightbulb moment’, as such. She simply realised that the majority of her time was spent in a cycle of numbers and competition; whether that was through food or time spent exercising. The time came when she felt she needed to change.
After many disastrous doctor’s appointments, she managed to find someone that supported her through her journey on medication. She has also paid for private therapy, which has helped massively when the queue for treatment via the NHS was too long. During her time at university, she has also reached out to charity helplines for assistance.
Gabby also believes that her academic interests have helped her to understand and express how she feels towards her eating disorders in a more positive way. Although her PhD focuses on addictive behaviours such as alcoholism and gambling, she does study eating behaviours too. She has found that various coping mechanisms and techniques used to benefit addicts have been successful in assisting her to think differently about her own situation.
One of her favourite methods is something a little unconventional, but it works. ‘I put my headphones in when I go for a walk and pretend I’m on the phone,’ Gabby tells us. ‘I like to talk about how I’m feeling aloud, and to the rest of the world it looks like I’m simply taking a call.’ This is a quicker and simpler method of journaling, and gives the same results.
Gabby also shared with us some good suggestions for helping others suffering with eating disorders – the first of which is to normalise the conversation. ‘Try to be welcoming, but not invasive,’ she suggests, ‘and be willing to listen but be aware that this is not a problem that comes with a quick fix.’
A keen bookworm like us here at HLN, Gabby also recommended a collection of books that she has turned to during her journey towards recovery, which she suggested may be helpful to anyone else who may not yet feel ready to seek professional help:
The F*ck It Diet by Caroline Dooner
Gabby feels this book is the most direct link to eating and explaining diet culture out of all of her recommendations. It explains that you need to trust your body, while talking about the stress of weight gain and other important topics. Dooner’s writing style is scientific, but really chatty, and is something Gabby finds herself going back to time and again.
Beauty Sick by Rennee Engeln PhD
Beauty Sick focuses on how the cultural obsession with appearance hurts girls and women. This book concentrates on social media and why our feelings towards body image are so distorted.
So Sad Today by Melissa Broder
Gabby admits this book is possibly a bit of a marmite publication. It does mention ableism and fat-phobia, but offers true representation of what she refers to as ‘the devil voice’. This book may not be for everyone but, in Gabby’s opinion, it’s mind-blowing.
Womanhood: The Bare Reality by Laura Dodsworth
This book is a collection of images of 100 different women, at various angles, totally naked. To accompany these images is an essay on what that person feels about their body, and the relationship they have with their physique. Admittedly hard-hitting, Gabby can’t seem to praise this book enough.
Dessert Person by Claire Saffitz
Dessert Person is a recipe book filled with the most amazing sweet and savoury puddings; Gabby herself would strongly recommend the carrot cake. The author, Claire Saffitz, noted in the front of the book that: ‘self-identifying as a dessert person is my way of declaring that no foods are good or bad. Food holds no moral weight at all.’ This cookbook’s accepting state of mind makes it the perfect companion to a healthy relationship with food and baking.