Anorexia Awareness with Leah Newton
by Emma Carey
Anorexia, the literal skeleton in the closest. An eating disorder that is well known, but often misunderstood. Leah Newton has been fearlessly sharing her story, contacting The Bristol Post and starting a campaign to raise awareness. After spending eight months at Marlborough Cotswold House for disordered eating, the first three not stepping a foot outside the front door, Leah is fighting fit and ready to take on the world.
‘I think it was a Friday and I was just in my flat and I tripped over… and I broke my pelvis…’
A Psychology degree under her belt and entering her final year of Occupational Therapy, I had the opportunity to catch up and hear Leah’s inspirational story.
Want to listen to the full interview in audio? Click on the link below.
Would you be able to tell me what anorexia is, what is it to you?
Anorexia is really different for everybody and it’s not about being skinny, it’s often not about the food and I think that’s often the two things people think it is. About being skinny and about people that don’t like eating and don’t like food and it’s actually very much not that. The majority of people with eating disorders love food, like absolutely love food and a lot of people with eating disorders are a healthy weight, some people with eating disorders might be overweight. So, it’s not to do with looks and it’s not to do with food.
What’s been your journey with anorexia?
For me it’s to do with a loss of control, so when I went to uni and I got ill, I lost control of all aspects of my life. I hated what I was doing, I hated where I was living, the thing that I could control was what I was eating. It’s that sense of being like, ‘Well I don’t know what to do, so this is one thing that I’m going to have that element of control over.’
‘The idea behind an eating disorder is a voice in your head.’
Leah, about 18, smiling in one of the last photos taken of her before the illness.
It’s a battle between your own voice saying ‘this is actually what I want’ and another voice saying ‘but no this is what you SHOULD be doing.’ Sometimes it can become kind of blurred, sometimes when I was really poorly I didn’t know what was me saying what I wanted and what was the anorexia. But some people label their anorexia and give it a name.
So, stereotypically, ‘Ed wants this,’ because for a lot of people that’s easier for people to keep themselves rather than becoming the disorder, rather than it being them because I think that’s really easy to do. It’s like a voice, I don’t think it was like this for me, but for a lot of people it’s telling them, ‘They’re not good enough, they don’t deserve this, they’re not worthy of this.’
A lot of people with eating disorders self-harm because I think restricting is a form of self-harm. I never self-harmed, but for a lot of people, it was a form of punishment. It’s to kind of succumb that feeling. For me, it wasn’t about not being worthy, it was about control.
‘I never thought I’d be someone who had anorexia.’
[…] I think I knew I had disordered eating, but I never thought I’d be someone who had anorexia. I remember learning about it in psychology and it was just a whole different world. Because it was focused on being skinny and I remember when I went to the GP and I was referred to a specialist eating disordered unit in Malborough for a consultation and I was like, ‘This is a load of crap, I’m just a bit stressed, I didn’t like university. I’ll be fine. Now I’m home, I’ll be fine.’
‘It was a Friday…and I broke my pelvis in three places…but the strength of the eating disorder meant that I didn’t go to a GP until Monday.’
I think it was a Friday and I was just in my flat and I tripped over, I think it was slipper on the floor, and I broke my pelvis in three places. I didn’t think I’d broken it, I thought I’d broken my coxis, it was incredibly painful. I rang work and said, ‘I can’t come in,’ but the strength of the eating disorder meant that I didn’t go to a GP until Monday and that was only because my mum forced me to go. So I spent all of Friday, all of Saturday, all of Sunday with a broken pelvis. I was trying to function as I could.
I was ready, finally, to say, ‘I can’t go through this anymore.’
Cotswold house is a place to get better, it’s not a place to force-feed people. They do that there if they have to, but they’ve only got twelve beds and they want people to engage, it’s not about containing people and force-feeding them, it’s about engaging in the programme. So, she [my psychiatrist] came to see me and she sent a nurse out to evaluate me and say, ‘Is she going to engage or is she not? Because if she’s not she can’t come here.’ I didn’t get sectioned, because I chose to go, I agreed to go. I technically had no choice, because if I hadn’t agreed to go, they would have sectioned me, but I had got to a point then, where I was ready, finally, to say, ‘I can’t go through this anymore.’
What do you define as eating in a normal way?
Eating intuitively […] So just responding to how your body feels and what your body wants and needs, rather than, ‘I’m still hungry, but I’ve just eaten dinner, so I’m not going to eat anymore.’ That might have been okay yesterday, but today you’re hungry, so your body needs more. And not feeling guilty about that.
Eating more one day than you did the previous day or the next day and being okay about that and not having that play on your mind, which it does. It doesn’t mean that just because you eat more one day that you’re going to weigh more or weigh less. Not linking what you eat to what you weigh, more ‘how do I feel?’
You’re talking about what you ‘should’ eat and I think that’s a massive pressure on young women and girls.
Absolutely, orthorexia is becoming a big thing. So eating ‘fresh’ or I know a lot of women who have a fear of oil, so they won’t fry anything in oil. It’s just a focus on clean eating, so eating salads, eating vegetables, cutting out this, cutting out that, completely restricting your diet in terms of only eating clean foods.
‘…orthorexia has risen due to society’s ideas of clean eating.’
Taken summer 2018 – The first time Leah had been away on a long distance trip since she was unwell
So chocolate would not be classed as a ‘clean food’ and obviously, orthorexia has risen due to society’s ideas of clean eating. A lot of people who have eating disorders turn towards veganism, they use it as an excuse to only eat certain things, to only eat plant-based foods, a lot of people do it in a completely healthy way, I completely understand that but a lot of people will be like, ‘well I’m a vegan, so I can’t eat that.’
Who are the body positive people that you follow [on Instagram]?
There’s loads of people. There’s a podcast called ‘bodycons’ podcast and they’re two women that are in the area and they do massive great things for body positivity, they talk about it, they campaign about it. One of them is doing a campaign about it no diet adverts around gyms and things, she’s got a young daughter.
Tarin, she did the embrace movement, [on Instagram] she became really body obsessed and became a bodybuilder and then through doing that realised this was absolutely the worst thing ever. She hated it, she completely rejected the family, her children, she got to the point where she was like, ‘how can I tell my daughter she’s beautiful if I don’t believe that and I’m not showing that.’ And she went completely the opposite way and now she does this embrace and just watch the documentary, it’s incredible.
[Leah has kindly provided a full list of Instagram followers and podcasts at the end of this interview].
Could you talk to me a little about fitness and bulimia?
So, binge eating and bulimia are quite easily interchangeable. Binge eating might be where you actually eat an excessive amount, it might be at a certain time of day, where you eat loads, you eat more than you want and you kind of lose that control. And bulimia is doing that but compensating for it by laxative use or by vomiting, so getting rid of that after.
So, a lot of people with binge eating and bulimia, they might have stable weight, or they might be overweight. So it’s quite hard to detect if you look at people visibly. It’s a real abusive cycle. I’ve never experienced either of them, so just from learning, speaking to girls who’ve had it. Men and women actually.
How would you define people who are exercising ‘obsessively’?
Where you prioritise exercise over other things, so you won’t go to a particular event because that corresponds with a particular time when you exercise and you’re not willing to give it up. Exercising an obsessive amount in a day. So, some people may go to the gym seven days a week and that might not be classed as excessive exercise for them, that might be fine, but a lot of women I know, would go to one gym in the morning, another at lunchtime and another gym in the evening and running between them all. That’s very extreme. And not fueling themselves alongside that.
But it’s really hard to detect because it’s really hard to know what’s excessive for one person and what’s normal one person. It’s all completely relative. It’s hard to detect because if someone is going to different gyms then there is no communication between those gyms so nobody knows and that’s another reason why part of my campaign is not about turning people away, because the compulsion to exercise will just take them somewhere else.
Can you explain what your campaign is about?
My campaign is to try and incorporate education into fitness professionals training, so to try and get some kind of, even if it’s really small, some kind of training in eating disorders, just a little bit of education in terms of spotting signs, spotting symptoms and how might be a good way to communicate with people. So what be something you might say, what might be something you avoid? Talking about language choices and putting in a fitness professionals mind that their client isn’t always just there for the physical. Sometimes they are, but sometimes they’re not.
‘…people might be in the grips of an eating disorder.’
When people are at the front of the class maybe be aware of the language they’re using. Everybody might not want to hear that they’re there because they’ve got to fit into a wedding dress in six months time. People might be recovering from an eating disorder, people might be in the grips of an eating disorder. By putting out that awareness, people might be a bit more considerate of it. Fitness professionals I have spoken to really want that and they just don’t have that confidence to know how to do it. And so giving a bit of guidance, even a tiny module, would be great.
If you were to give any advice to someone who thinks they might be struggling or even if something in this resonates with them, what do you think might have helped you?
‘Open up to people and they won’t respond in the way you think.’
Surround yourself with people that care about you, because some people don’t have a massive support network and I was really incredibly lucky to have a support network. But I think the biggest thing for me, was because of the stigma around mental health I was incredibly keen to disassociate myself from it, but actually, everybody has mental health, over the course of the day.
Leah and in her beautiful recovery
It might go from really bad to really good and I think if somebody had told me way back then, ‘Open up to people and they won’t respond in the way you think.’ They won’t be like, ‘Omg, she’s struggling with mental health, let’s avoid that like the plague.’ People will talk about it, people will respond and it’s really okay to say, ‘Actually, I’m dealing with this and I don’t want you to do anything, you probably can’t do anything, but I’m just putting it out there.’
…the decision to stay well, that I make every single day, is my decision.
Inevitably, as I said, the only person who will be able to help you is yourself and it will take you however long to get to that point. You can’t do it alone, the hospital saved my life, if I didn’t have my family, my friends, I would have really struggled. I needed them throughout the whole of it, I needed other people. As much as the decision to get better and the decision to stay well, that I make every single day, is my decision. I need people. You need people, in whatever form they come in, even if it’s a stranger.
If you think you might be struggling with disordered eating or have concerns for someone else, please reach out and visit BEAT or book an appointment with your local mental health nurse or GP.
You can also download our free PDF listing useful contacts and websites for disordered eating.
Full Listing of Positive Instagram and Podcasts Channels:
the_positive_planner, anorexiabuilimiacare, bodyconspodcast, beyondbodyconfidence, ortbristol, phelanwell, mollyforbes, ginamartin, bodyimagemovement (Taryn Brumfitt), beatedsupport, thefashionfitnessfoodie, bodyposipanda, jameelajamilofficial, i_weigh
Podcasts: body cons podcast Fearne Cotton – Happy Place Don’t salt my game – Laura Thomas Appearance Matters – The Podcast (Centre for Appearance Research) Food for thought – Rhiannon Lambert The Naked Professors How to Fail with Elizabeth Day Fit and Fearless – Girl Gains