Dr Elizabeth McNaught has written a book to share her personal experience of anorexia – and give hope to others battling with eating disorders. Interview by SHARON BARNARD
It was a plumber who uncovered Lizzie’s secret.
“When the toilet got blocked mum and dad called someone out and found it was caused by all the pasta, rice and sandwiches I used to hide and then flush away. But there it was in front of us. I couldn’t hide it any longer.”
Lizzie, who is now in her 20s and works as a junior doctor in Bath, says it fills her with horror when she looks back at the behaviour of her 14-year-old self and the ways she used to deceive her loving and concerned parents.
“Mum would put out our breakfast in the morning and I would get up about an hour earlier than everyone else and drop the dry cereal from my bowl into my dressing gown pocket.
“I would also give my packed lunch away at school, pretending I wasn’t feeling very hungry. When I got home I’d tell mum I’d eaten it,” she explains.
“Eating disorders thrive in the dark,” says Lizzie, who grew up in a stable Christian home in Southampton and has had a strong faith of her own since childhood.
Was there a particular trigger for her anorexia?
“I suppose I was conscious of food growing up and I was a bit of a stocky child, but the main trigger was when I was laid up after breaking my leg in a horse-riding accident.
“I had a lot of time off school and was sedentary so I put on weight. When I returned to school there was a lot of bitching about my having had all this time off.
“Then someone said: ‘Hello fatty’. It had a big effect on me.
“Initially it was all about dieting, losing weight and restricting my food intake. I was quite happy in my own little world and I found I didn’t need other people to accept me.
“But anorexia is a destructive and deceptive illness. It starts to destroy relationships and I became more withdrawn from church and friends.”
Thanks to her mum’s persistence, Lizzie did get help and quite quickly. First it was a hospital admission, then a long stay in a specialist in-patient unit.
“The key for me is that I was still able to trust and hope in God. It was a real struggle and being treated in a secular environment was a challenge to my faith, but I think it strengthened my relationship with God.
“I would read the Bible a lot and write my prayers and do reflective art as well. I was blessed by having parents who would do Bible studies with me at my hospital bed.
“There was one particular Bible verse (Proverbs 3:5–6) that my grandfather sent me that was incredibly encouraging. It was about giving everything to God, knowing it was all in his plan.”
Lizzie says there wasn’t a particular turning point in her recovery, just “small changes and realising that there are always going to be battles and hurts in life and we have to find a way to keep going.”
It also helped knowing that the people around her had patience, were forgiving and would keep on loving her.
“A lot of people were praying for me too, including my church youth group leader who would come round and pray with me.”
Fortunately there doesn’t appear to be any long-term damage to her body, but Lizzie readily admits she still receives help for ongoing issues with food.
What would be her advice to someone struggling with an eating disorder?
“I would encourage you to be brave and take that first step. Talk to someone – your GP, a teacher, colleague or a trusted friend.
“And make the most of every bit of help you are offered to give yourself the best shot. I regret not taking up all the opportunities offered to me.”
Lizzie’s book Life Hurts comes from the unique perspective of someone who has not only battled with anorexia but is also medically trained.
“I want to share my experiences to give people hope – to let them know that you can say: ‘I am not well and life hurts.’
“It still hurts for me, but it hasn’t stopped me living my life and keeping on going.”
+ Life Hurts: a doctor’s personal journey through anorexia by Dr Elizabeth McNaught is published by Malcolm Down this month (February 2017). For further information visit LifeHurts.net
+ National Eating Disorders Week is 24 February–2 March
PHOTO: Abigail Cole (The Cole Portfolio Photography)
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