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The interesting thing about mental ill-health is that it often appears as harmless quirks, indistinguishable from a person’s personality. My eating disorder began with a simple diet, but it wasn’t long before checking calories turned into a behaviour that nearly caused me to go into cardiac arrest.
Looking back, it’s hard to identify the process, but somewhere along the line eating turned to thinking—and that’s the way it stayed for seven years.
This continued well into my working life, where my eating disorder went entirely unnoticed, even though my behaviour had become increasingly bizarre.
My focus at work diminished and was replaced with anxiety and self-doubt. I was wearing a mask to hide what was really going on beneath the surface. The days became overwhelming and I would struggle with every day decisions.
To eat lunch or not to eat lunch; how to hide it if I wasn’t eating; plans to side-step lunch invitations with co-workers; what excuses to make when it was a working lunch and how I would be expected to at least eat something.
My eating disorder had quickly become my second job, and life had become overwhelming – I wasn't coping and my physical health also began to rapidly deteriorate.
It’s not hard to guess that a life like this isn’t sustainable. In 2015, I was signed off work and I eventually began to get the help I needed. I was finally diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.
After intense CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) for over a year, it slowly dawned on me how close my way of life had come to killing me. I was shocked. My eating disorder was my coping mechanism, I was in control of it, surely? However, my counsellor informed me that I was undoubtedly one of the worst cases the hospital had seen.
My recovery began in 2015 and continues to this day. At the beginning of my recovery, I realised just how much of my personality had been eroded. I started to re-engage with my old interests and picked up new ones. I started playing at open mic nights, began drawing again, and volunteered at a museum.
I slowly began to take off the mask. I finally opened up to my family and friends and was met with unwavering support and love. I have no words to describe what their support meant to me: in many ways, it saved me.
In 2016, I began working at Slaughter and May. I was honest about my past from the start, and I have been overwhelmed by the support that I have found here. Sharing my story has led to opportunities that several years ago, I would have deemed impossible. I founded our mental health network which now has over 100 active members and I am the chair of the mental health and wellbeing committee, working collaboratively with various teams across the firm to drive forward the work in this space. Outside work, I am an ambassador for the eating disorder charity Beat, and mental health speaker. I speak at a range of organisations and government offices about how we can promote proactive and preventative approaches to mental health in the workplace, and within society as a whole.
My eating disorder nearly cost me my life, and by their nature, eating disorders are secretive and stigmatised. We know how hard it can be to ask for treatment and it is even harder if a person doesn’t meet the expectations of what a person with an eating disorder ‘should’ look like. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness—a fact that contrasts sharply with many of the misconceptions that surround it. Similarly, mental ill-health is frequently misunderstood in society, and in the workplace, and it still faces huge amounts of stigma. The only way to change that is to ensure we continue to encourage confident and open conversations, and shine a light on early intervention.
Gabriella Wickes is the Chair of the Mental Health and Wellbeing Committee for international law firm, Slaughter and May.
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