Eating disorders: 'It has to change' - says Shropshire woman who lived with anorexia
Shropshire woman Lorna O'Connor speaks about how strict rules prevented her getting treatment for anorexia.
“You wouldn’t go to the doctor with a lump on your breast or testicles and get told to wait for it to get bigger.”
Lorna O’Connor took the brave step to go to her GP. She knew something wasn’t right. Deep down, she knew she had an eating disorder.
At 19 she had dropped from a dress size 16 to a size 10 in a very short period of time. Meals were non-existent and she was over-exercising, spending hours in the gym each day.
“I said that I didn’t want to eat and that I was skipping meals. I knew it wasn’t right and it wasn’t normal. The doctor wanted to weigh me, I cried,” said Lorna, who is now 25.
“I was eventually persuaded and was told I was fine and that my BMI was healthy.”
According to the NHS, a person may be underweight if their body mass index falls below 18.5, and only then can they be treated for anorexia. They may only get urgent treatment if the BMI is below below 17.5.
“I was about eight stone and the doctor was saying I needed to be below that,” said Lorna.
“The truth is I was anorexic for a long time before I had reached that point. Not all people with anorexia or bulimia are underweight.”
Lorna’s eating disorder started when she left her family home in Church Stretton to go and study psychology at the University of Bath in 2011.
- The sooner someone gets treatment for an eating disorder, the better their chances of recovery. Anyone worried about their own or someone else’s health can contact eating disorder charity Beat’s Helpline, 365 days a year, via phone on, email, anonymous one-to-one webchat or social media messaging here. Or call: Adult Helpline - 0808 801 0677; Studentline - 0808 801 0811; Youthline - 0808 801 0711.
The first year passed by without incident, but during her second year of studies she started to cut out meals.
“I had moved in with some girls I had lived with in first year, and those relationships had become a bit strained,” she said.
“I found that difficult and I started to avoid the kitchen area because I didn’t want to run into my house mates and have to make small talk, that was the communal area.
“I also started to go to the gym to avoid them. I would go in the morning and in the evening just to avoid being in the house. I had never been interested in exercise before this.
“I remember visiting the doctor during February 2012. I hadn’t been sleeping, I was exhausted. I remember he just rolled his eyes and made some comment about being a student and how I shouldn’t need sleep.
“I became anxious, I was a mess and withdrawing more and more.”
She became so unwell that a friend packed her a suitcase and drove her to the railway station to return her to Shropshire. Lorna quit university shortly afterwards.
“I became obsessive,” she added.
“People were saying I was looking amazing after losing so much weight, but I always wondered what they would have thought if they had known.”
Lorna got a job at a care home in Church Stretton and would often work very long shifts after eating just a couple of biscuits.
“I would tell work I was eating at home, and home I was eating at work,” she said.
“But I just wasn’t eating. I wouldn’t let anyone touch me, or my mum hug me because I had lost so much weight. I honestly can’t remember much about what I would eat at that time, but I remember my mum bringing me a small jacket potato with beans and I cried, I shouted for her to take it away.”
Lorna’s mum Carol persuaded her to see the GP.
But after being told she did not meet the threshold confirming that she had an eating disorder, Lorna and Carol found a private counsellor in Bayston Hill which they had to pay for themselves.
“I didn’t really get any support from the NHS,” said Lorna. “I started seeing the private counsellor and the treatment helped. It all started with a feeling of being out of control at university and the treatment was a way for me to get control and enforced the belief that I was in control of my own life.”
That is exactly what Lorna did. She was able to return to university to finish her degree and now works as an assistant psychologist in the West Midlands. She had recovered from her eating disorder by 2015 when she met her partner Craig.
Although she admits that she needs the support of her family, particularly in stressful situations to stop her slipping back.
Lorna recently attended a debate in parliament with eating disorder charity BEAT calling for more training to be given to junior doctors to help them to spot the early signs of an eating disorder.
“There are plenty of people like me saying they are not allowed to get the help wanted and needed because of their BMI,” she said. “It has to change.”
Key to remedy is early intervention
Professor Gillian Leng is the deputy chief executive at NICE, who draw up the guidelines, and she agrees that the right treatment as early as possible is key.
She said: “Eating disorders affect a large number of people, both female and male. We want people who have an eating disorder to be able to access the right treatments as soon as possible, especially those with or at risk of severe emaciation.
“Whilst each patient will have their own individual needs, the NICE guideline on the recognition and treatment of eating disorders gives clear recommendations on the types of treatment that should be made available and sets out a structured pathway of care.
“The guideline does not advocate the use of single measures such as BMI or duration of illness to determine whether to offer treatment. Rather, it highlights the importance of patients, carers and health professionals working together to make treatment decisions based on an assessment of a wide range of factors. These factors can help identify those people who are at risk and prioritise them for treatment accordingly.”
NICE say that waiting times have improved for young people, with 81 per cent now starting treatment within four weeks, and hopes that by 2020/21 this will be 95 per cent.