‘These days, I wake up in the morning and I’m fairly happy about it. I know that there’s more to life than a number on the scale and I’m extremely proud of where I am going. There was a time I didn’t think I’d be able to live a normal life ever again, that every day would hurt and now, those days are fewer and I know how to handle them better. With this new found strength, I will continue to fight for a safer space for us to talk and understand each other.’
So begins Ailsa, as she shares her story and experiences of Bulimia and depression. The articulate and fun 24 year old is open about her struggles with an eating disorder that meant ‘I wanted to keep shrinking until there was nothing left.’
‘I always make the point that everyone has mental health, whether it’s in good or bad nick. Mental illness can affect anyone, regardless of race, gender, nationality or age and at the end of the day, we are all human.’
Eating disorder awareness, self-love, and body positivity have made great strides over the last few years prompting more open, healthy, and inclusive conversations that reflect the diversity of those who have or are experiencing such conditions. However, the imagery of the “new” before-and-after, shared commonly through our social-media channels allows harmful stereotypes to persist.
It was through reading other people’s stories that Ailsa gained comfort, that she realised that she wasn’t alone, and it pushed her through a difficult recovery period. 5 years along that ‘recovery’ journey she is using her experiences to encourage us all to further challenge perceptions and stigma, and importantly, encourage us to look out for each other. ‘We’ll all benefit from just being that bit kinder to one another, a simple smile or asking someone how they are can make a difference to someone who needs it.’
Ailsa knows this, because she recognises the difference it made in her own life.
'For me, everything started going wrong when I was 15. It was a rough time as I entered high school, I started self-harming and I was miserable. I ended up moving school, but I had reached a stage where I was so unhappy. I was one of five siblings, but clearly I had a different body shape to my brothers and I began to feel super self-conscious. I just wanted to get smaller and disappear.’
Ailsa’s behaviour changed, she became withdrawn and though it was noticed at home, it was her school that flagged it up as a matter of concern. As an intervention it came at the right time, with the doctor’s appointment leading to CAMHS services. ‘It ended up saving my life but I also felt more and more ashamed.'
The timing of everything was difficult as at 17 as well as being prescribed anti-depressants she was also transferred to the care of adult services. ‘But I didn’t go back, I tried to go it alone. Making myself sick on trains, behind bus-stops and anywhere my family/friends wouldn’t notice. I changed homes a few times, moving 4 times in 2 years. By 19 I just stopped eating for 3 or 4 days at a time and I ended up being referred back to adult services.’
Throughout, from her GP to her mother, mother’s partner, father, and brothers, everyone has offered support and have listened.
Online resources, such as those offered by SAMH also helped, with Ailsa avidly reading what was available, enabling her to learn invaluable coping mechanisms. As Ailsa describes it ‘They me feel more like a person, and less of an eating disorder.’
Ailsa’s illness impacted her education but has not impacted her career. She now works in the Corporate Social Responsibility and charity partnership team at Standard Life Aberdeen, having joined through an enlightened school leaver employment scheme operated by the business. Ailsa joining whilst still an outpatient. ‘It was the first job that I wanted to eat lunch at. No-one had ever seen me eat. I even have my own collection of lunch boxes, for me that’s quite a thing.’
Ailsa says the 9-5 routine has given her a structure, a sense of order, and feeling of self-worth that’s positively impacted her confidence. The company have been supportive throughout.
Equally impressive is an employee assistance programme, Solutions, a confidential and free service available to all employees and employee household members. The programme offers a range of services from Face-to-face counselling, Life Management, and includes a Manager Support Package with access to a 24-hour support line service.
‘I still have up and down days but I can recognise a bad day and acknowledge it - the difference now is that I know what I am capable of and can turn it around.’