A woman from Lea is speaking out about her eating disorder in an attempt to help other women love and accept themselves for who they are.Advertisement
Laura Sylvester was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa in 2009, at the age of 18.
At the time of her diagnosis, Laura was so severely ill that she was hospitalised for four months. She describes the 11 years since then as ‘a hell of a ride’.
After her first stint in treatment, Laura secured a place on the Fashion Design course at UCLan, but while at university, Laura’s eating disorder presented her with huge challenges.
“Looking back, I wasn’t well; I was just surviving. I was a nervous wreck most of the time. I couldn’t join in with the usual uni antics, as much of it revolved around food and being social, and anorexia is very isolating.
“Eating disorders weren’t talked about as much back then, so I felt a lot of shame around it. I was constantly having to get myself out of things or tell little white lies. I was always on edge, like when you’re watching a horror movie.”
Laura began to suffer from severe panic attacks in her second year, but – as bad as the situation had been in Preston – matters only got worse when she went to London in September 2012 for her university placement.
“I thought moving to London may change me. I wanted to live normally and enjoy the big city, attend events and live freely, but that was far from what happened.”
As time went by, Laura’s health deteriorated under her busy job and commute, and she ended up in hospital in London for five months. While Laura describes that period as difficult, she was discharged on good terms and and was referred for outpatient treatment back in Preston.
That September Laura returned to university. Within a month she started to struggle with the pressure of her final year and, by October, she was back in the treatment centre.
“When the medical and university staff said I’d either have to quit the course or defer until I was fit enough again, I felt like giving up completely. After a few days of tears, I used it as motivation to get back on my feet. I was so close to graduating and I’d been through so much already, I couldn’t give up now.”
Laura returned to university in September 2014, and graduated with a 2:1.
“I was honestly very proud of myself. Of course it wasn’t easy, but I made it.”
Feeling ready to tackle the world of work, Laura took on roles in Manchester and London. But toxic work environments led to a relapse in her eating disorder, and she began suffering from panic attacks to a level even worse than before.
Once again back in Preston and with her weight at a critical point, Laura contracted E. coli and ended up being rushed into intensive care for life saving treatment.
After another two stays in treatment centres, Laura turned a corner and has been engaging with outpatient treatment since July 2019. She said this time she’s been doing things differently.
“Instead of going back to work, I dedicated the time to myself to heal and repair both my body and mind. I can honestly say that in all of my years of suffering I’m in the best place possible right now.
“Of course I still have days where I struggle, it’s so ingrained into my psyche that I don’t think I’ll ever be ‘fully recovered’. But I manage and I’m happy, and other people have noticed this too.”
Throughout Laura’s eating disorder, a constant source of support has been Instagram, where she has amassed thousands of followers.
“I was open about my anorexia journey from my second admission, which felt like such a relief not to live in shame anymore. People were very kind and it helped me get through a lot.
“I also believe I’ve helped many people by sharing my own message and experiences.”
Laura is now looking ahead to a career where she can use her own mental health journey to help other people more formally.
“In some ways I have been a coach for many people over the years, but it’s something I’m now working towards professionally. I’m an NLP practitioner and have certificates in mindfulness and life coaching. I also have over a decade’s worth of exposure to therapy and a lot of life experience.
“My goal is to be a coach in helping people to reach their goals by removing limiting beliefs and blocks. We are able to rewire our brains, and I want to help people do that.”
Laura is continuing on her journey despite Covid-19 meaning she hasn’t had her weekly physical check-ups since March, instead just receiving an hour’s phone call every few weeks.
“Luckily I’m in a good place, but many people are suffering like never before and it’s worrying.
“Mental health is much more talked about now, which is great, but the problem is there’s not much being done about it. It’s still so misunderstood or not taken as seriously as physical illnesses – especially eating disorders.
“Now more than ever I can’t stress enough for people to open up and talk to the person they feel most comfortable with. Talking is the first step and I promise you that you will feel a huge relief just getting it off your chest.”
For now Laura will continue her self-development while enjoying walks with her Chihuahua, Honey, and going out with friends whenever the Covid-19 situation allows it.
“I love travelling and going on adventures, and I love being outdoors. I’m obsessed with learning so I’ve always got books or courses going. I try to practise yoga on a daily basis as it helps ground and calm my nervous system.
“Whilst food is still challenging for me, brunch is my favourite. I took advantage of the Eat Out To Help Out scheme in August, challenging myself and pushing my boundaries.
“I’ve been through a lot in my own mental health journey, so if I can help anyone at all then it gives me a great sense of fulfilment. My aim is to help people express themselves and love themselves for all they are, without falling into the trap of needing to look or feel perfect. We are all individually unique and beautiful in our own way.”
Based in Navigation Way near Preston Docks is Breathe Therapies and S.E.E.D Lancashire. Breathe is a non-profit organisation and the treatment arm of charity S.E.E.D (support and education for eating disorders).
They have a team of clinicians specialising in eating disorders, mental health, weight management and obesity.
Shelley Perry is the clinical director of Breathe and CEO of S.E.E.D. She started the two organisations after her own experience with an eating disorder while at university.
Speaking about the impact apps like Instagram could have body image, she said: “Social media makes it easy for us to compare many aspects of ourselves to others, including our bodies.
“Although eating disorders usually stem from underlying psychological factors, such as the need for control or as a result of trauma, the physical appearance of an individual can certainly play a part in the development of an eating disorder.
“However, as social media is becoming a far more inclusive space in terms of body positivity, we are seeing a lot of people step up and tell their story, inspiring others who are struggling to reach out.
“The kind of community this can provide for those suffering with an eating disorder can be extremely powerful, as it exposes them to helpful resources and organisations who can support them in their recovery.”
For more information about the two organisations and how to access support, visit the Breathe Therapies website and S.E.E.D. website.