Updated: May 12
Eating disorders are not a lifestyle choice. Neither are they a person's fault. Unfortunately, a stigma remains around eating disorders. Individuals who have experienced eating disorders tend to have little in common. They can affect people of any race, age, gender and sexual orientation.
However, what is common, is they all have a story to share. A story that takes a unique path. Today we talk to Alis Szeles who has kindly shared her story that she hopes will help raise ED awareness as well as give people the confidence to talk more openly.
Alis's story begins around the age of 6 when she began taking part in a combination of gymnastics and dance.
"To perform you needed to be light, thin and flexible."
Immediately, Alis was surrounded by girls who fit the "typical" body type of a gymnast.
Despite her love for gymnastics, she is keen to point out that there was huge exposure to a culture of body image. Being surrounded by more mature girls; who were actively controlling their body weight, as well as coaches who bemoaned weight gain, meant that toxic culture was allowed to manifest with little thought about the effect on young girls' mental health.
"I thought I was moving quite well but the coach would keep telling me I needed to lose weight"
It was clear when speaking to Alis that performance and weight loss were seen as mutually inclusive and therefore she would need one to attain the other. Furthermore, to a young girl, this was seen as "normal."
It was years before Alis would recognise the impact this had on her. Despite the gradual signs she would not attribute until much later, she remembers a particular turning point around the age of 14.
"It got quite serious both physically and mentally. It started with eating very little, eventually eliminating most foods from my diet, to finally just portioning out fruit for the day"
Alis goes on to talk about a Holiday to Greece whereby she was so obsessed that by standing still she would be gaining weight, she would keep moving to burn calories. So much so, that whilst others were relaxing on the beach, Alis would go for a run.
In addition, when she returned she would take extreme measures to get enough movement in. These measures included increasing her route to school by over an hour, completing a daily 90-minute HIT session, and completing her homework standing up.
Consequently, her focus on getting enough activity completed each day led to her pushing people away. Despite this behavior, she explains that no one seemed to notice, or if they did, they didn't reach out.
"School was so important for me, and I was keen to do well. This meant I was very good at just getting on with things."
Alis points out that she felt so low on energy, that she didn't feel that she had the mental capacity to reflect on what she was going through which she believes could have made her prolong her desire to get help.
Finally, she remembers a pivotal moment that prompted her to get help. Whilst attending a family function her appearance brought her Grandma to tears.
Furthermore, it was around this time she would also get comments from teachers about how "thin" she was and how "unwell" she looked, although despite the signs they still failed to attribute this to an eating disorder, believing Alis to be ill.
It wasn't long after this point that Alis put on her favorite pair of jeans. Having used to fit her perfectly, she was horrified at how baggy they had become. At that moment, Alis was looking at a completely different person in the mirror. She believes that she finally saw herself as others were seeing her.
It was at this point she finally sought help.
"I felt like my mum was grateful. That I came to that situation myself."
Alis believes that recognizing the signs of ED is key. In her case, she took a long time to open up about her eating disorder and feels that if her parents or teachers would have reached out, she could potentially have gotten help sooner.
She also understands that the signs are not always obvious which can make it difficult. She points out that some people may be dismissive of help which can potentially put people off from reaching out. This she feels needs to change.
Her first step was to ensure she had someone to hold her hand along the journey. She is keen to point out that she feels this is an important aspect of getting better.
Her next step was to seek professional help. Although this experience was not what she initially expected. She was provided a diet plan, which to her was just too big a jump to begin with. She felt the psychological burden of trying to eat food a challenge and following years of just eating fruit she felt she needed a much slower reintroduction of food groups.
Over time, she began to improve her relationship with food. She explains that she never really felt it leave her and sometimes that small voice in her head will resurface. Although she does believe that she has learned to recognise the signs and what her triggers are. In addition, she stresses that recovery is often not linear.
Despite her recovery going well a simple comment from a family member risked sending her into a downward spiral yet again.
"I was reaching a good mental space. I had gained close to my pre-ed weight when a family member suggested I should stop now as I had gained too much."
Alis explains that for her, it was not about gaining weight, but about accepting herself and this comment sent her straight back to restricting again. She describes the comment as not only hurtful but unhelpful. More so because it came from a family member.
For Alis, it demonstrates why more education is needed around eating disorders as ignorant comments, no matter how they are intended, have the potential to trigger someone's eating disorder
However, despite the setbacks. Alis managed to stay focused on her goal. Physically she had regained her period after a 2-year absence, and mentally she felt that she wasn't obsessing as she used to and she had also begun to enjoy a balanced exercise regime again.
She believes external validation was important in her recovery. Classmates, Teachers and family would eventually tell her how "healthy" she looked and she saw this as a positive part of her journey. Although she indicates that not everyone who has suffered ED will see this as positive.
Having reached her initial goal, her next challenge was to direct her energy into something that would give her an alternative goal. Whilst she originally dabbled in bodybuilding, although she felt this risked her improved relationship with food. This is when she found CrossFit and specifically the team at CrossFit Surbiton.
"If I hadn't have found CrossFit it could have been my downfall."
She has now been doing CrossFit for around 4 years and she agrees she has come a long way. She now works with the team to set clear performance goals which give her the stimulus she needs to stay focused, reducing the risk of triggering her ED.
"You can translate the obsessions, feelings and emotions into performance goals."
As we reflect on this discussion, it is obvious that more education is required. Eating disorders are incredibly complex and each story is specific to the individual. However, this should not stop people from understanding the signs, and being comfortable talking openly.
Alis is still on her journey and although she doesn't think she will be triggered again, she doesn't let this define her existence. She believes she now has a better understanding of how to manage it and that opening up was a big part of her healing process.
If you believe you are experiencing an eating disorder there is a plethora of information and support available both online and via your GP.
www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk - is the website for the UK's eating disorder charity.
In addition, www.mind.org.uk has plenty of information including symptoms and how to access treatment and support.