Battling back to enjoy food instead of fearing it

Beat young ambassador Amy Sheen, 19, at the charity's Norwich headquarters. Photo: Bill Smith Beat young ambassador Amy Sheen, 19, at the charity's Norwich headquarters. Photo: Bill Smith

Friday, February 14, 2014
12:00 PM

Eating disorders took over junior doctor Beth’s life, robbed Danielle of four years of her childhood and wrecked Amy’s career hopes but as they fought their illness they were determined to give back to the Norwich charity which helped them. Rowan Mantell reports in her second feature marking the 25th anniversary of Beat.

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Beth Masterson says she is still recovering from her eating disorder and she knows that to keep her career as a doctor she must continue to eat. Beth wants people to know that eating disorders can happen to anyone and are not always weight related or because of a desire to be thin.Beth Masterson says she is still recovering from her eating disorder and she knows that to keep her career as a doctor she must continue to eat. Beth wants people to know that eating disorders can happen to anyone and are not always weight related or because of a desire to be thin.

It was when Beth Masterson completed a 12-hour shift as a junior doctor, fuelled by a single cereal bar, that she realised she had a problem.

At some point she had stopped eating proper meals and was now restricting her food intake to tiny snacks.

“It’s difficult to say when it started,” she said. “It’s not like breaking a leg on a specific date.”

“I realised pretty quickly that I had a problem but I thought I had it under control for a long time.”

By the time worried family and friends persuaded her to seek help she was so ill she needed an emergency hospital bed and was diagnosed with restrictive anorexia nervosa.

“Everyone always assumes that it’s because you want to be a size zero, or you look in the mirror and you see a fat person, or want to be 
like the models in magazines, but with me it was always a punishment issue,” said Beth. “If I only got 99pc, instead of 100pc, 
in an exam, that was a reason not to eat. If I was busy, and missed a meal, that was a reason not to eat.”

She was in her mid-20s and in the third year of medical school at the University of East Anglia when anorexia took control of her life.

Throughout her childhood and teens there were no issues with food or dieting. She grew up in a village near Bungay and attended Norwich High School before training to be a doctor.

“It was what I’d wanted to do for as long as I remember,” said Beth, now 33.

She still does not know why her life was taken over by an eating disorder – and hates the way it has not only wasted years of her life, interrupting her training several times, but also affected her family and friends.

For Beth, talking therapies did not help, but being a hospital in-patient did. “They feed you up and get you into a routine of regular meals,” she said. She then moved back to live with her parents to help her continue to eat proper meals three times a day. “I’m recovering, not recovered,” she said.

When she came out of hospital she contacted Beat and tells her story in the hope that it might help other people.

“Thing have turned out reasonably well for me, so I wanted to help other people,” she said.

She wants people to know that eating disorders can happen to anyone and are not always weight related or because of a desire to be thin.

Beth still struggles with eating normally. “I have to be very strict with myself and ask myself whether I don’t want to eat something because I actually never liked it, or because it has become a ‘fear food,’” she explained.

Her ambitions for the immediate future are simple. “To remain in work would be quite nice this time,” she said. And to do so, she knows she must eat.

Amy Sheen had not heard of anorexia until she was diagnosed.

She was at college, working towards a childcare qualification, when tutors first raised concerns.

“I didn’t understand what it meant. I hadn’t heard of anorexia nervosa before,” said Amy, of Lowestoft. “I started googling and as I read the symptoms I was thinking, ‘I do that, and that, and that!’”

Amy, now 19, stopped going to school six years ago. “I didn’t get on with school, right from the start, from when I was just four,” she said. “I never liked lots of people around and by year nine I just couldn’t cope any more. I stopped going.”

Her education continued with a mix of home tutoring and online learning but without the structure of a school day, Amy says she simply stopped eating normal meals.

“I didn’t have to get up for school in the morning, so I didn’t have breakfast and I didn’t have a routine so I didn’t have lunch.

“I was just doing nothing, apart from watching TV and then I’d have tea with my family.”

“I was diagnosed in 2010, but I showed symptoms of something being not quite right with my relationship with food from much earlier,” said Amy. “But I didn’t think anything was out of the ordinary.”

She does not remember having any issues with her body shape.

“When I was little I would try any kind of food. Then I slipped into anorexia and was eating next to nothing. And I didn’t enjoy anything. It looked disgusting. Now I can say I really love Chinese food.”

It is a big change from the years when she struggled with anorexia, she was unable to continue the childcare course and, after re-starting the following year, had to drop out again as anorexia tightened its grip on her life. She was referred to the Phoenix residential clinic in Cambridge, but discharged herself after a week.

“It’s a very helpful setting but unfortunately I had some relationship and personal problems,” she said.

Amy believes the counselling from Norfolk’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (or CAMHS) was key to her recovery. “They talked to me, at my level,” said Amy.

Amy became a Young Ambassador for Beat after coming across the role on its website. She has spoken at a training day for GPs

“I’m very close to being recovered now although I still have good and bad days,” she said.”

Danielle Shoesmith remembers the exact moment that anorexia began poisoning her life.

“I had just turned 14 when I started watching my weight. I wasn’t overweight, but I wasn’t as thin as my friends. They always had five things in their lunch boxes, so I decided to do that too. I took five pieces of fruit,” said Danielle, who is now 18 and a volunteer with eating disorders charity Beat.

She began losing weight and, within weeks her family was worried – taking her to the doctors and eventually, in desperation, to hospital.

Danielle, of Cawston, near Aylsham, was immediately referred to the Children and Adolescent Mental Health Team. Regular counselling and weighing sessions followed, but she was soon so ill that she was admitted to a specialist clinic in Cambridge.

“To start with I didn’t want to be there because I didn’t feel I needed help,” said Danielle. “I didn’t comply with the programme. I was cheating by hiding food, taking diet pills, vomiting.”

She was discharged, spent a month at another clinic in Chelmsford and then went back to the Phoenix Centre in Cambridge for another five months.

She was so ill that at first she was not even allowed out of bed, and was then unable to take part in any activity for fear of triggering cardiac arrest.

“For a year I just lost touch with normal life. It was very hard being away from everyone.”

“I wasn’t frightened of dying at the time but I know my family were worried. They were crying a lot, getting very upset

Danielle grew up in Cawston, where she lives with her mum. She has an older brother and a twin sister.

Recalling the onset of the illness, she said: “I felt I needed to control things in my life. When your weight drops you get a buzz, but it doesn’t last. And it starts not being you in control, but the anorexia in control.

“People concentrate on the physical side, but it’s a mental illness.

“I hate it. I absolutely hate it. It has robbed me of four years. I haven’t been able to be a normal teenager – going out clubbing, for meals…”

As she was struggling against the anorexia she even gave it a name, to help her distinguish between herself and her illness. “There were Danielle’s thoughts and Anna’s thoughts,” she explained.

Before the illness struck Danielle said she was a bubbly child, and happy to eat anything. But over the past four years she has suffered from anorexia, binge eating disorder and bulimia.

Her distraught family have had to watch her struggling to accept she needed help and then working towards recovery.

Danielle herself has been so impressed by her treatment that she hopes to train as a mental health nurse.

“I was inspired by the mental health nurses in hospital,” she said. “I saw how they helped people, and how they helped me. I really want to help like that.

She also volunteers as a Young Ambassador for Beat.

She hopes to start a college course in September and eventually qualify as a mental health nurse.

“I wanted to use my experiences to help other people. I’m grateful that I’m still here,” she said. She has helped medical staff understand eating disorders as well as talking to other young people in the grip of the illness.

“I used the Beat help lines and they helped me seek support and are very encouraging,” she said.

She has also raised money for Beat with a sponsored skydive. “It was frightening, but it was really fun as well,” she said. “I wanted to do something out of my comfort zone.”

“I still have therapy and I still have weeks when I’m struggling, but I’m a lot better than I was and really motivated to change. It’s mainly the binge eating and bulimia now but you learn to manage it and live a normal life. I’m currently working towards not caring as much about calories.”

And if she could advise her younger self, what would she say?

“You don’t have to live your life to please others. Just accept yourself,” she said.






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