Thursday 26 April 2018

'My parents were told I had two weeks left to live' - Anorexia survivor (29)

Stephanie McAlinden (29) says Netflix film 'To the Bone' could trigger sufferers

Stephanie McAlinden who struggled with anorexia and is now studying eating disorders.
Stephanie McAlinden who struggled with anorexia and is now studying eating disorders.

Arlene Harris

Up to 200,000 people in Ireland are affected by eating disorders - and many of those may feel overwhelmed with the content of the controversial new Netflix film, To the Bone, which premiered last week.

The storyline centres on Ellen (played by Lily Collins), a 20-year-old woman who suffers from anorexia. She has supposedly undergone every kind of treatment available for the condition, without success, before she is finally shipped off to a residential programme under the unconventional guidance of Dr Beckham (Keanu Reeves).

Tackling anorexia as a subject is no easy task, as it is impossible to avoid issues, images and situations which may act as triggers to vulnerable viewers.

Having suffered from anorexia for the best part of her life, Stephanie McAlinden (29) is only too aware of what To The Bone presents, and has decided to give the film a wide berth. She doesn't believe people really understand how susceptible some who have suffered the condition are to relapsing.

"I'm definitely steering clear of the film as I couldn't even make it through the trailer," she says. "I appreciate that it was written and acted with great intentions but even though I am in a stable place right now, I would be very worried that it could be a trigger.

"The main character is so stereotypical, which I know she should be, but the messy bun, smudged eyeliner, cigarette and baggy jumpers make up an image of perfection to pro-ana (anorexia) blogs. This is exactly the look everyone is trying to achieve. Plus the fact that the film is released during the summer, when people are even more concerned about their body, is a bad idea.

Stephanie McAlinden who struggled with anorexia and is now studying eating disorders.
Stephanie McAlinden who struggled with anorexia and is now studying eating disorders.

Stephanie says that even though the makers have experience of eating disorders, "I just don't think they truly understand how vulnerable we can be".

Stephanie (29) is originally from Dublin but is doing a PHD in eating disorders at Queen's University in Belfast. She developed anorexia nervosa when she was still in primary school.

"I have always had problems dealing with intense emotions and when I was 11 my kitten died and I felt totally helpless," she says. "I was a chubby child and after losing my pet I stopped eating certain things as it felt as if it was the only thing I could control in my life. Then the inevitable happened and people started telling me I looked great as I had lost weight, so as the months rolled on, I started skipping meals altogether and by the time I was 12, I regularly didn't eat for days.

"My parents soon picked up on this and I was brought to the doctor who told my mum I was just going through a phase. This allowed me to carry on being secretive with food. It had become a way of life for me and the less I ate, the harder it became to break the cycle."

Throughout her early teens her condition became worse, and Stephanie was convinced that she would not live to become an adult.

"When I started secondary school, I became known as 'the anorexic one'," she says. "I literally ate nothing and survived solely on Pepsi Max. I started having panic attacks when I was about 14 or 15 and was on medication, but I was in such a bad way. I remember having a bread roll on St Patrick's Day one year and it was the first thing I had actually eaten in three months.

Stephanie McAlinden who struggled with anorexia and is now studying eating disorders.
Stephanie McAlinden who struggled with anorexia and is now studying eating disorders.

"I was barely conscious most of the time and knew that I was dying, but wanted to get on with it quickly rather than have to go through weeks of suffering. I remember being resigned to the fact that I would never get to see the third Lord of the Rings, but as far as I was concerned, this was the price I had to pay. Eventually I passed out in the bath one day and I was rushed to hospital where my parents were told I had two weeks left to live."

Fortunately Stephanie had been caught just in time and was slowly brought back to life and after being administered food and nutrition on a daily basis and monitored closely for three months, she was finally allowed to return home - but her story didn't end there.

"As soon as I was discharged, I went back to my old ways," she admitted. "People don't seem to realise that anorexia is a mental health disorder and you don't get cured just like that. I still had a very complicated relationship with food and was so afraid of calories. But I returned to school and thankfully all my friends had remained constant, which really helped me to cope. But then with the Leaving Cert looming, I developed bi-polar and had a really tough time for several years.

"I was like a rag and bone lady with hardly any hair and by the time I was 25, I was very thin again. But I really wanted to go to Queens to study my condition, so knew I had to pull myself together and this is really how I survived.

"My brother, who is a body builder, gave me some advice on working out so I have learned to combine food and exercise. Plus I have a wonderful boyfriend who is so understanding and really keeps me together - I eat the same thing every day and allow myself one cheat day; it's all about routine. This is why I believe To the Bone could be detrimental to someone like me as I am still so fragile and couldn't risk being sucked into something which could trigger my condition again."

Barry Murphy, communications officer with Bodywhys believes the filmmakers "have understood the seriousness and complexity of eating disorders". However, he does advise against watching it alone and urges discussion about its content.

"Visual and other elements of the film may raise concerns for parents and people affected by eating disorders," he says.

"The lead character, Ellen, is in crisis and unwell. Some scenes involving specific eating disorder behaviours are shown, along with personal and emotional conversations.

"So it may be useful for family members to watch it together - and if you have any concerns, speak to a professional or Bodywhys to seek support for how the film might have an impact on you."

Anyone with any concerns regarding eating disorders should contact their GP or visit www.bodywhys.ie or call 1890 200 444

To the Bone is available on Netflix now

According to Bodywhys

To the Bone contains a number of key messages:

● Eating disorders are psychological illnesses.

● They are not about food, dieting or vanity.

● They pose a significant risk to a person’s emotional and physical health.

● Symptoms can include: a change in someone’s relationship with food, weight loss, low self-esteem, social withdrawal and a marked personality change.

OFFICIAL FIGURES SHOW THAT...

● Up to 200,000 people in Ireland may be affected by eating disorders.

● An estimated 400 new cases emerge each year, representing 80 deaths annually.

● 12pc of all admissions for under 18s to Irish psychiatric units and hospitals had a primary diagnosis of eating disorders.

● Females accounted for 87pc of all admissions of those affected by eating disorders.

Irish Independent

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