Amy Nguyen, founder of Sustainable & Social, shares her experience of recovering from anorexia nervosa and depression during the covid-19 pandemic
'Unprecedented'. This is one of the most frequently used words to describe the period since the coronavirus pandemic began to ripple through the UK.
Changes to our way of life have never been so drastic in peacetime, with the enforcement of social distancing and self-isolation, the closure of schools, and the economy coming to a grinding halt. Many are fearful and anxious, and it’s a challenge not to be when media outlets display naked supermarket shelves, rising infection rates, and uncertainty on how long this new dystopian way of life could go on for.
So, how do these elements affect the more than 1.25 million people living with an eating disorder? These illnesses are not eradicated overnight with the announcement of a pandemic. Therapy appointments, daily routines, exercise habits, and food availability have all been turned upside down.
Anorexia nervosa is a challenge I have grappled with for much of my adult life, coming to a crescendo last year when I decided to take a step back from London and my job to focus on recovery. Recovery is not linear, much like the pathology of this virus it has peaks and troughs, and I write this from the vantage point of six months into committed restoration of my body and mind.
Here, I share my experience so far, and thoughts on how to navigate recovery during uncertain times.
Taking back control
Eating disorders are often a form of control – for me this is certainly the case – so when something so unpredictable is ruling our daily lives, it’s hard to see the future. Like many nationwide, we are worried for our loved ones and fearful for the workers of the NHS on the front line supporting the crisis.
I have, however, decided to focus my attention on the sense of community that has come out of this situation. The collaborative effort of businesses to support local communities and the kindness displayed in caring for the elderly fills me with hope. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I’ll take back control and focus on this spirit.
Fighting the fear of food
An abundance of time at home, means substantially more time to sit on thoughts and fears of food. For those with an eating disorder, it’s often on our minds constantly. I have chosen to capitalise on this time to confront those fears.
You want what you can’t have, and that is true in the times of the coronavirus. My value and appreciation of food has been heightened as we witness supermarkets emptied, with NHS workers finishing 48 hour shifts unable to purchase supplies and families who often rely on foodbanks struggling. Where previously I would pace the aisles for up to an hour deciding what groceries to take from the shelves, I am now a woman on a mission, an effective decision maker as the options are limited and I am grateful for what I can get. This situation has solidified the utmost importance of how food is fuel, not the enemy.
Sources of support
Support is crucial during the current pandemic and it looks different to everyone. Creating a strong inner-circle of friends and family is imperative for me.
During my lowest points, self-isolation was the norm. Fuelled by the fear of food and alcohol, I retreated entirely from a formerly jam-packed calendar of events. Now, as important as any therapy session in recovery has been the ability to meet with family and friends, leisurely weekend brunches, and dinner dates. While this is off the cards, I will seek the support of my inner circle through long telephone calls, fun social apps such as Houseparty and Tik Tok, or group meditation challenges. I will be wary of scrolling on social media for extended periods of time as this can be a trigger.
On the topic of therapy, face-to-face appointments are now limited to virtual sessions. While I personally find these less effective, concentrating on progress made thus far by reviewing journal exercises makes all the difference.
For those seeking additional support, Beat – the UK’s leading charity for eating disorders – offer call services and regular online chat forums that offer guidance and a sense of community.
Chartering unsafe territory and breaking bad habits
Unnecessary stockpiling means that ‘safe foods’ from the places I am comfortable purchasing from are no longer available. To an outsider, safe foods can appear irrational. For instance – why is it that I can consume a bowl of noodles, but a bowl of pasta could send my head spinning when they are essentially the same thing?!
However, with no alternatives, this encourages new behaviours and combatting unsafe territory. It may seem ridiculous to feel such triumph at eating a piece of toast for breakfast, but when what was once your dinner is now your breakfast it should be celebrated.
I had penned 2020 to be the year of various ‘unsafe food’ challenges with friends, whether that was pizza, milkshake or burgers. Pasta mission is complete, yogurt well and truly ticked off, glass of wine enjoyed – by week four of quarantine, who knows where I could be!
A free schedule also encourages Ready Steady Cook-like innovation in the kitchen. I’ll be getting inventive with cupboard staples, trialling new combinations, and reacquainting my love for cooking which has always been a form of therapy for me.
Inspired by James Clear’s book Atomic Habits – a guide on how to build good habits and break bad ones – there’s no time like the present to put a stop to the damaging behaviours and play it a little unsafe.
Exercise in isolation
Exercise addiction often comes hand-in-hand with an eating disorder, and can be integrated into daily routines. I am shunning my strict conventional workouts for lighter forms of exercise, and being a little kinder to my body. In replacement, I’ll focus on slowing down and taking things outdoors with yoga at home, long walks in the countryside, and gentle runs along the sea!
A golden opportunity
A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor, so I will use the corona crisis as a golden opportunity to further my recovery. Despite global uncertainty, I am determined not to be ruled by food or exercise, but instead take the time to be kinder and trust in the recovery process. My motivation stems beyond personal reasons, it is to ensure that I am fighting fit should one of my loved ones fall sick and to stay healthy for those that will risk their lives every day serving the NHS as this pandemic erupts.
Focusing on my gratitude for the kindness and compassion that has been displayed throughout our nation to help the vulnerable, will prove my antidote to any existential fears.
Now more than ever is the time for adaptation, so I’ll embrace getting a little squidgier, enjoy my jeans starting to fit the way they used to, and slowing down – who knows by week five I may just have a piece of cake.