How going viral affected my mental health and triggered my binge eating disorder
Anxiety disorder to disordered eating REAL QUICK
by Lexi Harvey
It started in November 2015. I published an article giving my Instagrams ‘honest captions’. The article was picked up by the Daily Mail (ugh) and Lad Bible, and it was twisted more than the string of that tampon you forgot was up there. They branded me an Insta model – I wish – and said I faked nights out for likes. My follower count went from less than 450 to over 10k in less than 12 hours, but over a year later I still lose hundreds of those followers every time I post.
Unsurprisingly, what was arguably the craziest day of my life had one hell of an aftermath. For starters, I had to deal with family members who were less than thrilled about my infamy, but at the time I was so hyped up on the fame I didn’t really care. I got drunk, laughed about it with my friends, and even took selfies with a few people who came up to me in clubs asking if I was ‘that girl’. What I didn’t let anyone see was how much some of the other consequences were really affecting me.
I was used to my articles receiving the odd nasty comment, but this time around it was so much worse. It was easy to brush off at first, because so many of the comments were one-offs, or about things I knew weren’t true, like jabs at my intelligence, or silly jokes like BOBFOC – ‘Body Off Baywatch, Face Off Crimewatch’ – which was and still is my favourite.
It was later on, when I noticed the same mean things being typed out time and time again, I started to crumble. When multitudes of seemingly unrelated strangers call you ugly, worthless, and a ‘disgrace to women’ over and over, you’re going to start believing it’s true.
It’s not like I ever thought of myself as a conventional beauty – my corker of a nose haunted me all the way through high school – but different does not mean bad and I thought I was still pretty damn attractive. Until a bunch of strangers on the internet banded together to tell me otherwise. The trolls went as far as to tell me I would be a 10/10 – if only I would wear a bag on my head. Brutal.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not in the mental state I’m in today because of a few (thousand) comments. I no longer give a flying fuck about what the trolls think of my face, and I do not blame some one-time bullies for my struggles.
*honest caption: I was supposed to be going out on the night I took this photo, but I felt too ill, so instead I stayed in and spent an hour doing my makeup for no other purpose than getting a good selfie for an article. I spent a good 45 minutes setting up lamps to light my face from the right angles and taking around 60 shots before I finally decided that I was happy with this one. My face does not look like this. Even on a night out, with this exact makeup, I would be sweaty from dancing or laughing with friends. This is a fake representation of a face that would usually look less perfect yet, I hope, a lot happier.* #SocialMediaIsNotRealLife
I was already having problems before all of this kicked off. Going viral wasn’t the cause, but it sure as hell was the catalyst.
My mental health had already begun to deteriorate; in January 2014 I realised I couldn’t remember the last time I had been properly happy. After a while, I started to have panic attacks whenever I tried to go to sleep. I didn’t tell anyone, and I just sort of hoped it would go away.
After going viral my panic attacks worsened dramatically, and a week or so after it happened I went to the doctor, where I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and prescribed Citalopram. As time went on things remained bad. Doctors upped my dose of antidepressants and eventually, the depression lifted. But creeping in fast on the heels of my depression like a pantomime villain was my anxiety, bigger and badder than ever.
Looking back on this time is confusing. Despite my increasing anxiety I was surprisingly happy because I was at uni with my favourite people, having the time of my life. It was in the small hours of the morning, or on my fifth consecutive night in the library, or walking alone on campus, I would feel my chest seize up. I would be out for the count for the rest of the day, often missing seminars because I was too scared to see other people.
Paranoid and self conscious, I became fixated on the version of me plastered over the internet.
Just over a year before all this I had got sick of the puppy fat around my face and decided to cut out carbs. I did so with impeccable willpower and dropped two stone without batting an eyelid. I became a total gym bunny, and by summer I had actual abs – something which I never thought I would have. My confidence skyrocketed, but it was a little surreal and I had the nagging feeling my new bod was a little bit temporary. I knew I couldn’t keep up the diet and exercise that had got me there.
That was something I was fine with when it was just a summer body to put in a bikini and feel a little proud of. Suddenly, however, it wasn’t just a summery version of me the odd friend congratulated me on; it was THE version of me that was branded into the minds of everyone I knew, and preserved on the internet forever.
The photos weren’t just that, either, they were the very best version of the already souped up me, taken from the very best angles and only when I was slathered in fake tan, hair extensions in and teeth whitened beyond belief. They were everywhere, and they became the images people expected of me – or at least the ones I thought they did.
I began to compare every aspect of myself to these perfect photos, and it only made me more anxious.
Desperate for a release, I turned to my lifelong love – food.
I’ve been a foodie my whole life, bread, cheese, meat, I loved it all. I started eating all of these things and more, relying on food to give me comfort. Hopeful my metabolism was still fighting hard, I convinced myself I would stop soon and there wouldn’t be any lasting damage.
Boy, oh BOY was I wrong. I developed a full-on ritual of getting cosy in bed with a double helping of dinner and the latest Netflix show on my laptop, a stash of chocolate on hand for later. I came back to this time and time again, if I had a bad day or a fight with someone I loved, and before long I was doing it without reason. No night felt complete without my routine, and I couldn’t even enjoy a night with friends without it.
Unsurprisingly, I gained weight. Still obsessed with the pictures of me which were fast becoming a distant memory, I was terrified the trolls had been right and without my dream body I was worthless.
You know what’s coming next, don’t you? I felt crappy, so I ate more food. I gained more weight, so I felt crappy, and so on and on and on. The weight gain was gradual, and because it was post-Christmas and freezing outside, I wasn’t the only one hiding a few extra pounds behind baggy winter clothes. I was convinced the weight I had put on would be as easy to get off as it had been two years prior, and as soon as I was feeling better I could stop eating crap and get back to the weight I had been.
The problem was, I stayed miserable, so I kept eating.
I tried to stop on more than one occasion, telling myself that it would be easy to just start eating healthily and stick to it like I once did. Then something would make me panic and a switch would flip in my head, making me numb to my own thoughts. Auto-pilot would kick in and I’d find myself in a shop buying food almost like I was dreaming. I would tell myself that I deserved a ‘treat’, but before I knew it I was crying myself to sleep because I’d overeaten again.
I didn’t realise what was happening until almost exactly a year after the whole thing had kicked off in the first place. I finally started seeing a therapist, and although it wasn’t great it did help me to admit something I had been denying for a while. My therapist told me – and I had no choice but to agree – my relationship with food had evolved past a coping mechanism and become full-blown Binge Eating Disorder. It wasn’t just a tendency to grab a chocolate bar when I was feeling down, it was, and still is, a deep-rooted belief that food could make me happy.
The diagnosis was tough to hear. I felt like I had a dirty secret and I spent every moment thinking about my weight, hating myself but irrationally incapable of doing anything to change it. It changed me from someone confident and outgoing to someone who sometimes panicked at the thought of going out into public, convinced every person I passed was thinking ‘My god, what has she done to herself?’
It has been six months since I was diagnosed, and it has taken me that long to come to terms with it. It’s a slow and painful journey. My life is in a much better place now, but I still struggle every single day. Not a moment goes by that I’m not thinking about my weight and comparing myself to who I once was. Like so many others with disordered eating, it is a cruel juxtaposition that the one thing which is making me miserable is something I can’t seem to stop doing.
I’ve gotten better, even if my weight is still the same. I’m on a different medication now and I’m taking more notice of my emotions, and I’m identifying the things that make me want to binge. I’ve started reducing my portions, and reminding myself it isn’t all or nothing; just because I’m not going to binge doesn’t mean I can’t eat anything, and not every evening meal I do have has to be a full-on feast.
I know slow progress is better than no progress, but I struggle with the fact that I can’t immediately snap back to the person I was in those photos. I worry no one will care if I lose a few pounds because I’ll still be a million miles away from where I started. I still feel like that idyllic version of me is the one people expect to see, and anything else is a disappointment. I try not to listen to the nagging voice in the back of my mind that tells me these things. I try to tell myself I deserve to be happy now, that I don’t have to wait until after I’ve lost weight to have fun.
The first step was admitting I had a problem. The second was coming to terms with who I am now and letting go of who I used to be. Now, it is time to take the next step; to have patience, and work equally hard on improving both my mental and physical health. It’s been a wild ride, and it’s a struggle that will stay with me for the rest of my life, but I hope I can learn from my mistakes and use them to become who I need to be.
Not the girl in the photos, but a new version of me who is stable, and happy, and comfortable in her own skin.