Parent organisation of Community Links, Foundation, Bridging the Gap and Foundation Living

Blood, Sweat and Tears: A Day in the Life of an Eating Disorder Peer Support Worker

by Cornell Saskia Nolana-Nova, Peer Support Worker at Connect: West Yorkshire & Harrogate Adult Eating Disorder Service.

I’m sitting on my bed staring nervously at my phone. In 10 minutes, it will be 1pm; time to go live.

I’ll talk to whoever tunes in, about my mental health struggles, my recovery journey and my insights.

My palms are a little sweaty and I wonder…’will I burst into tears like I did at the doctor’s conference last year when I shared my recovery journey?’ Hopefully not, this will be recorded.

I’m a peer support worker (PSW), with Connect: The West Yorkshire Adult Eating Disorders Service, an NHS community mental health team working in partnership with Inspire North and I’m about to engage in a ‘Connect Conversation’, which is an Instagram Live. It has become an essential part of our service since lockdown ensued, as we have been unable to commence with routine face-to-face treatment. This is very risky considering that eating disorders have the highest mortality rates among psychiatric disorders as a result of physical complications or suicide.

Our live conversations have provided a platform for us to engage with service users and those who do not meet the referral criteria for treatment. The success of these ‘conversations’ has led us to adopt this as a permanent part of our service.

My personal experience of mental health difficulties has empowered me to emotionally support others. My disordered eating began at the age of 11 and lasted for 10 years, beginning with orthorexia (systematically avoiding specific foods that are believed to be harmful) which evolved into bulimia nervosa at the age of 16, before morphing into binge eating disorder.

Eating disorders are a coping strategy to deal with painful thoughts and emotions, mine arising from a traumatic upbringing. They are paradoxically a form of self-harm and a way of getting unfulfilled needs met. Being constantly hungry or ‘high’ from eating large amounts of calorific foods are seemingly soluble ways of distracting yourself from inner turmoil. Restriction produces a false sense of self-esteem and control through ever changing goalposts for weight loss. It’s temporary escapism from a painfully perceived reality. It’s not the common misperception of an obsession with unrealistic beauty standards, although this plays a part and is certainly a maintaining factor.

Five minutes to go and I’m hastening to flatten static hairs. My nerves remind me of my first 1:1 appointment with a service user. I experienced anxiety for being partly responsible for her care mixed in with a rush of empathy and sadness at seeing someone going through the struggles of my former self and seeing the skeletal representation of depression. She spoke to me about her fear around mealtimes. Imagine your greatest fear and now imagine that you have to face it at least three times a day. It’s no easy feat; an anorexics fear is that which is necessary for survival and energy is exactly what you need when in mental health recovery, except your coping strategy is to do without it.

I wanted to swoop in, like some kind of superhero and rescue her from her pain. Recovery from an eating disorder is possible for all, our brains are malleable throughout our lives meaning transformation is not beyond anyone.

Being a PSW is both rewarding and draining. I recall a phone call I had with a new referral. Forty minutes later and I was sobbing on the phone to my co-worker. It had been a harrowing conversation, where I felt like I had chased after someone with a bag of hope, trying to show them that recovery and a fulfilling life are possible, but he was just in the thick of it, lost in past abuse and negative perceptions about himself. His anorexia extended beyond restriction into his lifestyle, his house mostly bare, a deck chair and an old television the only furnishings for his living room. This starkly contrasts to my next appointment with a service user I have been working with for a while who has come a long way since I first met her. We’re laughing, being silly and are in deep conversation about purpose and the meaning of life. These moments are a real joy.

Anyway, I digress…I’m staring at my phone and I press ‘live’. An hour later and I have shared my recovery story for what feels like the thousandth time. Each time I share, I do so with fresh insight and if it helps just one person, I consider it a job well done.

You can find Connect Conversations on IGTV on Instagram at ‘connectlypft’