"When I was eight years old no one believed I had anorexia"

Lockdown uncovers cases of eating disorders, increasingly common amongst children under ten

"Eating disorders are never completely cured. You learn to live with them". Greta is 22 years old and has spent half of her life battling anorexia, an eating behavior disorder (ED). She was eight years old when she went from being a very happy and vital child to being afraid of not fitting in and having her body criticized. "I wasn't overweight, but I wasn't like the other girls in class. I had a belly, I knew that, but when they started to tell me something inside me was pressing me to hide it. It's unoriginal", she explains, "but it wasn't the body I wanted to show so I stopped eating. At eight years old, no one believed it was anorexia". And no one knew until she was twelve.

Greta's story is not anecdotal: in the state, about one in twenty girls under 20 has an ED, anorexia or bulimia in most cases. 90% of ED cases are women, and the disorder seems to start earlier and earlier. The crucial age now stands between seven and nine years old; a very worrying fact that entities and care units work to avoid, especially in schools.

Dissatisfaction with one's body and sudden weight loss is only the most visible side of a disorder closely related to self-esteem, such as difficulties in managing emotions, depression, or anxiety. The pandemic has worsened these cases, as well as detecting more of them.

According to data from the Association Against Anorexia and Bulimia (ACAB), the lockdown between March and June has dynamited cases that had been controlled or were hidden and has aggravated those already uncovered. In just three months, healthcare figures doubled those of all activity recorded in 2019. "We expected more requests for help from families. What we didn't expect was that so many cases would skyrocket and so many would be detected all at once. The avalanche has been much greater than we expected", warns psychologist and ACAB director Sara Bujalance.

24-hour family life has made it possible to identify cases of ED, especially by parents or couples concerned about the behaviour of their loved ones. "Staying at home increases the feeling of vulnerability, stress and anxiety. In addition, it makes for a more sedentary life, more shared family meals. All of this favours the path leading to the disorder", Bujalance explains. However, this is also the opportunity to detect the disorder. Some of the clearest symptoms are excessive physical exercise, binge eating and vomiting, or restriction of virtually all foods. "Uncovering cases is good, but accessing the health system is more complicated now", Bujalance says, who reports that some people have been unable to even begin treatment seven months after asking for help. This has resulted in an increase in severe cases, she says.

Uncontrolled diets

A survey made to 2.300 students between 12 and 16 years old from all over Catalonia states that 34% of the girls and 22% of the boys have done some kind of diet to lose weight without any kind of professional control. Even more alarming is the fact that 60% of these boys and girls say that they have accompanied it with risky behaviours, such as compulsive physical activity or provoking vomiting. "If they see their teenagers making sudden changes in their diet to lose weight, families have to be as alert as if they saw them trying some kind of drug", Bujalance warns.

"The first year with anorexia is the year of euphoria because the body looks like the one you want. But the feeling is short-lived: then comes the obsession, the not knowing how to live without controlling what you eat or weighing yourself. You increasingly lose interest in the outside world and isolate yourself", Greta explains. Rebelling against doctors and forced to live with a weight she didn't want, the young woman fell into the trap of the disorder again and again, and the wheel didn't stop turning for the next four years: she lost weight, went in, gained weight back and went out. "Until I had a suicide attempt. I almost couldn't walk again. Then I realized I had hit rock bottom and didn't want to be a sick adult", she recalls.

At some point, when she was aware that she wanted to change, anorexia turned into bulimia. Greta was hungry for food, as if she wanted to get back everything she hadn't eaten in years. "I'd get full, throw up, and feel like it was totally out of control. And I appreciate the change, because I didn't like bulimia, and it made it easier for me to ask for help and be helped". At fifteen, then, she began to search for therapies and professionals outside of the healthcare system, investing a lot of money, which turned out to be a huge waste of time. Three more years had to pass, until she was eighteen, when she met a professional she could trust.

Now 22, Greta says she still "deals" with her ED and it "interferes" with her life from time to time. During lockdown she has had "more obsessive" moments and a greater need to control what she ate, and she believes it's logical to think that other people have engaged in dangerous behavior. "I'm much better off than I was a few years ago and I'm sure in a few more years I'll be even more so. I don't want to be underweight because I know the sadness and apathy that goes with it and I don't like it. I want to be thin, yes, but not sick or hurt", she says.

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