By Ian White

Anorexic dying to be thin

Lizzie McNaught
Lizzie McNaught

When Lizzie McNaught was greeted with the words "Hello, Fatty!" at her new school, it was to have a devastating effect – almost costing her life.

"Words hurt ... they can set up thought patterns that go on to have a damaging ongoing impact on mental health. I know how destructive this can be, from my own experience," says Lizzie – now a doctor – and writes in her new book: Life Hurts: A Doctor's Personal Journey through Anorexia.

Speaking from the unique position of both a patient and a doctor, she says 86 per cent of people with eating disorders report that bullying contributed to the onset of their illness.

Lizzie was just 14 when her mum took her to hospital with abdominal pain.

The doctor's diagnosed her with anorexia nervosa.

"What was wrong with losing weight? That was how to be attractive, that was how to look good, how to be good. I thought the doctors had it wrong," she reflects.

But they hadn't got it wrong, as Lizzie was in danger of cardiac arrest, with dangerously low levels of electrolytes in her blood and abnormal and irregular heartbeats. She was hospitalised for five months.

Such was the disease's control over Lizzie's young mind that she'd hardly eaten or drunk anything for days – even brushing her teeth was out because of 'intrusive thoughts' telling her that toothpaste contained calories.

Lizzie would do anything to get out of hospital, other than eat: food was a 'dangerous temptation' to be resisted.

Yet life hadn't started that way. Lizzie's parents are Christians who enjoyed sharing good food – not just with the family but with outsiders too.

Lizzie feels their protectiveness from the cruel words of others right from the onset [she was born with a birthmark on her face] 'unwittingly' prepared the ground for her thought patterns.

So even an innocent comment about her being 'stocky' left her sensitive to criticism about her body.

After a horse racing accident, Lizzie found comfort in food. Returning to school a bit heavier, she felt victimised and bullied. Even when moving to a new school, a boy made that 'fatty' remark.

Lizzie felt the only way to be accepted was through a very strict diet. The desire to lose weight gradually took over her life.

Lizzie had become a Christian herself after discussions at home led her to exploring what it means to be a Christian. Baptised [immersed in water as an outward sign of an inward commitment] in 2006, she says: "I wanted to trust God with all my heart. But my heart was also home to the dreadful illness of anorexia, which was causing me to lie and cheat, and to damage my body."

Even as Lizzie cried out to God daily to help her to trust Him, she kept on restricting her food intake until she became so ill that, six months later, she was suddenly admitted to hospital.

Despite her realisation that God and her family loved her, Lizzie "still struggled to even consider letting go of the anorexia. It was still my best friend."

But a dramatic turning point came when Lizzie lunged towards her dad with scissors in the kitchen when he tried to make her eat.

Life Hurts cover
Lizzie McNaught has found freedom from her food obsessions, as detailed in her book.

"I stopped myself, with the blades inches from my dad's chest. I took control. That was me, the real me. From that moment, I had power over the anorexia.

"No matter how strong the drive in my mind not to eat, I knew I could take control. Anorexia could be beaten."

It wasn't the end of the battle for Lizzie, but during therapy, "I began to see how my faith in God could change my perception of myself, and the world around me.

"For too long I had been focused on food and weight, as if that was all that life was about, but now I saw that, in God's eyes, those issues were tiny compared to the opportunities to live for Him and make a difference in the world."

Lizzie realised that if God loved her whatever she was like, then it didn't matter whether other people liked her or not.

Her focus switched to the good she could do, with an increasing passion to qualify as a doctor to help others with eating disorders. She is currently a 25-year-old junior doctor, working in the UK.

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