It is April 2020. The supermarket aisles of rice, grains and pulses have been emptied, and people wear masks as if dreading your very presence. We yearn for the day when our favourite foods emerge again in abundance, when our virus spreading concerns are finally laid to rest.
And this new home bound reality poses clear challenges to our mental health. The eating disorder charity, Beat, recorded a 30% spike in calls in the last week in reference to the coronavirus pandemic. Worrying, and yet totally unsurprising. And it would not surprise me if disordered tendencies develop within those previously unaffected by eating disorders.
This is because we are all faced with a conundrum when locked to the confines of our homes, in sight of the kitchen. Food consumed to satisfy mental boredom is now part of the everyday reality for most of us. And how much food do we stock up, how do we know what to eat, where to buy it, and how do we stop from raiding the fridge every few minutes?
These are testing times, not least for NHS staff working bravely on the frontline of the coronavirus response. But let’s not forget about the swathes of vulnerable people whose life lifesaving inpatient treatment has been called off as a direct response to the pandemic.
Needless to say those making the decisions had little choice given the numbers of staff affected by the virus. But yet the decision to end vigorous inpatient treatment – be it for anorexia, depression, personality disorders – would not have been taken lightly.
I know how inpatient treatment can yield improved results for patients of eating disorders having felt the benefits of it myself. Treatment is indispensable for those recovering from starvation and statistics suggest relapsing lessens the likelihood of recovery.
So spare a thought to the many patients now having to adjust to life in the outside world, and forced indefinitely to fight the demons of mental illness at home. But let’s not panic either. Mental health is about communication, and physical contact is not a prerequisite of treatment. Difficulties shall arise, not from the absence of treatment itself, but rather from confrontation with the uglier side of modern culture.
Take for example the one liner Tweets ridiculing body fat, the hilarious (but not) memes on Facebook, the Instagram lover fat shaming fitness coach writing trash for the Daily Mail, or even the insensitive comments happening at your very dinner table, “I’ll be fat as a bus when this is all over”, or something similar. Most people mean no harm, and yet intentions are beside the point.
When I was an inpatient at an eating disorders unit, a staff member spoke of her desire to ‘shed off the pounds’. Patients were left fuming, and apologies were made in due course. But no such apologies take place in the real world, leaving discharged patients facing the idiotic comments with very little support.
The diet mentality is well and truly flourishing. Oil free fads and fat free yoghurts are disgusting and yet impossible to escape. Now stuck at home with many of our favourite foods out of stock, the eating disorder within us scream louder than a recently woken baby, all day and every day.
Human beings are creatures of routine. Psychologists like Robert Thayer suggest that our moods are dictated by our habitualness. In a sense, we gain comfort from what we know like a favourite brand of peanut butter or the particularly preferable park route. When these habits change, we tend to be in control of the change.
But that is not the case right now, and the destabilization of our routines has consequences. But remember, routines are about feeling good, and not doing exactly the same thing every day. No cornflakes? Granola is the only available option? Don’t panic! Your cereal eating habits remain intact. The habitualness lies in the action itself, not in the specificity of the cereal you enjoy. And this crisis might even grant you the opportunity to challenge rigid food fears.
After all, recovery is a journey of many ups and downs, challenges we do not see coming. Let’s not make the problem far worse with our terrible humour. You are better than that. Stay home. Protect our NHS. But do not be a hypocrite.