A desperate craving

    I have recently given a lot of thought to my relationship with food
    over the past 10 years. Severe anorexia necessitated refeeding
    programmes; compulsive overeating caused me massive distress. Now I
    realise food is an answer to a basic human need:
    companionship.

    It is when I have felt most lonely that I have acted
    self-destructively with food. When I started at university I did
    not know anyone else on campus and had no one-to-one tutorials.
    Feeling shy I could not socialise. I would go for days without
    speaking to a single person. My weight dropped to below four and a
    half stone. Being in hospital meant I suddenly had company. But at
    18, and the only one suffering with an eating disorder, I still
    felt isolated. During periods of overeating it feels like my only
    friend is food. I fill up the emptiness with anything I can
    eat.

    When lonely I am more introspective, like I’m the only person
    suffering distress. My problems seem insurmountable. Being lonely
    for weeks and months on end is soul destroying. It is as though you
    are invisible – you are looking at the world through glass.
    Everyone else is participating, you are just existing. I have
    attempted suicide when feeling very alone.

    Even when not physically lonely you can still feel you are on your
    own. Mental distress is isolating and loneliness in turn increases
    depression. Being absorbed in the noise in your head means you do
    not have the motivation to meet new people. You feel inhibited
    around others. Even visiting the hairdressers can be difficult
    because they ask “are you at work today?” Your conversation feels
    limited – you do not have the life someone else your age typically
    has because you missed out by being ill. To other people the answer
    may seem simple – get a job. But working alongside other people for
    five days a week seems overwhelming when you are used to solitude.

    Sometimes loneliness is self-imposed. It is like a punishment; of
    not deserving other people. When in crisis your focus is on getting
    through those painful moments and not on seeing others, although
    loneliness makes things worse. While I admire other service users I
    am friends with I know they are not always available because of
    their own distress.

    I deal with loneliness by structuring my week. On three weekdays I
    do voluntary work and take telephone queries at the local citizens
    advice bureau. Once when I was off sick for a few weeks due to
    self-harm they sent flowers with a card saying “from your friends
    at the CAB”. It meant a lot to me. At weekends I go to the cinema
    both days. I can shut out feelings of desolation by concentrating
    on the big screen

    Social care workers should talk to clients about isolation brought
    on by lack of social contact and experience of mental distress. It
    does not mean we are too needy – only human.

    Alex Williams is a volunteer and uses mental health
    services

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