Hope Virgo is an author, speaker and mental health campaigner on eating disorders, recovery and body image. Hope works with young people at school and university to ensure they’re given the language, support and tools to understand eating disorders and break eating habits.
Here, Hope shares her story and offers advice on how to seek support if you are struggling with an eating disorder.
Could you tell us a bit about your experience of living and recovering from an eating disorder?
I developed anorexia when I was 12 years old and it was like this best friend to me – it gave me what I needed, but I didn’t realise at the time how dangerous it was. I thought I had found this magical solution to life, but over the next 4 years what had started out as my best friend soon became something that I hated. Something that I didn’t want to be around anymore.
I had this love hate relationship – it went from being my best friend and loving me like I loved it when I did what it wanted me to do but then slowly became this thing I hated. Something that I wanted to have nothing to do with. When I was 16 my school intervened and I had to go to CAMHs (children’s adolescent services) as an outpatient. I went for 6 months but it wasn’t helping. In fact, the reality was, I was pushing people further and further away!
Fast forward 6 months and I was admitted to a mental health hospital. I didn’t know how long I would be there, and was convinced I would be in and out within a few weeks, but over the next year I really began to get to a better space in my head, and in my body!
Along the way, and over the last 12 years since my discharge, I have learnt what to do to keep myself well, how to manage my wellbeing and how to support myself. For me, whilst talking is hard, it is also so important! It is important that I am heard so that I don’t have to show people I am not okay through not eating. Eating disorders aren’t about BMI, they aren’t about weight and just because someone might look physically okay, it doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling.
How have you found sharing your story with others?
I have loved it and feel very lucky to be able to do it but I do have to be careful of my boundaries and my work life balance – I tend to go in to a bit of a fixing mode and not always very good at putting myself first. After my first 2 years of working for myself I knew if I didn’t re-think this I was going to burn out – I got into this awful habit of working whenever I could. Every snippet of time I had free, I would feel the need to work.
This meant relationships slipped, my priorities seemed to slide and that then resulted in constantly feeling guilty for letting people down. This is not a good cycle to get into. Yes, when you are working for yourself you are a one-person team, so if you don’t keep going, the whole thing stops – but you still need time for you or you will burn out (plus working all the time is totally unproductive anyway). I learnt this the hard way, so if you are starting out, remember that balance is crucial. I had to not only set boundaries but learn to be disciplined, not saying yes to everything, turning off my phone and taking some time for self-care.
I was recently reminded of the importance of celebrating my victories too! Something that I am very bad at doing but important to do this!
Sharing so much of yourself can also feel hard and draining at times, particularly when you are constantly up for judgement but surrounding yourself with your own cheer leaders helps you deal with the judgement in a healthy way.
It hasn’t always been easy, and it is really hard work at times. On social media, you only see the good bits, but I am pleased that I am doing this and wouldn’t change it for the world (however cheesy that sounds)
When I quit my job in 2017 I never thought I would be able to do what I do, and I was afraid of the risk, but doing this and becoming a full time speaker, author and campaigner was the best decision ever!
What practical steps can we take to remove the value we put on, or feelings we have towards certain foods?
For me it started in hospital and was about removing all emotion from food and having the space to talk about how I felt when I had eaten. Over time this became more about setting myself challenges with food. Food that in the past I had found scary, but now I wanted to get to a place where food doesn’t have a value. Where it is about counting memories and not calories. In this, it is also so important that we boundary set – surround yourself with the right people, people that will have a positive impact on your wellbeing, and individual eating.
What advice would you give to any dealing with an eating disorder at the moment? To begin the process of recovery?
Be strong! Go to your GP and start having a conversation. If you feel able to speak to someone you know too, I find emailing sometimes helps in this situation. Then you have the space to share what is really going on. Once you have done this be aware that access to services is really hard at times and so having some interim support is key. Work out a routine that works for you, set yourself some goals. It will feel uncomfortable at times but push through that, hold on to the end feelings of freedom and keep going.
Then whilst you wait for support:
- Work out your support network
- Work out your meal plans
- Find someone you can be accountable to – whether this is to help manage your eating or exercise
- Work out your distractions when things trigger you and around meal times (for me this is lots of journaling!)
Can you tell us more about your petitions? And how can people show their support?
#DumpTheScales is about bringing an end to the post code lottery around Eating Disorder diagnosis and access to treatment and support because right now thousands of people across the country are not able to get the support they need.
The specific NICE guideline for eating disorder diagnosis that needs implementing across the country is: “1.2.8 Do not use single measures such as BMI or duration of illness to determine whether to offer treatment for an Eating Disorder.” This is currently not happening.
We know that early diagnosis is a critical element in the success of treatment for Eating Disorders and by the time “obvious” signs of Eating Disorders have manifested, it is likely that the illness will have become ingrained in the individual, and therefore much more difficult to treat.
If we want to prevent people getting more unwell, save the NHS money, prevent hospital admission and save lives we need to have this review and ensure that we get full implementation of the clinical guidance around diagnosis.
If we tackled this and changed healthcare policy and public understanding around Eating Disorders the benefits would be huge. We would be able to prevent health decline and death, save the NHS Money and then hugely positive economic benefits (Carers etc.). We know that people with Eating Disorders get worsening cognitive decline the more weight they lose so then their recovery time is longer. If we had early intervention this would mean people would have a higher success rate in recovery.
The campaign has recently launched a new phase: #LetsTalkEDs and together we want to equip the nation to talk about eating disorders. Right now so many people are shying away from these conversations as they believe they have to be experts to talk about it.
What you can do:
- Sign the petition and share on your social media
- Watch the video and speak up
- Share your story and get involved in the campaign
Have you had any experience with an eating disorder?
Read more interviews here.