My Story: Overcoming eating disorders, reversing pre-diabetes and learning to accept my body

Karen Oliver Beyond The Bathroom Scale Overcoming eating disorders, reversing pre-diabetes and accepting my body.png

>>> Trigger warning: Parts of this post may be triggering for anyone currently struggling with particular eating disorders.<<<

Early Childhood & Neophobia

One of my most vivid memories of childhood is 6-year-old me standing on the landing crying because I didn't know where my suitcase was. I'd refused to eat anything at dinner yet again and my mother shouted at me to pack a bag because I "needed to live at the hospital". 

Like many of us who have a complicated relationship with food, my problems began in childhood. For as long as I can remember my mother has suffered from anorexia nervosa and I grew up surrounded by talk of calories, 'bad foods', and body shaming talk aimed at anyone who wasn't slim. Children watch the behaviour of their parents and pick up on their habits and fears. Sometimes internalizing these fears: "If mummy is afraid of food, then I should be too". 

In primary school, I became very underweight for my age and developed a severe phobia ( food neophobia) of trying new and unfamiliar foods, to the extent that on my first day at school, my teacher demanded that my parents took me home at lunch times for at least the first year. I must have kicked up a real stink but I have no memories of this at all - only memories of coming home in the middle of the school day to watch Sesame Street while eating the same meal every single lunchtime (the only one I'd eat: corned beef mixed with mash potato), and then going back afterwards to carry on with the school day.

To this day, I still can't stand looking at corned beef tins! 


High School, Unwelcome Puberty & Body-shaming PE Teachers

I was the first in my friendship group to hit puberty. It had started in the last year of primary school where my breasts seemed to appear from nowhere overnight. I despised them instantly because they bought too much attention to me - from bitchy girls to curious boys in my classes, and not forgetting, sickeningly perverted middle-aged men shouting comments to me in the street when I started walking home from high school.

The high school uniform made it much worse, as the buttons on my blouse would burst open, flashing my cami top underneath. I wore a cami over my bra to cover it up because the boys in my classes loved to snap it open in class and I was sick of embarrassingly walking out of lessons holding my boobs and having to re-hook my bra in the toilet.  

Despite my food neophobia, I was at this point a healthy weight for my age, probably thanks to the added breast tissue! So my mother's concerns about my weight switched gears. Now that I was no longer underweight and had a healthy BMI, I was considered to be "piling the weight on fast". Which, looking back didn't actually happen until college. 

My high school prom - I wish I could go back and tell myself I wasn't overweight.

My high school prom - I wish I could go back and tell myself I wasn't overweight.

My food neophobia began to affect my social life. My friends always wanted birthday parties at places like McDonald's, Burger King and Hollywood Bowl and I just didn't want to eat anything at these parties, much to the concern of the parents hosting these parties. I hated eating lunch at school because teachers and other kids would constantly ask why I wasn't eating. I'd eat a chocolate bar just to stop my hunger until I could go home to familiar food, instead of eating warm sandwiches while everyone watched.

My hatred of P.E lessons began in high school too. While running on the field, my P.E. teacher pulled me to the side and told me that I needed to be wearing a sports bra, because my "bouncing boobs [were] distracting the boys playing football". With my cheeks burning red hot with shame, I muttered something about already wearing two bras at the same time (I would wear a sports bra over the top of an M&S minimizer bra), and walked off down the school field crying my eyes out, wishing I could just cut my boobs off with a knife. I spent the next 6 years of my life searching Google for information on breast reduction surgery.  

College, disposable income & a daily doses of sexual harassment 

In college, I relished the freedom of being able to go out the school gates at lunch time and walk to the shops with money to buy whatever I wanted for lunch. I no longer had to eat in front of anyone I didn't want to, or eat anything I wasn't comfortable with. For the first two years of college, I remained a healthy BMI, despite a diet of chips and chocolate. My DD breasts still attracted far too much unwelcome attention and criticism from both of my parents, however and so I still despised my body. I also still hated exercise, for obvious reasons, so I would hide in a baggy, black hooded-top at the back of the P.E classes.

Sliding into teenage depression: I began to hide myself behind dark baggy clothes, bright hair dye and thick make-up

Sliding into teenage depression: I began to hide myself behind dark baggy clothes, bright hair dye and thick make-up

Every day I would have disgustingly graphic remarks thrown at me from the lads in my classes, who spoke about my breasts like they were just props in a porn video. On the way home from college, middle-aged men would shout things out of car windows and wolf whistle. I would walk everywhere with my head down and my arms crossed, wishing I could afford £2,000 for breast reduction surgery and vowing to get a part-time job when I turned 16 so I could save up for it.  Some of my friends couldn't understand why I didn't take the shit I got from lads and men in the street as a compliment. 

The binge/starve cycle 

Another damaging memory I have at this age, is of walking upstairs at home in my PJ shorts and t-shirt, and overhearing my dad tell my mum that I "had big fat white thighs". I sat in my room vowing to stop eating entirely, with the hope of getting back to being underweight, losing my thighs and breasts and silencing everyone. But I failed and caved into a cone of chips and a huge bag of malteasers the next day at lunch, because I was just so damn hungry from spending all night crying. This is when my binge-starve cycle started. I would starve myself most of the day when I was around other people, and then I would binge on any old junk I could get my hands on from the shop on the way home from college. 

Meeting my now-husband

In the summer of 2006 I met a guy, who 10 years later would become my husband. I felt entirely comfortable around him and respected. The same couldn't be said of some of his friends, who would constantly tell me that he was only interested in me because of my breasts. He didn't try to force himself on me like other lads had, and was genuinely interested in getting to know me. I felt safe and protected with him, knowing that he would jump to my defense if someone said something untoward. 

Around this time, I stopped trying to starve myself and stopped googling breast-reduction surgery. Instead I focused on my A-levels, university application and my part time job in a supermarket. My evenings were spent between two different youth groups, which gave me the time I needed away from home.

I still struggled with food neophobia, and stuck to eating familiar foods - which happened to be bland junk foods like chips, triple cheese pizzas, muffins, sausage rolls and chocolate - all washed down with copious amounts of fizzy drinks. These were my 'safe foods', in that they were the only foods I'd eat infront of other people (all part of food neophobia). Trouble was, I was always with other people.  

University... and a diagnosis of pre-diabetes and hypertension

2011, weighing 196lbs, BMI of 35. I was in very poor health.

2011, weighing 196lbs, BMI of 35. I was in very poor health.

Under the stress of exams, work and getting into university, I rapidly ate my way to obesity (a BMI of 35 at my heaviest). I struggled with comfort eating and a firm love of junk food. As for my food neophobia, I began to turn this around with the help of my now-husband, as we would regularly go out for dinner. Alone with him, I felt able to try new foods, without judgment over what or how much I ate. 

While at university, I suffered a spate of migraine attacks and began having irregular periods. I went to the doctor who ran a couple of blood tests and assessed my overall health.

Among concerns of PCOS and stress, he diagnosed me as pre-diabetic, in very real danger of it becoming diabetes type 2, and having hypertension - at the age of 19! 

I was totally floored and panic stricken. I knew all too well how difficult a life with diabetes type 2 would be. My father, for as long as I can remember, has diabetes type 2 managed by insulin injection, hypertension and high cholesterol, which had lead to him having two strokes when I was aged 10. I knew I didn't want the same fate. [I should add, that last year my father suffered a third stroke, which has since taken his mobility and resulted in vascular dementia]

I had to reclaim my health before it was too late for me    

I knew I had to get my blood glucose and blood pressure back down to normal, and I already knew how to test my blood sugar and pressures from watching my dad test his. I began reading the topics of blood pressure, Diabetes Type 2 and Pre-Diabetes. It never occurred to me at the time, but I can't help but wonder why my doctor didn't monitor my condition or refer me to a dietitian.

Nevertheless, I did a pretty good job of researching and educating myself on the conditions. I knew that the only person who could 'fix me' was me. Having always been academic in nature, I knew that I could only trust particular sources of information and steered clear of faddy diet books promising quick fixes. 

This much I knew:

  • Keeping an eye on my blood glucose and blood pressure would be much more useful as an indicator of my health, than simply weighing myself.

  • Weighing myself made me feel shit and unmotivated. I'd watched the scale rule my mother's life for as long as I could remember.

  • I had to teach myself how to cook proper food and work on reducing my sodium, saturated fat and sugar intake.

  • I needed to ditch fizzy drinks an alcohol in favour of water.

  • I needed to exercise. More importantly, I needed to find away to exercise in private. In secret in fact, so that I didn't face unhelpful criticism from my parents.

  • Having watched my mother take her exercising habit too far in an attempt to burn off calories she wasn't even taking in, I also knew I needed to take it steady.

  • I needed to strike the balance between losing weight at a steady pace and taking it easy on myself.


2011 - I began turning my health around

Here are the steps I took over during that year:

2011 to 2012 changes.jpg
  • I logged my food in MyFitnessPal (originally so I could track my sodium and sugar intake.)

  • I checked in on the scale once a week and measured myself once a month and monitored my overall health improvements using a blood pressure monitor and blood glucose monitor. Intellectually, I told myself that my weight was just a number, but psychologically I was still that embarrassed teenager worrying about her weight.

  • I used a cheap pedometer to track my walks

  • I started exercising in my bedroom using the Wii fit, and a Zumba game. These days with iPhones, it would have been so easy to stream an online gym or YouTube video through my bedroom tv.

  • I began teaching myself how to cook. I started trying new foods and felt safe to do so with the support of my husband. I finally broke free of food neophobia!

  • Once I'd lost a great deal of weight already simply by exercising at home and eating home cooked food, I joined a gym and started swimming.

  • I tried a range of classes and fell in love with Zumba, Body Combat, Body Pump & Body Balance.

  • Eventually, I bought myself a fitness tracker too and used that alongside my food logging app.

The worrying part of this is that I took full advantage of my spare time at uni, and spent it split between gym and teaching myself how to cook. On the surface, this sounds great, but all that free time meant I was now indulging it what was beginning to become my obsession: weight loss and claorie restriction.

2012 - My Physical health saved. 

September 2012

September 2012

By May 2012, I had completely reversed pre-diabetes and hypertension. Gaining strength in the gym and becoming athletically fit and healthy had a positive knock on the other areas of my life. I completed my degree, applied (and was accepted on) a masters degree in Social Work and my blog (the one you're reading now which has since been drastically revamped) was even nominated for Best Lifestyle Blog in the Cosmo Blog Awards. I passed my driving test first time too after two long years of lessons!  

When I look back on the period of my life, this year is when I felt 'at my best'. A series of successes in all areas of my life had left me feeling invincible and truly happy. I felt confident in myself (but only because of my weight loss) but felt frustrated that I couldn't get my weight down any lower than 139lbs. I tried cutting calories more and exercising more frequently, until...

2012 - 2014 Social Work Masters Degree

At the end of 2012 I enrolled on my social work masters course. For the most part, I'm really glad I completed my masters. It was a huge challenge and definitely opened my eyes to a lot of social issues. I met a lot of inspiring people and really enjoyed putting into practice my background in psychology and sociology.

The health issues began while working on my final placement. I was having a lot of trouble with abdominal pains, irregular periods, migraines and narrowing of my vision and my life at home was becoming very strained (my father had to have a pacemaker fitted after collapsing on me when I got in from work one day).

My working hours were long - often working right from 8am until midnight, as I was working a day shift full of home visits, followed by a night-time outreach. I frequently had no choice but to skip meals entirely with just a half hour lunch break to grab food and eat it - often pushed to the side entirely by a phone call, an unexpected drop in or a late visit.

Skipping lunch then left me feeling ravenous when I finally did get the opportunity to eat. This very much mirrored my starve/binge cycle from my teens and left me in a pretty bad mindset with my food as a result. The final straw was being hospitalized with food poisoning for a week because I'd eaten a chicken sandwich I'd had in and out of the staff fridge for 3 days before I'd finally had chance to eat it. It was so stupid, but I had felt so desperate at the time - and being on 75p an hour (student bursary) had meant that I was reluctant to waste money throwing food out! 

In addition to the lack of money and time to eat well, emotional eating began to crop up as an issue for me too. I would go out for a late dinner with my (now) husband on the days I finished at 6pm, and I would eat a ton of food while outpouring my feelings. I began to associate food with this comfort.

End of 2014 - Left social work

MA Social Work Graduation, January 2015 (I didn't know it at the time but I was a few weeks pregnant!)

MA Social Work Graduation, January 2015 (I didn't know it at the time but I was a few weeks pregnant!)

During my hospital stay for salmonella, I'd had time to reflect on my job. I wasn't at all happy in it. The hours were long, some of the things I saw in my role were unspeakable. With not being legally able to talk about these things to anyone outside of work, I often had to process much of what I saw on my own - which lead to more comfort eating to numb the feelings.

I decided after completing my masters degree to take a job in admin at my university instead. I loved it because my mind felt much more free and I was surrounded by great colleagues. Half way through my role I was moved up to a different area which badly needed a trained member of staff. It meant that my working hours shifted from 8-4 and 10-6, to 12-8pm instead. I hated these hours, as I didn't want to eat lunch at either 11am or 3pm and then have my dinner at 9pm when I eventually got home. I had to stop going to my usual gym classes too in the evenings and lunchtimes, as these clashed with my shifts.  I was in desperate need of need of some time hacks to get my meals and workouts in around my shifts - and some motivation to do it all with! By the time I had it finally figured out, I found out that my fiance and I had managed to conceive after many lunch breaks spent peeing on ovulation tests! 

2015 - Pregnancy - Hyperemesis derails my identity 

I class the time I was pregnant as a complete write-off.  I spent much of my pregnancy hospitalized with hyperemesis (excessive vomiting in pregnancy), unable to keep so much as a sip of water down and couldn't eat anything at all. I dropped two stone in the first trimester as a result and feared for my baby boy's life. I lost my job because I was so ill. So my savings melted away and finance once again became a huge source of stress for me. I missed my friends because I wasn't well enough to work, socialise or go to the gym and became very depressed and isolated while bouncing between my bed and the hospital bed. 

On my wedding day in 2016 - 164lbs, suffering from post natal depression

On my wedding day in 2016 - 164lbs, suffering from post natal depression

Despite the hyperemeisis, SPD,  tachycardia and pre-eclampsia I'd had in pregnancy, my strong and healthy baby boy was born later that year. He was utterly perfect, but I knew something wasn't quiet right with me.

2015-2016 - My battle with Post Natal Depression, slipping back into emotional eating

2015 had been a tough year with being seriously ill for most of it. I came to the realization by the time my son was around 10 weeks old that I was suffering from post natal depression. It was ironic, given that I had researched post natal depression as for my social work dissertation - so I was well aware to the signs, symptoms and suspected causes. I knew my depression had stemmed from a loss of identity, the trauma of being so ill in pregnancy, financial worries, isolation and lack of practical help (as my mother was tied up looking after my father and my husband worked night shifts). I rarely ate or even showered in the first few months.

Me with my son. I strive to encourage him to enjoy food instead of fear it.

Me with my son. I strive to encourage him to enjoy food instead of fear it.

At Christmas, there was a lot of family drama and I suffered a mental breakdown. 2016 started off really badly. We weren't speaking to one side of the family, which was exacerbated further when a court summons landed on our the doormat for the debts of two family members. Meanwhile my parents, son, husband and I were almost killed by a carbon monoxide leak, which lead to another hefty bill to pay. We then decided to cancel our original wedding plans and head to a registry office instead for a much smaller ceremony. Towards the end of the year, my father had a third stroke and was then diagnosed with Vascular Dementia. He's since rapidly declining, and it's taking my mum's health down with it (stress exacerbates her anorexia).  All of this happened so quickly that I felt shell-shocked throughout the entire year. Needless to say, I turned to comfort eating once again as a way of dealing with my anger, stress and depression because despite having lost weight before, I still hadn't properly address my issues around food or developed any healthier coping strategies for difficult emotions. 

2017 - Recovery

In 2017, I was in a much better place mentally than the previous year. Life was still stressful, don't get me wrong (between being a carer, a parent, a wife and a business owner)! But I've realized that the state of my health is directly related to my mindset and mental wellbeing. Which is the main focus on Beyond The Bathroom Scale these days.

health is a mindset not a number on the scale

Here are some of the realizations I had in 2017:

  • Logging food can sometimes be the start of a slow slide into the dieting mindset. Dieting is something I've always wanted to avoid and I've never restricted particular food groups. But using a food logging app was making me feel guilty whenever I went over calories, or eat when I was full because I was a little under. This was in spite of me deliberately not setting out to diet, and intending to log just to track sodium and sugar intake because of my hypertension and pre-diabetes. Imagine what this could do to someone who was consciously dieting.

  • Cheat days became a thing when I became calorie conscious. I've since realised that this was just a more controlled version of my binge/starve cycling behaviour. I'd also try to 'burn to earn' foods whenever I had already reached my calorie goal for the day. This was also disordered eating and thinking.

  • It makes more sense to eat intuitively. Eat when I'm hungry, stop when I'm full. I eat what I want and as much as I want. Mindfulness is a big part of this too.

  • It's important to exercise for the right reasons. It's to be enjoyed, reduce stress and improve your overall health, beyond the number on the scale. It is not about punishing your body, blasting, shredding and burning parts of it. These are weirdly aggressive terms for doing something that's good for you. Don't make exercise into self-punishment!

  • Worrying about exercise and eating well becomes completely pointless when your mental health is in the gutter, mental health CANNOT be ignored!

  • If it comes down to getting in a workout or getting extra sleep, choose sleep! Rest is very important for health!

  • Health and fitness is a mindset, not a number on the scale. It's putting your well-being first, both mental and physical. [Click to Tweet This]

  • Asking for help is crucial for recovery.

Throughout my blog, I will be sharing the tools I've used, the books I've read, and the professionals I've interviewed while tackling my mindset and addressing my own issues surrounding emotional eating and body image. 

If you've managed to get right the end of my very long backstory, I want to say thank you so much for taking time out of your busy day to read it! I hope you now have some understanding behind why I launched Beyond The Bathroom Scale and why I feel so passionate about the subjects of health, fitness, emotional eating, mindset and ditching the scale and dieting mindset. 

To be continued, over time.