Rubie Cousins developed an eating disorder at 16 and now, at the age of 30 celebrates a happy life with the help of counselling and supporting others with eating disorders and their recovery.

1. When did your eating disorder start?
It started when my dad died from throat cancer. I guess that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. I’m not saying that was the only reason why my eating disorder started but it was definitely a catalyst. I guess it was my way of controlling what was going on around me because everything else was out of my control.

2. How did your eating disorder affect your relationships?
Eating disorders make you very selfish, so in terms of relationships, I didn’t have any really because I pushed everyone away, including my family and close friends. I didn’t have time for them. I didn’t want them to know about my eating disorder even though it was very obvious. I didn’t want them to try and stop me so I didn’t want them to be be a part of my life. Even my sister stayed away from me, even though we were very close. The only person that stuck around truly was my mum, even though I was awful to her.  Eating disorders affect those around you more so than the person going through it because they are so wrapped up in it, whereas other people have to look in and see the person that they love destroying themselves.

3. What support was key to your recovery?
My mum was really key to my recovery as well as the relationship I formed with a counsellor I had in South Africa. I tried NHS treatment in England but each time I went in, I came out worse. Eating disorders are very competitive so when you put someone with an eating disorder in with a bunch of other people who have an eating disorder, they are just going to play off each other and learn each other’s tricks.

My mum sold her house and sent me to rehab in South Africa because she knew I loved it there. My counsellor was an ex addict so he understood on a deeper level than perhaps someone who hadn’t had issues before, could. That really helped me, really resonated with me. Listening to his story and how he could overcome his addiction helped me believe that I could overcome my addiction to food or lack or food or bingeing and purging. And it gave me a sense of hope and that really helped.

When I came back from South Africa, being around people who understood me and supported me, friends who made an effort to come and see me really helped. It’s hard. When you’ve got an eating disorder, you find out who your real friends are and who will stick by you, no matter what.

4. How has life changed for you since you started your journey to recovery?
I am now 30 years old and I’ve been in recovery since I was 21 – and my life has changed quite dramatically, actually. It’s taken me a long, long time to get to where I am and to get to the mental space that I’m in. I’m not going to say I haven’t had bumps along the way because I have. But I’m finally in a place where I’m really happy and I know where I am going and what I want to do. I know I want to be a counsellor and specialise in eating disorders and help adolescents with their eating disorders and their recovery process, which I’ve started doing in terms of peer support, which I’m really enjoying.

Also, it has taken me 10 years but I have finally been able to have a child, which was really unexpected because I was told I wouldn’t ever be able to have children. As much of a shock as it was, it was the best thing that’s happened to me. So, Ive got new dreams, new aspirations, new motivations and if anything, I am more determined to make a future for me and my son now.

It’s about finding what you’re motivated about, finding your passion, finding your sense of self worth and self confidence. People with eating disorders are very low in self esteem and that’s a big part of it. So, building on that and having goals and reaching them is all part of the process, and all part of the recovery.

My life has changed dramatically from when I was at my lowest point at 32kg and on a ventilator to having a son and being in a job that I love and training to be something I could only have ever dreamed of once upon a time.

5. What advice do you have for someone battling an eating disorder?
My advice is to not be so hard on yourself. It’s about taking baby steps in terms of your recovery. And recovery sounds a scary word because you think it means you have to go back to eating all the stuff we class as forbidden foods –  but it doesn’t have to mean that. Putting on weight doesn’t have to be a scary thing.

For me, recovery is that my eating disorder no longer controls me. It doesn’t interfere with my day-to-day life. I eat six meals a day – they’re small, they’re healthy. I’ll have treats every now and again but the majority of my foods are still very healthy.

There’s an unrealistic expectation of what being recovered from an eating disorder is. Each person’s recovery will be different. Take it day by day, step by step. Talk to people who are going through it or have been through it and it’s okay to be scared and have slip ups – there will be slip ups along the way. But one slip up doesn’t mean that’s the end and you might as well stop trying because you’ll get there eventually. You have to persevere. We’re very motivated and determined individuals. To have an eating disorder, you have to have really strong will not to eat so if we put that in the right direction, we can achieve anything we want to.

6. What advice do you have for people supporting a loved one?
I can only empathise with how difficult it must be to watch a loved one go through it. My advice is to be there to support and guide them, to love them, to not get into arguments with them because that will make them bury their heads in the sand even more. Don’t tell them what to do, as tempting as that might be. Just encourage them gently.

Talk to other families, parents and adults going through the same thing as you. There are support groups available. Get help for yourself, counselling if you need it, somewhere you can offload to. The main things is to not give up on them, to be there with them and gently encourage them.

7. What more can be done to educate children and young adults?
Children and young adults need to be educated early on in schools about eating disorders and the risks involved and spotting the signs that somebody might have one or you, yourself may be developing one.

Eating disorders aren’t just the obvious ones like anorexia or bulimia or bingeing – there are far more varieties of eating disorders – and it’s about understanding that any unhealthy relationship with food is classified as an eating disorder because you’re using food to channel negative emotions and that’s an unhealthy pattern.

It’s important to be able to recognise signs and pick up on them, so if you’re worried about a friend you can bring it to their attention or a teacher’s attention. The earlier you pick up on it, the easier it is to treat. It’s like any unhealthy habit or behaviour. The longer it goes on, the harder it is to break. The key is to catch it quickly before it escalates to the point where you die from it and that’s the harsh reality of it. I’ve heard of many friends who I was in treatment with that didn’t make it and I am fortunately one of the lucky ones who did.

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