“There is help out there and it can change everything.” Mum-of-four speaks about her battle with binge eating disorder
- Credit: Archant
When Rhianwen Smee signed up for a gruelling, 48-mile 'ultra' marathon to raise cash for the eating disorders charity Beat, she opened up to friends and family for the first time about her own struggles with food. The Holt mum-of-four, who has already topped her £400 fundraising target, talks to KAREN BETHELL about her lifelong battle with binge eating disorder.
Because her mother had severe mental health problems, after her parents separated, Rhianwen and her two sisters were brought up by their father at Kelling, near Holt.
With her mother frequently admitted to hospital, life was difficult, but while she says there is no specific event that triggered her troubled relationship with food, Rhianwen admits that her 'unusual' childhood led her to seek comfort in eating.
'It became something I could turn to,' she explained. 'Not necessarily just when I felt sadness, but any emotion - rather than dealing with something, I would eat.'
By the age of 11, Rhianwen had begun eating in secret, buying treats to eat in private and even stealing food from the neighbours she did odd jobs for.
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Her problems continued into her teens, with Rhianwen entering into a torturous cycle of bingeing, followed by feelings of shame and self-hatred.
'There was never a point where I felt satisfied and could stop – I had to eat until everything was gone - and, in your mind, every time is the last time,' she said.
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By the age of 19, Rhianwen was a full-time mum to two young children and, forced to flee an abusive partner, found her issues around food became a bigger part of her life than ever.
'Because I was in such a controlling relationship, food became how I coped; it was the one thing I could do for myself that didn't have repercussions,' she explained.
Eleven years ago, she met her fiancé James, with whom she had two more children, and finally in a happy, loving relationship, she felt able to open up to some extent about her problems.
However, as a young mum-of-four, Rhianwen, who also has parental responsibility for her nephew, 13, and supports local families as a Home Start volunteer, continued to struggle and, as her weight crept up to more than 17 stone, her self-esteem plummeted.
'I would eat to the point that I thought I might actually choke,' she said. 'I thought I was so messed up that I was the only person on the planet who had this stupid, dysfunctional relationship with food.'
She developed rituals, buying 'bad' foods – chocolate, cakes and crisps – to binge on in private, sometimes still sharing family meals to hide her disorder.
Hitting on the idea of using exercise as a way of 'undoing' the effects of a binge and 'punishing' her body, four years ago, Rhianwen took up running and joined a gym, and the weight began to fall off.
But while to the outside world she seemed happier, in reality, her eating disorder had spiralled out of control.
'I'd lost the weight through bingeing and starving, spending three hours in the gym, then going for a run on top of that,' she remembers.
Not knowing where to turn to for help, she poured out her troubles on paper and made an appointment with her GP, who referred her to the NHS Norfolk Wellbeing service.
However, group therapy and anxiety management sessions failed to help and it wasn't until she contacted the Norwich-based eating disorders charity Eating Matters that she began to get her life back on track.
One-to-one therapy sessions led to Rhianwen learning coping strategies, gradually reducing the frequency of her binges and developing a healthier relationship with food and exercise.
A long-standing member of the North Norfolk Beach Runners, she ran her first marathon in 2015 and has since completed eight half marathons, a further three full marathons and more than 100 Parkruns.
For the past four years, she has also taken part in Endure 24, an annual 24-hour cross country running event.
Keen to help others battling similar problems, Rhianwen, 35, decided to apply for the 48-mile Peddars Way Trail Ultra Marathon in aid of the eating disorder charity Beat.
Since signing up for the run, which kicks off at 6am on January 26, she has penned a series of searingly honest Facebook posts about her struggles, prompting an outpouring of support from friends and family.
'People have been amazing, but it was a bit like ripping a plaster off, it was a way of me saying, 'this is me and I have these issues',' she said.
'I realised that I wasn't the only one out there and I would say to anyone else going through the same thing that there isn't a single thought or feeling they have had about food that other people haven't experienced – there is help out there and it can change everything.'
To support Rhianwen, visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/rhianwen-smee
Binge eating disorder facts
Binge eating disorder, which is more common in adults than young people, is a serious mental illness which can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, depression and anxiety and heart disease.
Sufferers, who often have feelings of guilt, shame and self-loathing about binges, usually eat large amounts of food very quickly, even when not hungry.
Binges, which can be very distressing, may involve buying 'bad' foods and eating in secret, with the sufferer often feeling compelled to continue eating, even if they want to stop.
NICE guidelines say that, in the first instance, people diagnosed with a binge eating disorder should be offered a guided self-help programme, before being offered weekly group eating disorder-focused cognitive behavioural therapy typically lasting four months or, if this is not suitable, one-to-one therapy.
For information about treatment and support, visit www.eatingmatters.org.uk or www.beat.org.uk or phone the Beat adult helpline on 0808 801 0677 (youth helpline: 0806 801 0711).
Extract from Rhianwen Smee's Facebook posts charting her eating disorder battle
I remember once as a child finding some old, well past their best mint chocolates. I remember clearly opening the box and realising they were not ok to eat.
To this day I have never seen chocolate that looked the same, but I ate them. I still can remember the vile taste in my mouth from them and it pops in my mind every so often.
The amount of shame you carry inside you into adulthood is astonishing, it adds to everything to keep the cycle going.
The embarrassment, the shame, the saying you are never going to do it again and this is the last binge. The plans to not eat for a few days to cancel it out, the crazy ideas about living on as little as possible to cancel it out. I started running so then added exercise into the cycle, burning calories and at times running on empty to try to undo a binge. Running should be about feeling awesome and being proud of your body, I have run hundreds of miles while berating and hating mine instead. I want that to change.