Grace Nicholas believes that the academic pressure she felt at school pushed her towards the eating disorder that almost killed her.
Grace has told her story to publicise Eating Disorders Week this week, to raise awareness of what help is available.
Together with mum Liz, from Meersbrook, Sheffield, she has written a book, Cold Hands Warm Heart, to raise money for South Yorkshire Eating Disorders Association.
She said: “I think I had incredibly low self-esteem. I didn’t really think anything of myself. I felt very out of my depth with the workload. I was in the sixth form and everyone was thriving and I was drowning. I didn’t want to be the person who wasn’t doing well.”
She said that she’d wanted to look at going to college to study art, rather than join the school sixth form, but never pushed it because she didn’t believe herself to be worth the effort. She believes lots of teenagers feel the same way.
Grace said that her eating disorder developed as a way of gaining control over some aspect of her life. “It was something that was mine. It could be mine and I could be good at it.”
However, soon the eating was controlling her. She began to withdraw, barely speaking.
Grace said: “Recently I’ve been thinking a lot with all this happening with the book. I feel like I’m doing this for that girl who just wanted to be all right with herself. It turned from at first about being thinner and prettier and more attractive. It became about me and the illness and how good I could be at not eating. It just escalated.”
Grace became very ill very quickly and ended up in hospital so she could regain enough weight to stabilise her system. It was a relief for someone to take charge: “I thought it was going to kill me. Most of the time I was OK with that but knowing I did want life in some sort of way. I couldn’t be in control of it and couldn’t cope on my own.”
Little moments gave her hope: “I woke up in hospital and there was lots of light coming into the room. I wrote down in my diary, ‘F*** off, anorexia’. I felt so proud of myself.”
Recovery was tough with the help of specialist therapists and Grace still has to monitor herself to make sure that stress doesn’t lead her to stop eating.
She said: “When I was at university and thought I wasn’t looking after myself, I talked to my housemates, just to keep myself in check. And having a break and a sandwich makes you chilled out a bit. You have to find time to cook dinner.”
Grace is living in London now and working as a freelance costume maker, working mainly on films, commercials and music videos. She said: “It’s great, I love it.”
She studied costume interpretation at Wimbledon College of Art. It was something Grace couldn’t have imagined doing when she was ill.
She said: “It wasn’t in my scope of thought. I think when I was at my lowest point I was just thinking of the day ahead and getting through it so that I could be alone and in my room and not have to talk to anyone.”
Grace decided to tell her story to help give people a better understanding of what an eating disorder is really like.
She called the book Cold Hands, Warm Heart because when she was ill she didn’t have enough body fat to stay warm and was always freezing.
Despite everything, Grace manages to be positive. She said: “I’m very grateful for everything that’s happened as it made me the person I am.”
‘I didn’t think she would make it to 17, she was so destructive’
Sheffield mum Liz Nicholas found herself in the middle of a nightmare when she realised that her 16-year-old daughter Grace was slowly starving herself to death.
The second of her four children was studying for her A-levels in 2007. She said: “I was really worried about her and realised it was an eating disorder.”
Within a few short months Grace was in the Northern General Hospital getting emergency treatment for the effects of anorexia as her body started to shut down.
Liz, who lives in Meersbrook, says that at first she had to battle to get her GP to understand how worrying Grace’s condition was. She found the delays in getting specialist help frustrating and terrifying and said that South Yorkshire Eating Disorders Association (SYEDA) was a lifeline that helped her get the help Grace needed.
“I got through it by just doing what I could every day. Reaching out and getting support that gave us some idea of what we should be doing.
“You just have to take every day as it comes and not get overwhelmed.”
She said SYEDA told her not to give up on Grace, even though the troubled youngster would hardly speak to her and wouldn’t let her mum touch or hug her. Liz said she told Grace every day that she loved her and supported her and believed she could get better. She also made a point of talking about other topics not related to food.
“They said keep giving the person your love and support. Grace said when she was coming out the other side, ‘You know those times when you came into my room and I just blanked you? It did get through to me. It’s part of why I decided to get better’.”
Liz admitted: “I didn’t think she was going to make it to the age of 17 at times. I had to look at that possibility in the eye because she was so self-destructive.”
At times Liz was also wracked with guilt, although she knew that the family had a good attitude to food and no-one had pressurised Grace about her weight.
SYEDA’s family support group meetings were an invaluable help to everyone.
Liz said: “Everybody wants to find a reason why it happened. It’s always a combination of things happening in the same time and place and being the sort of person who develops anorexia rather than some other sort of mental health problem.
“It’s about feelings, not about food. It’s about how you feel about yourself and how you interact with the world.”
Liz wrote things down to help her cope and, although a lot of it is raw, decided to put it in the book she wrote with Grace, based on her diaries, to give other families an idea of what coping with anorexia is really like.
She said: “I like to think that although there’s dramatic bits in it, it’s not a depressing read. It’s also interesting to anyone that hasn’t been immediately touched by a situation like this. I hope people will read it who work with young people in schools or youth clubs, as well as family and friends who know someone who’s been through something similar. We haven’t got any recipe for how to get through it but you can’t do it on your own. Get help and don’t give up.”
Seek advice if you have and concerns
Liz and Grace are full of praise for South Yorkshire Eating Disorders Association (SYEDA) and say that anyone with worries about themselves or someone they know should get in touch.
The book they have written together, Cold Hands Warm Heart, will raise money for the organisation.
Manager Chris Hood said: “Our service has been supporting people affected by an eating disorder since 1994.
“It started as a self-help support group and has grown to the multi-disciplinary service it is today.
“We are unique in offering all our services to both sufferers and carers.
“We offer a range of therapeutic interventions from art therapy to psychodynamic counselling to complementary therapies.
“We host monthly support groups at the universities and one for carers and another for sufferers at our premises.
“We work extensively with schools, colleges and youth groups delivering workshops and bespoke lesson sessions around body image, self-esteem and eating disorders.
“We have a befriending service and have very recently taken on an occupational therapist.
“Access to our services is via self-referral via our website, www.syeda.org.uk, or in person.
“However no referral is needed to attend our support groups or our fortnightly drop-ins.
“Details of dates and times is found on our website or by calling us on 0114 2728822.”
He stressed: “It is difficult to summarise what to look out for as conditions are complex.
“The rule of thumb is seek advice and/or help if you have any concerns about yours or someone else’s relationship with food.”