Christmas is meant to be about cherishing time with family, seeing old friends, and brightening up those long dark nights.
For some people, it is anything but this idyllic image. Siobhan Kelleher, a 19-year-old from Galway, found this to be her reality in 2020. She spent her Christmas Day alone in an inpatient facility for those suffering from eating disorders.
“I found spending the holidays and Christmas day in the hospital absolutely heartbreaking. I was beyond lonely without my friends and family; I was ashamed of myself,” she said.
Having been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa four months prior during one of the first covid lockdowns, Siobhan first began treatment in an outpatient CAMHS (Child and Adult Mental Health Service) clinic.
She had just celebrated her 17th birthday when she was admitted into the inpatient facility.
Now, nearly two years in recovery Siobhan is giving back to those in a similar position to where she once was.
She is fundraising to make gift hampers for those spending Christmas in inpatient facilities for eating disorders this year. She has already raised €1,300 – nearly triple her goal!
This gesture is about more than just a nice hamper, Siobhan explained. “I want to let them know that they are loved and that they have a community outside of their treatment programme that is waiting for them when they get discharged.”
Although Siobhan might seem very young to have gone through all this, as she is still just a first year in college, she is not an exception.
According to bodywhys.ie, in 2020 18% of all under-18-year-olds admitted to psychiatric hospitals were due to eating disorders.
“I remember being 11 or 12 and being very self-conscious of my appearance and my skin so I cut out sugar and things like that, and from there it became all sorts of junk food,” she said.
The situation worsened while Siobhan was in secondary school. “I knew that there was something not right probably around third year or transition year when I was about 15 but I didn’t really want to admit to anything and I didn’t really want to stop.”
Messages about how we should look and how we should be either from society or our peers can have a detrimental impact.
“I think we put so much pressure on ourselves as women anyways to meet all these goal points, we have to be neutral but we also have to be kind, we have to be able to express our opinions but not to an aggressive extent,” Siobhan said.
“I think women already are put under so much pressure but then to couple that with being a young person of any gender you are put under such scrutiny by your peers and mostly by yourself,” she added.
Comparison is said to be the thief of all joy, and if there is one place for breeding joyless comparisons it is social media.
“I grew up in an era of the birth of social media, I lived through MySpace into Tumblr into Instagram. It was just so much media being exposed to me from such a young age which is totally grounds for self-comparison and seeing yourself and wondering why you don’t look that way?
“It’s hard to then see yourself and still like yourself,” Siobhan said.
A lonely illness
Suffering from mental illness can be a very isolating experience, and this is particularly true for those with eating disorders. Eating is such a huge part of our social lives and restricting that can completely change our relationships.
“I found myself very ostracized to a point where my friends wouldn’t really invite me anywhere anymore cause I didn’t seem like I was enjoying it.
“Even though I loved spending time with my friends, I couldn’t really feel part of anything cause I was separating myself in such a huge way,” she said.
One of the main misconceptions about eating disorders is that they are centred around looks, something Siobhan wants to dispel.
“I think a lot of people think that eating disorders are vanity based and they centre around your insecurities with yourself when the reality is it’s not a choice you make.
“It is very similar to being addicted to a substance that you feel this compulsion to do it, you can’t help yourself because you’re almost hardwired to living like that and to let that go is so jarring and terrifying,” she said.
If you or someone you love is struggling with any of the issues discussed in this article please reach out to bodywhys.