A woman has told how she used to miss social gatherings growing up due to anxiety and would “punish herself” through her “obsessive” daily routine.
Bryony Rowe found herself stuck in a cycle of disordered eating and obsessive compulsion.
However, it was only after seeking professional help that she uncovered the extent of her struggles and managed to make a miraculous turn around, which she hails as “life changing”.
From the age of 11-years-old, Bryony was in a “perfect storm” of confusion about her body image.
She found herself caught between the expectations to be girly and “pretty” and her love of sports that would encourage “broad and muscly” bodies.
She told The Manchester Evening News: “From around age 11, I was a competitive swimmer, did a lot of surfing, and also played rugby competitively – and there were always lots of comments and different views about female bodies and how they should look for these sports.
Looking back, Bryony says her serious problems with eating and exercise coincided with starting university, and this carried on into the years following graduation: “When I went to university, I was living for the first time without my parents, I had the pressure of a new course, I was studying, and I wanted to fit in and felt a lot of pressure on myself to look a certain way.
“I was cooking for myself, and food became a very easy thing for me to be able to control – it gave me a sense of focus when everything else felt quite disjointed.
“That was definitely when my difficulties with food and disordered eating began.”
After university, Bryony moved to Manchester. Sadly, she spiralled – and it had a huge impact on her young adult life.
She said: “I went through different cycles of disordered eating – bulimia, orthorexia, and strict control over the kind of foods I ate and the way I lived.
“I became very obsessive around meal planning, and had real bouts of depression and viewing my own body negatively.
“I was limiting my life so much that I would miss birthday parties, I’d miss friends visiting, I would dread people saying that they wanted to go out for a drink.
“I had to have everything meticulously planned, and exercise started to feel like a way of punishing myself. This obsessive schedule just became very unmanageable.”
Knowing things were growing worse, Bryony turned to friends and family for help before seeking out a professional around five years ago from Greater Manchester Mental Health Service (GMMH).
“It took me a long time to realise I needed help. I always compare it to an addiction – you don’t have a clue how ill you are, it creeps up on you and then it takes somebody else to point it out to you,” added Bryony.
“But I did finally get to the stage of realising I was not OK.
“When I had my first appointment at the Eating Disorder service, I was concerned that there would be a limit on the support I could receive, but I was told that the therapy would go at my own pace and there was no rush to ‘get better’, which was incredibly reassuring.”
Bryony embarked on the journey of reprogramming how she thought about herself – it was “life-changing”.
“During my therapy, I was also diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, an anxiety disorder of which my eating disorder was a symptom.
“I started cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is basically the reprocessing of your thoughts, and changing how your mind perceives certain things.
“It was tough for a while, but then at some point, a switch just flipped, and I started to be able to talk about topics I thought I could never discuss before.
“I began to make real progress in areas such as how I perceived my own body.
“It’s not an over-exaggeration to say that it was life-changing. I actually refer to myself post-therapy as ‘Bryony 2.0’.”
Now, Bryony recognises that one part of her brain was “obsessively controlling” her life.
“I’ve been given a whole new lease of life, and a new ability to believe in myself, have confidence to do things, and relinquish control,” she said.
“I was able to liberate myself from the part of my brain that was obsessively controlling my life, and now suddenly I have this freedom of choice and it’s incredible.
“I am not defined by an eating disorder, but I am partly defined by recovering from one – the empathy, the emotional intelligence, and ability to process and reflect it has given me has been amazing.”
Bryony wants to thank the mental health services that changed her life, empower others to feel comfortable in their own skin, and raise money to support fair and timely access to mental health services.
To do this, she is taking on a mammoth set of challenges.
Bryony will tackle six competitions across a range of sporting disciplines from April to September 2023, including the Isle of White 55km Ultramarathon, the CrossFit Turf Games and the Outlaw full-distance triathlon, amongst others.
“A big thing for me with the therapy was getting back to being in a place where I’ve viewed sport positively, and to train because I could enjoy it,” said Bryony.
“With my new confidence, I decided to try training for a triathlon a few years ago, and last year took on a half Ironman – I enjoyed it so much I decided I wanted to really go for it this year, and tackle some bigger events.
“I couldn’t have undertaken these challenges with the mindset I was in before – because of the obsessive way I lived, and under-fuelling myself, it just wouldn’t have been feasible.
“I am so thankful to the GMMH Eating Disorder service, and to NHS mental health services as a whole, and I want to make sure that everyone is able to have access to this vital support like I did – which is why I’m fundraising for GMMH.
“The reason I’m doing such a variety of sporting events is because I spent so much time when I was younger hearing and believing that there were ideal body types you needed to have to be considered good at certain sports.
“I want to show how that just isn’t true.
“We don’t have to take part in sport to be the fastest or the strongest – we can just do it because we enjoy it, and we can have our own personal aims.
“My goal over the next six months will be to finish each competition. All bodies are amazing, and all bodies can do amazing things.”
Dr Ian Gill, Clinical Psychologist at the Manchester Eating Disorder Service, GMMH said: “It’s amazing to see how far Bryony has come, and the new lease of life she has. She is a real advocate for mental health.
“In the Manchester Eating Disorder Service, we support people with different types of eating disorders, at all stages of their difficulties.
“This includes people who may be experiencing binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia nervosa.
“We know that recovery from an eating disorder is possible at any stage of it, and we work with people towards a recovery that is meaningful for them.
“We encourage people to seek help as soon as possible, by visiting their GP, if they think they might have an eating disorder.”
From April to September 2023, Bryony will be competing in the following challenges:
- Paris Marathon
- Isle of White Ultra Challenge 52km
- CrossFit Turf Games intermediate
- Outlaw full-distance triathlon
- Dock2Dock 15km swim
You can view Bryony’s fundraising page here: https://wonderful.org/fundraisers/Rva5N and you can follow her story via her Instagram account @bryony.eve.
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