A woman gripped by anorexia was left feeling like a 'walking corpse' after surviving on just 15 breadsticks a day03/06/2020
A woman gripped by anorexia was left feeling like a 'walking corpse' after surviving off just 15 breadsticks a day.
Strong Gemma Harenburg, 23, had struggled with an eating disorder and mental health issues since she was 15 – and could feel herself falling back into old habits after a bout of personal problems.
At the height of her illness, Gemma would eat less than 300 calories a day and would jog on the spot to burn off the calories – dropping a scary one stone in one month.
Her periods stopped, her hair began thinning and her skin flaking.
Gemma was suffering from anorexia nervosa, as well as agoraphobia and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and in a struggle to cope she resorted to taking an overdose in December 2016.
But when she was admitted to Hertford County Hospital afterwards, she claims she was told she wasn't thin enough to be admitted and that she needed to weigh at least four stone before they could consider giving her inpatient treatment.
The demand for beds was so high in the hospital, so unless she was critical, there was no room for her.
Gemma felt 'turned away' by professionals, and vowed not to let the disorder become a 'death sentence'.
Determined to get better, she took it upon herself to battle the illness and is now getting back to a healthy weight.
Gemma, who is unable to work, from Hertford, Hertfordshire, said: "I was left feeling like a walking corpse. I didn't feel like I could eat normal food and meals, and couldn't eat with anyone else around me.
"I knew I had to force myself out of that state, otherwise I was heading into a grave before I had even lived my life."
Gemma's problems began at age 15 when school pressure and the desire to 'look good' overwhelmed her, and she says she began to suffer and starve herself in an attempt to cope.
But after an effort to take her own life with an overdose of pills, Gemma felt like she was an 'attention seeker' and that she needed to weigh four stone before she could be admitted for long-term treatment.
She was petrified to go outside and couldn't walk up the stairs without fainting, fearful her illness may kill her.
I knew I had to force myself out of that state, otherwise I was heading into a grave before I had even lived my life.
What is anorexia nervosa and what are the signs and symptoms?
Anorexia nervosa, often known as just anorexia, is a very serious mental health condition which causes the person to restrict the amount they eat.
The sufferer of the eating disorder aims to keep their body weight as low as possible by avoiding food, vomiting or exercising excessively.
The condition usually affects girls and women, however, recently it has started affecting more boys and usually it develops at around 16 or 17 years old.
Despite being less common than some other conditions, anorexia is one of the leading causes of mental health-related deaths – as a result of malnutrition or suicide.
Usually, a sufferer will go to great lengths to disguise the fact they are not eating or pretending they have eaten already.
But if you suspect someone is battling the condition there are a few signs to look out for, according to the NHS. These include:
- Missing meals, eating very little or avoiding eating any fatty foods
- Obsessively counting calories in food
- Leaving the table immediately after eating so they can vomit
- Taking appetite suppressants, laxatives, or diuretics (a type of medication that helps remove fluid from the body)
- Repeatedly weighing themselves or checking their body in the mirror
- Physical problems, such as feeling lightheaded or dizzy, hair loss, or dry skin.
Around 50 per cent of people with anorexia will continue to have some level of eating problems, even after treatment.
For more information, or to seek help, please visit eating disorder charity Beat's website.
Gemma said: "I had lost any hope of a future at that point in my life. I felt like a walking corpse.
"I knew I had to do something for myself, and my family too, so I decided to manage my treatment from home and work on putting the weight back on and changing my mindset."
Gemma knew she was struggling to cope when she lugged washing up the stairs and had to sit down to breathe.
She had watched the weight drop off of her since she was just 15, and seven years down the line her mental state hadn't improved.
Gemma said: "When I was in school I had real problems with my eating. I'd want to shut myself away from everyone else as I felt petrified being around other people, especially at lunch time.
"I became more and more self-conscious every day, with all my classmates worried about how they looked – so I started eating my lunch away from the crowds, then eventually not at all.
"I could hear a voice in my head telling me I was greedy and didn't deserve the food I was shoving in, so I listened to it, and it was a downhill spiral from that point."
Gemma's weight noticeably dropped, and her parents, Dawn, 53, and Sean, 56, took her to the doctor to find out what was going on.
There wasn't the resources at the hospital to give me the treatment I desperately needed, and I was advised that if my weight dropped to around four stone, then they would have a bed for me.
"It was then that I was diagnosed with OCD, and anorexia. The team at Kingfisher Court referred me to CAMHS – Child and adolescent mental health services" Gemma said.
Gemma was kept in counselling with the youth mental health team for a number of months, but then was left to her own devices, despite her weight being dangerously low.
She was still starving herself, but managing to maintain a healthy weight, until a relapse in 2015 caused the then 17-year-old to drop weight again and lock herself indoors.
"I noticed my periods had completely stopped, and my hair was thinning and it looked like I was going bald," she said.
"My skin started flaking off too, and I barely looked human. It was so hard to even walk upstairs into my bedroom without feeling like I was going to faint.
"I didn't know how to cope with myself and the way I looked so I carried on listening to the anorexia voice. My parents thought they would come into my room and find me dead."
In 2016, Gemma felt like she'd come to the end of the road and that no one could help her – and overdosed on tablets and pills.
She said: "There wasn't the resources at the hospital to give me the treatment I desperately needed, and I was advised that if my weight dropped to around four stone, then they would have a bed for me.
My parents thought they would come into my room and find me dead.
"It was devastating to hear that. I felt like a number, someone who had to be skin and bones and on the verge of death before I was recognised."
Gemma returned home after an overnight stay at Hertford County Hospital determined to take her care into her own hands, and along with the help of her parents, has gradually begun the journey to recovery.
Gemma said: “My family are the ones who have watched my suffering for years and years, and they’ve learnt my habits but also how to help me out.
“They were met with worry every day, seeing if I’d be alive each morning, and seeing them light up as I put weight on and get my personality back is incredible.
“My health has affected both my parents for so long, and they can see I want to be better not just for myself, but for them too."
Gemma continues to battle her demons, and has built her weight up to six-and-a-half stone independently, without any medical intervention.
She said: "I am fighting against myself every day, but at the moment I am winning. I want to sit and enjoy a meal with my family at the table, and leave the house without feeling faint.
"It's a long journey but it's worth it."
My health has affected both my parents for so long, and they can see I want to be better not just for myself, but for them too.
A spokesperson from the Hertfordshire Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust has said:
“We are unable to comment on individual cases, but we work with each person to decide the best way to manage their care and promote recovery and wellbeing for them as an individual. Decisions on whether a person should access the community service or be referred on to an inpatient service are not made on the single parameter of weight, but by reviewing each person as a whole.
“Our policy is to work with our service users in the community whenever possible and safe, using the NICE guidance for management of anorexia and bulimia, which recommends community based care as opposed to inpatient admission. A decision to access an inpatient bed is made on an individual basis, if it becomes clear that the person is unable to recover or stay safe enough without an inpatient admission.”
Meanwhile, read Amber's miraculous story after her unborn son saved her life after her battle with anorexia left her weighing just 5 stone.
We previously told how a woman who developed anorexia at EIGHT, shrunk to just 4st 8oz and tried to take her own life five times was saved by her girlfriend.
And a former anorexic whose weight dropped to under five stone overcame her eating disorder to become a mum.
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