Interview with Hope Virgo Author of Stand Tall Little Girl
Hope Virgo, author of Stand Tall Little Girl and Ambassador for the Shaw Mind Foundation suffered with anorexia for over 4 years, before being admitted to a Mental Health Hospital in 2007. She lived in the hospital for a year, fighting one of the hardest battles of her life. Since being discharged, she has fought to stay well. Hope is now a leading advocate for people with eating disorders described by Richard Mitchell, CEO of Sherwood Forest Hospital as "sharing a very powerful story with a huge impact".
Hope helps employers including schools, hospitals and businesses deal with the rising tide of mental health issues which affects one in four people and costs employers between £33 and £42 billion annually. She is a recognised media spokesperson having appeared on various shows including BBC Newsnight, Good Morning Britain, Sky News and BBC News.
Q. When did you first realise you had an issue with eating? What made you realise this?
When I look back I know my anorexia began when I was about 13 years old. But at the time I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. There were times when I was 17, just before I got admitted to hospital when I did feel out of control. I felt trapped in this cycle, and such a mess. I would get up early in the morning to exercise, go to school and not eat, exercise more, then either have a row with my parents about dinner or if I didn’t argue with them I would then have to make myself sick after it. I felt so unhappy at this point in life. I hated the voice in my head telling me what to do about food but I couldn’t fight it.
Each evening I would get into bed and wish I would not wake up. I didn’t know how I could live with this voice in my head forever but I also didn’t know how I could live without it. I didn’t understand why people were trying to take this anorexia away from me when to me it was everything I wanted and needed.
When I arrived in hospital I still couldn’t quite grasp why I was there and I felt completely fed up. Over the next year I had to face the biggest challenge of my life. I had to accept I had something the matter, I had to accept that life without anorexia was going to be better, and I had to learn how to talk and eat again.
Over that year I needed a fair amount of reassurance that something was the matter and I had to learn to trust the professionals with my care. I knew that if I didn’t eat and put on the weight I wouldn’t be allowed out of hospital so I used this remind myself something was the matter. I also would often remind myself of the facts about my appearance and this helped me stay on top of those feelings that maybe people were making things up.
Q. What led you to get help?
I didn’t actually have a choice about this. When I was 16 my school got in touch with my Mum and I had to go to my GP. From then I got sent to the outpatient unit for Child Adolescent Unit where I spent the following 6 months or so. Throughout my time here I was still struggling with food. I couldn’t quite understand why I was being made to eat. Throughout these few months I pretty much turned everyone against me and would constantly argue with my parents about whether to I should eat or not.
In November 2007 my life changed forever and after my heart nearly stopped I was admitted to a mental health hospital where I spent the next year battling to get well.
Q. When you were diagnosed with anorexia how did that make you feel?
Confused. I remember being sat in hospital completely unsure of what was going on. Being told things like I was going to die, like my body was starving and needed food. I couldn’t understand why people were trying to take something away from me that made me feel so good.
Q. How was anorexia affecting you on a daily basis?
At the time I didn’t think it was. I had this amazing best friend, my anorexia, and I loved the value she gave me.
Looking back though I can now see my life was basically on hold. I missed out on so much school stuff, missed out on meals out… looking back I am really sad that I missed my last year at school, I didn’t get to do all the fun things people do in their final year at school, instead I was stuck in hospital… I didn’t even get a girls’ summer holiday!!
Since recovering from anorexia there have been bits and pieces I missed on the way when I didn’t feel strong enough to tackle my anorexia. But I now am aware of this so if I am having a bad day and really want to go out for a meal I ask the people going if we can change restaurant so that I feel comfortable going along. If you are at that point in your recovery to do this, I urge you to! Speak out if you are struggling and make sure that you are honest with those around you.
Q. How did people react to your anorexia? Did they know?
I didn’t think people did know but they had all guessed. They had realised their friend, sister and daughter was lost to something else. The scary thing about anorexia is you can hide it for so long before anyone realises as the signs are hard to so it is so important if you are worried about a friend struggling, please do reach out for help.
The hardest thing for those round me was when I started to put on weight. It is a minefield knowing what to say to someone in recovery. People used to often say to me “you look healthy” but to me that always equalled fat. However, annoyed I got when people used the wrong terminology I was always very grateful of the continual support they gave me.
If you have a friend who has anorexia or another mental health problem do some research in to it, ask them questions (if they don’t mind) and increase your understanding so that they know they can talk to you about it.
Q. Looking back at that time now is there anything you would change or do different?
I would have talked and shared my worries! I wouldn’t have hidden the sexual abuse and the guilt that came with it. I would try and make myself love life instead of resorting to that anorexic voice which I thought back then made me happy.
Also realising that I was not alone in how I was feeling. There are so many young people struggling with their mental health and it is important they don’t feel isolated and alone.
Q. How would you describe your experience with medical professionals back at the start? Did they help you?
When I first went to the GP, I don’t think a lot was done, but I also don’t think people knew a huge amount about anorexia back then. I was lucky as when I was eventually admitted to hospital the care I got was fantastic. I needed the routine of food and the constant available support to help me get well.
I have met a lot of people over the last year who don’t have good experiences of health care professionals. They are often turned away if they aren’t at crisis or dismissed as “attention seeking”. There is also a huge problem with transitioning from childhood to adult. It is so important if you are struggling you get the help you need. You reach out for that support and you talk to your GP. Please don’t ever think you aren’t unwell enough to get help or that your feelings don’t matter.
Q. In your book “Stand Tall Little Girl” you have spoken about being admitted into a unit. How did that make you feel and what was life like?
It was tough. I won’t ever forget standing in hospital on that first day. I was so upset and didn’t know what was going to happen next. I didn’t know that I was going to spend the next year there. But it wasn’t as bad as I thought. Yes, it was hard work, lots of therapy, meals, and trying to regain control of my eating but it worked for me. It equipped me to deal with life. Something that really helped me was removing all emotion from food. We did this by talking about how we felt after meal times and it helped me to eat the food as I knew I had that opportunity afterwards to share my feelings.
Q. What has your road to recovery been like? Has there been any challenges you have faced along the way?
The reality is it hasn’t always been easy but I have kept pushing myself forward, fighting my anorexia and fighting that voice. In 2016 my Grandma passed away and I found it very hard to deal with the grief. I was seduced by my anorexia again. Sucked back in by that voice and I thought there was no way out. I battled it for about four months before admitting I needed help. For me I have to be conscious of reaching out for help when I need it and accepting that it is okay to ask for help. Relapsing is not a sign of weakness but has definitely made me so much stronger.
I have also had to learn to live with my new body and realise that what I see I the mirror is not the reality. This has been hard especially when my body has changed but I know that fighting that anorexic voice when she manipulates me is a way better than letting it beat me down and make me feel about life.
I think it is so important to realise that for everyone the journey is different and on those really hard days look back and remember how far you have already come. Don’t beat yourself up if you struggle but get your inner strength back and fight on.
Q. During your recovery do you think you receive enough support from the medical professionals? Do you think there is more they could do?
I was very lucky in my first admission. I spent a year when I was 17 in a mental health hospital and had excellent support. It was person centred with so much amazing therapy.
The second time was a slightly different story. I relapsed in 2016 but never got really underweight which meant the support I needed was not there for me. I felt so guilty reaching out for help but not having the access to it. There is so much focus on waiting for people to hit crisis point that we seem to miss those who want early intervention.
For me I was lucky as I have a supportive network around me, and using that and the coping mechanisms from hospital I knew that I could get back on track but so many people don’t have that support in place. And that is exactly why we need to all take responsibility of each other. And supporting each other, the people we work with, family, friends … with mental health!
Q. What advice would you give to someone suffering with anorexia? Is there anything you would say that you wish you had known at the start?
You think that the voice in your head gives you reassurance, self-worth and what you need. But the reality is that best friend won’t last and those feelings of self-worth will not last. That voice is lying to you and you need to fight it. I know it won’t feel like it but I promise you, life without anorexia, life opening up about how you feel and learning to express your emotions in this healthy way is the way forward.
I can’t say this enough. I used to think anorexia was my best friend, that that voice was everything I needed. BUT it was killing me slowly but surely. I never thought I would have days when I didn’t feel fat but you can get to that point. The battle is hard work and sometimes listening to the voice feels like the only way out but I guarantee you it is so much better when you fight back. When you try life without anorexia… sounds scary I know but it is 100% worth taking that risk and trying it.
Q. I suffer from OCD and there are so many misconceptions surrounding the disorder. What misconceptions are there around anorexia and what is your reply to them?
The misconceptions round anorexia make it hard for people to reach out, not only to friends but also clinically. People don’t always realise that you don’t have to be stick thin to be anorexic but that you can be a healthy weight but yet still be really struggling.