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I've had an eating disorder for 20 years, but finally I'm healthy

Kat Steele, 39, lives with her partner of five years and her sons aged 14 and nine from a previous relationship. Since the age of 15, Kat has been through anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder, but for the past five years she has been in recovery. She now works at the Delamere addiction treatment clinic in Cheshire, helping others with eating disorders.

Kat Steele, pictured left aged 17, two years after her eating disorder started and right more recently. (Supplied)
Kat Steele, pictured left aged 17, two years after her eating disorder started and right more recently. (Supplied)

One afternoon seven years ago while my children were at nursery and school and their father was out at work, I did something that I’d been building up to for weeks. Locking the bathroom door, I knelt on the floor beside the toilet, put my fingers down my throat and threw up repeatedly, emptying my stomach of the cakes, bread, biscuits and chocolate which I’d binged on in the previous hours.

The feeling was one of enormous relief that I'd finally found a way to negate the extreme binge eating which had become my recent daily obsession – the binges always followed a period of extreme restriction of my food intake. In that moment, the disordered eating which had blighted my life since my teens took on its latest incarnation – bulimia.

Looking back, the initial trigger for what began as anorexia in my teens, was my parents' divorce when I was 15. Dad moved out, while my younger brother and I stayed with Mum. It was the most distressing and unsettling time, added to which, at 6ft tall, I’d become an easy target for jokes and bullying at school.

'I turned to food to find a sense of control'

While everything around me was in a state of upheaval, I turned to food to find a sense of control, dramatically reducing the amount I was eating, and cutting out entire meals where possible. I became vegetarian for a while as a way of restricting and within weeks I’d lost pounds, dropping from a size 10 to an eight. I felt better and more confident both as a result of losing weight and because I’d found something that I could control.

While everything around me was in a state of upheaval, I turned to food to find a sense of control, dramatically reducing the amount I was eating, cutting out entire meals where possible.

Immediately, I linked eating less and losing weight with feeling happier and fitting in with other girls at school, though I realise now that it wasn't healthy. Most days I’d skip breakfast and lunch and have just a small portion for dinner at home if I could get away with it.

Although I was very slim, I wasn’t skeletal, and no one mentioned the weight loss. That’s the thing with anorexia... most people imagine that if a woman is anorexic, she’ll be painfully thin with her hip and collar bones protruding, but I didn’t reach that extreme and was clever at hiding what I was doing. I’d lie to my family and friends that I’d eaten when I hadn’t and nobody questioned it.

The most alarming thing that happened during that time was fainting in a shop with my dad one day when I was about 16 because I hadn’t eaten, although I lied to him when he quizzed me and told him I had.

Secret binge eating

Then, when I was 17, I began dating my children’s father, a relationship which ultimately left me feeling inadequate and lacking confidence in my ability to do anything. We were together for 14 years, during which my eating disorder became a form of crutch, though in different guises, each of them my own way of seeking some control in my life.

Most people imagine that if a woman is anorexic, she’ll be painfully thin with her hip and collar bones protruding, but I didn’t reach that extreme and was clever at hiding what I was doing.

It became difficult to continue hiding my restricted eating once we lived together and before long, my eating disorder manifested as secret binge eating, with extreme yo-yo dieting in between.

For a few weeks, I might follow the Special K diet that was popular at the time where you ate two bowls of cereal a day and that was it. But it would be followed by days of bingeing on everything from cakes and chocolate, to bread and crackers. It was my guilty pleasure, something that was purely mine.

Kat Steele, pictured aged 25, soon after the birth of her first son. (Supplied)
Kat Steele, pictured aged 25, soon after the birth of her first son. (Supplied)

Ending my relationship

But then a few events happened which began to change my mindset. Firstly, when I was around 30 a friend died in a car accident. It was devastating and prompted me to examine my life. I finally admitted to myself that I was deeply unhappy with my relationship, my body and what I was doing to it. A year later I summoned the courage to end my relationship with my sons' father, which was a positive move, but eating disorders tend to be chronic illnesses so it continued.

For a couple of years I'd spend hours every day bingeing and purging, it became my main focus.

Having gone from a dress size 10 to a size 20 between the ages of 18 and 30, I felt disgusting. I missed the control and feeling of being slim that anorexia gave me for three years in my teens. So, for a few months, I returned to extreme food restriction.

I can remember taking my younger son to the local coffee shop where I worked in his pram one morning, sharing a slice of toast with him and then existing on coffee for the rest of the day.

Soon, my eating disorder evolved into bulimia. Within a couple of months of making myself sick that first time, I’d returned to the gym, running miles every day (whenever I could fit it in around my children) with the sole purpose of burning calories.

I rapidly lost weight, dropping from a size 20 to an eight in a few months. I’m sure people noticed but nobody questioned me about it – perhaps suspecting that I had an eating disorder but not knowing how to broach it.

For a couple of years I'd spend hours every day bingeing and purging, it became my main focus. During the peak of my bulimia, I spent between £10 and £20 a day on food, and that was on top of the family food shop. I would then make myself throw it all up afterwards.

Kat Steele, at the age of 30, just before she slipped into extreme food restriction and then bulimia. (Supplied)
Kat Steele, at the age of 30, just before she slipped into extreme food restriction and then bulimia. (Supplied)

Confiding in a friend

Things began to shift when a poster on the notice board in the gym caught my eye one day. It read, 'Eighty per cent of your body is created in the kitchen.' It made me realise that I wasn’t nourishing my body, but instead denying it the proper nutrition it needed. I was also suffering from frightening heart palpitations as a result of the stress I’d been putting my body under for years, swinging from bingeing and purging to surviving on barely any food every day.

My friends had no idea that I was ill. They just saw it as a positive that I was now looking slim again and, in their eyes, 'well'.

That poster prompted me to text one close friend asking her if we could meet up because I had a problem I wanted to share with her. She was the only person I felt I could talk to about my eating disorder because I knew she’d listen and not judge. When I opened up to her, she admitted she could see I’d been struggling for years but didn’t know how to broach it with me.

My friends had no idea that I was ill. They just saw it as a positive that I was now looking slim again and, in their eyes, 'well'.

She encouraged me to see my GP, who didn't take me seriously, telling me, "I don’t think you’ve got an eating disorder because you're not thin, you’ve just had a tough time, you need counselling," and sent me away.

I was angry she'd dismissed what I’d long known was a severe eating disorder, so I lodged a complaint against her and sought a second opinion.

At the age of 32, I was referred to an eight-week NHS treatment programme for eating disorders as an outpatient at the Jocelyn Solly Resource Centre in Macclesfield. I had weekly therapy sessions and regular appointments with a dietician. I was saying what I felt they wanted to hear at the clinic, but psychologically I wasn't ready to make the necessary changes and at home, my eating disorder continued.

Kat Steele, aged 34, during her second stage of eating disorder treatment. (Supplied)
Kat Steele, aged 34, during her second stage of eating disorder treatment. (Supplied)

A wake-up call

In the end, it was a comment from my ex-partner's stepmother that sparked a change in my thinking. She asked me one day what would happen to my children if I died as a result of my eating disorder. I couldn’t bear the thought of not being around for them and knew I had to get better for their sakes. Realising that my eating disorder could kill me and leave my children without their mum was the turning point.

Realising that my eating disorder could kill me and leave my children without their mum was the turning point.

With renewed motivation, I returned to my GP and a year after my first treatment I did a second eating disorders programme at a clinic in Chester. I met my current partner of five years part-way through treatment, which I’m sure helped. He’s a wonderful man and for the first time in years I began to feel settled in my personal life and stopped feeling scared of the future.

In 2018, aged 34, I made a commitment to my therapist that for one week I would eat three small meals a day and wouldn't make myself sick. Typically, that might be a banana or foods I felt ‘safe’ with – that wouldn’t cause me to gain weight or trigger a binge – such as toast, fruit and yoghurt. That was the first tiny step in a long journey to recovery.

Kat Steele, aged 35, during the early stages of recovery. (Supplied)
Kat Steele, aged 35, during the early stages of recovery. (Supplied)

Managing my eating disorder

It’s taken a lot of hard work, tears and resolve but I’m now five years into my recovery. Although my eating disorder will always be part of me and will require lifelong daily management, I’ve learned that by talking about it, it loses its power over me. My partner is incredibly supportive too.

Still, it’s easy to slip back into unhealthy habits. For example, if I miss breakfast because I'm in a rush, it triggers my old mindset and I might then only have a single slice of bread for lunch. When we went to a local restaurant for my birthday last September we had to leave because I felt everything on the menu was too calorific. Some days I’m comfortable with eating a burger, but other days I find the idea extremely stressful.

I still run for miles, but I do it outdoors now for my mental health and run for strength and to help keep my cardiovascular system healthy, not to be thin. I’ve even run a couple of marathons, one of them to raise money for the eating disorders charity Beat.

Kat Steele running a marathon for the mental health charity Beat. (Supplied)
Kat Steele running a marathon for the mental health charity Beat. (Supplied)

When I first started working at the clinic in Chester in November 2022 I struggled with having to eat with the other staff in the dining room. Eating in front of people is hard as it makes me feel vulnerable, but the more I do it, the easier it gets. Now, I’m in the best place I’ve ever been and my awareness of my own health helps me keep my eating in check.

Most importantly, my sons are thriving. I’m so proud of them for getting through these tough years too. My eating disorder is no longer a secret and we talk about it fairly openly.

Finding support from other people at the clinic who understood how it felt and had had similar experiences to me was vital to my recovery.

Finding support from other people at the clinic who understood how it felt and had had similar experiences to me was vital to my recovery. When I gradually started to speak openly about my struggles both to them and to friends in the coffee shop where I worked, I finally understood that I wasn't alone and this encouraged me to speak more honestly. These friends kept me going and I will be forever indebted to them for their help. Until then, I couldn’t fully accept that my illness wasn’t my fault and that it wasn’t a choice I had made.

Kat Steele, pictured last year on Ben Nevis, raising money for charity with colleagues. (Supplied)
Kat Steele, pictured last year on Ben Nevis, raising money for charity with colleagues. (Supplied)

Looking to the future

I'm now excited about the future – watching my children grow up and thrive, and also seeing what I’m capable of in my working life. My self-esteem has always been so low that I never really thought I was capable of more than a basic working role.

I want to focus on how we can help the guests who arrive at the Delamere rehab clinic for help with eating disorders to feel empowered to get better and lead fulfilling lives full of fun and laughter. I'm also looking forward to seeing what my body can achieve now that I nourish and look after it – I can already do so much more than I could when I was restricting my food. I want to keep challenging myself with new adventures such as one day, hopefully, even running an ultra-marathon! I feel excited about a future that is now full of possibilities.

For support with an eating disorder, visit the charity Beat.