Real Life

Brittany Farrant-Smith’s secret eating disorder battle

After recovering from anorexia, this Wellington warrior is fighting diet culture and the stigma surrounding mental illness

Psychology graduate Brittany Farrant-Smith knows what it’s like to feel alone in a world that doesn’t understand her.

As a fit, young woman who had played semi-professional football and studied as an honours student, she looked to be thriving. But through it all, Brittany was secretly suffering a debilitating eating disorder – anorexia athletica.

Working through tough times, the now-cheerful 25-year-old is guiding other sufferers through their own journeys with her book Living Full: A Guide To Overcoming Your Eating Disorder.

Full of wisdom, wellness exercises and survivors’ inspiring stories, it’s something Brittany wishes she had to turn to in her darkest days.

At her worst, Brittany was 19 and studying psychology. She managed to get through her undergraduate degree but stopped in her honours year when everything became too much. Not only had her disorder taken hold, but she was also dealing with the grief of losing two close friends to suicide.

“It all became too much and I ended up pulling out of life as I knew it,” says Brittany.

Looking back, it was around the age of 15 that she remembers those first feelings of inadequacy rising up. It was also then that she lost her first friend. Dealing with the loss, as well as struggling with anxiety, stress began to take its toll.

“There’s a lot of pressure on you at that age,” she explains. “You’re not only trying to find your own identity, but you’ve also got so many pressures on you, like people’s expectations. That’s a hard time.”

Noticing her overwhelmed state, Brittany’s concerned father and stepmother moved her to Qatar, where they were living, hoping the change would help. But it only made matters worse.

In her new environment, image was “a big deal” and she began to fixate on food. When she started playing semi-professional football with the Qatari women’s team, comparison and self-criticism became rife in her day-to-day life. Her gym regime got more intensive, on top of hours of weekly soccer training.

As a budding soccer star in Doha.

At 18, Brittany moved home to study. Rather than being a fresh start, living with more than 400 students meant an abundance of people to compare herself to. Her obsession got worse. She spent hours at the gym. Yet no one seemed to understand what was happening.

“The thing about any mental disorder is that it’s an illness,” says Brittany. “You can’t just snap out of it, but people don’t really get that.”

Despite not understanding, her flatmates knew something wasn’t right and they called an intervention.

“It probably wasn’t the best way to deal with it,” she laughs. “They came in hot and heavy. I think I was exercising at the time and they called me out, saying, ‘Hey, your bones are protruding. Look in the mirror. You need to go to your doctor.’

“My initial reaction was, ‘I’ll prove you wrong. I’ll go to the doctor and show you there’s nothing wrong with me.’ Of course, that backfired, but I needed that to start recovering.”

Brittany with her mum.

She was later diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and anorexia athletica, the latter only being recognised in recent years.

“It’s when you use exercise as a type of binge/purge cycle,” Brittany explains. “I would exercise five hours a day as a way to make myself feel I’d worked hard enough to eat.”

From there, she began therapy sessions and started journalling.

“I had this Word document with reflections from psychology sessions, plus thoughts and insights I had during my recovery. Then I got into the research. Eventually I had 90 pages. I wasn’t intending for it to be a book, but here we are.”

When she started Instagram account @mentally_fitt and began connecting with other sufferers, she realised there was a need for some type of resource, like a workbook, to guide people through their recovery process. It targets a generation with many pressures around body image.

“Extreme exercising is so rewarded in today’s society,” says Brittany. “When you work that hard, your body becomes something that everybody praises – and that’s not necessarily something that should be praised. It’s like when you’re working really hard at work and you’re burning yourself out, and people are like, ‘Wow, you work so hard!’ like it’s a good thing. But you need balance.”

Education is part of the reason Brittany has included tips for friends and family in dealing with a loved one’s eating disorder, as well as the sufferer.

“My big hope is that someone will pick up this book, and see that what they’re going through is something other people have gone through and have come out the other side of. It’s a deadly, deadly illness and you need to know there is light at the end of the tunnel. If they realise it’s a real problem, then that will start the little fire they need to fuel their recovery.”

Living Full: A Guide To Overcoming Your Eating Disorder by Brittany Farrant-Smith (Bateman Books, $35) is out now. If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, please visit ed.org.nz. To speak to a trained mental health counsellor, text or call 1737 at any time.

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