Suzy Petty: Hockey player discusses life in lockdown with an eating disorder

Suzy Petty sends a message for people with eating disorders during lockdown

While we wait for normality to return, lockdown continues to challenge us in all aspects of our daily life, even our eating.

Whether it’s more trips to the biscuit tin or an extra helping of dessert, our habits have changed since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Many people are struggling with their mental health, with higher levels of anxiety around society. But what about those with eating disorders?

Beatexternal-link – the UK’s eating disorder charity – has seen an “alarming” 80% increase in social media contact, a 51% increase in online support group attendance, and a 30% rise in calls to its helpline since lockdown began.

According to Beat’s figures, 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, 25% of whom are men.

One who has felt the pressures of lockdown is former Great Britain hockey player Suzy Petty, who has had bulimia for 10 years.

“It’s changed my life,” says the 28-year-old. “Being stuck at home I find really tough. I love going outside, I’m sporty, I play hockey and I’m used to doing that.

“I was finding my walks were longer than usual, my runs were longer than usual. That’s kind of related to having an eating disorder as well.

“In regard to my eating, I set myself some goals at the start of lockdown. I set myself like a three-week goal, a structure.

“I made sure I ate at the right times. I tried to not work near the fridge. But, as the weeks have kind of gone on, it’s probably got worse.”

Petty’s problems with anorexia and bulimia started when she was in her late teens, after her grandfather died.

“I didn’t really mourn,” she says. “I just got on with my life. I went to the gym every single day. At lunch and after school. I think that was my way of coping.

“Being in the toilet and being sick has got to be the lowest point of being bulimic. Your eyes are watering. You are being sick in a friend’s toilet, in a restaurant or in your own loo. That is fundamentally horrendous.

“Every time I do it, every single time I say: ‘Suzy, you are not going to do this again. Think how awful this feels.’

“I’ve come out of that loo so many times crying my eyes out, hating myself. It’s dreadful, but, sadly, that’s an eating disorder and it’s a habit.”

Petty has played for England for a decade, winning a combined 49 caps for them and Great Britain. She won bronze at the Commonwealth Games in 2018 and has also featured in a home World Cup.

She says fitness tests, wearing a tight-fitting kit and playing on television were particular challenges, as was social media.

“I think the pressures of elite sport, the pressures on society as a whole, the pressure of looking good, the pressure of building up your identity on social media… can result in you trying to get control in something else and that potentially is with disordered eating,” she says.

Petty is no longer part of the GB squad, having been dropped from the centralised programme in November 2019.

“I still don’t really believe it,” she says. “I can’t believe it was over six months ago now either. My dream completely taken away. It’s been really, really tough.”

On Thursday, England Hockey acknowledged “shortcomings”, apologised to Petty for the “impact this had upon her” and said it would undertake a review in partnership with the British Athletes’ Commission (BAC).

The English Institute of Sport said it understood this was a “challenging time” for athletes and it put “huge focus on supporting them in all areas of their physical and mental health”, including managing eating disorders.

Petty, who is now working as a clinic co-ordinator, is focusing on using her experience to help others who might be struggling.

She is doing that by working with the BAC across a range of sports, in public through her social media channels and – she hopes – by doing this interview.

“A thing that gives me real pleasure is trying to tell people my story,” she says. “To try and help people. I don’t know how that helps me, but it really does. It’s kind of a purpose, I guess.

“This is a time where we all can reflect on stuff so much more.

“I’m starting to love my own company and I love being by myself. And that is such a positive for me, because I’m starting to love being me.

“We’re in this whole world that is just such an unknown. And that’s the worst thing for people with an eating disorder. We love control of the moment. We have no control.

“This isn’t the time to start new trials. Stop trying to get better. It’s just a time to get through, not make anything worse. Then, once lockdown has been lifted, that’s the time to really go ‘I’ve got this’ and move on and hopefully start to get better.”

If you or someone you know has been affected by issues raised in this story, help and support is available at bbc.co.uk/actionline

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