A note from a stranger saved my life

Article "A note from a stranger saved my life" appeared in the April 2016 edition of Reveal Magazine.
Thankfully, a chance meeting with a stranger helped her turn her life around and now, 18 months on, Anna is well on the way to recovery and stronger than ever…
What with all the boozing and takeaway pizza, most people put on weight in their first few months at university, but I was the opposite. The stress of moving away from my home in Norwich and having to cook my own meals meant I ate less – a lot less.

It wasn't intentional at first but three months after the start of term, I'd lost half a stone and the flattering comments from my new friends inspired me to join a gym to tone up and try and lose a little bit more.

Then, early the following year I was diagnosed as coeliac – a common digestive condition which meant that my body has an adverse reaction to gluten – and was forced to dramatically change my diet, cutting out pasta and bread to ease my stomach cramps.

But as I didn't replace what had previously been the staples of my student diet with other carbohydrate-rich foods, my weight fell rapidly. Basically, I lived on fruit and vegetables and corn cakes – none of which contain very many calories at all.

By June I weighed eight stone. In fact, I'd lost so much weight that the size 10 dressed I was due to wear for my dad's wedding had to be exchanged for a smaller size.

At the wedding, people didn't stop complimenting me on how healthy I looked, even though I was eating far less than my body needed. So when I went back to university I vowed to lose even more weight, even though deep down I didn't need to.

My life became ruled by slimming. Every day revolved around what I was – or wasn't – eating. I started counting calories and slipped from 1200 a day, which was already far less than the recommended daily amount of 2,000 for a woman, to just 600 – 500 on a 'good' day.

I would eat a small bowl of watery porridge for breakfast, followed by a thin soup for lunch and then vegetables for dinner. I also upped my gym visits to an hour and a half, four times a week. I soon lost another stone.

But instead of being concerned for me, my friends told me how good I looked and how they'd love to have a figure like mine. It was only Mum who could see that something was very wrong.

Before I was due to go back to university after the summer break she took me to one side.

'Do you think that there might be a problem here?' she gently asked.

But somehow I managed to convince her that I was fine. And with Mum relaxing her eye on me, my eating got worse. After a few weeks the scales stopped at a worrying 7st 13lb, far too light for my 5ft 7in frame. And in mid-July Mum was visibly shocked when she caught me coming out of the shower.

'You can't deny there's not an issue now,' she said. 'You're just skin and bones.'

'Ok,' I admitted. 'I do have a problem. But I can work on it, get things back on track. I'll eat more sensibly, I promise.'

But I couldn't. Instead, I started exercising even more – sometimes for hours at a time – and lowered my daily food intake to a tiny bowl of porridge and a cup-a-soup; just 200 calories.

Concerned, Mum started weighing me every week. And as the needle feel further and further, begged me to get some help.

That September, I returned to university and moved into a shared house with my friends, promising Mum that I would sort out some private therapy sessions.

Mum came to visit me every few weeks, along with my sister Helen, now 24. I knew they were worried but I hated the feeling that they were checking up on me. And then there was the added stress of them watching me eat. Mum always took me out to dinner and I'd try to look up the menus online beforehand to ensure that I chose the lowest calorie options.

'You seem preoccupied Mum said one time.

'I'm fine,' I smiled. How could I tell her that I couldn't concentrate on a word she was saying because all I could think about was how many calories I was eating.

That October, I came home for reading week even more gaunt.
'I think you need to come home for a bit,' Mum said.

I was devastated about leaving my friends at university but deep down I knew she was right. I couldn't get better on my own. I needed help.

Unable to sit at home and rest, I took on a job at an underwear shop in a local mall. I spent my days pacing the store wondering how many calories I was burning off, completely in the grip of anorexia.

Mum vowed she would help me get better. In January 2014 she arranged for me to start weekly therapy with an eating disorder expert under NHS care. But still my weight continued to fall.

I became so ill I had to leave my job. Scans showed that my bones were thinning but I still refused to eat. I just couldn't face food.

By summer 2014 I weighed just five and a half stone and medics warned that I was at risk of a heart attack. Mum was frantic with worry but I convinced myself that I felt fine, just a bit tired.

The treatment wasn't working. Mum tried to remain calm, knowing that there was no point getting angry or trying to force me to eat. Still, we spent a lot of our time crying.

'I just wish I knew how to help you,' she'd say.

But I didn't know how to help myself.

Then, that June, I was painfully shuffling around the supermarket with Mum, my bony frame swamped by my size six clothes, when a stranger, a girl about my age, pressed a note into my hand.

'I'd really like you to read this,' she said before walking away.

The handwritten note was just a few sentences long but contained advice from another sufferer telling me that I too could be happy and healthy.

It was hard to believe. At just over five stone and with doctors threatening hospitalisation, I'd already been under NHS treatment for a year with no success. But back home I showed Mum the note and looked up the website it mentioned.

It was a blog written by the girl who had handed me the note – Ella Crouch - who had herself already recovered from anorexia using weightlifting and exercise.

As I read it, something clicked. Ella's story really hit a nerve. The idea of making myself stronger and fitter, rather than just shoveling calorific food into my body to get better, really appealed to me.

'What do you think?' I asked Mum, showing her Ella's blog.

'I think it has to be worth a try,' she said.

So I began following the advice on her blog in earnest. I started by emailing her personal trainer, Leon Bustin, who runs sessions at Carrefour Health and Beauty, Norwich. He responded straight away and arranged a consultation the following week. When he said he thought he could help me, I was so relieved. For the first time in months I began to think that I really could beat this.

I started with training straight away. He explained that I would start by doing ten minutes of bodyweight exercises to get my joints working, before very slowly adding light weights. So far, so good.

But when we moved on to the nutrition plan I could feel myself tense. It started at 1200 calories. It made me nervous but I knew I had to try. Leon helped me to split it up into chunks of 200-300 calories spaced throughout the day which didn't feel so daunting.

Now, I ate porridge made with milk and topped with fresh fruit and nuts for breakfast followed by a lunch salad of avocado and beans and a heart vegetable ratatouille for dinner with snacks of yogurt and fruit. It was daunting but I made myself persevere. Some days I felt stuffed, others I began to feel I could manage more. I also trained for half an hour once a week.

After a month, I'd out on a kilogram. It wasn't a lot but it was a start. It made me feel that I could do this.

As time went on, I upped my calories by 200 calories a week and when I reached 45kg – around seven stone – I was able to do an hour's exercise.

'I'm so proud of you,' Mum beamed.

By September 2015 I'd reached a much healthier eight stone and had returned to university. But there was still one thing that bothered me – I really wanted to thank Ella for saving my life.

So last December, I initiated a meeting through her website. Meeting Ella
face to face was wonderful. It's no exaggeration to say what she did in the supermarket that day saved my life and I will be forever grateful for that.

It would be amazing if reading my story might help another person turn their life around too.

Says Ella: 'I had seen Anna in the supermarket and wanted to say something but it was only when I saw her again at the checkout that my mum told me I had to say or do something to help. I was recovering at the time and could see she had a problem, it made me so sad so I just grabbed a pen and paper and wrote down my blog address and how she could be happy and healthy.'


Anna is now raising money for charity to trek to world-famous Incan citadel Machu Picchu in Peru this August. The charity provides equipment to a hospital in northern Sri Lanka. To donate visit www.justgiving.com/annawyatt <http://www.justgiving.com/annawyatt> .