Hope Virgo 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.
‘Stand Tall Little Girl’ is the beautifully written book detailing her story as she battled the devastation caused by her eating disorder. A beautiful yet heart-wrenching mix of diary entries and differing perspectives from those around her, her story is truly eye-opening, insightful, engaging and bold. A true inspiration for those in the Mental Health community, I see this book as a huge beacon of hope for anyone battling this terrifying illness.
Ahead of Hope speaking at this years Mental Wealth Festival, we decided to catch up with her to talk about her experiences with the Mental Health System, what being admitted is really like and how writing this book has changed her life.
Q: For those who aren’t familiar with your story, you document your experiences with Anorexia in quite some detail in your book ‘Stand Tall Little Girl’ published by The Inspirational Series at Pulling the Trigger Press, released earlier this year – Looking back, can you pin point the first time you dealt with disordered eating and was there a particular trigger for you?
A: My eating disorder began when I was 13, but at the time I didn’t realise there was anything wrong. I had always had quite bad body image which probably contributed to it as well as experiencing sexual abuse from a family friend and having a complicated family life at home. I hated feeling any sort of emotion and so I taught myself to switch off. The way I did this was through obsessing over calories, weight and exercise. It gave me value and made me feel better. And I was really good at having anorexia. All up until I ended up in hospital at the age of 17 where I spent a year of my life.
Q: Your book is a refreshing mix of story-telling, diary entries and other peoples perspectives, particularly your mum’s. I love how you included this, offering an insight to your world but also those on the outside. Did including your mum in the writing process help both of you in new found ways?
A: Yes it did. I gave us the opportunity to talk about how things had been for her. It made me realise how hard it had been on my family and especially my siblings. I had been so wrapped up in my anorexia that I hadn’t seen what was going on round me. And even when I did, the family arguments, the tears in my parents eyes when I wouldn’t eat, I hadn’t cared back then.
Q: In your book you speak about your first experiences with CAMHS. I could really relate to the waiting room aspect, where you mentioned sitting there trying to figure everyone’s stories out, why they were there – who they might have murdered – such an accurate depiction of an overactive, over sensitive bombardment of thoughts in times of real need, I’ve been there many times myself. Overall, what are your thoughts on the CAMHS services you received?
A: It was good. The out patient unit was fantastic although it took a while for my referral to come through. My GP tried to diagnose me with thyroid problems. And my parents and school faced a bit of a battle trying to make him aware of the wider problem. I didn’t really care at the time but when I see other people battling with services it makes me so angry. The outpatient team didn’t work for me. They were ace but I guess I was too much in the control of anorexia at that time. I was referred to inpatients where I spent a year. And again the care was excellent. It was very intense and at times I hated a lot of the staff for making me eat but it helped me so much. They took the time out to speak to me and I had person centred care which involved teaching me cooking and teaching me how to run in a healthy way.
Q: Are there areas in CAMHS or Mental health services in general that you would like to see improved and if so, what examples could you give of an experience you’ve had and how you would change it?
A: I hate how much mental health services and CAMHs have set criteria for diagnosing people. Last year I nearly committed suicide and I cried out for help. I referred myself and had a battle for support but got told I was not thin enough. This was an absolute disgrace. Money needs to be ring fenced to mental health services and there needs to be an added focus on prevention and intervention. Mental health is so secretive and it takes a lot of strength to call out for help and it is vital that services can provide for people who need this support even if they don’t fit the strict NHS criteria.
Q: You are very honest about the fact that you were admitted to a Mental Health Hospital where you lived for a year whilst combatting your Anorexia. What were your first thoughts when you realised this was going to happen?
A: I was furious. I didn’t think there was anything wrong. The day sat in hospital in the therapy room listening to the nurses discuss my case with my parents I just thought it was a load of rubbish. On the first day I was terrified it would be full of strange people. I was 17 at the time and I should have been out partying with my friends not stuck in hospital.
It is refreshing being so honest in my book about hospital as it is something I hid for so long, I used to be so ashamed and embarrassed about it. I was scared people would think I was weird but the response you get from people is never a negative one.
Q: Could you tell us a bit about what a typical day ‘inside’ looked like?
A: We would get up at about 7.00 and get weighed. There was always a dilemma about whether to get weighed after or before having a shower. At 8.00 we had breakfast made up of cereal, a glass of milk and two pieces of toast. We had 20 minutes to eat breakfast. After each meal we had an eating disorder group where we would discuss how we found the meal. Then 2 hours of supervision to stop exercise and vomiting. A snack at 11.00 then lunch at 12.10, snack at 4.00. The day patients would leave at 4.30 and then the rest of us would have free time or visitors. 6.00 was dinner and then a snack at 8.00 and bed about 9.30. The day was broken up with therapy sessions, and lessons. A lot of the activities would be dependent on where you were in your recovery so at the beginning you spend so much time on bed rest. But as you get further through the program you can do more. It was that that helped keep me motivated to fight to get well.
Q: What advice would you give to someone struggling with an eating disorder but too afraid to seek the help they need. Is there a good place to start to build up to that point?
A: Talk about how you feel. One of the hardest things with eating disorders is they aren’t just about weight, and to everyone they look completely different. I struggled when I was in hospital as I put on weight but my mind didn’t seem to keep up. It is so important that you realise that if you sort your eating out people won’t think you are okay. But you need to build that network around you and start to open up. It is hard to realise that something is wrong but when your life becomes dominated by food, exercise and other habits which stop you leaving the house and stop you socialising you need to try and seek help. Tell someone you trust. Don’t panic about them judging you, the reality is they will have probably noticed already.
Q: Speaking from personal experience, working in mental health as a result of my own mental health has its pro’s and con’s, and it can be quite triggering talking about Mental Health related issues all of the time. How have you found the experience of releasing your book?
A: It has been exciting but at the same time terrifying. No one really knew my history with food and no one knew the reality of my struggles in 2016. When I first started giving talks I felt at times hypocritical. Should I be giving talks when I still have the odd fat day? But I learnt to share these worries with people and felt reassured. There were other worries about people saying I was doing this for attention but I learnt that those people didn’t understand what it had been Iike. The reality is I have had some negative comments along the way but I have stuck firmly with what I believe. I never wrote my story to hurt anyone or for attention but I wrote it as I know what it is like to be at rock bottom with no belief that there is a way out. I want everyone to know recovery is possible and worth fighting for. I have really enjoyed speaking and meeting so many people throughout this journey and hearing their stories. Yes there is the odd worry that everyone will think I am okay. Or that I won’t be able to help everyone but I am learning to be real about it and speak to those close to me.
Q: What things do you put in place for yourself to combat any relapses? What does your self-care routine look like?
A: The truth is I am terrible at self care. I spend far too much time putting others first, and wanting to help everyone. But I have realised over the last three months how important self care is. I can’t help others if I can’t look after myself. So I try to do one self care activity a week. I prioritise my running and gym as this is important to me. When I run I don’t let anyone contact me and so I have time to switch of from everything going on. I have a list of positives each week which helps me stay on top of things. And I talk about how I feel. Sometimes this a simple message to say I am not feeling great. When I do this I don’t want answers but it always helps.
Q: What does the future hold for Hope Virgo? What’s next?
A: I have begun to do talks for schools, mental health hospitals, CCGs and businesses and am keen to continue doing this. I recently launched a website – hopevirgo.com – so I am exploring options around that so that I can keep raising awareness and letting as many people know as possible that recovery is possible.
Stand Tall Little Girl is the first book in Theinspirationalseries™, partner to Trigger Press’ innovative Pullingthetrigger® range. Theinspirationalseries™ promotes talking freely and without fear about mental Illness. Stand Tall Little Girl by Hope Virgo is available to purchase here. All proceeds from sales of Trigger Press books support mental health charity The Shaw Mind Foundation: www.shawmindfoundation.org
Hope will be appearing at this years Mental Wealth Festival where she will share her harrowing, yet truly inspiring journey. If you are interested in seeing her, you can book tickets here. Date: Wednesday 13th September Time: 17:00-18:00 / Room 106