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Gemma's Story

13th March 2014

Marg & Dennis Oaten

You've been announced as the patron for the charity SEED, how does this make you feel?
Immensely proud, words can't begin to explain. It kind of feels like my journey has come full circle. SEED was only ever set up by my Mum and Dad because of our personal horrendous experience at the hands of an eating disorder, so it feels like this is the natural course and the biggest payback I can give to my wonderful parents for, in effect, saving my life. The charity was set up after we experienced some really testing and horrific times as a family whilst I was in the grips of anorexia, almost losing my life on 3 occasions. A time when my parents were horrified by the lack of support and understanding out there and by the health 'professionals'. In the first instance their aim was to support the carers, the families, the friends of those who were watching/caring for a loved one in the grips of an eating disorder, but over the years the charity grew and eventually a self-help group for sufferers was set up as well as for carers. It sounds funny but back then, my parents couldn't even turn on a computer back when I was ill (a period of 11 years, 10-21 years old) so to say they went from that to now having the website, the registered charity, the workshops, the helpline, the support groups and now even a resource room in Hulls first ever specialist Eating Disorder centre, which I was honoured to open, is just unbelievable. When Mum received her MBE from the Queen for services to Eating Disorders, it was one of the proudest day of all our lives. But that's my parents, that's the love and care I am lucky to have, that's the reason I'm here today.

Why did you want to get involved with SEED?
Plain and simple...to give something back. No one will ever fully understand how unreal my journey has been. At 11 years old I was told if I didn't drink a cup of water I would die of dehydration...at 27 years old I was cast as Rachel Breckle in one of our biggest soaps, Emmerdale. I still have to pinch myself and remember that girl so frail and tormented...was me. That role in Emmerdale not only changed my life but it also gave me a little profile (I say little as I never felt any different...and also am never really recognised as I look a LOT different to my alter ego in her trackie bottoms and scrunchie ponytail...I hope! Haha!) I am lucky to have a good friendship and much support from Sir Patrick Stewart...I remember seeing a film he had done for the charity, Refuge, of which he is Patron, after his experience of seeing his Mother suffer domestic violence at the hands of his Father. Patrick was also knighted the same day Mum received her MBE which was even more amazing. I remember saying to him about whether I should ever speak out about my past now I have people willing to listen and hopefully give a true insight into Eating Disorders and inspire recovery. He said how privileged a position our little bit of 'fame' brings, to be able to use it for good, and the highest of good. That gave me the confidence to start to be more involved in SEED and also be brave enough to really speak out. I know he's immensely proud.

How important do you think it is to speak about your struggle with anorexia?
It's only now I've done it that I've seen just how important it is. Answer - words can't describe how important it is. I remember an article coming out in a national paper, which was meant to be just about my big storyline in Emmerdale leading up to my exit. In the interview the reporter brought up my past and my battle with anorexia and I remember deciding to dare to be brave and give an honest answer and maybe say more than I normally would. I naively thought nothing more of it and figured it would just be part of one of the answers. When the piece was published the headline was all about "My 11 years of anorexia and how I fought back...etc etc" I cried. I panicked. I felt sick. What would people think? Would they think bad of me? Then the response started to come in. The tweets...100's...1000's...saying how brave I was and how I would inspire many. It was overwhelming. You have no idea the weight I felt lifted off my shoulders, the relief, the pride. My colleagues in the industry, people I loved and respected congratulated me and the sufferers and carers of those affected started to get in touch and thank me for making them believe recovery was possible. Things went quiet again and I was knee deep in scripts filming my exit from Emmerdale. It was an insane time. The hours so long, the lines to learn never ending...but I loved every minute and remember thinking how way back then when I was so ill, I would never have been able to cope with this pressure, be healthy, be safe, be clear of mind and be happy...I suddenly felt 'now was the time'. I knew eating disorder awareness week was coming up in February and in January I left Emmerdale onscreen, so finally had the time to really do something. It was the best decision I ever made. I was finally able to dispel the stigma (or begin to) of eating disorders. Finally I found my voice, and from the public reaction, I gave all those suffering out there a voice too. I am by no means anything special, I am an ordinary girl, from a working class background in Hull. But I know who I am, I know my roots and I know that my past has made me who I am today...it was so important I used all of this to get a positive message across. I remember speaking on Daybreak and The Wright Stuff and giving interviews in papers and feeling drained by it all, remembering the heart ache back then, reliving it, but also feeling so brave and proud of myself. And it felt good, it felt like I was helping. I was raising the profile of SEED, raising awareness of Eating Disorders and hopefully finally dispelling the myth of the so called "slimmer?s disease" that term is offensive and quite frankly, rubbish. An eating disorder is a serious mental health illness, one that has the highest mortally rate of any mental health illness out there. It's about control. Food is NOT the cause, it's the symptom. An eating disorder is not about vanity, it's about not having control in your life, it's about feeling isolated, alone and ashamed. I'm speaking out because I am saying there is nothing to be ashamed of anymore, eating disorders creep up on the sufferer and before they know it they are helpless...if I can make one person speak out about their struggles and seek help then this is worth it.

Do you think there is enough support out there for people suffering with eating disorders?
Things are changing. I don't think there's ever been this much discussion and awareness of Eating disorders, and I hope I've played a small part in that...BUT...there's still a long long way to go. Back when I was ill, there was a serious lack of knowledge and of care and compassion. Some reading this who 'cared' for me in the past may find this hard to swallow but it's true. I don't need to name names and point the finger of blame, but when at 10 years old I was turned away by a GP and told there was no problem as I wasn't thin enough, you have to question what on earth is going on?! When at 11 years old I was admitted to a children?s psychiatric unit and subjected to a girl I shared a room with, cutting herself sat on the end of my bed, again you have to question. There's more I experienced over those 11 years, and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy, but I leave it there. Fortunately I finally saw a GP who really did play a part in saving my life and thank the lord, understood what was happening. Dr Barnes, of Diadem Medical Practise, my GP in Hull, set me and my parents on the right path and over saw my medical wellbeing for the next 15 years. I think of that wonderful man every day. I do think things are changing...more people are speaking out and more funding is being given by the NHS to support eating disorder services. I am beyond proud of the work SEED do. My parents have knowledge, compassion, expertise and most importantly time and love to treat every single case of an eating disorder as individual and never losing sight of the actual PERSON, the physical HUMAN BEING and their needs. Many try to treat eating disorders by 'feeding them up and shipping them out'...where is the cure in that?! The Professionals need to start treating the person and discovering what that individual is going through in order to unlock the key to recovery. It's a long road but it is achievable...trust me...I know.

For anybody who is suffering with an eating disorder alone, what would you suggest that they do?
DON'T SUFFER IN SILENCE. I implore you. There is nothing to be ashamed of, there is nothing to feel guilty for. You can't help what is happening to you and how you are feeling...but you CAN get help. I spent years hating myself and feeling so unbelievably disgusted with myself and what I was putting my loved ones through, but the more you do that, the more the Eating disorder will grip hold of you. The ED is not your friend...it will find any ounce of hurt to reel you in more. Be brave, hold your head high and seek help. Even if it's just to a friend or a teacher if family is hard in the first instance, but by admitting you have a problem, you are on the first steps to recovery. My parents charity are there too with a helpline and email buddies and so many other forms of help. Their website is http://www.seedeatingdisorders.org.uk/ and helpline number is 01482 718130. There is a contact via email form on the website too...sometimes talking to a stranger first is the easiest step to make. But my advice ultimately is to believe in yourself and believe in your worth. Never give up. I didn't. Instead I grew flowers where dirt used to be. I beat the bullies, I beat the torment, I beat it, I beat the Eating Disorder. Recovery is a long road, but my goodness, it's worth it. I'm sat here writing this now, with boxes around me as I start to pack for my new life in London, excited for my career ahead and with my wonderful boyfriend giving me a kiss...my life my own again. Recovery is there...and there are people to help to with every step you take.

Gemma Oaten