‘I missed all the social experiences of a young person growing up’: Protesters call for urgent reform of eating disorder services

Lauren Gaffney (26) said anorexia nervosa made struggling with the cold a huge problem and deprived her of important life events

Demonstrations calling for urgent reforms of eating disorder services took place in Dublin, Cork and Limerick on Saturday.

The protests were organised by the MindEveryBody campaign, which also unveiled research showing 53 per cent of respondents believe they or their loved ones would be fully recovered if their illness had been appropriately treated in its early stages.

Some 57 per cent reported being unable to access treatment through the public healthcare system within the past 12 months.

The implications of delayed or unavailable public care have forced 73 per cent of individuals to resort to private treatment options for their eating disorders, the group said, while a further 13 per cent said they could not afford to go private.


Speaking after the demonstrations, Lauren Gaffney (26) from Dublin said she has been living with anorexia nervosa, which is an eating disorder that causes a severe and strong fear of gaining weight, “every second of every day” since she was 12 or 13 years of age.

Her problems began during the transition from primary school to an all-girls secondary school. “It was absolutely massive and I felt kind of lost and unsure what do,” she said. “At the same time, I was dealing with some family matters.

“I suppose I didn’t really know how to cope. I was very academic and sporty in school. I always put a huge amount of pressure on myself to do everything perfectly. That is one of the characteristics of someone with an eating disorder.”

She said she was “incredibly sick” and at a very low weight because she was restricting food “as a way to cope with life”, which in turn affected her cognitive abilities.

“The food is only the surface level of the deeper things underneath,” she said. “Your brain capacity shrinks and your ability to concentrate is diminished.

“Struggling with the cold is a huge one. There are so many physical side effects to living in a smaller body. It’s a miserable existence really, but somehow it becomes the norm for you and you don’t know what it’s like not to feel miserable all the time.”

By the time her Junior Cert came around, it was as though she was studying for a doctorate, she said. “I just never stopped, and I really burnt myself out. By the time I was 16, it became very apparent, I suppose, that my weight was quite low and I looked not the healthiest.”

Her school became concerned and raised the matter with her parents. She was also due to go abroad for a competition but was asked to take medical tests after organisers became worried. “It was at that moment that things started,” she said.

“School was affected, and life as I knew it changed. It started to be very isolating. This was something I didn’t know what to do about or talk about.”

She left school for a year to get treatment, and did not finish her studies. While the treatment did not cure her, it restored her weight a little bit, but she remained withdrawn academically and socially.

“I taught myself the Leaving Cert but I didn’t get to sit the exams because I was so sick,” she said. “That has still impacted my life immensely. More than words can ever say.

“Not having my Leaving Cert meant I couldn’t go to university and I missed out on all the social experiences of a young person growing up, from fun, to finishing school, to going to your debs. I had none of that.

“As someone who was extremely academic and focused on getting very high points, I achieved none of that either, which was very deflating and kept me captive in a way. It forced me to try and find an alternative path for myself that didn’t really exist.”

She added that while she is now in the initial stages of becoming a primacy school teacher, she feels “disenfranchised by the services” available.

“I am by no means thriving or doing well,” she said. “It is now I find myself at the lowest weight and most insecure of myself and the world. I exist in very small frame and so my world is compromised both physically and mentally.

“There simply is not enough medical experts to deal with eating disorders and a huge lack of education. It is a lonely, isolating and suffocating illness, for which there is no magic cure, but rather a road to recovery that I am so determined to keep taking many steps on.”

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson is an Irish Times reporter