Dundee author who battled anorexia and psychosis to share story to offer lifeline to people with mental health issues during Covid-19

It was a trip to post a letter to her Irish pen pal when Tina McGuff first realised how severe her condition had become.

The teenager was getting ready to send the mail to the girl, who she first became connected with in the pages of music magazine Smash Hits, and suddenly became panic-stricken when licking the stamp.

Tina, 50, who suffered from anorexia, became anxious that the glue on the stamp might have calories in it.

She said: “It sounds so stupid, but I just started to freak out. What if there were calories in the air that I couldn’t see but could pick up by breathing or touching?

“That was when I realised how bad it was, and how unwell I had become.”

Misconceptions still surround eating disorders, but back in the 1980s, they were even less understood.

Tina, from Dundee, spent years battling the disorder and the residual impact it had on her mentally and socially.

Eventually she recovered enough that she wrote about her ordeal in the successful book, “Seconds To Snap”, which is currently being developed into a film.

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, which begins today, Tina will be reading the book in a live webcast, and will also take questions, in partnership with charity See Me.

It’s a long way from her teens and 20s, with her problems traced back to her parents’ divorce, which she describes as “terrible”.

She developed anorexia, though she did not know the name for it yet, and began starving herself and became obsessed with keeping her weight down.

“In those days there weren’t labels on food so you didn’t know what calories were in food. I was so obsessed that I would go to the library and research it. And then weighed what I was eating,” Tina said.

“It was the library where I found out what was wrong with me. I read a book about an eating disorder and everything in it was the same as what I was experiencing. But I still felt I was in control.”

Tina retreated more and more inwardly, staying in her bedroom, and wearing more clothes to try and disguise how thin she had become.

She also took to acting out her “behaviours” at night, working out to extreme lengths to keep her weight down.

However her mum had picked up on her behaviour and became increasingly worried and eventually alerted a GP.

Because Tina was 16, she had to agree for the doctor to come and see her, and was given the diagnosis that she already was aware of.

She said: “I was absolutely furious, so angry that my mum had realised, because I felt I was in control.”

Tina spent the next four years in a psychiatric ward, where she slowly got better, but spent a lot of time confined to bed.

“They have to get you better physically before they get you better psychologically. I was heavily sedated for a long time.

“It was a strange experience being so young, because I was on an adult ward, those people became my friends and family over the next four years.

“I learned so much about other people and the kinds of mental health problems people had.”

Recovery and relapse

After four years, Tina was admitted to a rehab unit. which was designed to help her re-adjust to normal life outside of an institution.

She said: “Because I had been so unwell, and my brain was so malnourished, I wasn’t cognisant. I couldn’t hold a proper conversation.

“My self-esteem was so low that I found it really hard to be around people, things like buying food in the shop, because I thought everyone could see there was something wrong with me, or thought I was fat or ugly – the big battle for me was re-integrating into normal life.”

But eventually, she did, and her life more closely resembled that of her peers – she had joined the TA, was training to be a pilot and had also got together with a boyfriend, Jock, who later became her husband.

Just as she felt at her healthiest, with her psychological problems in the past, she began to suffer from something entirely different.

She was unable to look at bright lights, and she regularly felt anxious, which manifested itself in a butterflies-like sensation in her stomach.

“This was a very different experience than what I had had, because when I had my eating disorder I felt like I was in control,” she added.

The episodes worsened to the point that Tina found herself in a flat feeling like she had a bungee rope tied around her waist which was pulling her towards the window.

She said: “I didn’t want to jump, I was fighting it, but I was struggling to stop myself from doing it.

“I quickly drove myself to Liff hospital and ran in and told them that something was seriously wrong.”

Tina subsequently learned that she had suffered from psychosis, which was linked to the same trauma that had triggered her eating disorder.

Her experience on this occasion was far different, however, she spent a few months on the ward and began to improve.

“It took me about a year to recover, but one of the main reasons I did was because my boyfriend, at the time, stuck by me.

“We had only just started going out when the episode happened, and I thought he would run for the hills. But he supported me with unconditional love.

“And having that trust there makes a huge impact on you, it is so important for people in my situation to have that.”

Seconds To Snap

Tina was inspired to write her book after she shared her story with her children once they had grown up.

Seconds To Snap was released in 2015 and is currently being developed into a feature film.

Writing the memoir was a process which she only felt comfortable with when she considered herself recovered and at peace with her troubled life.

She said: “It sounds silly but the big moment for me was when I saw an advert for Haagen-Dazs  strawberry shortcake ice cream.

“Up until that point I was still obsessed with perfection – being thin, being the best mother – and I just had decided that I had had enough.

“I ate the full tub and it was this huge moment for me, my size went up but I just didn’t care.”

Tina was approached by See Me, where she serves as a media ambassador, and asked to take part in their campaign which has kindness as its theme.

She added: “They wanted to do something to help people during the Covid-19 crisis, and thought this would be a good thing for me to share.

“I think there’s going to be massive problem with mental health issues after this is over, because people are unable to access services properly just now.

“I know lots of people who are struggling just now – men, boys, girls, women – everyone.

“I think little things like getting out and about and exercising – for example I really need to go for a walk every day, it helps me so much, but until recently that’s been restricted.”

To watch the virtual book reading at 7.30pm go to www.facebook.com/seemescotland

Link: https://www.eveningtelegraph.co.uk/fp/dundee-author-who-battled-anorexia-and-psychosis-to-share-story-to-offer-lifeline-to-people-with-mental-health-issues-during-covid-19/

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