Carolina Mountford — Speaks about Eating Disorders.
“Carolina Mountford lived with eating disorders and other common co-morbidities such as depression for 15 years beginning in her early teens. She has now been free from eating disorders for 17 years and is passionate about communicating a message of hope to everyone suffering that total freedom is possible. Carolina travels the UK delivering talks and workshops on various aspects of mental health and mental illness whilst raising awareness of and helping to end the stigma so often associated with these. Carolina read psychology at Exeter University, has done several counselling courses and has helped lead various eating disorder recovery courses. She is also a signee of the Mental Health Media Charter.
Who are you? What do you do? Why do you do what you do?
I’m Carolina Mountford, wife of one, mum of two, a Mental Health speaker and writer living in London. I love giving talks and workshops on eating disorders, body image and mental health because I am passionate about spreading the message that those with eating disorders can come to know complete freedom, not just recovery. I hear many people talk about ‘having to live with’ or ‘manage’ their eating disorder for the rest of their lives and I want to offer the hope that there is so much more to life than just managing. Total freedom is there to be enjoyed by everyone.
Tell us about your experiences with eating disorders and how this has impacted you?
I grew up moving countries and schools every few years and by the age of 13, I’d lived in 5 different countries and been to 8 different schools. My father had a penchant for whiskey and my mother valued appearances. In all areas of life there was a constant pressure to perform and excel. I was compared to those around me and always fell short. They were all academically superior and my friends were prettier and thinner than I was. I was teased at school and called names so when my mother put me on a diet at the age of 9, I assumed they must all be right and my suspicions that I was fat, ugly and unacceptable were confirmed. I felt uncomfortable, unworthy and out of place. I wasn’t enough. I felt lost and confused. More importantly I didn’t know who I was.
I knew that in between my two older brothers there had been a girl, but she sadly died on the day she was born as there was no incubator available (this was 1960s Panama City). Significantly, I was the next female to be born in the family. And survive. I had a very complicated relationship with my mother and in the deep recesses of my soul I felt like I was a replacement.
I never liked to ask too many questions about this baby frightened of bringing up all that pain again for my mother. In my teens, however, in a rare moment of conversation, I asked the question I’d been wanting to ask for years. What was she called?
Nothing could have prepared me for the answer “Carolina”.
That revelation, rocked me to my core and kicked off what was to be 15 years of eating disorders.
Around that time a school friend, Annie Sutherland, invited me to Sunday lunch which unbeknownst to me then turned into a confirmation class which subsequently turned into going to church for an evening service. I was brought up Roman Catholic so had a belief in God, of sorts, but no clue about Jesus the person. The One who came for me, loved me and died for me. Within minutes of walking through the doors of St Michael’s Chester Square, something in me had changed. I saw love. I saw relationships and friendships. Not silent pews and stern looking priests.
My spiritual life and ‘real’ life still continued on very separate paths and it was a long time before the two would come together.
In my early twenties I was raped but I didn’t tell anyone. Who would believe me? Years later I mentioned it briefly to one of my brothers but we never spoke about it again. I ran away to Luxembourg falsely thinking I could leave all my problems behind but less than a year later I got very sick and I found myself in the psychiatrist’s office. I knew it was futile when he suggested that I“should look at these” as my homework, handing me some porn magazines!
Sometime later my parents, who lived in Ecuador, were told of how ill I was. I came back to London, tried to get treatment but got turned away by services for not being ill enough. I ended up going to
live in Ecuador with my parents and after three months of daily tears, two things happened; one of them a miracle. I ate normally for 2 weeks. Without even realising. That simply doesn’t happen, certainly not without a good fight. And secondly, in the many hours that I sat on my bed reading my bible, the Lord spoke to my heart about His extravagant, never ending, unconditional love for me. He filled me up day after day after day. And there, in the least expected of places, at home with my parents, he began a new work in me. In my heart.
Later that year I returned to London and my eating was manageable. The years passed with good seasons and less good seasons. I had a variety of jobs, lived nomadically moving from one place to another and I trudged along life’s path. I was still intensely self conscious, still hated my body, still insecure. Still restricting my food intake. I was living a mediocre life trying to avoid all the hurt inside.
Finally, I recognised that I needed to sort out all the emotional pain that I was burying and I found a counsellor. Together we looked at my past, invited the Lord in to heal the broken parts and I began the work of forgiveness. Many months later, I knew I couldn’t keep the rape tucked away longer so we started to work on that. It was traumatic reliving it and at the same time I suddenly lost my job and was quickly in debt. Everything was piling up and I wasn’t coping. I fell into the biggest relapse, became catatonic at times and was once again having extremely dark thoughts. Weeks turned into months and those who knew me well, were getting increasingly concerned at my rapidly shrinking and weakening body. Yet so many others congratulated me. It felt euphoric. That’s what eating disorders do. They distort your thinking. They deceive. They entangle. It took me a while to believe what my friends were telling me.
Fearful of being turned away from services again I was intent on getting better myself. With the Lord, my counsellor and incredible friends who remained faithful and steadfast despite how horrid I was being, I pulled through and came out the other side. It was hard. It was brutal. It was confusing and lonely at times. There were stumbles. The enemy played dirty, as he loves to do.
It takes discipline and determination to challenge the negative thoughts. To try new foods. To resist old behaviours. To counter the lies with truth. To begin to believe. To begin to hope.
18 years on and I could never have imagined this degree of freedom. The freedom to eat what I want and when I want. The freedom of not calorie counting everything that passed my lips. The freedom of not feeling guilty for what I ate. The freedom of wearing a bikini on the beach. The freedom of doing a supermarket shop in 45 minutes not two hours because I am comparing the backs of packets. The freedom of looking in the mirror and not feeling pure hatred towards what I see reflected there. The freedom of engaging fully with other people rather than being physically present but mentally absent. The freedom of not lying when someone asks me how I am. The freedom of not cancelling social arrangements because I just can’t face it.
The ultimate freedom that Christ came to give us. Life in abundance.
What part does “honesty, vulnerability and openness” have to play with eating disorders?
Those three characteristics are crucial in recovery. Without them, recovery and freedom will be limited. Eating disorders thrive in secrecy, darkness and isolation. They are deceptive by nature luring you in with lies that all be will be well when you reach x weight or lose x pounds. It is hard and scary being honest, vulnerable and open especially as they all mean risking getting hurt again, but it is essential that we are all those things to get fully better. We have to be honest with ourselves during recovery and question our motivation for certain things eg. exercise. Are we really exercising
because we enjoy it and we want to do it or, are we on some level punishing ourselves for what we ate?
Being open doesn’t mean throwing caution to the wind and telling everyone everything. We need to be judicious in the company that we keep but with those whom we feel safe and loved, we must be truthful. We are all fallen and broken so we will all get things wrong sometimes. That means we are quite likely to be hurt by others again. But if we have the right tools, then when it happens we are not crushed. We can deal with it appropriately and carry on.
How do you think the Church can respond to issues such as this?
Much has changed, for the better, within the church over the last 30 years in the area of mental & emotional wellbeing. Historically, many felt that they should just claim the promise that “we are new creations” and be done with it. It risked encouraging people to bury their pain and with it increased feelings of shame, guilt and condemnation as they were left wondering why they still felt what they did.
There is now a much greater awareness of mental illness the importance of acknowledging and dealing with emotional pain and trauma. Whilst many churches run a variety of courses it is often perceived as something that is tacked on the side of the church’s programme. I believe it needs to be given a much bigger platform. Given that 1 in 4 of us experience mental health issues each year, we cannot afford for this to be anything other than a serious part of the church’s pastoral provision. As we know, the NHS is stretched to breaking point (and beyond sometimes!) and mental health beds have faced the greatest percentage reductions than any other area. Mental health waiting lists continue to grow at a faster rate than people are being seen so the future doesn’t look too bright there.
The church has responded brilliantly to the current pandemic by helping the poor and vulnerable through various channels such as the Love Your Neighbour campaign adopted by churches across the country, and it would be amazing to see it respond similarly to those struggling with mental illness. To church leaders I would urge, find people in your congregations who have first hand experience and can help (there will be many who are longing to serve in their church community!). Set up support groups & safe spaces where people can come and talk and feel heard. There are many areas of mental health and many ways that churches can help their congregations without going out of their depths. Personal testimonies, spoken from the front, go a long way towards destigmatising mental illness, encouraging those who are suffering, offering hope and building faith.