When pretty medical student Harriet Davis was just 15, she would have to stop as she walked up hills because she would get heart palpitations.
She would feel weak and “really faint”, and life in general, held little appeal for her.
“I felt disinterested in everything,” says the quietly-spoken former Victoria College pupil. The cause of Harriet’s apathy and general ill health was a serious one - she was suffering from anorexia nervosa, and at her lowest point, had to receive treatment in a specialist hospital in London, away from her parents and older brother Johnny, 24.
However Harriet refused to let this dangerous, all too common illness destroy her life; slowly, she took steps to fight back, and today she is enjoying life like any other ‘normal’ student at Lancaster University. But she is keen to encourage other young people who may be affected by anorexia to seek the help they need as soon as possible.
And as part of Easting Disorder Awareness Week (February 24 - March 2) she is planning to raise funds for eating disorder charity BEAT by doing a sky dive, whilst her sibling is running the London Marathon. In doing so the pair, who are from Ravernet outside Lisburn, will also be highlighting awareness of anorexia, which will result in the premature death of 20 per cent of those who suffer from it. “I was 15 when the illness was diagnosed,” Harriet tells me.
“It’s hard to know how long things were sort of brewing before that. I remember thinking on my 15th birthday that I would have my party and then start dieting and getting fit for the summer. It didn’t start off too extreme but soon I would get frustrated if I couldn’t go cycling and do my exercise. We were going on holiday to Hawaii and I felt I wanted to be skinnier for that.” Harriet reveals that she began picking at food and “running in secret” whilst on the holiday with her family, and a second trip to Romania saw her continue to indulge her habits - she says she claimed that she didn’t like the foreign food in a bid to get out of meals.
But when she returned home, her parents noticed that something was wrong, and that it was more than “just a diet.”
“I’d always felt overweight - although I can’t remember if I was actually overweight,” she says, when asked why she felt the initial need to change her body shape.
“I would say I was bigger than average because I was always tall and a few ages up from my actual age in clothes, and that always stuck with me.
Harriet’s behaviour increasingly began to demonstrate her concerns about how she looked. “I didn’t want to eat at the table and I didn’t want to have dinner with my family. I was irritable. When I went back to school mum would give me lunch and I wouldn’t eat it.
“I kept losing weight and eventually got referred to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health team.” Harriet says she was “very underweight” by this time, but does not want to give an actual figure; responsibly, she reveals that the nature of eating disorders can lead to a “competitive” psyche, and she would not want to encourage that.
But in light of her confession that she was basically living on “safe food” like fruit, and wasn’t managing whole meals, one can imagine for themselves just how thin she must have been.
She turned 16 whilst in the Lagan Valley Hospital, where she eventually had to be fed through a tube for six weeks. She began eating again and was allowed to return home, but after a few months, “the same cycle happened”, and she began to lose weight again.
Finally, the decision was taken to send her to an eating disorders unit at St George’s Hospital in London, where she could receive the specialist care she needed. “When you’re ill you just kind of float along, and you don’t really take things like that in,” she replies, when I ask her how it felt to be admitted to the unit.
How did she feel about her body as the illness took its grip on her? “I saw that I wasn’t as big as I’d been, but I didn’t see me how other people saw me,” she says.
“I could still see bits where I could lose weight.” The teenager didn’t enjoy being in hospital in London, and it was this, combined with her upset at being rejected from some universities when she applied for a place in their Medical School, that led to her renewed resolve to get better.
“I’d been on holiday with friends, and when I came home and looked at the pictures it felt like it was the first time I saw what I really looked like,” she adds. “My friends looked healthy, they weren’t sticks and they still looked alright, and I just looked unwell and ill and pale.
“I got accepted to do a foundation course in Medicine and it was kind of like a fresh start away from home, where nobody knew about my illness. It was like getting rid of that label I guess and it gave me a chance to start fresh. I felt like I wanted to fit in.
“I wanted to give myself the best shot - because you don’t think properly when you’re underweight. I guess living with normal teenagers and seeing them eat takeaways and stuff, and just realising that doing that every now and again wasn’t going to make you huge. And that was really when things started to change.”
Today, Harriet is continuing with her recovery and takes a remarkable, commendable approach to those times when she feels she has an off day. “I see it more as a rollercoaster, you’re going to have uphills and downs, so take each day as it comes.”
**To sponsor Harriet and Johnny, visit www.justgiving.com/jonnyandharriet. You can also donate by texting an amount and a code - simply text HDJD89 with the amount (e.g. £5) to 70070.