In the early hours of Friday 9 April, former Big Brother star Nikki Grahame died, aged 38, after a long and all-consuming battle with anorexia. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Grahame shot to fame during the 2006 series of Big Brother, and her much-shared “Who is SHE?” line was shown on E4’s Big Brother’s Best Shows Ever. After Big Brother, she was given her own show, Princess Nikki, where she attempted a string of unlikely jobs. In 2010, Grahame took part in Ultimate Big Brother, an all-star edition of the show. She came second.
Grahame developed anorexia at a young age and struggled with the disease throughout her adult life. She wrote two books on the subject, Dying to Be Thin in 2009, and Fragile, published in 2012. Grahame’s mother said that her daughter started refusing food aged seven, and that lockdown had “floored” Nikki, worsening her condition. Grahame checked into a private hospital last month, after her family set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for intensive treatment. Over £65,500 was raised by friends and well-wishers.
Anorexia is a pernicious illness. It consumes the sufferer, eating away at their physical health, their brain functioning, their personality, their very self. In the depths of the disease, there is so much darkness. Even when people with anorexia know they are dying and know that they need to get better, they can be too unwell to turn the tide.
During my more than a decade-long battle with anorexia, I became a person I did not recognise. I lied about food, I hid food, I hoarded food, I obsessively cooked food for other people to eat. My focus dwindled to a narrow point. I had no interest in the world around me and I was utterly blind to the pain that my illness caused friends and family. Everything was about restriction and being the lowest possible weight I could be. My hair fell out, my skin turned grey and my nails were blue and cracking. I developed osteopenia in my spine, the stage before incurable osteoporosis.
Despite presenting with eating disordered behaviours since I was 13, it took me seven years to be taken seriously by healthcare professionals and offered a place at an outpatient clinic. By that point, the illness had become so ingrained that recovery felt like a loss of identity and I fought against regaining the weight I needed to, in order to live a full, healthy life.
Early intervention is key to ensuring that people with anorexia have the best chance of making a full recovery. The earlier the disease is caught and treatment is offered, the more likely it is that someone with anorexia will survive. Unfortunately, in the UK, eating disorders services are vastly overstretched, leading to a failure to give treatment to sufferers until their Body Mass Index (BMI) is dangerously low. This week, MPs have called for BMI to be scrapped as a measure for determining whether someone is in need of eating disorder support.
The number of people experiencing eating disorders including anorexia and bulimia has skyrocketed during the pandemic, with psychiatrists warning of a “tsunami” of patients needing help. With such long waiting lists and a postcode lottery of which services are available to eating disorder sufferers, it’s no surprise that private clinics like The Priory Group have seen steep rises in the number of people enquiring about treatment for anorexia and other eating-related illnesses.
We need greater awareness around the subject of eating disorders and better understanding of the fact that they can impact anyone, regardless of gender, age, socioeconomic background or ethnicity. But raising awareness isn’t enough. The vital services must be in place to allow people to recover.
This government has a responsibility to adequately fund our NHS so that people with eating disorders are given the best chance of recovery and survival. I am calling on them to take the fact that national lockdowns have increased the numbers of people suffering from eating disorders extremely seriously. It’s not good enough that we have people struggling silently, unseen by health professionals, feeling like they have no choice but to become more and more unwell because only then will they “deserve” help. No one should ever have to crowdfund for their medical treatment, as Nikki Grahame did.
Recovery is possible. Having anorexia is like living in a small room with the curtains drawn. When we begin to get better, those curtains are pulled back and we are able to walk out of the door into a brighter and more beautiful world. It’s not an easy road and I still struggle with my own internalised “eating disordered voice” but my life is so much richer now and filled with possibilities.
In quiet moments, I examine my history of anorexia and bulimia, and I feel intensely sad to think of the wasted years, the shattered relationships, the missed experiences and the way I checked out of my own life. I’m heartbroken for Nikki and her family, and for all the other sufferers who have lost their lives to anorexia or been left to deteriorate without support, in the grip of a terrible illness.
For information and support around eating disorders, visit beateatingdisorders.org.uk or call 0808 801 0677