A WOMAN who developed an eating disorder after suffering childhood sexual abuse has spoken out to encourage others to seek support.
Brave Lou Coel has waived her legal right to anonymity to tell her story and stand up for survivors.
And the 27-year-old is not only involved in two website support groups, but is also visiting schools, universities and GP surgeries to give talks, workshops and advice.
“I thought if I can tell my story I can show people that recovery is possible,” she said.
“The recent Jimmy Savile abuse allegations are getting a lot more people to talk about what has happened to them and to break the silence.
“I think it is shocking that there is a lot of silence still surrounding abuse of children, or adults who were abused in their childhood. People are still afraid to speak out because it is a taboo subject.
“I am trying to stop that and change that.”
Miss Coel cannot remember exactly when her abuse began, but knows it went on from when she was around eight years old to the age of 14.
When she realised what had happened, she turned to alcohol and self-harm to block it out and developed an eating disorder that would stay with her to this day.
At the age of 19 she could take no more and decided to speak out.
“It was five years from the abuse ending until I spoke to anyone about it,” she said.
“At that time the only other option was to die so I thought I would tell someone and see if it made things better.
“There was a lot of fear, thinking that no one was going to believe me and I was making it up.
“I spoke to my best friend and it did help, it felt like a massive weight had been lifted off my shoulders. The more people I told, the better I felt. It explained why I had been acting so strangely for the years previous to that.
“Before then I was living a big lie. When I did finally speak out and things started to unravel I found it easier to live with myself, knowing that he wasn’t going to be able to hurt anyone else. It was really hard in the beginning, but everything did work out for the better and I live a happier life now, with two children.”
It was especially hard for Miss Coel to talk to her family, but they were supportive, and in time she saw her abuser handed a 10-year jail sentence for eight counts of indecent assault and four of committing gross indecency with a child.
“It was satisfying to see that justice was going to be served and that people could see him for what he really was,” said Miss Coel.
“A lot of abusers will do lots of good things to make them appear like a really nice guy so people will think they couldn’t possibly do anything like that, but all it is is a cover-up. It was hard growing up when people would say he was fantastic.
“The more people I told about what had happened the more I realised it wasn’t my fault. The hardest thing to deal with is the shame and the guilt that you feel, you feel responsible somehow, but you are not, it is the people abusing their authority. They don’t have the right to do anything to hurt anybody else.”
She added: “I can totally understand why the people allegedly abused by Jimmy Savile didn’t come forward when he was alive because abusers hold so much power over you.
“My abuser had a serious accident six months before I spoke out. That was what made me have the strength to speak out, because he was really weak. I wasn’t afraid of him any more.
“What people get from speaking out is peace of mind. You can’t get any closure or move on until you let the truth out.”
Miss Coel grew up in County Durham, but has now made a new life in Pegswood with her partner and two girls, aged three and one.
However, rather than try to run away from her ordeal she is facing it head-on and earlier this year set up a Facebook page to help other abuse survivors – she refuses to use the word victims.
That has led to a website to raise awareness of the issue, offer support and understanding, and encourage fellow survivors to make their voices heard.
“The internet is a great form of communication for people who need extra support and I wanted to set up a campaign group for people to know that other people have been through it,” she said.
“It has helped me personally as well. Having the website makes me feel a responsibility to keep myself well and keep on top of things, to be there for other people.
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“I do offer one to one support, but I’m not a trained counsellor. I will always stress that, but a professional counsellor will not have been through the same things so I can help in that way.
“I want people to know that there are people that will help if they decide to speak out. It is always the right thing to do to get help.”
Miss Coel is moving forward, but she will always have to live with one of the consequences of her abuse — an eating disorder.
However, she is also taking steps to help other sufferers.
Miss Coel has suffered from cycles of anorexia, bulimia and a non-specified disorder since the age of 14, but when it was initially diagnosed in 2001 it was dismissed as a ‘phase’. It was only later, when she did her own research as an adult, that she came to understand her condition.
“When I was 14 the realisation of what had happened came to me and the eating disorder was a coping mechanism to block out the memories,” she said.
“At my lowest weight I couldn’t feel anything or remember anything, I was completely numb. It was as I was getting better that I remembered the abuse.
“It seems strange that you could forget something like that, but you just focus everything on food and weight. You can’t feel any other kind of emotions.
“What helped me was being educated about what the eating disorder was. It is a mental illness. It is not something you can just get if you choose to lose weight. It can be triggered by things like stress, abuse or dramatic weight loss.
“There is a lot of guilt that comes with an eating disorder, especially if you have kids, because people think why can’t you just eat, but it is not as simple as that.”
Miss Coel does not disclose details of her weight as such information and pictures of people with eating disorders can encourage others to try to attain that state, or convince themselves that they are not ill until they reach it.
She also stresses that people with eating disorders are not necessarily thin and those with bulimia, or who binge, often go undiagnosed.
Despite gaining a thorough understanding of her illness, it is still a daily battle for Miss Coel to control it and she suffered a relapse after discovering her abuser had been released from prison in November after serving half his sentence.
She is now recovering, but still finds it tough.
“It is hard not to give in to your illness because the eating disorder makes you want to give in and you can’t control it. You have to go against your own thoughts to get better and to get the mentality to fight it,” she said.
“Some people can get better and there are days when you can completely ignore the thoughts. You still have them, but you just tell yourself to shut up.
“You have got to get your family and close friends involved in your recovery. They have to be able to understand what triggers it and help you to stay on the right path. If they see me having a bad day they give me extra support.
“It is not about judging you or trying to force food down you, it is offering someone to talk to and a hand to hold along the way.”
Miss Coel has signed up as a volunteer co-ordinator for the Hungry For Change group, which aims to raise awareness of eating disorders and provide support.
She recruits volunteers, promotes campaigns, lobbies MPs for better eating disorder services, gives talks and presentations and serves as a peer mentor.
She said: “It definitely helps me because I feel that if I’m giving people advice I need to keep eating myself and take my own advice otherwise I would be a hypocrite.
“I do know that I can still relapse, but I know now that there are pathways to getting advice and help. “People can think ‘if Lou can do it, I can do it because she was feeling like this six months ago’. I can reassure them that it can get better.
“A lot of people are misled that you can be recovered and be skipping about and be perfectly normal so it helps them to know that you will still have bad days, but it will be much better than it used to be.”
To contact Miss Coel for support with sexual abuse visit www.ne1support4survivors.com
For information about eating disorders visit www.hungryforchangeofficial.org