A teacher who was so scared of food that she only ate chicken nuggets, garlic bread and plain toast revealed how she finally tucked into her first ever Christmas dinner – thanks to hypnosis.
Convinced she grew up suffering from Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), where the afflicted restrict their eating by avoiding certain foods or food groups, Nikki Gwynne, 30, was so phobic, she could only eat chicken nuggets, garlic bread, plain toast and bran flakes,.
Breaking down in tears and retching if confronted with any other types of food, Nikki, of Stevenage. Herts., was so desperate to tackle her fear that she spent nearly $400 for a session with renowned hypnotherapist Felix Economakis and, after just 40 minutes, was tucking into curry, sushi and fresh fruit with vigor.
Hailing it as a miracle, Nikki, who was never officially diagnosed with ARFID, but showed all the symptoms, even enjoyed her first ever Christmas dinner on December 25th of last year, saying:
“People would often misunderstand and think I was just awkward or fussy. They didn’t know until they saw my extreme reaction how serious it was.
“I didn’t want to be that way, to feel so distressed over something as simple as food, but even though I knew it was illogical, the phobia was still very extreme.
“Growing up, I’d have to have a separate Christmas dinner – something really beige and bland, like chicken nuggets or garlic bread, which, at times, I’d even have to eat in a separate room, as I couldn’t stand the smell of everyone else’s meals. But last year, I finally tucked into turkey with all the trimmings. It was amazing.”
To this day, Nikki cannot pinpoint a specific reason or trigger for her phobia, which started when she was a little girl.
Over the years, she consulted numerous specialists, and it was suggested that an allergy to milk that made her vomit a lot as a child may have made her subconsciously associate food with being unwell.
“I’m not sure though, that’s one theory,” she said. “Personally, I’ve never been able to explain why I felt that way. “I’d go through phases of being fixated on one food, eating solely that for months on end, then I’d suddenly switch.”
“It would always be very plain things, mostly just chicken nuggets, garlic bread, bran flakes and plain toast.
“I never ate fruit or vegetables and couldn’t stand anything wet, like foods with lots of sauce.”
Initially, Nikki was simply thought to be a fussy eater, and would grow out of her habit over time – but that never happened.
In time, she was prescribed a supplement to ensure she was getting enough nutrients and to improve her immune system.
But, while she felt relatively healthy, her fear continued to rule her life.
“As I got older, it affected my social life,” she said. “Going out for dinner was really difficult. Often, I wouldn’t be able to go as I knew there was nothing I could eat.
“I also love travel, but couldn’t stand plane food. The smell alone would make me so nauseous that I’d sit there with a bag of Hula Hoops over my nose and a hood over my face to block it out.
“Finding something I was able to eat while abroad was a real challenge, too. On one trip to Thailand, I ate nothing but chips and garlic bread for three weeks.”
Sick of her all-consuming phobia and desperate for help, Nikki took to the internet – and discovered ARFID.
According to the eating disorder charity Beat, there are numerous reasons people develop the condition, including distressing experiences with food such as choking, or a sensitivity to tastes, textures and appearances.
While it can affect people of all ages, it is diagnosed most often in children, and symptoms include a lack of interest in eating, missing meals completely or only consuming very restricted portions and attempting to avoid social events, where food is present.
Once she had a name for her condition, Nikki’s friends tried to help her overcome it – discovering Felix Economakis, a chartered counseling psychologist and clinical hypnotist who has successfully helped hundreds of clients beat phobias.
“I actually had Felix’s details for a couple of years before I did anything about it,” said Nikki. “I knew contacting him would mean confronting my fears head on, and I wasn’t ready.
“But, in around 2016, I started thinking about the future and how I wanted a family one day. I worried if I became a mum, still eating the way I was, I’d have no nutrients to pass on to my children, and they’d grow up with an unhealthy attitude to food. I realized I had nothing to lose by trying.”
Parting with $378.43, Nikki booked a hypnotherapy session with Felix in May 2017.
The day before, she went shopping with a friend and purposefully bought five foods she feared the most to take with her – a tuna and sweetcorn sandwich, spaghetti Bolognese, a fruit medley, some sushi and a curry.
“My friend had to store them at her place the night before. I couldn’t even have them in the house,” added Nikki. “The session itself started with Felix asking me general questions about what I eat now, if I could remember where my fears came from and so on.”
“He asked where I saw myself in five years if I continued to eat like I was, as opposed to 10 years if I could change. He was so gentle and patient with me. He just kept going until he felt it’d worked.”
Next, Nikki had hypnotherapy and neuro-linguistic programming – an alternative therapy that aims to alter thoughts and behaviors.
Then, after around 40 minutes, she was asked to try the foods she had brought with her, all of which she had never eaten before.
“I didn’t actually realize it’d worked at that point, but when I went to tuck in, I felt remarkably calm,” she said. “I still didn’t like some of them, but that was down to taste and flavor rather than fear.”
“I couldn’t believe it. Once I realised it’d been a success, I just wanted to try more and more. Afterwards, I was walking around just saying, ‘This is the best day ever.’ I would have paid thousands for a session with Felix. It’s absolutely changed my life.”
After her session, Nikki set about discovering all the food she had once been too afraid to eat.
Now, she hopes, that by sharing her story, she will encourage others living with ARFID to seek help.
“Life is so different now, I never realized how much around food was taken for granted. There are so many things I’m trying for the first time. I never even had a mince pie until last Christmas,” she said.
“To other sufferers out there, I want to say that you aren’t abnormal, and you aren’t alone. If you try and it doesn’t work, that doesn’t make you a failure, but it’s all about taking those baby steps and tackling your phobia in a way that works for you.”