Enya, 15, was referred to Empire Fighting Chance’s Box Careers programme by her school for support with anxiety so severe she was unable to eat for fear of choking.
Her anxiety manifested in an eating disorder which left her so underweight that doctors worried her organs would fail. Enya’s situation was dangerous: ‘they warned me that if I didn’t start eating, I could lose my eyesight and my hearing, and my organs would just shut down. They said I had a couple of weeks left because it was that severe,’ she explains.
As a result of her physical frailty and her crippling social anxiety, she was unable to attend school. ‘I wasn’t going to school at all,’ Enya says. ‘For weeks on end I wouldn’t go. My mum was getting letters saying that if I didn’t attend, she would be taken to court.’
When she could attend, she found the experience even more isolating as her peers and teachers didn’t seem to understand how she was feeling. ‘Everyone would ask why I wasn’t in. I’d say I’ve got really bad anxiety and they would just ask “what do you mean?”. I’d think, well, you don’t have it, so you wouldn’t know,’ says Enya. ‘Most teachers just think you are putting it on; it made me feel like I was the only person with it.’
Far from being the only person suffering, Enya is one of an estimated 8 million people in the UK who are currently suffering from an anxiety disorder, and the number of young people experiencing eating disorders is on the rise.
Like Enya, many of the people who suffer from anxiety find their condition to be taken less seriously than other mental health conditions. ‘It’s lonely,’ says Enya. ‘Anxiety plays tricks on you. It makes you feel something bad is going to happen and your brain never switches off. You go to bed, and you are still worrying about something. You are constantly panicking, and you never get to do anything you love because you are just spending your time worrying about it. You don’t enjoy the things you love because you are panicking. It takes it out of you, physically and mentally’.
Following a year of treatment with the NHS Children and Young People’s Mental Health Service, Enya was referred to Empire Fighting Chance by her school who were concerned by her lack of attendance. Within weeks she was booked into one-to-one sessions with BoxCareers Coach, Chris. Meeting Chris proved to be the transformative step in Enya’s story that her parents had been praying for. As soon as she walked through the doors of Empire’s gym, she felt comfortable, and like the sessions were positively impacting her mental health.
Since July, Enya has been working on strategies for increasing her self-confidence, managing her anxiety, and building up her physical strength. The support offered by Empire is built around a programme of non-contact boxing, a sport which Enya has fallen in love with. She explains how at the beginning of a session she might feel anxious but that this changes dramatically: ‘I put my gloves on and feel ten times different when I take them off. I feel a lot calmer, a lot more at ease and a lot happier because I’ve got all the worries and all the anxiety out,’ she says.
Since Enya started working with Chris, her attendance at school has skyrocketed to 84%, a massive increase from the periods when she was barely attending. She explains that by just having one day at Empire a week, she can cope with the stresses she previously would have found debilitating: ‘when I go to school on a Monday, it’s fine because I know I’m going to the boxing gym on the Tuesday. Then for the rest of the week I think about my next session at Empire – I feel excited to put my gloves on again. Just one day at Empire means I know I will be able to go to school.’
As well as reducing her anxiety and increasing her school attendance, her work in the gym has also helped Enya to re-establish a healthier relationship with food. ‘When I didn’t eat and I trained I’d get migraines and wouldn’t be able to see,’ she explains. ‘I know I have to eat when I train because if I don’t it will just make me ill, and I don’t want to be ill. I love my boxing and I want to carry on with it, so I’ve got to eat the things that I need.’
Leigh, Enya’s mum, is astonished at the change in her daughter: ‘we were at the stage where we were going to lose her, she was that bad. It was petrifying. Chris has turned her around. From day one, he has been in her corner and picked her up. She is a completely different person.’
Now Enya is eating well and suffering far less with her anxiety, she is in a healthy routine where she feels optimistic for the future. She explains how ‘anxiety is like a bucket: the more water you put it in, the more it fills up’. She describes her experience with Empire as creating ‘a hole in the bucket’, stopping the anxiety from filling up and allowing room for more positive thoughts and choices.
Coming full circle, she even gave up part of her summer holidays to complete a coaching qualification with Empire that will allow her to join the charity as an apprentice when she finishes school. ‘I want to work at Empire because I know what impact is has on people,’ Enya concludes. ‘I would like to help other people like they have helped me.’
In 2022, Empire Fighting Chance reached over 5,000 young people like Enya.
If you know of a young person who may benefit from Empire Fighting Chance’s programmes, email firstname.lastname@example.org.