‘I almost died of sepsis as all I would eat for each meal was watery Ready Brek’

Eating a simple sandwich might not sound like a big deal to most people but for one woman it could well have saved her life.

Raffaella Franza suffers from an extreme food phobia after she almost choked twice when she was a child.

Terrified of being left unable to breathe the 21-year-old restricted her diet so severely that she was eating nothing but watery porridge and nutritional supplement drinks.

But when she was struck down with potentially deadly sepsis caused by the body attacking itself in response to an infection doctors told her she was severely malnourished and Raffaella vowed to change.

After just an hour of hypnotherapy via Skype on May 1, she tucked into a sandwich and curry – her first solid food for as long as she can remember.

Raffaella said: "This has been challenging for both me and all my loved ones, who just wanted to see me eat but didn’t want to push me.

“I went into the hypnotherapy session with virtually no hope. I’m very sceptical about that kind of thing, but I was desperate. I never dreamed it would work this well.

“It’s absolutely remarkable. If I’d read my own story a few months ago, I wouldn’t believe it – but here I am.”

The council worker's problems first started when she was a child.

First she choked on a 2pm coin when she was just two-years-old and while she doesn't remember the incident, which didn't harm her physically, she believes it left deep mental scars.

Then, a few years later, she choked again on a piece of pizza – an incident she remembers graphically.

Raffaella believes was the trigger for her mounting terror of swallowing solid food in case it left her unable to breathe.

She said: "Choking on the pizza was very frightening, but I didn’t actually struggle with my eating right away. That came later and built up over time."

Her phobia only intensified as she went through puberty and by the time she was 16 her phobia was out of control.

Raffaella said: "I’d be eating and, even if it was the tiniest mouthful of food, I'd become absolutely convinced that I was choking.

“I’d really panic and start sweating. It got to the point where I was so afraid that I went completely off my food anyway and wouldn’t feel like eating.”

At first, Raffaella, from Brighton, East Sussex, tried to manage her phobia as best she could, pushing herself to still eat a couple of square meals a day.

She also consulted specialists, including a psychiatrist and an eating disorder clinic but said that nobody was able to help.

Raffaella said: “I’ve seen so many people to try and get this sorted, but it never felt like I was quite in the right place.

"Technically, I don’t have an eating disorder, so the clinic wasn’t able to help.

“At my worst, I simply didn’t want to eat. There was nothing anybody could have done to make me.”

By 2018, Raffaella’s fears were so extreme that she was eating nothing but Ready Brek porridge, having ditched all solids.

She added: “I’d take these supplements called Fortisip to try to make sure I was getting nutrients but I couldn’t handle any solid food.

“Even things like mash or yoghurt would sometimes be too thick. I’d mainly have porridge, watered right down with loads of milk.”

Then, in September 2018, Raffaella began feeling run down with flu-like symptoms.

Visiting the doctor, she was given a diagnosis of sinusitis – swelling of the sinuses usually caused by an infection.

But her health deteriorated rapidly and she was taken to hospital, barely conscious.

There, doctors diagnosed her with sepsis, a serious complication of an infection that can lead to multiple organ failure.

She said: “They told me I was malnourished. I had absolutely nothing in my system to fight back with.

“I made a vow while I was still in hospital to change. My phobia was nearly killing me, when I was only in my twenties. It was an awful mindset to be in.”

For a couple of weeks, Raffaella tried to eat as balanced a diet as possible, but she soon felt herself returning to her old ways.

She said: “I could feel my body giving up again.”

At her wits end Raffaella remembered an article she had read online months earlier about Felix Economakis, a chartered psychologist and clinical hypnotherapist.

Making contact, she booked a Skype appointment, costing £150, for May 1.

Raffaella said: "I'm quite a sceptical person, so don't really believe in that sort of thing, but had read about what Felix had done for other people and was feeling desperate.

"I was told to bring along some food to my appointment, so I chose a sandwich and a banana – things I hadn't eaten in God knows how long.

"He said to me that by the end of the session I'd be eating, which I found quite daunting.

"It was an hour long, and first we had a chat about everything, then the hypnotherapy started.

"I can't explain it, it was remarkable. At the end, I ate the sandwich and banana, then had curry and rice for tea that night."

Now, Raffaella is feeling positive and hopes that her session with Felix will change her life for the better.

Before seeing the hypnotherapist her phobia would limit everything, even her social life, as she found going out to eat impossible.

Now she is excited for the future and hopes by speaking out to raise awareness of food phobias and to show fellow sufferers that help is out there.

She said: "While eating solids still isn't quite coming naturally to me, every new thing I try reinforces that I'll be okay, and stops my brain telling me I am going to choke.

"Little by little, I am improving my diet. I avoided so much before – parties, weddings, nights out – as I felt so uncomfortable being around food, dreading somebody asking why I wasn't eating.

"This really has changed everything. I know there must be others like me out there so I hope talking about it helps show them they aren't alone."

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