In hindsight I was the typical anorexia candidate. White, middle class, intelligent, sporty and a type A personality. As the eldest of three children I was your model child. I was well behaved, had excellent manners and never rocked the boat. A psychologist once said to me it’s the good kids that you need to worry about – the ones that don’t misbehave or rebel. The naughty kids get the attention and the good kids get lost.
I had a very normal, loving and privileged childhood. I didn’t come from a broken home, I wasn’t abused, I had no real trauma and I had all the love and support any child needed. However, once I hit puberty I started being conscious about my appearance and how I ‘looked’. My friends were constantly comparing weight or how much they had eaten. And I wanted to be the ‘best’ at this. What started as trying to be healthy nearly killed me. It quickly escalated from only eating fruit and vegetables to eating nothing for days on end and obsessively exercising. Anorexia was consuming every minute of every day. At times I would think if someone was hit by a car across the road from me, I would still be thinking of what I had / hadn’t eaten.
Somehow I managed to acquire a law and journalism degree, live away from home, spend two years in London on my OE, work a full-time role and travel throughout Europe. However, under the façade, I was extremely unwell. I would lie about my weight, what I had eaten and I managed to avoid doctors like the plague. I got pleasure from feeling my hip bones jut out, I would love pushing a tiny wrist bracelet to my upper arm, I thought my thigh gap was attractive, I got a rush from the light headedness I got from exercising on an empty stomach and I loved nothing more than my size six clothes hanging off me. This overruled the fact I was wearing at least four thermals due to intense cold, the down and body hair that was covering my body to keep me warm, not being able to sleep because I was so hungry, the body cramps from lack of minerals and the fact I didn’t have a period in ten years.
I used to have dreams I had eaten McDonalds or a chocolate bar and wake up petrified that it was real. I was relieved when I realised it was a nightmare. If anyone said to me that I looked ‘good’ I would interpret it as I was looking fat and had gained weight. I would make up excuse after excuse to not go out for a meals or to eat in front of people.
It wasn’t until I returned to New Zealand in 2014 I hit rock bottom. I went for a routine doctor’s appointment and I was immediately admitted to hospital as my potassium levels were dangerously low. My heart was failing and my life was on the brink. Yet I still felt great pleasure and a sense of achievement because I was skinny. I subsequently spent six months under the care of the Eating Disorder Clinic at Princess Margaret Hospital in Christchurch. Here the lies about what I had eaten and how much I had exercised continued. I would drink litres and litres of water before a weigh-in to falsify the numbers. Not even the weekly blood tests or ECG’s were enough to scare me. I was eventually discharged as they couldn’t help me anymore. I was a lost cause.
The hardest aspect of living with anorexia for me was the toll it took on my family. My parents and brothers tried everything under the sun to help me. I hated the toll it was taking on them, but it wasn’t enough for me to want to try and beat the disease. The roles in our family reversed; from being the oldest sibling I was acting and subsequently treated like a child. It was embarrassing for my brothers to be seen with me because of how thin I was. People would point, stare and whisper. It was also heartbreakingly terrifying for them that my body could shut down at any time. I would say the most hurtful, abusive and disgusting things to the people I loved the most. I was a monster. All they could see was their daughter and sister who they loved so much slowly killing herself.
Friends walked away. They didn’t know how to deal with the disease and it was too hard to deal with someone who was trying desperately to hide and withdraw. They were living their life and someone with a mental illness was not on the agenda or in their plan. I too wouldn’t let anyone in, I would put the guard up when anyone got too close. At a time where I needed my friends the most I was very much alone.
I moved to Auckland for work and was put in touch with a phycologist. After seeing hundreds of different professionals over the years I was sceptical. However, this one was different. Not once in that first session did we discuss the eating disorder. We focused on the other aspects of my life and this was a breakthrough. For once I was being treated as Danielle. Not anorexia. We discussed the future, my hopes, my goals and my dreams. Something I couldn’t think about in the past. Something in me changed that day as I knew I couldn’t live the next 15 years as I had the past 15 years. I was only 30 – I still had so much life ahead of me. I was going to fight. And I was going to win. I’m still fighting. But each day gets easier. Maybe I’ll have the shadow of anorexia for ever and always on my shoulder. But at least I’m alive, doing ‘normal’ things and finally living the life I deserve. To me that’s a step in the right direction.
Anorexia is so misunderstood. It wasn’t my choice to throw away 15 years of my life. It wasn’t my choice to punish my family or lose friends. I missed out on the normal things late teens and 20 year olds do. But that wasn’t because of Danielle, that was because of Anorexia. I was suffering from a mental illness. A mental illness that affects so many New Zealanders, yet is so poorly funded, acknowledged and resourced. But there is hope. We are worth it. It is worth fighting for because life without anorexia is so much richer.