“Girls are raised in a society where flattering closet means clothing that makes you look skinnier. Where fat is an insult more often than a noun and not just a physical description but a reflection of personality. Where ‘you’re looking healthy’ is what you say when a girl gains weight, but you look good is what you say when a girl loses weight. Girls are raised in a society that teaches them it is their own responsibility to be as small as possible, as they do not deserve to take up space.” - Author Unknown
In the media, eating disorders are glamourised. They are seen as something beautiful and, though tragic, also desirable. Anorexia is not glamourous, not desirable. Anorexia means being cold all the time, your heart rate slowing, and then palpitating. It means dizziness and being exhausted all the time. It’s countless blood tests and ECGs, and blood pressure readings. It ruins relationships with family and friends. It is watching your sister running out of the room crying, because you couldn’t eat a bowl of pasta for lunch as it was different from the norm you are used to.
Anorexia is also the crying and the screaming, the arguments and the tears. It’s watching your mum crying as she rings your teacher, or her gasping as she sees your ribs. It’s your dad swearing he will do everything in his power to help you every step of the way.
The endless weighing and hating yourself as the scale goes up and up, as the numbers on the graph continue to increase. It’s the paralysing fear of gaining weight, and the ever consuming guilt when you do, no matter whether it is 200g, 500g or 2kg. Eating disorders are not glamourous. They are cruel and debilitating. They are the number one killer among all mental illnesses. They are hospital stays and countless physiologist appointments. They make you lose friends and not be able to stay at your boyfriend’s house. They mean being 18 and having no control over your life.
To my friends and family, my eating disorder was a commonly known but not well understood fact. It was not, however, something I addressed with people outside those bounds. Between the ages of 16 to 18, I suffered from anorexia nervosa – a common condition, which has the highest rate of death of all mental illnesses. It is an illness that has a longer list of misconceptions than actual facts, and the one that has a huge stigma attached to it. By sharing my own story, I want to help people to understand the thoughts and feelings of a normal girl suffering from eating disorder, and also what life is like now – in recovery.
I think recovering from my eating disorder, and remaining in that state, is the proudest achievement of my entire life. I’ve just surpassed my four-year anniversary of discharge from eating disorder services earlier this month and it makes me reflect on the journey that has followed since.
The tricky part is to find the place from which to start the story. I have a memory from when I was about 10 years old. It was a cold winter morning and we were made to play outside at morning tea time. I was shivering and – at 10 years of age – thought it was good because it meant that I did not have much fat in my body to keep me warm. This proves that, at such young age, my mind had already been trained to think it was better to be thin. I grew up surrounded by incredible, strong women on both sides of my family, but I distinctly remember my mum making comments about losing weight, or my granny saying: “Oh, I can’t eat a piece of cake today, I’m too fat”. I learnt quite early that there was a sense of guilt attached to eating sweet things, and to eating cake.
Anorexia crept into my story when I was 16. I got sick with pneumonia and lost a substantial amount of weight in a short time. I received a lot of comments about how good I looked and how “healthy” I was. This kick-started a year of food restriction and exercise. I am and have always been an avid lover of food, especially sweet treats, so it was a surprise to my family when I began to turn things down. However, they didn’t realise the extent of the problem as I did most of my restriction out of their eyes.
In August 2014, when I was 17, I confessed to my mum that I was worried about my eating behaviour. At this point I wasn’t necessarily not eating to lose weight, it was because I had this overwhelming fear of gaining weight. I went to the GP who said: “You are not skinny enough to be diagnosed with an eating disorder but I’m sure you’d benefit from private counselling”. To this day I hate the misconception that anyone with an eating disorder is very skinny. It’s often not the case.
I entered treatment at the South Island Eating Disorder Outpatient unit later that month. What followed was nine months of appointments, arguments and sadness. It was one of the darkest times in my life. I gained the weight that I needed, and eventually my brain regained all the nutrients it needed. I began to eat again without needing prompts. Food was no longer an enemy, but an experience I was learning to love again. I think it took another year after that to get back to my normal self. I had to continue to challenge myself when I felt myself slipping.
Moving to the present time, my eating disorder still lingers at the back of my mind, it tries to sneak back in. The difference is that now I am too strong for it, and it cannot get back in.
These are some photos of everything I have done in the years since I recovered from anorexia.
I turned 21 with my identical twin sister.
I graduated as the Bachelors of Science, majoring in Psychology.
I went to Africa and built a school to support the education of thousands of children in a rural village in Uganda.
I’ve spent a lot of time being strong enough to do my favourite thing in the world.
Anorexia was the hardest thing I have ever conquered, but it made me a stronger person. A person who can face whatever the challenges are and come through. I don’t think I would have discovered my passion for psychology and pursue my career within that field if I had not experienced this mental condition myself.