Personal Stories

Where I came from, My Journey of Recovery from Bulimia

If you talked to me three years ago about where I think that I would be in my recovery, I don’t think that I would have seen what I have become today. I think, back then, I would’ve hoped and thought that I would definitely be over my eating disorder demons and that they wouldn’t be a single part of my life, but I hardly think that I would have known the sort of person that I could’ve become, and that I am today because of my eating disorder.

To understand how far I have come, I need to start from the beginning. I know this sounds like all those cliché life stories where they stay “I’ll start from the beginning”, but when I say “I need to start from the beginning” I really mean I’ll start from the source, the cause, of my fight with bulimia.

It started in 2006 when I had troubles with friends from school, a fight which wasn’t even my own battle. I ended up with only a few friends, but didn’t feel like I really fitted in anywhere. It became so bad that I often just faked sick and stayed home from school to avoid the problem. In the end I turned to food, it always tasted so good so I would keep eating until I felt ill and couldn’t eat anymore, so I would throw it all up and start all over again. It made me feel good. I could eat whatever I wanted and still have a way of getting rid of it and not putting on weight, sometimes even losing weight. Of course the entire binge and purge cycle was done in complete secrecy – I would often eat in my room and then go to bath room where I would pretend to shower and listen to music, when in reality I was throwing up for a minimum of fifteen minutes. For a long time I never thought anyone knew. That was until my mum took me into her room one day and confronted me. She said she had heard me throwing up on multiple occasions, and had also found food packets hidden in my room. I remember sitting there in silence, unsure of what to say, I started to feel like my mother had been spying, it made me angry. She then pulled out a few brochures she had ordered from the Eating Disorders Association, and asked me to read over them. She said she was concerned that I had a problem and wanted me to seek help. This just made me even more angry and frustrated – I yelled at her, telling her to stay out of my business. I didn’t think I had a problem, and plus how it could be a problem if it was making me feel better about myself! I didn’t think there was any reason for concern. I refused to seek help, saying if I wanted help I would do it on my own. I could stop this anytime. But I couldn’t stop it, and it continued to get worse.

On many occasions I started to find myself purging after regular meals, and on more regular occasions. It started become something that happened four or five times a week rather than two or three. And then I started over exercising to the point where I would go for runs which would last for one or two hours then proceed to the gym. I started to feel changes in my moods, in how I related to people, in my involvement in family life. If I felt something was interfering with my binge purge cycle, I cancelled. I started becoming reclusive. Towards the end of 2007 I started to realize that my bulimia really was something to be concerned about so I contemplated seeking help. I weighed up the pros and cons of seeking help. I decided on going to weekly sessions with a psychologist, but I still wasn’t completely prepared to give up this eating disorder which I had devoted almost an entire year to. Even though I started to feel my self esteem levels increasing because the number of times I was binging and purging had decreased, I was still over exercising and I felt I was under a huge amount of pressure to “get better”. I really was doing it not for myself but for my parents, and I wanted them to be proud of me, and I wanted them not to worry anymore – I hated seeing them worry. It was very distressing and confusing seeing how upset they got because of this thing I was doing to myself – back then I thought “I’m doing this to me, not to them, WHY are they so worried?!” – After four years of therapy I now understand. These wonderful people gave me life, they have seen grow up from a tiny baby into a beautiful, strong young lady, of course it’s distressing. Bulimia is a form of self harm. I was hurting myself. What parent wouldn’t be upset about this! It hurt them to see me hurting myself.

After going through the contemplative stage of change, I grew determined to get better. I had learnt so much about the costs and harmful effects of bulimia. If I continued the way I was going, I could do great damage to myself – not just emotionally but physically. Not only this, but I felt depressed all the time. There was not a week, sometimes even a day that went by that I wouldn’t cry, or that I wouldn’t sit in my room hating myself for what I was doing to myself. I would call my mother up at work, crying to her about what I had done, about was I doing. I felt completely out of control. I had to kick this thing before I lost myself more than I had already. I wasn’t the person I knew I used to be. I wasn’t the fun loving, happy, joking, and life loving girl that I used to be. I really had lost myself, but not so much so that I couldn’t remember who that girl was. I wanted to be her again. So desperately so that I finally threw everything that I had into getting better. The cost of continuing with living with bulimia outweighed the benefits. I had to get better.

I started to take action, I knew change was required. I had been going to see a psychologist for three years, things had gone back forth. I would sometimes be able to go for two or three weeks without binging and purging, but other weeks it would happen between three and five times. I was on an emotional rollercoaster for several years. Not only could I feel emotional effects, but I had started feeling physical effects. Parts of my body would ache; I would go through spells of dizziness, and on one or two occasions I saw blood in what I had thrown up. It was getting serious – more serious than before. I made a real conscious effort in putting steps into place to help implement change. This was around the time when my psychologist suggested Cognitive Behaviour Therapy in mid 2010. My progress gradually kept going forward rather than back and forward. I felt immense changes in myself. Although I often felt overwhelmed by it all, I knew it was for the best. I got to a point where I could consciously stop myself mid way through the binge purge cycle, I would think to myself “what the hell am I doing!? This needs to stop!” and I would just cut it out and continue on with my day as if it had not happened. Yes I still had days where I would over exercising, but it wasn’t to the extent it would be, and I would often feel guilt and anger about what I had done, but I knew that to get better I just had to keep trying, and go on with my life in as normal as possible way.

During this difficult time, I received immense support from family and friends – I had gradually built up the strength to confide in some friends, which I have found to be a vital step in my recovery as I could talk to people who cared about me and would support me no matter what. They gave me the extra drive I needed to get better; they gave me love, support and confidence when I was struggling with this huge change in my life, a change which I was struggling with for a few years.

Getting better was something that took great time and effort, it took almost everything that I had, to get better, and at times it still does. It wasn’t till an overseas holiday with my boyfriend that I was really able to put normal eating habits into practice. I know that something like this isn’t always possible for people, but it thrust me into normal eating behaviours – I was basically forced into eating normally. It felt strange for a while, like something was missing, like I should be bingeing and purging, but I didn’t miss it, I didn’t feel any urges to resort back to those behaviours. I was and still am enjoying life without an eating disorder. I feel like an enormous weight has been lifted off my shoulders, I feel like I am enjoying life the way I used to, and I feel that through my journey of recovery I have become a stronger, more driven person. Even though it has been about five months since my last binge and purge, I sometimes fear the danger of relapsing. I am scared that one day I might fall back into that scary world; it is something that I hope I will never have to go back through. Of course there are the triggers of stress and anxiety, and procrastinating with study or other such things, but I have in place coping strategies – things I hope that I will never have to use. But if I do relapse I know that it’s all a normal part of the progression out of this eating disorder, and I know that I have the support of family, friends and my psychologist to help me through it all.

FLYING; if only for a moment

My journey to this moment has not been an easy one. To be honest, I am not certain that anyone’s passage through life truly is. I am not claiming that my path has been more arduous than most, nor deserving of greater recognition; my path is simply a compilation of footstep that trace an outline of flat planes, great mountains, wide valleys, and steady inclines that are no more remarkable or distinctive than the others’ who have traced these landscapes before me. Yet the landscape is as alike as it is unique…where other’s may have taken bold strides to reach a peak, I have fumbled and tumbled backwards before clawing my way back up the cliff face, and where many may have stumbled I have found the energy or determination to walk unaided. This is my journey; a unique, yet unremarkable, account of a daughter, a sister, a dancer, a student, a cheerleader; of a young woman battling the grips of an eating disorder.

To be honest, I am not quite sure why I am writing. Perhaps to record this moment and other moments that have passed but have been overshadowed by darker days; perhaps to remind myself that recovery is possible; perhaps to not only offer myself a gentle reminder, but to offer others HOPE.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tunes without the words—
And never stops—at all—
Emily Dickinson

The above excerpt, Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”, has adorned the mirror of my dressing table for over two years now. The pink post-it note has paled over time, is patterned with discoloured layers of stick-tape, is crumpled, and barely visible behind more recent affirmations and quotes, but remains a gentle reminder of the importance of holding onto hope during the often-arduous journey that is life. It holds more meaning today, than it did two years ago; when a very wise friend of mine handed it to me after I had wildly wept into her arms and declared that ‘life is too hard!” I remember all too clearly, given how mortified I was for being so weak as to show that I was struggling, that she had gently said to me ‘I know it is hard to see it right now but you can do something about this. You can beat this. It is possible. You need to have hope”. I not-so-maturely retorted with “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND” and folded the little piece of paper with my thoughts fixed on the belief that I should never have so publically fallen apart. Two years ago, when this little poem was placed into my shaking palm, I was unable to contemplate the idea of ‘hope’ because I was so consumed by the darkness of my eating disorder that the notion of something brighter seemed ridiculous. Even two months ago I would often look at the verse and question if ‘recovery’ was possible. Without proof, or easier days, I was disillusioned. Today was different. It is very difficult to depict the significance of change in my life; I only recently wrote, “I keep getting told that ‘tomorrow is a new day’. Well to be frank, I am a little over the fact that tomorrow I will just need it to be a new day again.” ‘Different’ is significant. Today was different… I looked at my mirror, now completely covered in affirmations and, whilst simultaneously complaining that my completely unreflective mirror made it difficult for me to get ready for university, acknowledged that recovery is possible. I startled myself with that simple thought. The difference I reasoned, between today and any day preceding it, was a brief but significant moment when I was free from the binds of my eating disorder (ED). Yesterday, I flew; but only for a moment.

I ate a meal yesterday without anguish. I ate without thought of its content, other than that it was nutritionally balanced and complied with my meal plan. I ate. I may not have eaten with a group of people or eaten a ‘Big Mac and Fries’, but I did eat and I did so without actually ‘thinking’ about it. I was studying (which I have previously been unable to do with ‘ED’ occupying my every waking thought), acknowledged that I was hungry, prepared a meal, ate the meal, and returned to my desk to continue studying. It was a little time later that I realised what I had achieved. It may not seem like much, but for a person who has been unable to eat without engaging in an internal war for a significant portion of her adolescent and adult life, this simple task is an ACHIEVEMENT. And it is an accomplishment to now be able to acknowledge it as an ‘achievement’. It is difficult to accurately express the level of elation I felt when I realised the task I had accomplished. My emotions soared. Yesterday, I found reason to believe in what I had previously considered impossible; recovery. I have discovered my wings; I am learning to fly.

I am certainly not proclaiming that I am now ‘recovered’. Today has been awfully challenging in many regards. But today I have hope, and I wish to share my new found notion of ‘possibility’ with you. Every day is often a battle when we have an eating disorder. It can be difficult to identify progress when it constantly feels as though we are going backwards, side-to-side, upside down, and inside out. It is difficult to have ‘hope’ when we seldom see or feel the minute changes as we journey through each day. However, each day that we challenge ourselves and our eating disorder we are giving ourselves the opportunity to learn and grow; to develop wings. We may not be completely recovered today, or tomorrow, but recovery IS possible. Yesterday, I felt what it feels like to be free from the binds of my eating disorder; yesterday I felt what it feels like to FLY. Today may be touched by the darkness of my eating disorder, but I now have HOPE for tomorrow.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tunes without the words—
And never stops—at all—

Emily Dickinson

 The poem reminds us that whatever hardship life throws at us, there is always the dove-like glimmer of hope that sits in all of us…

a force so powerful that its voice can still be heard in the “gale” of stormy times.
Hope never stops singing; we just have to keep listening…

Signs of Anna…

What lengths would you go to for your child?

This is the story of an average Mother on the greatest quest of all … to save the life of her child.

Do you believe in ‘a mother’s instinct’? Do you listen to it?

Thankfully I did.

My daughter was in Grade 7, her final year at primary school. She was experiencing the usual ‘teenage nonsense’ brought about by her peers – worrying unnecessarily about the size of her thighs, stomach and hips. Being a typical mum, I assured her numerous times that her body shape was normal and beautiful.

I’ve always thought of myself as somewhat of a super sleuth. The kids have always believed I have ‘eyes in the back of my head’ (don’t worry; I’m not giving any secrets away here). I could always tell when they weren’t being entirely truthful or trying to hide something from me (the black spot on the tongue that only mothers can see). As you know, it all comes down to interpreting their body language and re-enforcing that mum hears and sees all.

My beautiful daughter seemed ‘normal’ on the outside but I could sense a shadow, a sadness lurking around her. It wasn’t anything big, it just was. I began to notice little things, which made me look for bigger things. Was I connecting dots that just weren’t there?

While the kids were at school I’d spend my days phoning all sorts of organisations looking for help and guidance, talking to nurses, nutritionists or anyone who would listen. Unfortunately, my daughter didn’t fit any of the profiles for an eating disorder (ED), yet I knew within my heart and soul that that was what she was suffering from. I was very fortunate to have a friend whose daughter also suffered from an eating disorder but it had never been spoken out loud. I rang my friend with my heart in my hand and asked for her help. Would she condemn me for suggesting there was ‘something wrong’ with her own daughter or would she open her arms and her heart to me. Luckily it was the latter.

Although our daughters were very different in their presentations of the illness, there were enough similarities in behaviour to confirm my fears.

I sent away for literature and spent hours poring over it looking for answers, understanding and advice. Everything I read recommended that I don’t confront my child with my concerns in case it heightened her behaviour – what was I to do? I certainly wasn’t going to ignore it in the hope it would all go away.

As I write this story my daughter hovers, unable to remember the days that held so much emotional torment…

By now I’m sure you would like to know what the ‘signs’ were for me…how did I know something was wrong? On reflection it doesn’t seem much. My daughter went through various ‘stages’and by the time I thought I’d worked it out she’d have swapped that behaviour for another.

I guess it all began when she started ‘eating healthy’ – which really meant eating as little as possible. She then began having to jog every afternoon because the PE teacher at school said they needed to keep fit. This went on for a few days and I decided to join her, but within about a week she was no longer able to jog to the end of our street without being doubled over in painful cramps (I took these opportunities to convince her how important nutrition was and that her cramps were a direct result of not eating enough healthy fats.)

The next thing was she had to walk the dog every afternoon, albeit for only 15-20 minutes, which was not extreme in itself. What was extreme was her mood swing from ‘nice girl’ to ‘emotional wreck’ when it was raining and she couldn’t go.

At one stage she was sweeping the tiles up to four times a day because of the cat hair that was apparently building up on the tiles. (We have two cats that spend all day outside and only come in at night). She even suggested we get rid of the family pets so she didn’t have to live with such a mess. She became our little ‘Hitler’ and would scream and become extremely distressed at her sisters for every little thing she felt they did wrong, she started going to bed early because she felt sick and when this happened two nights running, I realised it had to be ‘the illness’.

Other triggers or signs that reinforced my belief things weren’t right was when she stopped eating her lunch at school because she didn’t have time and none of her friends ate lunch, she was constantly exhausted for no apparent reason and one night she even set herself a bread and butter plate for dinner – that didn’t happen again!

Armed with this information and ‘proof’, I took my daughter to my local GP determined to find out what was wrong with her. From time to time I thought she may have something else medically wrong with her but deep down I knew she had an eating disorder. I needed an official diagnosis from the doctor so I could get her professional help. I phoned ahead and advised my GP of my concerns but unfortunately he didn’t share these because ‘mentally and emotionally’ she seemed ‘within the healthy range’. Nevertheless, he was happy to refer us to see a Child Psychologist. Due to a cancellation we were lucky enough to get an appointment quickly. Despairingly though, like my GP, he felt she was ‘a little on the skinny side’ but otherwise ‘within the healthy range both physically and mentally’. I just wanted to scream! If they could only see her body… a thin layer of skin stretched over all of those bones.

Within a week of the Psychologist telling her she was OK, she’d lost yet another kilo (She had now lost about 8 kilos in total over 2 months). She was so proud of herself because now she had two professionals basically telling me to back off’! I rang the Psychologist and told him what I felt he should have asked me about my daughter’s health and that she’d lost more weight and how happy she was about it! His reaction was to tell me to ‘keep an eye on her’! Umph!

The night I admitted my daughter into hospital was the worst (and best) night of my life. Earlier that day she had returned from a camping trip with my brother and his two girls…very disgruntled! (I had previously warned my brother of my concerns for her health and asked him to keep a close eye on her and ensure she ate everything her younger cousins had to eat.) She took herself straight to bed stating that her Uncle made her eat too much food! She had slept through lunch and when she woke she collapsed walking down the hall. She had a little lunch and I suggested that she weigh herself. I needed to know if she had gained or lost weight over the two night camping trip. Knowing my brother, I was certain she would have gained weight! To my surprise and her delight she had lost yet another kilo. How was that possible? There was only one thing left for me to do.

I rang the Child Psychologist and demanded he do something NOW! To his credit I had a phone call from the Child and Family Therapy Unit (CFTU) within 20 minutes stating that my ‘daughter’s health was severely compromised’ and she needed to be admitted into the Emergency Rooms of the Royal Children’s Hospital immediately.

This is what I had been waiting for… But now I was scared.

I decided to tell her that we had to go to hospital for a check up because she’d lost another kilo and had a fainting spell. Strangely enough she took it really well. By this stage it was obvious (to me) that she was no longer able to think clearly. I decided that we’d have sort of a ‘last supper’ because I didn’t want to frighten her little sisters and her younger cousins by whisking her away to hospital. I tried to keep everything ‘normal’. We went to our favourite restaurant, ‘Pizza Capers’, and she actually ate two slices of pizza. By this stage her brain was starting to catch up and she realised what was going to happen. She pleaded, begged and promised me she’d eat as much pizza as necessary not to go to hospital.

After being admitted through Emergency and many hours of waiting, followed by tests and more waiting, we were admitted to CFTU in the dark hours of the morning. I was forced to leave my precious bundle in the hands of strangers, not knowing what tomorrow would bring. She didn’t understand what was happening to her and why she was being abandoned. I was trying to be strong enough for the two of us but seeing and hearing her screaming and pleading for me to stay and promising that she’d be a good girl was gut wrenching. My heart was breaking. I just wanted to tell them I’d made a mistake and take her home. Hold her in my arms.

The staff, Doctors and Nurses at CFTU have to make tough decisions on a daily basis and they were absolutely amazing. Unfortunately, because of my daughters steep decline in health, we were unable to be prepared for the workings of CFTU which made our journey into the unknown even more daunting.

She had to be tube fed and confined to the living quarters. Her heart rate was so slow it could have just given up while she was sleeping. My beautiful girl was lucky to be alive. Meals and visits to the toilet were all supervised. We were being given a second chance at life. She spent about eight weeks in CFTU, half the amount of time they expected her to be there. She was so determined to leave it all behind. To literally ‘eat her way out’!

There were many casualties in this war and scars that will be carried by all of us for a very long time. I wasn’t just a mother of one; I had four other beautiful daughters who were scared and confused about what was happening to their sister. My days consisted of getting the girls ready for school, preparing dinner, volunteering at school for any activity regardless of how mindless it was (colouring in, laminating, cutting). I then rushed to the hospital to be there by 3pm when her schooling finished. I would return home about 9pm that night. My little girls already fast asleep in their beds. It was an emotionally exhausting time. I was numb. I felt guilty. Guilty for the children I saw for only a few moments each day. Guilty for the child I had to abandon each night.

* * *

Upon leaving CFTU we were partnered with CYMHS (Child and Youth Mental Health Services) in the ‘Maudsley Program’ which helped us to understand more about Eating Disorders and how to recognise the signs and arm ourselves for battle. It was a time for tough love and a time where her sisters could support her and we could hopefully all get through this together…

* * *

Well it’s two years since my baby girl was admitted into hospital and I’d like to say it’s all in the past, everything is fixed and we don’t have to worry anymore, but that’s not the case. ‘Anna’ may not control our lives but she still lives with us. It’s difficult to let go. I’ll always be on the lookout for signs of Anna…….

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