by Denise Robertson
This would be a long-involved story if I had to write when and why I became scared of food and eating, and when restriction become a part of how I lived. For me, it is a lifetime. There are many gaps and empty spaces in my memories of my childhood. I remember some days of laughter and contentment that last for fleeting moments and they are quickly overshadowed by the terror and darkness.
Things I do remember with vivid detail are too painful and unnecessary to write about and since I can’t go back in time and change the events it seems pointless to rehash them. They are neatly stored in a box and now that I am in recovery, I don’t need them to be unpacked to get me to a place where I am healthy and living a life that is true and free of an Eating Disorder. I acknowledge they are there, that they were things no child should ever be made to endure by people that they trust and who should have been a protector, and then I leave them in the past (some days are more successful than others).
In saying I don’t need those memories, doesn’t mean I have always felt that way, for many years, I would spend the 55 minutes with whatever therapist I had at the time, exploring how those memories impacted my day, how they influenced my food choices and how they “caused” my anorexia, how my family of origin helped create them and were they to blame? They loved suggesting and discussing how I used my Eating Disorder as a supposed form of control because everything else was out of my control and my best was how I used my anorexia to stop my sexuality from developing! For a long time, this is what I thought I needed, to dissect every aspect of my life, and yet still no improvement! I thought I was useless at therapy, that this was one more thing I couldn’t get right! When my time was up, those emotions and images had to be returned to the back spaces of my mind so I could carry on smiling through my day. This went on for years and my Eating Disorder loved every minute of it. To quieten the anxiety of the session, I would restrict. To stop myself from shaking, I would run and compulsively move. Never being able to stand up to the Eating Disorder. Even after several inpatient stays, nothing changed and I was termed by one doctor as being a functioning anorexic, defiant and not willing to change or make any effort to get better. Eventually, I stopped all therapy and my Eating Disorder carried on. I started to believe I would be like this until either the anorexia killed me, or I did. This was my fault; I couldn’t make myself better and I was a complete failure at life. I saw the effects it had on my husband and young children and still, I couldn’t change it and it just made me hate myself more. The Eating Disorders solution to this was to eat less and move more. That was what I was good at.
In all the years not one medical professional ever said, “Let’s get you weight restored first and then if we need to, deal with the trauma”. I left treatment centers still underweight and always still in the grips of the Eating Disorder but appearing to family and friends as “fixed”, until they started to pick up on things and deemed that I was starting my “nonsense” again!
My days were filled with counting calories, searching through recipe books, walking up and down the food aisle, just looking at the food I wasn’t allowed to eat. There was hiding of food, just in case I wanted to eat it later (which I never did, but it made me feel safe knowing it was there). If I did get to a point where I couldn’t stop myself and ate before I had even registered the food going into my mouth, I would force myself to chew it and then spit it out. Convincing myself that the small bit that was left in my mouth was all I needed and even that made me feel greedy and guilty for wanting it. My days started with weighing and then gym, weighing, back home to get children to school, and only when the house was quiet, was I allowed my cup of coffee and piece of toast cut into 16 squares, and allowed to eat 6 (everything was eaten in even numbers). I lived by rules and rituals. I was brilliant at hiding this from everyone and went about my day as if there was no war raging inside my head. If anyone did confront me, I would adamantly state, that of course, I had eaten, listing all the food that I knew would sound believable. I suppose I had become what that doctor referred to me as – a functioning anorexic! I lived my daily life as if nothing was wrong, and I think it was easier for people to go along with that as it was probably too painful and exhausting for them to constantly fight me on things. All this resulted in over 30 years of an Eating Disorder.
This was how I knew how to live my life. My Eating Disorder made me believe this is what I deserved, who was I to think I could be happy, I was contaminated from the inside out and I ruined people’s lives. Until one day driving home through the gorge (thankfully with just myself in the car) I wondered what it would feel like to simply drive over the edge. That thought felt so powerful and peaceful and it would have been so easy to do. Then all the tears and confusion and the constant ache in my chest would end. The noise in my head would stop. I would free my family from this burden, of me. That was when I knew it was time to change. I still just didn’t know how.
That answer came when I met a lady whose daughter was suffering from anorexia and she was dealing with the same outdated treatment that I had received years earlier. Through her and desperate actions on my part (a story for another time), I met some incredible people. These people have traveled this journey with their children and were warm and welcoming and most importantly understood and validated me. They are fierce advocates who warrior every day to remove the stigma and misconception around Eating Disorders. They explained to me that an Eating Disorder is a brain-based biological disease and not my fault or choice. That was liberating. They stuck by me when I was finally honest with them. They could have walked away, and they stayed because they saw more than the Eating Disorder. For that, I will be forever grateful. They have become friends who I trust. They tell me the truth when anorexia tries to grip me in its lies. They share the latest research with me and encourage me every day to fight for who I want to be. They share their strength with me when days are difficult, and it seems easier to give in. They remind me with patience and gentleness, that I am more than an Eating Disorder and I have valuable things to offer the world. They are parent advocates and although I am not a parent, I am my own caregiver, and I know I am the only one that can truly make the changes and they support me with that.
I can finally say (and believe) I am now in recovery. True recovery. I am learning what my triggers are, and how to face them instead of allowing them to give the Eating Disorder a firmer hold. I am learning to enjoy food and listen to my body and what it is telling me. With this comes weight gain, I am learning to accept my changing body and see it for its purpose and that it is not something to be manipulated and made smaller, just to get me through the day. I am learning that I deserve to look after myself. I am learning to be open and honest with people and not let the Eating Disorder distort my thoughts and send me down the rabbit hole again. I am learning as well that my past gave me some gifts. I am observant and have a keen eye for detail. I am empathetic and can pick up on small changes in people’s moods or actions. I am determined and have staying power! And I am using my experience to start conversations, to show what is possible when you are free from an Eating Disorder.