When I was eleven years old my family left the heat and wide open spaces of Perth to move to bustling Melbourne. Almost overnight, I found myself at a new school about five times the size of my old one. The girls here seemed much more mature than my friends back home. By my second day, I had changed my hairstyle to fit in with my new friends. Over Grade 5 and 6 I gradually became more aware of my body as something separate and evolving, part of me and yet apart from me.
Ingrained in me from a young age as a result of media exposure was the perception of “thin” as beautiful. I felt self-conscious of my growing breasts, thighs and stomach. I remember receiving compliments for my small physique and feeling nervous about the changes that would accompany becoming a young woman. I greeted Year 7 with excitement and enthusiasm. Many of my friends from Grade 6 were attending the same high school as me, and the year was off to a good start. A group of us formed friendships quickly, and these girls remain my close friends to this day, 11 years on. As the year went on, my old clothes started to feel tight on me.
One day I stood in front of the mirror and lifted my skirt to expose the red lines on my thighs where the skin was expanding. I remember feeling mortified. Around the same time, my dad moved overseas for work, leaving my family behind. I was having trouble sleeping and would often sneak into mum’s bed at night, finally drifting off to the sounds of her breathing. Year 8 arrived. I was still concerned about my maturing and expanding body. I don’t know when it began exactly, but one day I decided to eat only the fruit from my lunchbox. From then on I would pack only fruit to school. After school I would cycle down to my old primary school to pick up my youngest sister. In the evenings I would study.
I was a perfectionist and always strived to be at the top of my class. By the end of the year I had lost a considerable amount of weight. When dad came home to visit he noticed my thin figure and both mum and dad expressed concern. I was a good girl however, a helpful daughter and a good student. Moreover, my weight was still within the healthy range, if at the low end.
On the surface, I had everything under control.
Dad returned to his work overseas and life continued as normal. Truth be told, I was not okay. In the first half of Year 9, I continued to eat very little. At snack- and lunch-time I would nibble at a piece of fruit and stare into the distance, not participating in any of my friends’ conversations. I was in my own bubble, obsessed with reducing the numbers on the scale and gradually drifting away from everyone around me. In front of the mirror, I would study my body from the side, sucking in my stomach to see how thin it could get. My clothes were becoming loose on me and I relished in these secret victories. However, I often felt unhappy and tired, withdrawn from everyone around me. In the middle of Year 9 my family visited my dad in Spain. I was afraid that we would have to move there and I would have to leave all of my friends behind. At mealtimes I hid behind the camera, taking photos of the others enjoying churros dipped in chocolate. Obsessing over food and my weight was becoming exhausting. I was more withdrawn than ever, tired, sad, and bad-tempered.
My parents were becoming increasingly worried about me. Dad didn’t have a scale in his apartment so I couldn’t weigh myself as I did at home several times a day. This was stressful for me. I remember studying myself in the mirror, feeling bloated and perceiving my reflection as “fat”. This is the first experience I had of the mirror “playing tricks” on me. When we arrived home from our holiday, the first thing I did was step on the scale. A jolt of shock ran through me as I read the number. I was at the lowest weight I had ever been. I felt weak and I had stopped menstruating months ago. The loss of my period was what worried me the most.
I decided I had to tell mum. Mum booked me in to see a women’s health specialist. I was nervous arriving at the appointment, wondering what kind of questions she would ask and whether my unhealthy eating habits would be exposed. I wanted to be healthy, but at the same time I was scared of having to change my eating behaviours and rituals. I wanted to be healthy but I was scared to gain weight. The specialist weighed me and asked me some questions about my eating habits, which I lied to her about, though I remember admitting that I “could eat a bit more”. She instructed me to gain a certain number of kilos before our next appointment, adding that otherwise “more drastic action will be taken”. She sent me on my way with suggestions to “eat more nuts” and “drink a full cream milkshake” every day. Looking back, I feel shocked at her insensitivity.
If only she had asked after my psychological well-being, or probed me about my thoughts around food, she may have realised that underlying my presentation were some serious issues that merited a referral to a psychologist. The specialist’s advice proved to be disastrous. Logically I knew that gaining weight was the solution to regaining my period. But psychologically, I wasn’t prepared to take action yet. Daunted by the idea of our next appointment, I started to eat more. Following each meal, however, I would be wrought with guilt, terror and self-hatred. I started exercising excessively, power-walking for hours at a time. I would eat, and then work off the calories through over-exercise. No matter what, when I stepped on the scale I would feel terrible. If I remained the same weight or had lost weight, I would feel guilty that I wasn’t following the specialist’s orders. If I had gained weight, I would feel horrified and ashamed. I was in constant battle with myself. When I went back for my next appointment, I had gained enough weight that the specialist was satisfied. She said I should soon begin menstruating again. I entered Year 11.
Visibly, I was healthy. Internally, I was suffering.
I started a routine of eating very little (if anything) at school and then bingeing when I got home. The binge became the event that I looked forward to each day, followed by vigorous exercise to burn off the calories. School was becoming increasingly stressful. VCE was a big deal for me and I wanted to perform well. My whole life in those two years revolved around study, bingeing and purging. Over time my purging evolved into vomiting. It disgusted me, yet each episode left me feeling high. I lost weight, then gained it, then lost it again. In winter my raw fingers developed chilblains – small, itchy red bumps that are a mild form of frostbite. I worried about my health on a new level now, paranoid about cancer of the throat, decaying teeth, gastrointestinal problems… I knew that I was harming myself, but I was stuck in a vicious cycle that was proving too hard to break on my own. My VCE result was very good, and I was accepted into Melbourne University. In the summer after completing high school, I became out of control. I was bingeing and purging up to several times a day and walking for hours each day, sometimes sneaking out of the house at 3am to exercise. I had completely withdrawn from my friends. I was trapped in my own world of numbers. It felt like I was self-destructing. I wanted help, and yet I was afraid of it.
It wasn’t long until mum overheard me vomiting in the shower. That was a dramatic moment. When I emerged to find her sitting in my bedroom waiting to hear the truth, I finally opened up and told her everything. Instead of reprimanding me as I had feared, she put her arm around my shoulder and told me we would get through it together. I wasn’t alone anymore. The first professional I opened up to was my GP. Her manner with me was nonjudgmental and yet serious. I felt that she saw my suffering and was concerned for my health and wellbeing. She wrote me a referral to a local psychologist. Over the rest of the year, I visited my GP on a regular basis – at one point fortnightly. I also saw my psychologist weekly for cognitive behaviour therapy. I quickly developed a therapeutic alliance with both women. Although I felt worthless and undeserving of help, I continued to attend these sessions. I felt undeserving of help because I saw myself as a failure. I felt that I had “failed” at my eating disorder by maintaining an average weight. On the other hand, I felt that I continually “failed” at recovery by falling back into disordered eating habits. It seemed that I could never win. One part of me was constantly at war with the other, like a tug-of-war between my illness and my rational mind. It was, both mentally and physically, an extremely challenging time.
Despite the help that I was receiving, I felt very alone. I carried a lot of shame, guilt, self-hatred, fear, confusion, and pain. I was still attending university, though I lacked the energy and drive to do well. I had to apply for special consideration for my end-of-year exams and ended up passing. One day, I took the train in one direction as far as it would go. I got off at the last station, walked into town and entered a bookshop. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I found it in a section I had never ventured into before – self-help. It was a book called ‘Regaining Your Self: Understanding and Conquering the Eating Disorder Identity’ by Ira M. Sacker. Prompted by passages I read in the book and by a question that my psychologist had posed – “Who are the people in your life that you look up to, and why?” – I started to contemplate my identity beyond my eating disorder – my values, and what I wanted to achieve in life. I realised that I needed to have a sense of my ‘Self’ before I could regain her. If I wanted to one day shed my eating disorder identity, I needed to start tending to the parts of myself that I had neglected, like my passions, goals and dreams. Otherwise, I would have nothing to recover.
I re-evaluated my goals in life and applied for a combined Bachelor of Nursing and Psychology in Geelong. After a year of therapy, I was ready to move on and try my own hand at life and recovery. I wanted to build a life away from my eating disorder identity, and for now that meant moving away from my family, my friends, and my boyfriend. I signed a rental contract for a room near the waterfront, secured a job at a sandwich bar, and packed my bags. On the drive to Geelong, my dad, who had moved back home years ago, broke a long silence by asking if I still “did that thing”, adding “because it’s not good, you know”. It was just the two of us in the car. He had never brought up my eating disorder with me before and I felt both touched and unsettled. “No,” I quickly replied. Mostly, it was true. By that point I was well on the way to recovery. My time in Geelong was definitely a learning experience. Although I discovered that Nursing wasn’t the field for me, Psychology turned out to be something I was passionate about. When I moved back home at the end of university that year, I applied to transfer to a Bachelor of Psychology. Although my marks in Nursing had been poor, I had achieved high grades in my Psychology units, and I was accepted. Whilst living in Geelong, I had also developed a passion for yoga, which had helped me to gain a different kind of appreciation for my body – an appreciation of its flexibility, endurance, and strength.
By the beginning of my second year at university, I considered myself recovered behaviourally. Mentally and emotionally, I had – and in some ways, still have – a way to go. I’ll never forget the elation I experienced the first time I thought to myself, “I did it. I am free.”