The Road Back
As I began to write this story last year, I had so many conflicting emotions. I was uncomfortable exposing the rawness of my experience, as this is something reserved for a small handful of people very close to me. However, the more I have read, the more I have come to understand that writing about our private experiences have have an immense benefit for other people. We are united with the same human emotions which enrich our lives. The simple process of writing is an immensely therapeutic exercise which facilitates an understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
The human brain is wonderful and complicated. Mental health is fundamental to who we are. It is a broad field and beyond the scope of this article, although this sets an introduction for further discussion of eating disorders. Equipped with my own personal experience of anorexia nervosa (AN), I came to realise it would be very appropriate and important to write about this topic.
There is certainly a misunderstanding of eating disorders, AN in particular. Research from The Butterfly Foundation shows, one in seven people believe that people with EDs are seeking attention and that it is a lifestyle choice, a decision made with vanity. Also, 13% to 18% of people believe eating disorder behaviours are normal. Think checking calories, feeling guilty after eating too much or something unhealthy and compensating with exercise. In isolation, yes, these behaviours may be acceptable but they are not normal when they become habitual. Also, many people don’t understand that people can have active eating disorders and look perfectly healthy. Weight can be restored, but it doesn’t necessarily mean someone’s mind and their relationship with food is healthy. An unhealthy relationship with food can be extremely anxiety provoking and life limiting.
AN is not simply body dissatisfaction, it is a dangerous condition which has the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric disorders and can overtake a person’s life. The pursuit of control and thinness becomes a priority above all else. A lot of research suggests, difficult family relationships, perfectionism and past trauma are key contributing factors.
My own experience of AN began in primary school. I was in Year 5, only 11 years of age. Looking back, the years preceding 2001 saw me become increasingly conscious of my body. I never liked my legs, I wanted them to be a different shape. I thought my legs were the ugliest in the school playground. I guess we all have things we’d like to change about ourselves and whether or not this was related, I don’t know. But I was attracted to the idea of having skinnier legs.
Around the same time, I found a passion for long distance running. It began as a healthy pursuit which I loved and was quite good at, before cascading into an obsession. It was a powerful tool to keep my weight low. The only way I can describe AN is like the devil living in your head. This devil manages to hijack the rational side of the human brain, causing an excruciating fear of weight gain and an entirely distorted view of your reality. I remember living in intense fear of eating anything at all for a period of time and had a preoccupation with burning calories. The dangerous thing was, I could not control this irrationality.
Over the years, I have come to realise that control is at the centre of ED’s. As strange as it sounds, a psychologist once told me, AN is not about food, it’s something far greater, sitting in the depths of the mind. I believe there are many causal factors to the development of AN. From my experience, I see the influence of the external environment as small factors which activated the so-called devil which sits in the genetic hard-drive of some of our brains.
The intervening years since 2001 have been extremely formative. Putting together some kind of brief version is difficult. Overall, I have definitely recovered from the worst of it. It took a lot of hard work and determination. I can clearly remember a light bulb moment when I saw girls at the beach wearing their costumes. I couldn’t wear one because I was too unwell at that point and didn’t want to be in a swimming costume. I more or less said to myself, if I continue down this path I will need to keep seeing doctors and getting weighed and I will probably die. From this point, I became determined to look and be healthy and I feel this was a massive step in regaining some kind of logic in my thinking. I realised that how I looked was not okay or attractive. The recovery was hard though. It wasn’t as simple as eating more and gaining weight. It was an emotional cycle of repair and regression.
In all honesty, I feel that a very minor version of disordered eating exists in me today. I am still trying to fight it. As I said earlier, I may look fine but eating certain types of food can cause severe anxiety, guilt and worry that it will ruin the training that I do with such drive and discipline. I have seen a psychologist who specialises in female eating disorders and continue to try some of her strategies. It is exceptionally difficult to challenge a deeply ingrained mindset. I am exceptionally healthy, energetic, I love routine and I exercise every day. I care for my body unreservedly and I accept that the residual features of my eating disorder may remain. Although there’s hope that my mindset may naturally shift with time.
I guess a mark of great improvement was getting my period at about 19. I did reasonably well in my Higher School Certificate although after that, I think the physical trauma caught up with my body. Chronic fatigue syndrome set in, a 5 year journey of waking up unrefreshed after copious sleep, being unable to run and failing a year of university as I simply could not attend to the requirements of a university degree.
I feel as though my cognitive capacity has completely regained in the past two years. I’m 32 now and completing my second Masters degree. I am in a happy place and I thank every day that I don’t live with a war in my head and upcoming medical appointments to monitor me. I have generalised anxiety disorder which is also hard, but nothing compared to living with AN. My mental resilience and self-prioritisation is developing with life experience, one of the most beautiful things about living. The easy and enjoyable times are great memories and challenges steel my mindset for the better.