Georgia’s Story of striving towards recovery
I was diagnosed - if you could call it that - as having an eating disorder in 1996 when I was 14 years old and in year 9. This meant I had to get weighed every week and my parents got me to see a psychiatrist immediately. I dreaded both these visits every week - I felt like I was up for judgment and assessment and that - in hindsight - was very damaging on my mental state and perception of myself. In the following years this diagnosis progressed to anorexia nervosa. I never ever learnt to like the medical visits but my sessions with my psychiatrist became a safe haven as I looked to him for an answer and the help, which I now know he would never be able to give me. Today I would consider my diagnosis to be that I suffer from disordered eating but no longer possess the anorexic demons that can manifest into seriously harmful behaviour. I learnt to identify every part of me that was associated to my mental illness, every activity that was encased in those horrible feelings of ' this is not the true me' I wrote them down and one by one I removed them from myself. My eating habits no longer affect how I live my days, they do not rule my decisions about where to go, who to see, what to wear etc, although on days when I am not my strongest they do attempt to have a say in these choices. I now make sure everyday is full of 'things' so that my eating is just a minute factor and I am looking forward to the day when I won't even have to worry about my reflection and what thoughts it may stir in me if I see the 'wrong' thing.
I now work as an actor, children's entertainer, theatre producer, playwright, freelance Public Relations consultant and journalist. And these are just a few of the 'things' I referred to above. I also do promotions, voice over work, volunteer with the Melbourne Community Friends program and baby-sit. I love life and if I could fit 10 more professions into my schedule and 20 more hours into everyday I would. In April 2005 - after my play titled readMylips... , aimed at stopping the silence surrounding eating disorders and mental illness, is performed I will leave to Los Angeles to join an acting studio for as long as it takes till I realise my goal of becoming a well know film and TV actor.
The first signs of an eating disorder and the first signs of a propensity to suffer from such and illness are two very different factors. As with all sufferers I was born with a heightened risk of possessing an eating disorder. Having now looked back through my childhood I can identify so many moments when I displayed that personality that will turn to self-harming behaviours if one feels sad or insecure. It has been said to my parents that when they hugged my brothers once when we were infants they needed to hug me three times for me to feel the same love. To me this is a perfect summation of how I felt as a child. Even as a very young child I did not trust that people - including direct family - loved me or that they would always be there. I hasten to add that they gave me no reason to doubt their love but I would still be shocked and racked with guilt when my Mum would stay up half the night if I was sick and I would still think I was causing my parents to split up if they rose their voices because of me (they are still happily married!) These were all warning signs of a dangerously sensitive soul who could - if her environment encouraged it - suffer from any of many self-harming mental illnesses.
As for the first signs of the eating disorder - they came when I became consumed by the size of my body. I was receiving all the wrong messages from the kids around me at school. I was a fit strong girl and my skinny girlfriends got the boys so I decided to make myself look like them. I cut back on food straight away - my first day I planned to eat only a slice of cantaloupe but survived eating not even that. Those around me started noticing the problem when they (mainly my Mother) would find yoghurts hidden in odd places in my room, bread squeezed into other rubbish in the trash and other food just never being taken out of the fridge.
After a health day at school I left a fact sheet titled 'Warning signs of Eating Disorders' on my Mum's bed - how's that for a cry for help? So she responded immediately after reading a number of my behaviours on this list. She confronted me and then booked me straight into see the GP who then connected us with the psychiatrist. Technically they had it all right and I began to be 'treated' abnormally early in my illness. But I now realise that the method of treatment was more harmful than helpful.
Unfortunately there is a huge lack of understanding amongst everyone – including medical professionals about these illnesses and how they should be treated. My journey however was quite an uneventful one really. In comparison to some of the stories I’ve heard - such as girls being turned away from hospitals because they weren’t thin enough - my treatment was very good. I do not blame my GP or my psychiatrist for the anger or disappointment I felt with their treatment. They didn’t understand me and they were missing crucial knowledge on certain elements of my illness, but they were trying their best to help.
Without doubt the two worst weeks of my life were the two weeks I spent in the Austin Hospital with a nasal-gastric tube stuck up my nose. I will never forget the horrid fear that came over me in the hours before I was admitted. I hung on to the door pane and my Mum had to actually pry my fingers from it. The hospital staff did try their best to scare you because their rationale was that this was not meant to be a pleasant experience; you were not meant to want to come back. Well they achieved that!! Their big line was “we are here to resuscitate your body not your mind” – lovely hey? For two weeks I listened to the dripping of the feed and felt myself growing. I was allowed off my bed twice a day; first to have a shower – which was watched by a nurse and then to go to the toilet before bed. My visiting hours were restricted and I have never ever felt more pathetic and miserable. It made me realize why sufferers regularly pull the tube out of their noses and try to escape. I was determined to retain some dignity – and I didn’t want anyone to dislike me of course – so all I did was sit-ups and push-ups the minute I was left alone.
I guess those two weeks served one purpose – they made me so vehemently determined never ever to return. I came within .1 of a kilo a week later but once was more than enough for me, thank you! I know that there are other hospitals that take a more holistic, caring approach these days – I just wish they had been around for me, because I am certain my recovery would have been much happier and faster had I been in one of them.
During the serious stages in my illness I was on a number of different anti-depressants. I really resented people telling me I had depression – I had anorexia, but I was a happy person. I understand that the medication served its purpose at the time – stopping me from going too far. But when I was considerably recovered I wanted to be free of the medication because I was certain my natural personality was not that of a depressed person. I can’t imagine me on any sort of anti-depressant now – I am one of the cheeriest happy people I know and I only have one drug in my life – natural endorphins, I’m a serious addict.
I have had to learn what helps me to cope with all of the remaining bits of this illness. I am now completely in-tune to all the little warning signs. There are so many different levels of coping though. When I am getting stressed or worried I run more and more – then I have to be careful. When I am feeling myself growing and I start regimenting everything again I have to do some serious talking to myself. If everything is getting too much for me I have to write lists, make piles and organize. And when I feel lost or sad I have to pick up the phone and call a friend. A very important part of this is just listening to myself and trusting that I know me better than anyone. When I give myself this trust and responsibility I gift myself with the ability to know really where I am ‘at’ at any moment.
This may sound like a sweeping statement – but I guess it is. The general public do not understand eating disorders. I was so certain of this that it lead me to write my play, which is now the focus of a campaign to stop the silence and the misunderstanding. Since placing myself in the public and talking about my experience I have received proof everyday that people just don’t understand. The wonderful difference right now is people do want to understand.
When I was really sick it was as if that was all Georgia Van Cuylenburg could be – an eating disorder. I couldn’t ever have a headache – it was because I wasn’t eating. I could have sh*tty day – it was cause I had depression – because I wasn’t eating, I couldn’t ever just be working really hard for something – it was because I wasn’t eating. And the most damaging was I didn’t have a great group of friends and I couldn’t find a real connection with most people at school – and that was, of course, because I didn’t eat!
Everyone forgets that you are just another human being. And just like my brother had glandular fever (as did I) when he was in high school – I had Anorexia. But people didn’t dismiss him, they didn’t walk on eggshells around him, never wanting to ‘tip him over the edge’, they openly sympathized with him and supported him. From the minute people found out that I was sick I felt the difference in the way they treated me. They were always asking my family how I was, but they were too afraid to talk to me at all. I think most people are just to scared of this unknown thing. I believe that it needs to not be this secretive unknown if there is going to be real change. How are sufferers meant to recover without honest and real discussion? Both sufferers and the people around them need to know that it is Ok to have this illness. It is just an illness- an alien has not inhabited the sufferers’ body! It is so important that everyone realises that they didn’t choose to have it – just like you don’t choose to have Glandular fever. And if the sufferer really feels that those around them love them for who they are with or without this illness – then they will find the strength to live without it
My relationship with my family and friends has really been the roller coaster aspect of my seven-year journey with this illness. At times I have only wanted my family around at other times I wanted nothing more than to be free of them forever. There is so much love shared between me and my Mum, that an illness such as Anorexia turned our bond into turmoil. She was there at my lowest times, she yelled at me, she said so many wrong things but she also did so much good for me by just sticking in there. For so long she and everyone else just wanted to fix me or wanted me to be better the next time they saw me. Comments such as “All I want is for you to be happy and healthy” tore me apart and it was only when I realized that I would never be able to make them happy that I could move above this. In the last year or so I have finally been able to communicate to them what is really happening to me and how what they do affects me. When my brother said “I don’t understand why you can’t just eat that spoonful of rice if it would make your family happy” I could explain to him that that exact pressure and responsibility that he placed on me was why I couldn’t do it!
In the last month or so everything has improved out of sight in my family for one reason. My parents have ‘given up’ they say this like it is a failure, but they have stopped trying to make sense of my illness on my behalf and stopped trying to solve it. And I was able to say to them that because of this they have in fact helped me more in the last few months than they have in the entire seven-years.
My relationship with friends has been so very hurtful at times and the joy of my life at others. When I was very sick I lost all my friends but one girlfriend. Girls in high school separated themselves from me because I did so many things, kept so busy and never ever just ‘hung out’. But in the last few years I have learnt how amazing the bond is between girlfriends (what a marvellous lesson!!) I now put my friends first no matter how busy I am. I just love that they think I’m ok without all the other stuff – the achievements and excitements. My favourite moments these days are spent just hanging with my friends; they have taught me so much about myself and they help me relax every now and then. And when you went for so long not trusting females and thinking they would never like you – this is a dream come true!
As for partners: when I was in the midst of my illness I stuck with my boyfriend 24/7 because I knew he was the only one that would just hug me if all else failed. The horrible irony was that he was the one thing I had to change about my life before I could get better. He loved me so much – he was loving me for me, so I had lost any desire to love me. What’s more I had fallen out of love with him a long while ago and should have been honest. So without him as my other half I had to fill the rest with love for myself.
I have not had a successful relationship with a man since. And in truth I have really kept myself to myself. In the years since I have become so aware of who I am and what works with me. I have met some wonderful fellas but a girl who is dealing with her ‘sh*t’ honestly and won’t put up with her special someone not dealing with theirs – isn’t a very attractive prospect to most guys apparently! One guy has been honest with me and told me he found me too skinny but no one else has ever expressed that my illness was a problem. In-fact I have usually managed to find the ones who have a lot more ‘going on’ inside their heads than me. Currently I am with someone who says the right things gives me hugs and completely respects my experience with Anorexia and was just pleased that I told him right from the start. He said he thought it would scare him but for some reason it made him like me more. And if I’d heard that from even just one person a few years ago I doubt I’d still have disordered eating today.
To those who are newly diagnosed - Keep a very clear idea of who you are. People will try and tell you what is best for you and others will treat you like you are suddenly a different person. But remember you are still the person you always have been. Try and show that to others, gain a confidence in just being yourself and being honest about what you’ve got. People – or at least most people – react well to someone who is comfortable with; and is taking ownership of their illness. Those that don’t are usually struggling with a reflection of something within them that they are confronted by.
Education and understanding needs to be less facts and figures and more reality. Everyone can tout statistics and quick facts about these illnesses but the real education comes from personal stories, experiences and the reality of these illnesses. There needs to be much more communication about the individual experience so that large organization and even individuals that can make a difference feel moved to act.
There is of course the issue of funds – there is nowhere near enough funding for any mental illnesses treatment or awareness. Money would mean so much – proper training of professionals, suitable facilities for sufferers, support networks and – very importantly – the ability to promote the correct messages of what these illness really mean to those effected by them. But with out those funds all we can do is be honest and talk about these issues. If we create an environment where educators can learn as well as sufferers everyone could work together in the same way for the same result. And if this is no longer such a problematical health area the general public will not feel a need to stigmatise it and push away from gaining any real understanding.