My first terrifying experience was when I was three, one Sunday when my dad was encouraging me to eat my dinner. At the same time as he was telling me how I would not grow strong, a voice louder than my dad’s was warning me not to eat the food on my plate. This voice told me I was a very bad girl, not to eat, and only to listen to it. It told me my dad was trying to get me fat. It said I didn’t need to eat because I was a fat ugly pig.
While my dad was talking and watching me, this voice continuously warned me not to eat. It was difficult to focus on what my dad was saying because the threats from the voice were drowning my dad out. So not knowing what to do I quickly swallowed my food.
As I swallowed the last mouthful the voice informed me since I did not listen and I ate the food, my dad would have to pay by dying the next day on the way to work, while on the bus.
This voice I am describing was not a voice I was familiar with. It was aggressive, loud, abusive, condemning, insensitive, degrading and controlling. It was the complete opposite to me, a man’s voice.
After this voice’s threats about my dad and the many more that followed my focus was on being nice to every family member no matter what they did or said, in case the voice followed through with his threats and I might never see them again. I also believed I was responsible for every one and for fixing things at home. When I could not fix things, which was frequent because drama was constant in our home, I felt such a failure.
After the emergence of the voice it was difficult to eat therefore I gave my food to my sisters, friends or our pet dog. When I did try to sneak something to eat the voice bluntly told me how fat and ugly I was and how much fatter I would become if I ate the food. On occasions I would beg the voice to let me eat something, for example, an apple and I would run or cycle for an extra 2 hours to make up for it. The voice was not into negotiation therefore the running and the cycling took place without the apple.
What was going on inside my head and heart was a living nightmare. At times I felt as though I had an evil monster inside me. It was extremely difficult trying to keep that monster quiet. There were many times I wanted to release him however I was terrified I would not be able to control him.
I was ten when I began weighing myself excessively and attempted a diet. When I say a diet I was eating little already, so the better description would be starving. I became nauseous, dizzy, experienced fevers, dysentery, plus severe headaches. I went to the doctor, who told me he was there to save people’s lives, not watch them die. Being a kid, doctors to me were special people-like the doctor said, they saved lives. This doctor had just told me I was not worth his time, which reinforced the belief I already had of being unworthy.
The voice in my head was extremely angry with me for attempting to get help from the doctor, demanding that I not do this again because I was not worthy of help and I was taking up time meant for sick people.
I left the doctor feeling very unwell, believing I had failed the system with the voice telling me how much of a failure I was. Prior to this experience I honestly believed a doctor’s role was to cure and care. After this experience it was evidence to me this was definitely not the case, and as a consequence I lost complete trust and faith in doctors and anorexia remained hidden.
I was frightened of my anger due to the message I received from my environments, stating girls must not show their anger or emotions. I was angry at myself because here I was being told I was basically not allowed to feel and I was letting others down. Because of my age and gentle, hypersensitive, loving nature I could not fight back or take my anger out on others, so I took my anger out on myself.
I didn’t know what to do with the anxiety I was experiencing as a result of the doctor’s rejection. I loved to exercise. I was very energetic, so I increased my exercise and it wasn’t long before I became aware exercising was relieving my anger. What resulted was even better: I could lose weight and finally there was a realization for the first time in my life I was good at something. The more I exercised, the less I ate. The more weight I lost, the louder the voice. At times it was like I was in an abusive relationship; I was the oppressed one with anorexia (the voice) the oppressor. Sadly I listened to him more than anyone else.
I was what you might term the “ideal child, the over achiever, compliant, and the people pleaser.” I was an A plus student, and in most sports at school. I was witty, bubbly, bright, sensitive, caring, and believed it was my responsibility to make others happy. While I could easily identify others strengths I could not identify my own.
I was popular with both female and male friends until I withdrew from them because the voice told me I didn’t deserve them, and they were better than me. It was extremely difficult trying to listen to other people talking with the voice raving in my head, at times I wished I had a remote control so I could push a button to stop all the chaos.
Because I was turned away from care when I was ten I was never diagnosed with anorexia. I was 20 when I discovered for myself what was happening to me. On the fourth of February 1983 my favourite singer Karen Carpenter who was 32 years young died. After listening to Karen’s symptoms it was clear to me I too was experiencing the same illness.
Five years later I began my pathway of recovery. During the time I was suffering and recovering from anorexia there was no family, friend or professional, cheer-squad or golden pathway. Even though I can say now that’s the way it was and such was life, reflecting back it was the most confusing, painful, overwhelming and challenging time in my life. I am so fortunate and extremely grateful I survived it.
In 2003 I was asked to share my experience with anorexia to a community of people, I gratefully accepted the challenge. It was a challenge because it was to be the first time I was ever to share my struggles with a soul let alone a community.
I wanted people in the community and professionals to have a tiny glimpse of what it was like for me so that they might try to have compassion as well as empathy for other sufferers and their families. I also wanted to give sufferers hope that they too could recover. I was very aware back then and still today about the huge hurdle for people with anorexia and other people with mental illnesses because of the lack of awareness surrounding them.
I joined a group of professionals who worked with sufferers in this area, in 2003 and I soon discovered that while they had much knowledge and research in the area they did not truly understand the experience.
I have experienced many years as a telephone counsellor, a carer for people with mental illness, I am qualified as a professional counsellor, and have talked at a university for medical students. I discovered in these areas there is also lack of understanding into the real experiences of mental illness.
The need to understand usually occurs for some-one when a mental illness hits closer to home than the girl around the corner, the actress, famous singer, or footballer. When the understanding and acceptance does arise, which seems to feel like forever for some sufferers, does the judging cease. Sadly for some the understanding does not come.
‘’Just eat something.’’ “The voice you’re hearing is just your inner critic like we all have.’’ Your daughter is just going through a stage.” I have met people who have been diagnosed with Schizophrenia instead of anorexia because of the presence of the voice.
I have heard often from many people with mental illness with much sorrow, summed up, ’Why don’t they (loved ones, professionals) get that I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it and I can’t cure it?’’ “Why am I being punished?”
A cut or a broken arm that is visible or a part of the body that lacks health, we can physically patch up or cut away and this is accepted and justified in our society. Illnesses like anorexia, alcoholism, bipolar, schizophrenia, where a part of the brain is not healthy we cannot put a bandage on as its wounds are too deep. It is not from choice, we cannot see it, so it is feared and rejected by our society and sadly sometimes from those closest to us.
Often sufferers are punished and ostracized by those around them for what others see as weird behaviours. People don’t want to be around weird which results in the sufferer becoming isolated. What others don’t understand is the person they see as acting weird or not behaving the way they ‘’should’’ is in fact ill and in much need of unconditional love and acceptance. It is overwhelming when you don’t understand what is happening and cannot control what is happening to you.
There is enough punishment going on inside a person with a mental illness without others doing the same. All punishment does is reinforce their self hatred, and how bad they believe they are.
I don’t believe it is until we have been seriously ill that we can have a genuine awareness of what it is like for some-one else to be ill and we can have that sensitivity in caring for others. This is why I believe it is beneficial to have a team of professionals treating sufferers and at least one person on the team who has suffered and recovered or cared for a loved one with that specific mental illness. I believe it is also important for the other professionals to have experience in assisting sufferers through their healing process. If the people guiding us do not speak our language how do we attempt our first baby step let alone get past it?
The treatment centres who build their foundation on the qualities above have high recovery rates.
We cheer on those who climb mountains just to conquer them, most times to fulfill a dream. We refer to them as heroes. Rarely do we cheer on those who climb mountains like anorexia, alcoholism, bipolar and Schizophrenia which takes much courage and is done purely to survive. They climb, some conquer their mountain too however they’re not referred to as heroes instead they’re looked upon as lepers
People with mental illnesses have shared how they are very aware of the judgment by our ignorant and intolerant society in regard to their illness; it is understandable why their illness remains secret.
It’s all about getting a fair go here in Australia so the media keeps telling us. If this were true then people with mental illness, as well as their families and carers would be given this same fair go that is given to people with physical illness. After all they deserve as much help for their broken spirit as people with broken arms.
These broken spirited people by the way are usually the one’s who will take the shirt off their own backs, give their last dollar, time or help to some-one in need. These same kind people are the ones who may become sufferers of violence.
We are in the year 2007 and I have been well from anorexia for the last nineteen years. I wrote my first book in 2005 called “What do you do when the mirror lies?”, to share my honest account with my struggle with anorexia. My second book called Stand Strong I wrote for those who have some-one with anorexia however those who have read it tell me it is for all. Both books I hope will create better awareness, and encourage people to talk.
I am so grateful for my life after my battle with anorexia and for my second chance at life. I want people to know as I do, that anorexia is not just about food and weight for they are the smallest part of the illness. To stop eating and excessive exercise are symptoms of a much deeper problem.
I want people to know that I did not suddenly get out of bed one morning when I was three and decide that I was going to stuff up the next 22 years of my life by starving and exercising myself nearly to the point of death just to look like Barbie. I could not control the voice in my head driving me to what would be termed as weird behaviours. I could not control the fact my brain was not healthy, and I was pre-wired for disease. I could not control my environments, people, events or anything in my life. My body and food were the only things I thought I could control. I also could not control that my culture did and still does not encourage females to be accepted for who we are inside instead encourages us to be small, so small as not to be noticed.
We tend to hide something happening to us even when that thing could be fatal, as a way to protect us and others. In 2003 I discovered my secret about suffering, going through and recovering from anorexia was not mine to keep. It needed to be told then, it still does now and not only by me since I am certain there are many people around the world suffering from anorexia and other mental illnesses, who have their stories to share. It needs to be told by loved ones and carers of sufferers of all mental illnesses. It needs to be told by children and it needs to be heard since many times children are the carers of a parent or parents with a mental illness. Whether our stories are told by talking, writing, through paintings or by plays they need to be told.
We cannot sit back and say our culture is ignorant and intolerant about mental illness without deciding to change ourselves. We need the courage to STAND STRONG and keep talking about these illnesses, express truthfully our stories and not be concerned about what others think of us, after all it is none of our business what they think of us.