The Diary Healer – bridging the gap between science and the sufferer – sharing a PhD journey
I am a PhD candidate. I pinch myself. Is this real? Since regaining my true Self from the effects of Anorexia Nervosa in 2006, life has been amazing. Yes. But a PhD?
How did this happen? I remain incredulous.
I share my story because, if your life is being kept on hold by an eating disorder, and you are fed up with it, please know recovery IS possible, and YOU CAN BE FREE to accomplish more than your wildest dreams, like me.
At Age Eight, I Want To Be An Author
The written word has been a friend for as long as I can remember, since age three. At age eight, I wanted to be an author. I read everything I could find, which wasn’t much in the 1950s, in a farmhouse with no electricity – but my parents did have one bookcase, and the one-room school I attended also had one bookcase. I read everything on the shelves, whether age appropriate or not. Books fired my imagination. They took me out of the valley in which I lived, to another place. They inspired possibilities and dreams. They provided a diversion, an escape, from my immediate environment.
When starting secondary school at the age of 12, I had access to a library for the first time. The thrill and anticipation of perusing books on a library’s shelves stays with me to this day.
Besides reading books, I wrote stories and was encouraged when they were accepted for publication in The Australian Children’s Newspaper and other literary outlets. Words were my friends because I could create anything I wanted with them. They were safe, accommodating and did not judge.
At Age Eleven, I Develop Anorexia Nervosa
When I developed Anorexia Nervosa at age 11, and began keeping a diary, the written word took on a new role in my life – it became a survival tool.
More than six decades later, I continue to keep a journal – taking perhaps 20 minutes a day such writing offers opportunity for self-reflection, self-talk, self-discussion, thought and feeling sorting. Diary-writing is part of who I am.
Eating Disorders Sabotage Four Decades
My diaries of the decades between childhood and grand-motherhood are not easy to read, because looking from where I stand today, the loss of Self is clearly evident, the ravages of the illness clearly dominant. I feel sorry for, and mourn, the loss of me. The oft tear-filled pages chronicle a downward spiral with the Anorexia Nervosa, the Bulimia Nervosa, the chronic anxiety and depression, until I hit rock bottom; then the diaries record the clinging to a thread of the real me, the determination to dig deep, get through this blackness, somehow, and head to the light.
I wanted to show my parents that the true me was really still here; I wanted to be free to enjoy my children. And now, the reading gets easier, for the pages start to reflect awareness of Self, the struggle to rebuild and develop self-belief, acquire healthy thought and behavioral patterns, and ultimately set myself free to be me.
The diaries are interwoven with my life. We’ve been through everything together.
And now we are doing a PhD together.
Age 11: A relative gives a diary as a gift. The most cherished gift ever.
Age 11-55: The diary becomes both a survival and recovery tool, recording the struggle with eating disorder illness.
Age 55: With diaries as a resource, I write my memoir, A Girl Called Tim.
Age 63 (today): I am writing The Diary Healer – about journaling as a resource in treating eating disorders. This book, to be published by Routledge, London, is the creative work in a PhD with CQUniversity Australia.
Life Is About the Journey And Never Giving Up
There are numerous reasons why I feel incredulous about being a PhD candidate, and they include:
- As the mother of four young children in my early 30s, living in rural Australia, and working full-time in a newspaper office, I began long distance studies for a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. I was trying to keep busy, be productive, to quell the torment in my brain. I was achieving high distinctions and the tutors held high hopes for me. But the untreated eating disorder, and associated anxiety and depression caused a health crisis – and reluctantly (because when I start something, I always like to finish it) ceased my studies. Survival, and recovery, had to come first.
- Recovery took a long time, decades. Anxiety had preceded the development of the Anorexia Nervosa, and remained afterwards. Anxiety, associated perfectionism, and self-doubt deterred me from doing many things, including study. I did not complete the BA, let alone start a Masters. My academic record was almost non-existent.
- All I had was ‘evidence of’ life experience with eating disorders … and a passion for writing…. Life experience is accumulated through doing; passion is an innate thing, you either have it or you don’t – neither can be measured academically, I thought – I mean, there’s no certificate for either…. Besides, decades with an eating disorder had hijacked self-belief and confidence. I continued to feel unequal to others in multiple daily situations. I would look up to and feel inferior to anybody who could eat three meals a day without a care in the world.
- My passion for writing had been the only part of Self not sabotaged by the eating disorder. This passion had developed before my eating disorder and which clearly belonged to the true me. When I felt recovered, in my mid-fifties, I decided to be ‘open’ about my eating disorder experience: to help one other person in this world – let them know they are not alone with this horrid illness – would make all of my suffering worthwhile. Besides, I had always believed that to beat the eating disorder bully, I needed to put it in the light – give it nowhere to hide. Eating disorders thrive on darkness, and secrets. So now I’m sharing my story, and amazing things begin to happen – instead of the diary being a tool for survival of Self, it now becomes a sword in fighting eating disorders.
- Turning the power of the eating disorder on itself: Tentatively, driven by an urge to learn more about the illness that had profoundly affected my life and that of my loved ones, I began to attend eating disorder conferences – the first was the ANZAED conference in Brisbane, in 2009. There I was – a sufferer, among all these people with a string of letters after their names. I felt nervous and out of place, until the researchers stood behind the lectern to describe their latest findings – and then I sat entranced, thinking ‘you are describing my life, you are helping me understand me’. Their words were like bright lights shining, illuminating my mind. Oh what enlightenment. I slowly began to accept I was an okay person. I began to feel like I belonged. I had had an illness that had made me feel worthless, that was all.
- Family, friends, treatment team and researchers encouraged self-belief, and with their support, I continued to take steps forward in the way I felt most comfortable – writing. Six books in six years.
- Margaret McAllister, Professor of Nursing at CQUniversity, Noosa, Queensland, had heard me speak about my ED journey, with Professor Janet Treasure, at the 2013 At Home with Eating Disorders conference in Brisbane. Prof. McAllister, together with Professor Donna Brien, from the university’s School of Education and the Arts, phoned me at home shortly after, to encourage me to apply for PhD candidature. ‘What?’ ‘Me?’ I exclaimed, embarrassed to reveal my low level of academic achievement. Undeterred, they convinced me to try.
- Intrigued by the fact that journaling had helped me survive my eating disorder, they were interested to know if this had helped others, too, and why. The professors’ thoughts aligned with mine – by now I had learnt that, like me, adults with eating disorders, even though high-functioning in careers, motherhood and other aspects of life, often felt ‘faceless’, like they ‘didn’t count’, like they were ‘a problem’; comments often left them feeling ‘unacknowledged and unaccepted’. Such feelings obviously fed the eating disorder and compounded the challenge of recovery.
- On my daily walks by the seashore, a new book concept began to take shape – that of sharing of the ‘inside story’ of living with an eating disorder – to help other sufferers, and also help carers and health professionals understand what this illness was about. My diary had helped me – but what about others?
- The seed for the concept for The Diary Healer was born.
- Routledge (London) accept the book concept. The concept phase involved sharing this book dream with many people in the eating disorder field around the world; encouragement spurred me on; the structure was refined, shaped and honed. Now a contract; I was thrilled. This book would be a chance for sufferers of eating disorders to help and educate others. I wanted this to be a book by sufferers for sufferers – early this year, a blog post, inviting the sharing of journaling experience, drew an amazing, humbling, response. https://lifestoriesdiary.com/2014/02/calling-diary-and-journal-writers-with-experience-of-an-eating-disorder/ Thank you to the brave sufferers and former sufferers of eating disorders who have responded to this call. At this time, I knew the book was happening, The Diary Healer was taking shape but as for my application for PhD candidacy, there was, as yet, no response. I really thought I had no chance.
- A call from Noosa – ‘congratulations, you are a PhD candidate’. ‘The Diary Healer’ will be your creative work’. Oh me oh my, this phone call, a month ago, is one I will remember always. On behalf of sufferers of eating disorders, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude. Do you suffer an eating disorder? This book is for you. Please know, YOUR LIFE DOES COUNT.
- The adventure into the world of academia begins. The journey has been long, starting when a little 11-year-old girl began writing a diary in 1962. I look forward to sharing this new chapter of life with you. This book, this work, is for you as well as me. Next week, I fly interstate to Noosa, to meet Professor McAllister for the first time. She is my principal supervisor. Professor Brien is my associate supervisor. Coming from the ‘university of life’, I’m sure there will be many challenges. Together we will get through these. Get through an eating disorder, and you can get through anything. Especially when it is a chance to help others. I will keep you posted.