Families and friends, where does one start and the other end? For me, there is no beginning and no end. I reflect and marvel at how, at any age, new growth can bud. Family and friends encircle me. Their many elements form a priceless ring of love and support. When I waver, I am encouraged back on track; I’m told ‘you can ‘do it’, ‘try again’, when I say ‘I’ve failed again’, ‘I can’t’. The people who form my ring have endless quantities of patience and understanding, unconditional faith, and acceptance. For I am a challenge. The people who form my ring are my life raft; they keep me afloat. Some have been there forever, others more recent and, like rings on a tree, they all have a role, are a part, of me.
Parents, sister, grandparents; cousins, aunts and uncles, school friends. Until age 11, when I developed anorexia, life was relatively uncomplicated. Adventurous-spirited and shy, a child who loved to read books and write, and wanted everyone to be happy. My story is told in my memoir, A Girl Called Tim (ebook) and paperback. Childhood is a defining period; it sets much of the pattern on how to handle what comes next. Children are like flowers. We bud and burst into bloom, we blossom, fully or partially, only time will tell. Creation itself is a miracle, traits inherited, genetic template fixed. When born with a vulnerability for an eating disorder, many factors come into play. The illness may be obvious or obscure, hidden in layers of secrets, as mine was, for decades. Sadly, as a result of my eating disorder, and related factors, I became isolated from many people. I remain in touch with one life long girlfriend, Lu, who lived on a neighbouring farm. And at age 12, I met Helen, who has been my bestest friend ever since. I hasten to mention another friend, besides Lu and Helen…my diary. My diary has been a confidante, and survival tool (unknowingly,at times, also a self-destructive tool) since age 11.
My anorexia, untreated, morphed into bulimia-anorexia in my teenage years, so I looked ‘normal’ even though I did not feel it. I did not know it then, but know now, that the sneaky illness thoroughly took over my mind. Sabotaged it. Caused me to think and behave in ways that were not true to me. My mother asked and pleaded: Why can’t you be like (friend) and (friend)? I wanted to be. I just didn’t know how. Part of my true self was disintegrating under the force of the illness. But some good things were happening, too. I tried to cope by doing well at school and creating a sense of belonging where I could, which was mostly with my best friend Helen. At age 16, I met George, who would become my husband four years on, and I became an American Field Service exchange student to Missouri, USA, for a year. My host family, the Edwards, remain my second family to this day. A passion for writing led to a cadetship with a country newspaper at age 18, and so began a career in journalism.
Twenties and Thirties
Good times and bad times. Married at 20, but manipulative ED came too. Eight weeks later, my car collided with a log truck on my way to work, causing cervical spine injuries, the effects of which continue today. Four beautiful children by the age of 25. Then the anxiety and depression that had been building since childhood, led to suicidal thoughts. At age 27, love of my husband and four children gave me strength to seek help for the first time…and share my story with a GP.
Six years of misdiagnosis ensued, eventually leading me to Professor Graham Burrows, who became my psychiatrist for the next 30 years. He saved my life but there was a cost. I lost my husband and my family of origin. Such can be the effects of a long-term eating disorder. I loved them all but behaved as if I didn’t. Reading my diaries of this time is difficult, for I am so ‘not me’. My many rules and lists for getting through each day, and inevitably failing, played right into ED’s scheming ways. I was on a roundabout, spiralling downwards into a deep dark well.
Thank goodness the family and friendship circle enveloping me at that time was sufficiently strong to keep alive a thread within that said ‘I want to be free’, ‘I want to show them that I can me Me’, ‘I am here, just almost buried in layers of isolation, crying and trying to get out of this non-stop hell’.
Good things happen. My family-friend circle grows. Strange things may happen when you have an eating disorder for a long time. I learnt at an early age not to talk to family of origin about the eating disorder or inner feelings and thoughts…mental health challenges were considered a sign of weakness, and inability to cope; safe topics were preferred, like talking about the weather or politics or the price of food or fuel, or what others were doing. In this way, my family-friendship ring began to develop a divergence. Alienation from my family of origin began, a painful process; luckily, however, at the same time, a strengthening began to evolve…increasingly, in striving to re-connect my body with lost self, I developed sufficient trust to start sharing long suppressed thoughts and feelings with my psychiatrist, minister of religion, best friends. Whether or not they understood, they tolerated and accepted me, assured me ‘fresh starts’ were good, that failures were ‘opportunities for learning’ when lost to the eating disorder. Two more important people became fresh components of my life ring — Belinda, who taught me about mindfulness, and a GP, who remains a caring guide until this day. Now, my diary began to become a source of self-help rather than self-destruction.
A wonderful decade. After 44 years of living under ED’s rules, bullying and torment, I break free.
Free to discover and develop my true identity.
Many people to thank. Especially my lifeblood, my now adult children, forever supportive and loving, accepting and tolerating, if not understanding, their mother’s many sideways steps; and their dad, an ever-reliable anchor when storms hit, a few words is often all it takes, in guiding me to shore.
It was this family, my family of choice, together with health professionals, who helped me cross the line to me. And a new little cheer squad began to form with the birth of my first grandchild. This support gave me strength to let my inner self step into the light, start sharing my story publicly, and this sharing brought fresh revelations: first, the release of my A Girl Called Tim, and My Kid is Back (also about to be released on Amazon in USA:-) led to the overwhelming discovery there are many others who have suffered, are suffering, like me. Friends and family, they are one.
Secondly, the release of these books, and others, on eating disorders, led to the creation of another kind of family, a global family with whom I feel safe, supported and secure.
This is my family in the eating disorder field. I can share thoughts and feelings with this family. How amazing is this.
Goodbye to shame and stigma.
Goodbye to pretence. Hello to ‘being me’.
My body and self are one. Hello to acceptance and enriching self-belief.
So glad I persevered, did not give up. The ring of family and friends is leading to many new beginnings.
I am supposed to be old and wise by now, but many parts of me remain young, exploring and catching up on experiences and growth sabotaged for decades by ED. I continue to make mistakes, the sort that were missed during adolescence and young adulthood due to ED’s disintegration of self. Food is my daily medicine, but recovery from an eating disorder involves far more than this.
For me, intimate, interpersonal relationships remain a challenge: to accept it is okay, a right for me as for all, to live in an environment that is safe, secure and stable. My children seem so wise; they accept me, with my imperfections; as they have grown into fine young adults, two becoming parents themselves, they have taken on the roles of patient guides, mentors and carers. Each provides support in their own way. Lucky me. Long-time friends do the same, and in the eating disorder field, my ‘other family’ continues to grow and grow. The Internet and social media facilitates connecting and developing a sense of belonging.
Like rings on a tree trunk, friendships continue to develop with each new year, with totally amazing people, some in person, others solely on line. They range from sufferers with an eating disorder to emeritus professors. Their acceptance has led to the writing of more books and advocacy in the ED field. In giving, one receives. Helping others, helps heal oneself. These are my lessons. I will write more about my latest collaboration, co-authoring with Professors Janet Treasure and Ulrike Schmidt soon, but for now here is the title: Getting Better Bite by Bite; it is the second edition of a wonderful self-help book for sufferers of bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. My tree of life has many branches, has weathered many storms and some harsh seasons, but I have survived and my trunk is more sturdy and much richer, its roots much deeper, its foliage more dense and colourful, fresh tips continuing to appear, even now. If you are facing a challenge, persevere, for the storm will pass and the sun will shine again. Reaching out, seeking help, will help the clouds pass by that much sooner.