By June Alexander.
Recovering and healing from an eating disorder is an ongoing journey. Like life itself, the process can be as fulfilling and rewarding as we choose to make it. Accordingly, I am delighted to announce the time has come for www.junealexander.com, my website ‘home’ for the past six years, to transition to a new site, www.lifestoriesdiary.com. I am delighted because this new site provides opportunities for reader interaction and contribution through narrative forms of expression. Safe and supportive, this online environment has been built for you to share with like-minded others through the medium of writing and particularly, diary writing. Diary writing is important because, while we can benefit from engagement with and guidance from others, we also need to work privately within, and develop a loving relationship with our self. Above all, www.lifestoriesdiary.com aims to assist this quest, through encouragement of person-centred healing and promotion of self-fulfillment and well-being. The catalyst for this new site stems from my extensive experience with eating disorders and diary writing, my memoir A Girl Called Tim, and my PhD in which the creative work is Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders – The Diary Healer.
The story behind my website began when I was 11 years’ old in 1962. Early that year, I developed an eating disorder but a gift of a diary at Christmas seemed to offer a reprieve and give me hope. Writing helped me to feel better. Words were like good friends – they were always there for me and did not judge. I now had somewhere to both offload and store the calorie numbers and food and exercise rules that were cluttering and dominating my mind. The pen and paper provided an external connection, a tangible recording tool. In this way the diary, like the eating disorder, became a coping mechanism for easing anxiety and meeting the demands of daily life. Becoming what seemed an immediate, trusted friend, the first little book marked the start of a literary journey that, over the next 40-plus years, would chronicle the loss and recovery of my identity and self.
About My Diary
My first diary entry is crammed with detailed records of food consumed, exercise taken, the time of awakening and going to bed, and sport results. In the months and years that follow, I transitioned into anorexia-bulimia and more self-expression became evident. In adolescence, words tumbled onto the pages as I tried to make sense of thoughts and feelings, and the limitation of one page a day was sometimes a challenge – my handwriting would grow smaller and smaller as the end of the page approached. My world was small. There was the diary and me. Not for many years would I learn there was also the eating disorders, and that the diary’s influence extended far beyond the two of us.
The eating disorders, like the diary, thrived on privacy—and encouraged the keeping of secrets. As I progressed into adulthood, the diary became a safe place in which to express and analyze thoughts, and develop coping strategies. But I was unaware that confiding in the diary was also strengthening the eating disorder, with its unrelenting and stringent demands embedded on every page. Nothing I did was enough and the impossible-to-keep rules of the illness became shameful secrets within secrets that had to be guarded and hidden from others. By age 28, my diary had recorded an almost complete disconnection of self from body and increasingly I was losing the will to live.
A voice when one cannot speak
Outwardly, I was a wife and mother with a full-time career but within, the diary revealed a desperate struggle to honor daily lists and pledges revolving around weight, exercise and food intake. After 17 years of struggling privately with these demands, desperation drove me to break the silence by revealing the thoughts confined to my diaries to a doctor for the first time. Upon learning I kept a diary this doctor, and others who followed, encouraged me to continue my diary writing as a coping tool. However, like me, they were ignorant of the diary’s potential to play a pivotal role in my illness, and of its ability to be a foe as well as friend. Eventually, in my 30s, a trusted psychiatrist suggested the diary could assist the healing process and encouraged its use as a means to engage in written communication with him. Gradually, under his therapeutic guidance, what I wrote in my diary began to reconnect with authentic thoughts and feelings. Self-abuse and self-harm gave way to self-care as my body and mind progressively reintegrated. Decades later, at age 55, upon healing sufficiently to re-enter life’s mainstream, I departed my journalism career to reflect on these decades of diary writing and write a memoir about my illness experience.
As I ‘came out’ and began to share my story publicly, the diaries ‘came out’ too. For instance, besides providing the main data source for my memoir, A Girl Called Tim (2011), they became a resource of documented ‘lived experience’, assisting the dissemination of science-based knowledge and evidence-based treatments in books for health professionals and mainstream readers. Additionally, the creation of www.junealexander.com as a companion to my memoir led others with experience of eating disorders to share how they had ‘connected’ with my story in a way that gave them ‘permission’ to share their stories too. Many adult readers wrote at length, explaining that they had felt isolated and had kept their eating disorders a secret for decades, but upon reading, connecting and identifying with my story, felt empowered to share and externalize their thoughts and experiences for the first time.
Revelation – a foe as well as friend
My reflection on these heartfelt reader responses sparked a revelation that perhaps my friend the diary had been destructive as well as constructive throughout my long illness. This insight in turn became the catalyst for my PhD in Creative Writing, investigating how diary entries might be used in writing a book to assist people in healing from eating disorders. In studying my own diary records, I was shocked to discover the extent to which this friend had been an accomplice of my own illness. The two had been in collusion over many years. Yet, despite this deceit, diary writing had helped me to function and survive during decades of chronic mental illness. Moreover, with the right therapeutic intervention, the diary had helped me to reconnect with and reconstruct a long-suppressed true identity. My diaries had helped me to develop the ability and skills to live a full, rather than part, life. But did my healing journey have to be so long and tortuous? How much did the diary help and how much did it hinder my recovery? Could the diary have provided a more pro-active role in healing? I wanted to find out.
Using your diary as power tool for self
Keeping a diary and writing a memoir contributed greatly to my healing from long-term eating disorders and to my process of self-renewal. Building on this base, my PhD enabled me to study the diary’s usefulness more widely. My investigation found scant reference in the literature on the effect of diary writing in the specific area of eating disorders and little evidence-based literature on the diary’s influence during the process of disconnection and re-connection between body and identity.
These gaps in the eating disorder literature inspired Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders – The Diary Healer (2016), the creative work in my PhD. Seventy diarists became my research participants, generously sharing excerpts from their personal diaries to help me explain the pitfalls and benefits of diary writing and, specifically, to explore the ambivalent relationship with body and identity that can occur when experiencing eating disorders. The diarists, backed by insights from researchers and health practitioners, became the book’s voice in describing the role of the diary in self-healing and renewal. This collaborative sharing in the narrative epitomizes the essence and purpose of www.lifestoriesdiary.com. Welcome!