Anorexia Nervosa has no map. The pathways are not linear. For years, my eating disorder has kept me adrift – no destination, boundaries, or directions. My anorexic mind trapped me in a web of twisted roads, confusing my sense of logic and damaging my navigational skills. The route teemed with cul-de-sacs and roadworks at every turn, amplifying the anorexia and isolating my existence.
I was lost. I had to steer my way through this complex, confusing grid without a legend, without a key, without coordinates, without a map.
From a young age, I closed into myself, sensing myself on the periphery of family and friends. I needed family but I didn’t quite fit. As the third child, an ‘accidental’ pregnancy, I felt I was the black sheep of not only my family, but friendship groups, sporting teams and, later, work colleagues. There was a divide between everybody and me – and I did not know any other way to be. My ‘family’ when growing up was a small unit: mother, father, and two older siblings. Two grandmothers, one interstate, one overseas, and one vague step-aunt, also overseas, were not a feature in my life.
Anorexia befriended me – and I it – and with that, I felt I had all I needed: anorexia became my ally. A black sheep like me, anorexia accepted and welcomed me into its folds; it became the family I needed; it was enough.
When Dad died at the end of 2018, I became more lost. Eventually, I broke. The eating disorder grew so large that I almost severed my family in my preoccupation with the rigidity and obsessiveness of anorexia’s rules and demands.
My world narrowed and a new family of office-sitting, white-coated clinicians poked, prodded, and pried while my real family prayed. Life darkened and after two years of relentless medical appointments, medications, and hospitalisations, I attempted suicide.
To my mind, ceasing to exist was the only feasible way to hang onto my best friend, my anorexia, and remain a tight twosome nobody could sever.
Fast forward two-and-a-half years from that suicide attempt. I’m still here. Anorexia is still my best friend, my family.
The difference now, however, is that I have been given a compass – a compass that has helped me to find a way out of isolation and discover a more meaningful, contented life with family as well as anorexia. With this compass in hand, I have started to find that which I lost. I have been able to navigate my way through to an existence with more meaning, more purpose, and more happiness. With more direction.
I have returned to my family. Have I recovered from my eating disorder? No. For recovery, I need another map.
The atlas with that map continues to elude me.
Family. A loaded word. Multiple meanings now – unlike in my childhood. In my naive, self-imposed detachment from familial engagement, I used to think one’s family comprised those I lived with. For multiple reasons, I felt lost even though my immediate family was a close, loving one. But now? Now, family is my compass – this compass has opened the lid on a wider world, broadening the concept of family to embrace multiple routes, from highways to country lanes, from open roads to narrow alleyways. There are choices. Many routes I can take. Many intersecting twists and turns. I am not free of anorexia – it’s firmly buckled into the passenger seat and accompanies me everywhere I go. But I am free of mental pain and anguish. I have managed to discard my depression, dumping it on the side of the road.
Now, in my late fifties, my family has many more tiers. I have two wonderful (adult) children, an incredibly loving, supportive husband, and an adorable and adoring cat. Together they comprise my primary family and nothing, nothing, can rupture the bond we share.
Moreover, the definition of family has expanded to encompass much more than the four of us. My husband is Indian and while I have travelled to India 11 times since marriage, the 12th visit earlier this year was noticeably different.
On this trip, I felt a connection and belonging. It was me asking the questions needed for delving into the intricacies of my husband’s ancestry – it was me begging to attend ‘family-tree school’ with my Indian niece each day while my husband endeavoured to educate us on the complex links within his own, extended family. Our naivety may have appeared comedic but the interest was genuine and my need for closeness and cohesion sincere.
I feel more connected to my Indian family than ever before. They know about my anorexia and yet remain loving, supportive, and non-intrusive. I am lucky to have them.
Since Dad died, I have strengthened my relationship with my brother and sister, neither of whom lives near me. The video chats we have each Sunday evening, the nightly emails to my sister, the sharing of photos, dreams, and plans – all of this links me to them in a way I find gratifying, validating, and supportive. Their love is non-judgmental and unconditional.
My sister-in-law is in the business of uncovering the particulars of people’s ancestry. Her special interest is in searching for and revealing my brother’s (and therefore my own) family ties. This process intrigues me to the extent I feel I am discovering a new family – one that I’ve previously ignored. In this way, I am creating another source of connection, another welcome detour in my search for family and connection. My compass has many more coordinates than the north, south, east, and west. I can go anywhere I want in this world.
Family offers. Family cares. Family supports, connects, and unifies. Family gives.
And family directs.
Family provides practical, informational, emotional, and mental advice and encouragement. For me, the practical, logistical support of attending the many appointments with my treatment team was enough in the beginning. That, and purchasing my medications, engaging a house cleaner, and ordering two weeks’ worth of readymade, delivered meals meant the world to me and made an enormous difference amid the pain of my grief and enveloping depression.
In the aftermath of Dad’s death, the anorexia, my passenger, was likewise supported by my family in that my husband, daughter, and son maintained the perfect balance of hands-on support and distance when they sensed I needed space.
They provided the necessary information to manage my eating disorder without overloading me and they helped me to develop coping strategies. To his credit, my husband read avidly and attended courses for caregivers, attending all my appointments with me and advocating for my needs – and my wishes. He took leave from his work and gave me and my eating disorder not only his time and availability but also his infinite patience.
Stability and safety. Affection, comfort, and empathy. A listening ear. Understanding and unquestionable validation of my feelings. Confidence and self-esteem. This is what family gives me. Family provides signposts that give me confirmation and reassurance that the road I am on is an open one, on which I will find more contentment, more freedom … and more life.
My mind is being rehabilitated and my family – immediate, Indian, ancestral – provides the map.
While the map does not show which direction to take to recover from my anorexia, for now I am happy to follow the path I am on, knowing that life extends beyond the narrow constraints of anorexic alleyways, potholes, ditches, and massive roadworks.
If I get lost again, or stuck, swallowed by the inevitable tides of change and hardship, I know that family will be my ever-steady constant.
No matter what.