Writing by Freya Madders // Illustration by Franz Lang
I can’t eat a mint. I just can’t. I refuse. I cannot begin to contemplate eating that tiny Mentos mint. A mint the size of a five cent piece. No way. I already have eaten so much and have so much more still to eat today. I surely could not be expected to eat anything additional to my already gigantic meal plan that is hard enough to cope with – that is utter madness.These are the thoughts being belted at me as I sit in my ‘Sensory Modulation’ therapy group on the 23rd day of my 40-day admission in the Eating Disorders Program at The Geelong Clinic. The therapist had wanted me, and the other seven patients here, to participate in an activity learning about the sensation of taste. She had brought in several different foods to try, including Freddo’s, lollipop, popping candy and mints. Along with a couple of other patients, I blatantly refused to take part. I couldn’t eat anything unless I was forced to by the nurses. I didn’t feel worthy of food or nourishment. I felt bad whenever I ate anything; whether it was a piece of broccoli or a piece of chocolate. I felt like any amount of any type of food was going to make me fat. Sounds irrational? Not for us. Not for the thousands of Australian’s, of both genders and all ages, struggling with an eating disorder.
I can’t pinpoint when it first all began. I know that I became unhappy with my body when I hit puberty younger than most girls and started to gain weight. Everywhere I looked girls seemed to be thinner than me and I couldn’t understand why. I couldn’t stop comparing myself. I didn’t realise at the time but looking back, body image dominated my thoughts for a long time and my body hatred was extreme. I would cry whenever mum and I went shopping for jeans or bikinis. I remember I’d just look in the mirror and weep.
At the start of Year 11, having returned from a six-week language exchange in Italy, I had come back even heavier and was disgusted with how I looked. I’d tried diets for most of my school years but they’d never really worked. When I returned home from my trip, I started cutting out all types of junk and processed food and started running. I ate salads for lunch everyday and didn’t snack between meals. I was starving. But it worked. I started to receive compliment after compliment from people who said I looked fantastic and that they couldn’t even recognise me. I felt a sense of achievement and success I’d never felt before. All my other achievements or fulfilling moments in my life didn’t seem to live up to the thrill I felt losing weight– something I’d wanted to do for years. I didn’t want this feeling to stop. So I didn’t stop. I continued to lose more and more weight. I started becoming even stricter with my diet and started running more and more. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. I was losing weight, I was fitter, I felt better about myself. It is very surreal when such a good thing, the life-style that constantly bombards us in society and on social media to eat well and exercise can become so destructive.
Nearing the end of Year 11, I was approached by the school counsellor who had advised my parents to take me to the GP due to my rapid weight loss following concerns raised by several of my teachers. I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time; the GP even seemed relatively relaxed. He said I was slightly underweight and needed to gain a couple of kilos. At first, this seemed to be no problem, I thought nothing of it. But as time went on, I became more obsessed with running and more restrictive with what I ate. I had become so passionate about exercise and used it as a way of control, a release of sorts, a sign of self-discipline, a way to make myself feel better. I got fitter and fitter, thinner and thinner. I became more aware of nutrition, I started following numerous diet blogs and Instagram accounts, I began learning about vegetarianism, veganism, the paleo diet and constantly weighing up which one was the “healthiest”. I started to label foods as “good” and “bad” and I became a lot more selective about what I ate. I continued to cut out more and more foods, to the point where I was mainly surviving on kale leaves. I’d lost even more weight over the summer and entered Year 12 with a starved body and mind, yet still was very much in denial about it all.
During Year 12, I managed the stress of VCE and the constant pressure to succeed through my eating disorder. I had become an extreme perfectionist in terms of every area of my life. I had to be the thinnest, the fittest, the healthiest, the most liked and I had incredibly high expectations of my academic achievements. Everything about my life started to centre around numbers. My ATAR score, my calorie intake, the number of push-ups I did before school in the morning, the number of kilometres I ran for. My life revolved around making sure I ate less calories than I consumed, that everything I ate was raw, pure, organic and unprocessed. Because if I didn’t make those calculations I would be overwhelmed with feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety. And who would want that? It seemed to be my answer for any hardship that came my way.
The more the year went on, the more intense my illness became. It became my life and took over my personality. I was forced by my parents to start seeing a psychologist in the middle of Year 12, and at this point, they, the psychologist and GP made the decision to keep me stable in my underweight state in order to let me complete my VCE rather than taking me out of school for treatment. Despite the school pressuring my parents to pull me out and the nasty comments that my mum was bombarded with from other mothers, mum and dad made the decision to let me finish my secondary schooling because they thought if I didn’t finish school with my cohort, many of whom I had been friends with since prep, could make everything even worse.
During this year, I had so much power and control over what I did and what decisions I made. I had been denied permission to exercise for over a year due to my low weight, yet this didn’t stop me. The moment I was home alone, I would sneak out for a run. I told my parents my life guarding shift started an hour earlier so I could get a gym session in beforehand. I’d stay at school late telling mum I was studying when really I went to cross country training. When the school noticed this, they told my parents who started to keep a closer eye on me. I could no longer get away with running, so I started doing secret workouts in my room before breakfast. The alarm would go off and I’d jump straight out bed.
5-minute prone hold
50 sit ups
50 push ups
50 leg raises
Repeat 5 times
If I didn’t finish this set, if I didn’t do a push-up properly, if I didn’t have perfect technique whilst doing my prone-hold, I would punish myself by doing more push-ups until they were perfect or holding the prone-hold for an extra minute. Everything had to be perfect. I had to finish. By the end of last year, my final year of school, I was mentally and physically exhausted, to the point where I could hardly get out of bed. But I did – because otherwise I felt lazy, useless and fat according to the constant voice of anorexia nervosa churning around in my head.
My eating disorder now dominated my life. I no longer felt like the fun, spontaneous or carefree girl I’d once been. I no longer enjoyed life and its simplest pleasures, such as having a Sunday night dinner with my family. I was socially anxious around my friends, worrying that they didn’t want to be around me because I was a “health freak” or that they’d judge me if I ever strayed away from my strict food regimen. I would avoid social events that involved food, or if I did go, I would tell everyone I’d eaten beforehand to it. Everyone else would be relaxing and enjoying themselves, but I was controlled by my many food rules and rituals which only applied to me.
I told myself that after my final VCE exam, I would focus on recovering from my eating disorder. But instead the complete opposite occurred. I became even more restrictive with what I ate. I limited my intake, counted calories to an even greater extent and I exercised excessively to the point where I was told I had to be admitted into hospital, by not only my GP, but my psychologist, dietician and parents. Petrified by the idea, we decided instead to keep me bound up at home with no freedom whatsoever so that I would restore weight. That involved all supervised meals, breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner and supper. I would not eat alone.
At the end of VCE, I started to see a new dietician who gave me a brutal reality check of my situation. The first thing she said to me what that I looked like a starved World War II survivor. She scared me with the mortality rate of anorexia nervosa; the severe and perhaps irreparable damage I’d done to my body and the depressive path that awaited me if I did not get better. This appointment happened to be the day that ATAR results came out. I was proud of my mark and felt like the hard work during the year had paid off until I stepped into that appointment where I felt like it had all been for nothing.
These days, Year 12 is intense. More than it’s ever been. The competitive nature; the focus on that one final number as though it will determine your entire life; the immense pressure that it puts upon students is extremely hard to cope with when, at the end of the day, you’re still a kid. It’s unhealthy and the message that is being sent to teenagers when they start their last year of high school is wrong. It’s important to do well and try your best, but it seems as though society now believes a person’s worth or success is determined by just one number instead of all factors that make up a person. I realised this during the appointment with my dietician – that no matter how well I did in school or anything else in life, it doesn’t matter if you’re not well in yourself. Year 12, the pressure and the expectations that came with it fuelled my eating disorder and played a pivotal role in the deterioration of my health.
The few days before Christmas 2015, when I’d just finished VCE, I had an appointment with my GP who informed my parents I’d hit my lowest weight ever. I was so light I was almost dead. She wouldn’t allow me to go to Falls Music Festival, where all my friends were going to celebrate the start of a new life after VCE and which I’d be thinking of as my reward for hard work all through the school year and exams.
Instead, I spent my summer holidays not at the beach with my friends, not dancing to my favourite bands, not enjoying myself like everyone else seemed to be but trying at all costs to avoid a hospital admission. I was sitting at home with every meal and snack supervised by my parents. I wasn’t allowed out, I wasn’t allowed to prepare my own meals, I felt like I had lost all control. The principal thing that my eating disorder had given me all along was torn away from me, and I not only felt an overwhelming sense of anxiety but totally lost without its control. I’d forgotten who I was apart from my eating disorder. I could no longer separate the two of us: ED and me.
My parents met with Christine Morgan, the CEO of the Butterfly Foundation after my VCE exams. They told her my story and the struggles we were having to overcome them. She educated them about the more radical treatments options such as inpatient clinics. When my parents first brought up this idea, the thought appalled me. No way, not me, I’d never go to one of those places. I’m not that sick, I don’t need help. Denial, denial, denial. I told them that I was strong enough to overcome this – I had enough willpower and drive to get better at home. Despite my strong affirmations, my parents were so worried that they scheduled an assessment at The Geelong Clinic, a psychiatric hospital with a specialised eating disorders program. I went down for an assessment with a psychiatrist there in March after VCE who said I would be very fitted to their 40-day program. But I remained adamant that I would never go there. So here began the “hospital-at-home” regimen again.
I started to feel increasingly jealous of girls around me, thinner than me who were also clearly malnourished and struggling with these problems, who still were allowed to go out and live life independently whilst I was literally stuck at home, overwhelmed by a sense of unworthiness and sadness. I was forced to realise that getting better requires patience and recovering from anorexia takes a lot time, hard work and persistence. As my dietician always says, “that’s why a lot of people choose to live with it.” I never thought that recovery would be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do but during this time it opened my eyes to how much I was letting anorexia win the fight.
During the first few months of 2016, I couldn’t help but think my parents were the enemy for not letting ever me go out and keeping me at home under their constant supervision, that my dietician was the enemy by making me eat more, that my GP was the enemy for threatening hospital every week, or that my psychologist was the enemy for continuing to urge for an in-patient program admission. I had to start realising that anorexia was the real enemy.
I had been at home, trying out-patient treatment for months. I was allowed to start my Biomedicine degree at the University of Melbourne but was forced to defer four weeks later after my weight plummeted again. All I wanted to do was be at university, starting a new life, meeting different people and learning new things. I had to start to try and finds ways to distract myself from the constant thoughts and anxieties that would dominate my mind. I was seeing my doctor once a week, my dietician twice a week and my psychologist once a week. Amid these numerous appointments that I had to structure my week around, I spent the rest of my time trying to still hold onto aspects of myself I felt I hadn’t lost. I started self-teaching Biology and Spanish, started working for a tutoring company and working as a secretary in a law office in the city. For months I had been getting nowhere. My recovery, or my attempt at recovery, was like a revolving door. One week I’d restore a little bit of weight, then spend the next week obsessing over this, think it was a disaster and restrict my intake. I’d feed my eating disorder instead of myself and I’d lose weight. No matter how much everyone around me showed their support–my mum, dad and two older brothers–my illness was just too strong. I was too scared of letting it go because it had become all I knew.
Over these months I’d become amazingly close with my dietician, Lucy. I trusted her. She didn’t treat me like an eating disorder but rather like someone who had an eating disorder. She would constantly remind me that I deserved more than this, that I had the potential to live a rich and fulfilling life as just me, with no other thoughts creeping in that would stunt my progress and keep me trapped in a world of negativity and distress.
So it was when she, after seeing me for six months, gave me her truthful opinion that she had done all she could at the point. Despite her efforts, texting me daily for updates on my intake, if I’d been able to achieve the meal plan, if I’d tried to exercise to compensate in any way – on Thursday 16th June this year she told me my illness has proved to be too strong to recover in an outpatient setting and I needed more intense treatment and support.
I’ll never forget this appointment. It felt like I had finally been defeated. Dad came into the room and I just collapsed into his arms crying. I couldn’t speak through the tears but tried to blurt out the words, “I’m so scared.” Instead, Ingrid took the words out of my mouth and told dad all the fears I had about an inpatient stay. I was scared of the challenging foods I would face, the amount of food that I would be expected to consume each day, the expectations of weight restoration, not being able to exercise, the other patients in the Eating Disorders program, their weight, their shape, their eating habits, their overall mental and physical well-being, whether they’d be nice or evasive. I was scared about what other people would think, girls from school, people from work, my family, my boyfriend. I was scared about losing all control and freedom. We spent the next two weeks, as a team, preparing for the admission.[share]