June Alexander was 11 when she developed anorexia nervosa. Her fight with the crippling condition lasted decades. Now a grandmother, she tells her story here in two moving letters to her ‘best medicine’, granddaughter Olivia Rose.
December 27, 2009
Dear Olivia Rose,
At four days old you are a sweet wee babe wrapped snug in a rug and bunny suit. By the time you are old enough to read this letter, I picture you as a happy, bubbly little girl hopping from one foot to the other without a care in the world.
Olivia Rose, I will be forever telling you that you are very special and very loved. This is not because you are my first grand daughter, or because you were born on your great-grandmother Anne’s birthday, but because you are you.
I cuddled and kissed you when you were a few hours’ old. You were sound asleep and yet already radiated serenity and self-assurance. Somehow you indicated you are aware of your role in life, and that as you grow up you will quietly and confidently go about fulfilling it. I am sure I felt this as I held you, Olivia Rose. I didn’t only wish it. My heart was filled with gladness.
When I was a little girl, I felt confused and unsure of myself. I enjoyed going to school, and did my best to get top marks but felt upset and cross with myself when I made a mistake. Then, at age 11, an event occurred which made me feel very anxious. I felt alone and scared, Olivia Rose, and an illness called anorexia nervosa developed in my brain. Basically, I felt afraid to eat. My mum and dad did not know what to do because back then, there was no family-based treatment like there is today.
Untreated, my anorexia set in and took over my thoughts. When I was a teenager, it evolved into bulimia, which meant I sometimes ate a lot and other times ate nothing. I felt very mixed up. I worried about little things and often felt sad.
All up, I took 45 years to get on top of this sneaky bunch of thoughts that were not really me, playing havoc in my brain. I’m sure you agree this is a very long time to be bossed around but the important thing is that now I am free, Olivia Rose.
With much help from doctors and loving support from your Grandpa George, your mum Amanda and uncles Shane, Rohan and Ben, I have picked up the threads of my childhood, and am having great fun catching up on living my life. You will see!
I have been free for four years now and keep healthy by taking care of my feelings as they arise – reaching out for help if I need to - and eating regular and balanced meals.
I feel like a bird soaring and swooping with glee in the clear sunny sky - such is my joy on escaping the darkness that was my illness.
When I started my recovery journey, I had to work out what thoughts belonged to me, and what thoughts belonged to my illness. I had to be brave enough to trust the thoughts that belonged to me and push the other thoughts away. I liken this process to that of a small bird with weak wings, flying for the first time. I dropped to the ground more than a few times but amazingly, my thoughts got stronger as I persevered and gradually learnt to trust myself and others. Now that my wings and sense of self are strong I am devoted to giving hope to others. I am flying around the world with this message.
Watch the MMTV video below on anorexia. Post continues after video.
My wish is for you and other children to grow up feeling happy and confident, feeling free to achieve your dreams and live your life to the full.
Olivia Rose, I am glad I did not give up, that I reached out and found help to beat my illness, because I am here to enjoy you and our beautiful family.
If you ever feel a worry coming on, remember that we are here to listen and to help.
And you might as well get used to it now - as your grandma I will be forever reminding you that you can too soar like a bird!
May 27, 2015
Dear Olivia Rose,
Already you are five years’ old. You are a bubbly and sweet little girl who indeed does not only hop a lot, but also does cartwheels, hangs upside down over my bedside and says with glee: ‘Grandma, I absolutely love gymnastics’.
When I take you to school on my weekly ‘grandma day’, you happily say ‘goodbye’ and run to join the morning line up for prep class. You love art, rainbows and colours, jigsaw puzzles, reading and writing; you go swimming and play golf, and oh, how you love to run. You manage admirably to define ‘you’, placed as you are, between big brother Lachlan and little sister Amelia.
You understand that to do all the activities you love, to the best of your ability, that your body needs nourishment with regular, nutritious meals and snacks. You are indeed soaring like a bird through life and watching you embrace such ‘freedom to be’ makes my heart sing.
I am ever grateful that I persevered in recovering from the eating disorder that developed in my brain, causing disintegration of self, when I was a little girl. It was hard work, reconnecting with my ‘self’, but nine years into recovery, relapse prevention is easy, because I have the best medicine in the world: I have you. Family love and acceptance has a special power and strength that doctors cannot prescribe.
Olivia Rose, since my previous letter, I have begun a PhD in Creative Writing related to my illness experience, and am writing several more books about eating disorders. Every time you visit, you find me at my laptop, writing. You sit beside me and engage in your own quiet pursuit. Already you are saying: ‘I want to be a doctor when I grow up, like Grandma’. With such a comment, there is only one thing for me to do, in this, my 65th year, and that is to keep writing, and keep eating regular and balanced meals.
We are a team, for sure. We have no secrets. If ever signs or symptoms of ‘ED’ appear, we will recognise them, talk and pounce on them, quickly.
The reason I continue to write, and go to conferences, and advocate about eating disorders, is because we still don’t know what causes them. We need more research, and for more research, we need more funding. This is why I am sharing our story in support of the Butterfly Don't DIS My Appearance campaign.
I hope, in your lifetime Olivia Rose, that we will know what causes an eating disorder, and that children everywhere will be able to grow up in a supportive environment - both within families and in accessing health care - that offers prompt intervention when needed.