It seemed as though my world turned upside down when I was 43. I never saw it coming. I never expected to feel so unworthy or hopeless in my life. I was ignorant to the fact that women in mid-life can be at risk of developing anorexia nervosa.
Had I known this, would it have prevented me from becoming ill? Probably not. But, it may have made the acceptance of the diagnosis less confronting and reduced the shame and confusion I felt.
I am now 55, recovered and can look back at this experience in a somewhat detached way that makes it all feel a bit surreal.
So how did my life change so dramatically? In 2004, my life was somewhat typical of professional women of my time, who believed in the persona of Superwoman and thought that woman could do it all. I held a senior position in a private boys school, a job I enjoyed and gave 100% to. I had four school age children (ages 11-18) who all had busy lives and I gave 100% to my family. My husband had his own Accounting Firm that was growing and I supported him 100%. The maths doesn’t really add up.
At some point in this frantic lifestyle, I was invited by some girlfriends to try out Pilates, a fairly new phenomenon and it sounded like fun. Pilates gave me a few moments of respite in my week. I had not been a committed exerciser, nor had I seriously participated in sports teams during my teenage or young adult life so this was a new experience for me. I started exercising at a vulnerable time in my life.
Meshel Laurie interviews a woman for her Nitty Gritty Committee podcast, who managed to overcome anorexia. Post continues after audio.
Did I begin this for the sake of my body or well-being? I had never had an eating disorder before, however I had been what I regard as a ‘failed dieter’ as a teenager and young adult. I remember as a school girl taking ‘diet sticks” (a type of nutrition bar) to school as my lunch and at university I had been on the Israeli Army diet, and the Grapefruit Diet. These were only ever short lived and I would resume normal eating. The interesting thing to me now is, that during these times I was in the normal healthy range with respect to my BMI. So these same body esteem or acceptance issues were underlying my desire to not “gain weight and become heavier in my 40s.”
So for my wellbeing I initially embraced Pilates, mat classes and then reformer sessions and then I bought DVDs and played them at home. It was my escape from my hectic life and from some emotional and personal pressures that were beginning to surface in my family. I guess we call it stress. To fit in classes, I would come home with the kids, prepare dinner, then I would leave the house for a 6pm class. This meant for a couple of nights a week I would tell the family to eat without me. This is when it all started to flip from a healthy activity to an obsession and now started to include restricting food and other eating disorder behaviours.
Now it began in earnest for the quest for a younger, more toned body. After all, my children were grown. I was no longer the mum of young children who, at that time, were given the understanding that you were flat out looking after young children and unlikely to go to a gym or have time to yourself. You had felt admired. At this new stage of my life, successful career, children with new independence and less reliance on me, and the emergence of Desperate Housewives as the new body challenge for women on their 40s, I embarked on a dangerous path. I was vulnerable.
We speak to a mother and daughter about the possibility of anorexia being genetic. (Post continues after video.)
I soon began receiving complimentary feedback from friends, family, colleagues and random retail assistants on my size. I was losing weight and it felt good. I restricted more. I lost more and it became more rapid. In the space of about three months the comments changed from encouragement and praise to what felt like criticism and condemnation — “You don’t need to lose any more weight” and “you’ve lost so much weight, you must only weigh X kilos”.
At this point, my thinking was becoming irrational and this felt like a challenge. Numbers become triggers. I was not at the weight that had been stated by this person, so I decided that if I was perceived as the lower weight I needed to get the scale to match it. I bought new bathroom scales and became obsessed with weighing myself. I was hooked into watching the numbers go down.
My husband asked me to please see a doctor, as it was clear things had gotten out of control. My hair began to fall out and I was becoming highly anxious. I was losing concentration at work and I was sad. I had to go on sick leave after collapsing at a theatre in Sydney while on a weekend trip with my daughters.
At first when I was diagnosed with anorexia, I didn’t believe it. I thought it was something that only happened to teenage girls who wanted to be like models. I was so ashamed and at first resisted the advice to see a psychiatrist. I agreed to see a psychologist for “stress”.
My life was miserable; I lost my job and with that I felt that I lost an important part of my identity. I lost my confidence and my sense of self and worth. The illness consumed me, it frightened me and it humiliated me. I felt embarrassed that I had Anorexia and believed people would think that I was weak or attention seeking. The solution looks so easy from the outside: just eat. I even believed that it would be okay because I would eat tomorrow. Problem was, that’s what I thought every day and didn’t do it.
I finally saw a psychiatrist and eventually, again at after collapsing, was hospitalised for a short time. I didn’t know then that people do recover from Eating Disorders. I really thought I was losing my mind and wasn’t hopeful of the future. I was judgmental of myself for needing to see a psychiatrist, I thought that I should know better and ought to be able to sort this out rationally myself. I didn’t understand so how could anyone else close to me understand the trap I was in.
My recovery was slow. I didn't enter an Eating Disorder Clinic. I carried on at home, gradually eating a little more each day, slowly and cautiously reintroducing food I had been restricting. I was depressed and needed to re-build my life. I was sad and there were times when I had thoughts of suicide. I believed my family would be better off without me. I felt I had let them down and failed them. Sometimes I still think that.
I recovered because I chose not to allow the anorexic identity to prevail, and because my psychologist and psychiatrist didn’t give up on me but rather gave me the support, encouragement and appropriate respect to allow me to heal and come to terms with this crisis I had faced in mid-life.
Joanna founded TRED Tasmania Recovery from Eating Disorders in July 2011 to provide adults with Eating Disorders and their families, support, encouragement and hope.