Warning: This post deals with issues of abuse, suicide and eating disorders. It contains photographic images that some readers may find distressing.
US Professor of Social Studies Brene Brown famously said “When we deny our stories, they define us. When we write our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.”
To that end, I am not writing my story for sympathy, nor for vengeance. I am writing this so that I can heal. To validate my own self love and worth, so that it comes from within and can never be taken away.
My name is Jodi Cahill, I’m a 38 year old PR Executive from Melbourne. I was raised in a loving home, attended an exclusive private girls school, had a great career and fantastic friends.
On paper, my life appeared perfect — yet it was a piece of paper that tore at the very fabric of my existence.
As I stood there, on the precipice of life and death, I looked down at my bare feet, swollen and bloody from running away from the clinic that was caring for me, running away from all my problems.
I took a deep breath, prepared to jump when my phone rang. I paused, and I took the call. It was the Head Nurse, frantic with worry, demanding to know where I was.
That nurse had been there for me in the toughest times. She knew my history. Realising that her panicked pleas were falling on deaf ears, she changed tact, sternly she asked “Where is your integrity ? Where is your loyalty? What would your Grandmother think ?”
Well played. The magic bullet; my Grandma, Juanita, the one person who was always there for me. She took me home and raised me as her own, when her daughter, wanted nothing to do with me.
Just the two of us, she had divorced my Grandfather long ago, we enjoyed an unbreakable bond. She wrapped me in love, made sure I had the best of everything. She would do anything for me, and that love and loyalty, was reciprocated in spades.
Grandma shielded me from my mother, a woman haunted by psychosis, a woman in and out of institutions. On the rare occasions I saw her, she terrified me. She would fix a look on me that was filled with utter hatred and bore through to the marrow of my bones. Left on my own with her, she would lash out at me, meting out bashings and verbal abuse in equal measure.
Still, taking Grandma’s lead, I returned my mother’s hatred with love and sympathy, praying that I could understand what had made my mother a monster.
So, I made my mother a side note to my life. All I wanted to do was to make my Grandma proud, to ensure I was worthy of her unconditional love. I did well at school, I was a straight-A student, I excelled at swimming, tennis and athletics, drama, gymnastics.
Then my Grandma suffered a stroke. Without a second thought, I put my uni plans on hold and nursed her back to health, honoured that I could return the care she had always given me.
Two years later I went on to university, completing a Bachelor of Business Degree with a Marketing Major.
My Grandma died in January 2004. Her loss broke my heart into a million pieces. The night she died, and the lead up to her death, scarred me forever.
Grandma taught me to be brave and fearless, so I compartmentalised my grief and honoured her by continuing to work hard and overachieve. It was the only way I knew to go on.
With the world at my feet, I enjoyed great success as a freelance Marketing/PR gun for hire. I ran exciting projects for record companies, European sports cars and energy drinks. Cognisant of the values instilled in me by my Grandma, I tempered the exhilaration of my projects with charity work, raising money for women’s causes and feeding the homeless.
I had a fantastic boyfriend, Simon was successful, caring (he’d make me Tapioca pudding – just like Grandma!) and devastatingly handsome – much to our amusement, friends called us ‘Ken and Barbie.’
Throughout her life, Jo Cahill has suffered from depression. It’s incredibly important to understand your mental health issues, and seek help if necessary.
But the spectre of my mother and her mental illness continued to live rent-free in my mind. I’d check in with her regularly to ensure she was okay, but we had no real relationship.
In 2010 I received a letter, addressed in my mother’s looping handwriting. Inside was a two-page typed letter.
Scanning the first paragraph, it mentioned her need for honesty and how she needed to tell me about our father.
“Our father”? I stopped.
Confused, I read it again.
The next sentence “Neither of us will ever understand our father.”
Was she saying what I think she was saying? I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I couldn’t continue. I suspected what was coming. I began to hyperventilate.
Fifteen minutes later, I forced myself to read on. All my fears, and more, were realised in the next paragraph:
“Jodi, you and I share the same father. From a very young age I suffered abuse of every kind from our father. The night I was brutally raped and fell pregnant, I will remember for the rest of my life … a gun at my head with our father telling me he would kill me if I went to the police.”
I couldn’t breathe. I was in complete shock. I felt guilty. I was riddled with disgust. Disgust at what had happened. Disgust at what I was.
All of a sudden, all my mother’s demons made sense. What she had suffered. Her hatred of me.
I called my friend Carmel and begged her to meet me. I needed a drink. We met at a bar. There were no tears. I was numb. I passed her the letter, gulping champagne. Carmel’s reaction was shock, but she assured me: “God loves all his children.”
I snapped: “Are you fucking with me? Look at the letter! Look at what I am!”
Carmel told me to go home, I ignored her and kept drinking, she left.
I sat there, slamming down vodkas, polishing off two bottles of champagne. I blacked out. I don’t remember the 20-minute walk that took me to the Bulla Rd bridge. I stood there for a while, then climbed over the railing, trying to work out where to jump, so as not to hurt somebody (thanks Grandma, always thinking of others). I started to fall, the next thing a hand grabbed my ankle and I was being dragged back over the railing. There were police cars everywhere; it looked like a scene from the Blues Brothers.
Eyewitnesses said I was screaming at the police, telling them the sordid tale of my being. I was taken to hospital, were I was sectioned for the next four weeks.
For the first time in my life, I felt a failure. I felt like my disturbed mother and not my valiant Grandmother.
On my release, I threw myself in to my charity work, labouring 24/7 to forget my dark secret and to ensure I never again became like my mother.
I did my research; it seemed the general consensus was that children born like me would suffer physical and psychological deformities. They would never love, never contribute to society. They would never have normal lives. They were more likely to commit violent crime. It seemed children like me were destined to carry the evil genes of their fathers.
I was determined not to let anyone know the horrific truth about what I was, a monster, the product of rape and incest.
As a consequence, I could not share my burden with Simon, and our relationship ended.
Whist I kept the truth to myself, my mother opened the floodgates and shared our secret with extended family. I received a call from my uncle — but rather than offering comfort, he made it about him, carrying on about how he should have been there and how he didn’t know. Close cousins now refused to talk to me and treated me as an abomination.
I was disconsolate. I now knew I had to tell all my close friends, it was better coming from me in an environment I could control.
I felt gut-wrenching nausea making those calls. Subconsciously I wanted them to hate me, to validate my own feelings of disgust, but they didn’t.
They showed compassion, empathy and love. Vowing to support me and help carry my load.
I was in a quandary, where, because they didn’t despise me or pity me, I had to return their support and fight.
I am a control freak. A perfectionist. I needed to regain control of my life. And what easier person to control than yourself ? I began to starve myself. It gave me the power to fill a void, my empty spirit.
I used to be slim, healthy and athletic. Once the anorexia started to take hold, my weight loss spiralled out of control, until I weighed the same as a child.
Friends became concerned. They tried to help. But I was so repulsed by what I was, I pushed them away.
My thoughts now turned to him, my father/grandfather. I looked back at old photos of me as a child, being held by him, his revolting hands around my innocent little body.
I wanted to hurt him. Punch him. Shoot him. But he was long dead. I’d like to dig that mongrel up and shake his malevolent old bones.
So that’s what I did. I downloaded a map of Springvale Cemetery, where the evil old bastard was rotting. I found him.
Clutching a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, a packet of smokes and using my lighter to guide the way, I stumbled to the grave site. I stood there crying. Then I got angry, kicking dirt with my feet. I started to dig. And then I fell, in to an open grave next to him (kind of ironic that I once again found myself in a dark hole.)
Lying in the cold, damp dirt, looking up at the sky, I started to scream, letting out my primal rage. Then I found the funny side of it and started to laugh at the absurdity of the situation.
Unable to climb out of the six-foot hole, and with dirt raining down on me from my futile attempts to escape, I finally relented and called the police for help.
The police quickly arrived, their torches pointed down at me, blinding me, as I lay in the empty grave. Laughing hysterically, they thought I was playing some prank. It wasn’t until I dissolved in to flood of tears, that the police realised my situation was far more serious.
The kind constables took me home, where I felt in desperate need of a shower. I could scrub all I liked, but never be clean.
Anorexia continued to tighten its cruel grip around me. In 2012, I was hospitalised. My heart rate measured 30 BPM and I was tube-fed for four months.
After a six-month stay, I was sent home. I tried to pick up my work, but I was a mere shell of my former self. I wanted to die. Not because of what I knew, but because of what I had become.
Numerous attempts to get well failed.
Finally my GP, knowing I had less than a week to live, sent me to Sydney for treatment at a world renowned facility for the treatment of severe eating disorders.
My initial three-month stay saw me gain a little weight, and I felt good. My first two weeks home in Melbourne, I finally felt like me again. I reconnected with old friends. Jodi was back! I partied hard, I lost my resolve, my weight quickly dropped to skeletal once again.
My GP and treatment centre begged me to return for treatment. I ignored them. I felt like a failure.
But fortunately, my friends, my GP, and an angel of a nurse at the clinic, finally convinced me to return.
It has now been five months, and my weight is healthier. I look well (although some of the vigour could be attributed to fake tan).
My mother and I are now reconciled. We talk every week. We will never have a mother-daughter relationship — we are both victims of the same terrible crime — but I have begun to understand her.
I have had my setbacks. At times, every mouthful of food makes me feel dirty and violated, I hate myself. It’s not about gaining weight, it is about succumbing to the trauma. Sometimes I feel the need to mask my emotions via starving myself.
But my doctor assures me that these feelings are natural and common as anorexics reach their summit on their climb to wellness.
Indeed, climbing is a great analogy for my journey.
As famous climber Ed Viesturs once said, “Getting to the summit is optional; getting down is mandatory.
“When climbing Mount Everest, the summit is merely a halfway point. When you reach it, you’ve accomplished something amazing, but you’ve also grown fatigued, cold and are at maximum risk.”
I am now on the start of my descent back to base camp, back to wellness, surrounded by my faithful friends and dedicated doctors and nurses, who have become my metaphorical Sherpas, I am going to beat this.
For the last five years, I have found myself in a cold and empty twilight, somewhere that others may also end up, may have been, or are going through and I want to make a difference.
There is absolutely nothing I can do to change my past, but I am in complete control of my future.
Jodi Cahill is a Melbourne based PR Executive and humanitarian, dedicated to charitable causes for the homeless and women battling serious illness.
If you or anyone you know are struggling with an eating disorder or body image issues, contact The Butterfly Foundation on 1800 ED HOPE / 1800 33 4673 or email [email protected]
For anyone struggling in any way, call Lifeline’s 24hr crisis telephone line on 13 11 14. Alternatively, you can access online one-on-one Crisis Support Chat.