real life

My mum's battle to save me from anorexia

In April 2010 I was admitted into Wesley Hospital in Ashfield, diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa. I was very ill, and I had no idea. I had lost my mind having eaten barely a tomato and a carrot in the month or so leading up to the admission. When I went in for an assessment I was told I would be in a wheelchair and I was stunned. I felt scared, angry and chaotic. I couldn’t believe that I was sick enough to warrant that statement. And I was scared that maybe he was telling the truth.

My mum took me home and made me lie on the couch. The doctor had told her I wasn’t allowed to go out alone, and that I should be on bed rest. He told her that she would have to watch me in the bathroom in case I fell and she was to take me to the emergency ward if I became unstable. He warned my mum that it was likely to be a month before a bed became available

The people in charge want potential patients to prove their motivation; they don’t want to give a bed to someone who doesn’t want to recover. It seems odd to me as the will and hope for life is often lost when you reach the state of starvation that requires a hospital bed in the first place. I was told to call the hospital every day to check on bed availability and when I rang, in a moment of clarity, I was told that the next bed was coming up in three or four weeks. It hit me that I might die.

Anorexia is a complicated illness, there were moments where I was terrified of death, and as I put a weetbix in a bowl and ran some water over it I berated myself for thinking I needed to eat and it went in the bin. I would pass out and when I opened my eyes I was confused and yet I was proud that I had been so strong and eaten so little.

It wasn’t about looking good, I don’t think Anorexia is ever about looking good. It’s easy enough to use that as a reason because it makes sense, it’s a diet gone wrong, people can understand that and then blame the person for being vain and self-involved. But I think you have to have a deep level of self hatred to starve yourself for a prolonged period of time. When I started my “diet” I wanted to look good at my dad’s wedding. Within a month I was afraid to eat anything other than salad. I would eat with my flatmate and I would drink long blacks and smoke copious amounts of cigarettes throughout the day.

In hospital it was painful and horrific to sit at the dining table, being presented with my plate covered in cling film. The staff grew frustrated as I dissociated, it hurt to hear their voice, bringing me back to reality. Some meals I ate, some I didn’t, some I couldn’t. And faced with a calorie supplement I shook and clutched my neck scratching at my skin in panic and fear.

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And it never got easier. We all had our secrets; icing disappeared into the fabric of the chair and cereal hidden in pockets. We became hardened people, the friendly smiling faces that supported one another outside disappeared. We became angular and angry and frightened with no thought for others, I was deafened by a voice that sounded so much like me, telling me what a shameful human being I had allowed myself to become.

It had once been my ally and my friend, and then it dominated my every minute. I dreamt of eating bread and cake and woke up terrified, ashamed that in my dreams I couldn’t escape the reality, I was greedy and lazy and good for nothing.

I was frightened of the world; I was frightened of having to face the underlying issues of trauma and shame. Somehow, starving seemed simple and I realised I could do it. The hospital saved my life but in my mind I still felt completely incapable of living successfully and happily.

I spent a month in hospital, 9 months in day program before relapsing. The process of recovery from an eating disorder rarely flows in a straight line. I was at a healthy weight, people assumed I was well, and I couldn’t bear the thought that I looked well, or normal. I felt broken and worthless. I needed people to see how little value I had so I began to restrict and I felt calm again. I always had the feeling that my life was not meant to be ok, I was the worst person imaginable and it felt really wrong to treat myself with respect.

The day finally came when, through a series of events in which I almost died from a different cause I was shocked to find that I wanted to live. And it was then, with outpatient treatment that I began to recover, I found people who treated me like a rational human being instead of a child. My treatment team did not tell me what to do, they asked me to be honest and find something worth fighting for. I took responsibility for every meal, every mouthful, every gram of weight that I recovered. And it was only then that I felt I was recovering.

It’s a long process and an expensive process; it took about 6-8 months to gain 4 kilos and I’m guessing at $80 a session with the dietician, $120 with a therapist each week it would cost $5000 for 5 months of treatment. My therapist saw me for free quite a few times when Medicare ran out.

I know this isn’t common, I was lucky. I know so many people who have dropped out of treatment because they simply can’t afford it, which only ends badly. Without private health cover and without my parents finding a way to pay my outpatient costs I have no doubt that I would not have survived. I would have been put on a waiting list and left to wither away.

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And if I had got a bed on a public ward I doubt that it would have classified as treatment. Eating disorders require specialist knowledge and training to deal with; a public psychiatric unit does not have the resources to help someone overcome an eating disorder. They force you to eat and then release you without insight or motivation to recover.

I am so lucky to be one of the lucky ones, my mum did absolutely everything she could to help me. Every night I was gripped by anxiety, it was like a sticky black web in my lungs that pulled me down. The simple act of her rubbing my feet made it easier to sleep. My sister spent every weekend with me the first half of 2011 because I found it easier to eat with her. And they never blamed me. An eating disorder is a coping strategy and becomes a friend of sorts. You become enmeshed. And it gets stronger when the true self feels attacked. If my mum and sister had attacked me there would have been no incentive to try and get better, the anorexic voice would say, “See? They hate you. You’re a selfish bitch. Just come back, you don’t need to eat that.” But when I was frightened to order a bagel my sister would say,

    “Kath? Kath, look at me.”

    “What?”

    “Pick what YOU want. It’s ok.”

And it was gentle and caring and I found myself challenging fears and moving forward.

But I wonder what it would have been like if I hadn’t been so lucky, and I know, I’ve seen, that for so many it is not a journey of moving forward but a revolving door of entering hospital, only to leave and lose weight and end up back at the start.

My mum and sister didn’t know about the Butterfly Foundation, and they sacrificed relationships, work and their own lives to try and save mine. With support, it could have been so different and I hate that they had to go through so much feeling so isolated and judged and blamed when they were fighting so hard to protect me.

Eating disorders are attached to stigma and judgement, I felt so much blame, that I was doing it on purpose and that I was just being stubborn. It is an illness and as such it requires treatment. There are too many people suffering in silence, there is hope and recovery is possible, but you can’t do it alone.  

Contact The Butterfly Foundation on1800 33 4673 or [email protected]thebutterflyfoundation.org.au