by KATE LEAVER
I’m not a doctor; my only qualification is personal experience. When I was fifteen, I was diagnosed with anorexia. You may think it’s painful for me to recount my experience, but it’s not. It’s too important, and we have to talk about it.
There are things you need to know.
Anorexia is not a diet. It’s not a fad. It’s not a choice. It’s a mental illness, and it’s a gradual form of suicide. I used to wonder whether it was schizophrenia’s second-cousin-once-removed, because the voices in your head are so loud they drown out all common sense. The desire to self-destruct is all-consuming; the less you eat, the stronger that urge becomes. When a human being is starving and malnourished, they become fixated on food – which is a morbid unfairness for someone whose nemesis is food. At first the body fights to hold onto what fat it has, then it goes into survival mode. Organs begin to shut down, you’re always freezing cold, and you’re alone in your mission to take up the smallest space in the world you can.
The most important thing you can know about eating disorders, is that it’s not about weight loss. It’s not even strictly about the body. It’s about the mind.
When I was sick, I collapsed often. I lost my hearing for hours at a time, sometimes days. I blacked out on the stairs once, and hit my head. I didn’t have a period for a year. I was exhausted, brittle, cold, and so far past hunger I couldn’t remember what it felt like. But the worst symptoms were more insidious – I lied to my family and friends about whether I’d eaten, I tricked them into believing I was OK, I stole laxatives from the chemist, I isolated myself socially, and my own reflection in the mirror was my kryptonite.
The only way I recovered was to flip the strength and determination I used maintain my eating disorder against itself. Starvation takes enormous discipline, so you have to find a way to redirect that energy to recovery. It’s so difficult, and I cannot imagine doing it without the support of mental health professionals.
In NSW there are just two public hospital beds allocated for adults with eating disorders. Those two beds are located in the psychiatric ward at the Royal Prince Albert Hospital, and the public outpatient facility is open just four hours a week.
Ella Graham was told she would need to wait until next year for a bed because the other 10 or so people on the eating disorders program list were equally or more unwell than her. She said she was told “you’re not in heart failure yet, so we can’t admit you.”
This sounds woefully insensitive, but what is a hospital to do when they only have two beds to offer? Prioritizing the most extreme cases is the only way they know to operate. It’s absurd and unacceptable, that both psychiatric nurses and young women like Ella are in this position.