National Eating Disorders Association

Stories of Hope

Hope at Every Age (or: Freedom at Every Age)
By June Alexander

My message is that there is Hope at Every Age. Recovery from an eating disorder is possible. Certainly early intervention is best, but if this opportunity is missed, my equally loud message is that hope for recovery is real at every age. Maybe you, your child or your partner has been fighting the eating disorder for decades, or maybe you discovered it only last week. You can beat this illness and be free to live YOUR life.
I developed Anorexia at age eleven, followed by Bulimia in my teens. I felt there was something wrong but didn’t know what it was. My illness was not diagnosed until I was 32. At 32, I appeared as a high achieving, mother of four who kept a full-time job, but bulimia, chronic anxiety and depression raged within. I felt very alone; I didn’t know others felt like me.  I had some very dark days but deep within I WANTED TO LIVE, I wanted to be free to be me. With hope as a beacon, I set out to recover. This journey took two decades. Freedom gained, I began writing books to give hope to others.  
My story:
 
I developed anorexia nervosa shortly after my 11th birthday, in 1962. The illness was unheard of in the farming region where I was growing up – in the southeast of Australia. My mindset in the 1960s was the same as that experienced by children with anorexia today. It does not matter where or when we live, the illness thoughts and feelings are similar. The creepy thing about anorexia is that, initially at least, the sufferer is not aware the thoughts and feelings belong to the illness and not them. This is why early intervention with Family-Based Treatment is crucial. Generally, the longer the illness goes unimpeded, the more its behaviors and thoughts seem to become part of us.
When I was 11, my family home was not connected to electricity – we had a wood stove and used kerosene lamps for lighting; I carried a candle to bed. My primary education took place in a one-room school of 24 children, and our family farm was eight miles from the nearest small town. My world revolved around riding my bike, horse riding, swimming, trapping rabbits, reading books and happily helping my parents look after the cows, calves and chickens. There were no glossy magazines or suggestive television shows to influence my thinking.
Almost 50 years have passed since anorexia developed in my mind and overtook my thoughts. My family did not know what to do back then and neither did the doctors. One doctor, when I was 12, advised I did ‘not want to grow up’. The reason I did not want to grow up was because my mother called me ‘Tim’ when I was good – and I always wanted to be good — and the sudden onset of puberty – with boobs and all – had come as a rude shock. I was, after all, a tomboy. (This story is told in my memoir, A Girl Called Tim). The crisis trigger occurred when the teacher announced the school doctor was coming within several months. I was the only girl in the school with boobs and my anxiety intensified at the thought of undressing and being seen by others.
I did not make a conscious decision not to eat. Rather, I became too afraid to eat.
With anorexia, I changed from a sunny, bubbly-natured child to being withdrawn and moody. My mother was embarrassed by my thinness and by my insistence of running everywhere. When pressured to visit neighbors or friends, I refused to eat and couldn’t sit still. In the countryside, where everyone knew everyone, my mother was constantly saying: “what will the neighbors think?”
She did not know I was suffering anxiety and depression and that my self-centredness was due to a battle within.  Frustrated, she pleaded: “Why can’t you be like other girls in our district?”  I wanted to be like them but didn’t know how; I felt inferior and weak. I sought comfort in journal writing, and have kept a diary since age 12.
When I tried to explain my confusion I was told I was stubborn, had too much time to think, and should ‘pull up’ my socks – in other words, think of others and get on with life. My sister one day concluded: “You have Satan within you”.  My illness thrived on comments like this, and increased its domination. I did well at school but felt more and more ‘different’.
Those who don’t have a mental illness often don’t understand what it is like and find it difficult to relate. Some family members may struggle to cope with the complex emotions, behaviors and changing relationships resulting from the eating disorder. They might show too much emotion, like my mother, shouting and ridiculing because I refused to eat and would not sit still. She did not understand and therefore was unable to offer the warmth and calmness which would have provided assurance and increased my confidence in battling the eating disorder thoughts. Her behavior was like that of a jellyfish.
Professor Janet Treasure draws upon animal metaphors – including jellyfish, ostriches, St Bernard dogs, dolphins, rhinos and terriers, in describing how carers can get trapped into a cycle of behavior and emotional responses that can impede recovery. When I gained weight, my family of origin ceased being like a jellyfish and became more like an ostrich – denying the illness, (possibly because to acknowledge it would compel them to address issues within themselves). Besides, keeping up appearances to the community was important.
You will find more about Janet Treasure’s helpful animal metaphors and coping skills in the textbook A Collaborative Approach to Eating Disorders.
By age fifteen, my anorexia transitioned into bulimia. I looked ‘normal’ but was living two lives: one internally with my eating disorder and the other a front to the outside world. Writing was an ‘escape’. I began winning essay competitions and became an AFS exchange student to Missouri. By age 19, I had begun a career in newspaper journalism and became engaged to a childhood sweetheart, George, a farmer.  We married a year later.
Unfortunately three of us walked down the aisle – my husband, the invisible ‘ED’, and me.  We were married only eight weeks when, after bingeing on a batch of scones, I drove my car under a big truck, injuring my spine.
By my mid-twenties, I had four children in four years. With each new pregnancy I was determined to eat three meals a day but always failed. The bingeing and restricting behaviors had become very entrenched.
I was employed full-time as a journalist; was studying and was a Sunday School teacher, but keeping busy didn’t ease the torment. By age 28, I feared I was going crazy and if I shared my feelings with a doctor I would be locked up, separated from my husband and beautiful children. Death seemed the only way out, but luckily love for my family gave me strength to confide in a doctor.
Another four years would pass before a psychiatrist provided a correct diagnosis of bulimia, chronic anxiety and depression. By now, I lived on the edge of life, scared to make decisions and scared to face the gaping hole the illness had consumed within. My parents and sister gave up looking for me beyond the entrenched eating disorder behavior and progressively excluded me from the family circle.
At age 32, recovery began with pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy. One thing was for sure, my mind thought processes had to change or I would die. In my mid-thirties, my marriage became another casualty – desperate to escape the torment, I became convinced my husband was sabotaging recovery. Of course the opposite was true – and without his loving support, my illness worsened. Now I’d lost my family and almost lost me. Recovery had to take place without the love of closest adult family members. I made mistakes. Wrong choices; didn’t know which way was ‘right’. Writing was the only thing that helped me feel I was ‘okay’.
My parents and sister expressed doubt that I was sick, and asked: “If you are sick, why are you still able to work?”
More than 20 years had passed since anorexia developed, but such comments continued to cut deep, causing regression and hindering recovery; any emerging self-confidence would plummet to zero. Recovering from an eating disorder can take a long time – years.
Communication with my family of origin became reduced to talking about the weather. Without family support, the task of rebuilding a sense of self was difficult. Labeled ‘the one with problems’ in the family, filling a constant emptiness was a challenge. The little girl of eleven remained buried in my troubled mind and needed help to emerge from the prison of my illness. Many medications were prescribed and often I did not know if my feelings were due to me, the illness or the medication. At age 36, I poured out my confusion in my diary:
  • … for years I have been seeking my identity, purpose, meaning, in life. Years. I conclude I am a prisoner to myself. If I don’t take a stand, I will live the rest of my life feeling frustrated, and unfulfilled; I will not know the joy of inner peace, or the achievements I can enjoy if my energies are set free.
  • I can see that since I fell prey to anorexia nervosa – much of my creative energy has been wasted, for I have turned it on myself; my own private obsession with food has robbed me of my true self.I have had some hard lessons. I can live with myself only if I accept that my mistakes and bad experiences can be the catalyst, the seed, for new beginnings and fulfillment.
I moved house more than 20 times, always seeking a ‘new start’ to escape the illness. Of course, it went everywhere with me. When it raged, I allowed men into my life who shared its traits of manipulation and domination. I behaved in ways that the real me would never approve of or consider, and landed in situations that were insecure, unstable and unsafe. Life was chaotic. My parents and sister progressively excluded me from family functions and at age 39, I confided in my diary:
  • Feeling out of kilter. My mother yesterday visited George, but not me. I feel last in her priorities. I am not ready to cope with this rejection stuff, which hits at my very core and has left me a confused person, unable to fully appreciate my own children, because I have felt unwanted for so long – since 11 years old, at least. The most horrible thing is to feel unwanted, rejected, by one’s parents.
Even when I could see someone was not good for me, letting go was extremely difficult. Just like the eating disorder. One divorce was bad enough but I had three – this was unheard of, especially where my parents lived! Letting go of the rollercoaster illness was very hard. My eating disorder did not want me to be safe and secure, and the thought of being alone was
  • As terrifying as the need to eat 3 meals and 3 snacks a day. 

 

To be free, I had to rebuild me sufficiently to trust my own judgment, and withstand people and triggers that fed my illness. I could not achieve this alone.  I entered my 40s and then my 50s, clinging to a thread of the real me, mostly sustained through writing. The journey was slow as I did not have the skills that are available to learn today. I adopted my birth name – June Alexander – and wrote in my diary: THIS IS MY NAME. THIS IS ME. Figuring I had a right to be born, this thought gave strength.
At age 55, five years ago, a challenging family event – a wedding – provided the final step in the rebuilding of my identity. This was a wondrous moment, when I became free to think for myself and able eat three meals and three snacks every day without tormenting food thoughts. The days of mental, emotional or physical bruising were over. With my children becoming young adults, they joined their father as carers and I learnt to trust their judgment when I could not trust my own. A team of health professionals has also been vital in achieving and maintaining my freedom.
 
Major steps to recovery:
Writing, and employment as a journalist, was crucial in my survival and recovery. Writing was not negotiable with the eating disorder. Employment provided connection in the real world, an income, and the assurance that at least a small part of me was ‘okay’.
At age 47, a therapist suggested separating illness thoughts from self.  Learning to focus on my true thoughts, and to ignore the trigger thoughts that belonged to my illness, helped rebuild my identity. This was the single most helpful piece of advice received during my recovery journey.
It is possible to recover via therapy alone, but family participation will hasten recovery immensely. Families provide something that therapists, for all their care, cannot offer, and this is 24/7 LOVE. Besides three meals and three snacks a day, love is the most powerful tonic of all. An eating disorder can be challenging enough for families who have been strong and stable before the illness onset, but total bedlam for less functional families. I can see now, that my mother was a very anxious woman with problems of her own. If I had my illness today, participation in Family-Based Treatment and skills-based workshops for carers could have saved my family.)
When families are unable to provide support, be open to accepting help from others you trust. If you don’t have a family, create one.
I have learnt mindfulness and self-awareness skills to get in touch with my true feelings, to recognize and cope with emotions to avoid triggering the eating disorder. Exploring, addressing and immediately resolving anything bothering me avoids anxiety buildup. Mastering the skill of recognizing triggers and defusing them before they went off took eight years. If a trigger is unavoidable, or impeding self-growth, I prepare, surrounding myself with ‘artillery’, a support system, like a soldier going into battle. Each time I brave a scary situation, more of my true self falls magically into place.
 
Life has been amazing since 2006.
For more than 40 years, the words weight and calories were like thorns in my brain. They allowed no rest; every calorie was counted, I was obsessed with a certain weight, believing this would make life manageable. Weight and anxiety swung like a pendulum. When I quit the calorie counting and weight obsession, wow, my weight stabilised, anxiety and depression abated and, with medical guidance, I eased off the anti-depressants that had helped keep me afloat for many years.
Family, comprising children and grandchildren, is vital for my ongoing happiness and health. My first grandchild was born the same month I eased off all medication. At first I was afraid I was not good enough to hold him, but my daughter soon assured me I was chief baby-sitter. Acceptance and inclusion as a trusted family member has immensely aided ongoing recovery.
Recovery is freedom to be true to one’s own self. Anxiety was part of my life before Anorexia developed and it remained after Recovery. Understanding this is helpful. Embracing and feeling the anxiety defuses it, turns it into courage. Feeling angry at ED, also gives strength.
Recovery allows the energy consumed negatively in the Eating Disorder, to be directed positively outwards – for me this translates into researching and writing books, travel, raising awareness of eating disorders, playing with grand children, meeting for lunch with friends. Life is productive, purposeful and fulfilling. Above all, I have peace within, and love being with me.
THERE IS LIFE BEYOND OUR EATING DISORDER. Dr Walter Kaye, University of California, San Diego, provides this inspiring observation:
 
  • Our experience is that people who recover from ED tend to do very well in life, in part because the traits that may contribute to ED in adolescence, may also predispose them to do well later. For example, they tend to be achievement oriented, attentive to details, and concerned with consequences, which are traits that are rewarded in fields such as medicine, research, and engineering. http://eatingdisorders.ucsd.edu/ 
Thank you, Dr Kaye!
 
Vigilance is important. Besides meals and family, closeness with nature contributes to my holistic wellness – I walk Harley, my Staffy dog, by the seashore. I toss any troubles to the waves. I feel the wind on my face, love the beauty of sunrises and sunsets. I love light.
When learning of FBT in 2007, I wanted to spread the word so other children and families would not suffer as long. This led to My Kid Is Back, Empowering Parents to Beat Anorexia. Written in collaboration with Professor Daniel Le Grange, this book’s voice belongs to the 10 families who share their recovery stories.
I also wanted to explain my struggle to my parents and sister, and to inspire adults with hope. This led to my memoir, A Girl Called Tim. My main concern with the book’s release was the effect on my children. This was their story, too. My daughter recently emailed:  Mum, you r helping many, many people. My friends who read the book think you r extremely talented and are moved by your story. You will always be my mum to me. I often felt unworthy as a mum, so this message is extra special.
In writing My Kid Is Back and my memoir, I learnt that new evidence-based treatments take too long to be put into practice – about 17 years. This led to a book for clinicians: A Collaborative Approach to Eating Disorders, with Professor Janet Treasure as co-editor.
Today, I am researching and writing more books, and maintain a website and blog: http://www.junealexander.com



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