Two thumbs up!

“I can live for two months on a good compliment” – Mark Twain

I shy away from compliments (not that I get many), and when I do receive one I usually downgrade them to mere suggestions. I don’t think highly of myself, I don’t believe for one second that I am attractive and definitely do not regard myself as the sharpest tool in the shed. I usually receive compliments from my husband and it frustrates him whenever I look away and disregard what he had said. He often puts his hand on my cheeks, turn my face so that I look him in the eyes, and then repeats his compliment, making sure that I ‘hear’ what he is saying. My children always shower me with praise: “Mommy, you’re the best baker ever!” “Mommy tonight’s dinner was delicious. You are such a good cook”. “Wow mommy, you look very nice today”. As much as I adore them for these kind words I still have to force myself to say thank you.

Today I received such a compliment, or at least the person who said it thought she was making a positive remark, but the words really stung: “…seeing as she’s just skin and bones”. Obviously she doesn’t know my past struggles with eating disorders. Perhaps she thought she was complimenting me because what woman doesn’t want to hear that she is seen as skinny (or skinnier) than the average female? Certainly not this one! But what I find most puzzling is that I am not skinny AT ALL! Yes I am a recovered anorexic and bulimic. Yes I still have my inner demons who at times rear their dreadful heads, but I have a ‘healthy’ weight. I do not starve myself, I do not purge and I eat daily meals. I think that is what is upsetting me the most about her comment. Am I not seeing what she’s seeing? Did she say that merely because it is what we say when we think we are complimenting someone? Does she think that I need to hear such a comment? And this brings me to a question I had thought about many times but not really had it affect me: can a harmless compliment actually cause more damage than good?

My opinion on this topic is that yes, the wrong compliment can cause more harm. “Keep it up, you are looking awesome”, “What are you doing to loose so much weight?” and “I wish I was as lucky as you”. These are just a few of the comments received during my battle with anorexia. The majority of the people and students who said this were not aware of what I was going through. They noticed an athlete who was not happy with her weight, lose this weight and really fast. They saw me in the gym every day for two hours, see me run on the athletics field every day, watched my restricted consumption of food and thought it was pure determination instead of destruction. Anorexia made me feel proud and kept me motivated to lose the weight rapidly: See, other people are noticing you, you are popular again. The less you weigh, the more you will be noticed. You don’t need food, you need these compliments, you need me. Obviously I didn’t expect people to know that something was wrong, and I didn’t want them to know because if they found out they will try to separate me from my disorder and at the time just the thought was suffocating.

I’m wondering if it is more important to rather show compassion rather than wanting to give superficial compliments (not that the beautiful words I receive from my family are superficial, I know their hearts and I know that it is said with love and admiration). My English teacher at the time said something to me that made more of an impact than most of the comments combined. It was after my prepared speech during our mid-year exam that she asked me: “Are you okay?” “Yes, why?” “I can see that you have lost a lot of weight recently and I can’t help but wonder if there is another reason for this weight loss”. “I am fine, really”. “At least promise me that you will talk to someone of things get too much for you, and know that I am also here if you need to talk”.

I never did go back to her to talk about it, and things did get much worse and I didn’t ask for help, but I do appreciate that she stepped forward and instead of making superficial compliments, said something meaningful. I think that is what the comment made by Mark Twain suggests, that we should rather invest in making meaningfull and deep-seeded conversations (not necessarily compliments) to show that we care about the person on the receiving end, because without knowing we could just change someone’s life, we could just help them live for another 2 months

Dear uncle Dawie

I know this comes too late, but thank you! Thank you for always having open arms when we visited your place during the school holidays. Thank you for allowing me to express myself. Thank you for the many Sunday morning road trips on the Harleys. Thank you for treating me and my sister like your own daughters. Thank you for keeping me motivated on an artistic level. Thank you for allowing me to have a friendship with your sons. Thank you for always treating us to lunch at your restaurant whenever we popped in. Thank you for always having something funny to say, making me laugh when I needed it the most, and also laughing at my childish jokes.

I never had the opportunity to tell you how much I appreciate the time you took to tell me about my family, the past, your life growing up with four brothers and about my grandparents. Little details I didn’t know about my family and often the shameful events that no one wants to talk about. You told these stories with no judgement, no pre-conceived thoughts, just the humbled truth. I remember the night you and aunt Jenny took me out to dinner, I was a young adult, and I remembered wishing that the night will never end. We ate, drank and laughed (a lot), but what I remember most was the honestly in which you approached all my questions.

I wish I knew you were feeling alone. I wish I knew that you were struggling with ‘bad’ thoughts. I wish I knew that you too needed someone to talk too. I understand the darkness you faced and the utter despair you must have carried with you for some time. I do not know your circumstances or personal issues, but I do know depression. I am sorry you had no other way out. I wish I could have told you that everything will be okay, that your family, wife, sons and friends need you. That you will leave us with an emptiness that can’t be filled, and that over time our memories eventually also fade.

Today in remembering you, my thoughts are on the open road, the roar of Harleys around us, nothing but excitement and the thrill of being on a journey. Today I will remember you and know that even though you are not with us anymore, you are not forgotten.

Blank space

On this day, World Suicide Prevention Day, I reflect back with great difficulty at a time when I too had the inability to distinct between giving up and asking for help, a time when I believed I was alone and that no one will understand, a time when anorexia had convinced me that there is no other way but her way; be killed by her or have my blood on my hands.

The morning of April 1st 1998 I woke up with a plan: tell mum that I do not need to attend school as it was the last day of term and as a senior students it was not mandatory, pretend to eat breakfast, wait for her to leave for work, slouch on the couch and watch tv all day long, but most importantly, NOT TO EAT! I had become a master of hiding, pretending, lying and manipulating as I already managed to fast for 4 months prior to this day without my parents knowledge. I would not eat between 6am and 6pm during the week, only have a small plate of food at dinner time and over weekends I would binge eat. The guilt I felt for binge eating led to self-punishment and fasting, and the guilt for not eating and deceiving my parents led to the binge eating, it was a vicious cycle that I had lost control over.

The day started as planned, mum accepted my excuse for not going to school, telling me she will stop by early afternoon to check up on me. I pretended to eat a small and healthy breakfast but as soon as she left I binned it. I made myself comfortable on the couch and did a bit of channel surfing. Not long after I remembered dad’s whisky stash and thought now is the perfect time to have a drink as there are no adults around, I’m not out in the public and seeing as I am not of drinking age yet, I can have a drink at home on my own. I have had sneaky sips of dad’s whisky before, but didn’t know anything about single or double shots, and I poured myself a generous helping. I drank it with ease and seeing as I didn’t have breakfast my head felt fuzzy and I felt courageous. I made myself a sandwich filled with peanut butter and crisps, and also helped myself to the leftovers from the previous night. I had another drink, a stronger mix this time, a second sandwich and a plate of chicken. By lunch time I had consumed a lot of alcohol, and had eaten more than I could stomach. I had this sense of utter disappointment, and a voice telling me “You are worthless. You can’t control what you eat. That is why you need me. You can’t life without me. Just look at you, you are ugly, fat and you don’t deserve to eat”. In that moment I had what you would call a blank. It is difficult to explain what that blank feels like, and perhaps it is easiest to describe it as nothingness. You feel nothing, you think about nothing, you become nothing. I didn’t want to feel anymore. I didn’t want to wake up tomorrow knowing that I can’t change how I feel and what I think. I wanted out. The next hour in this blank space seems unreal. I only remember snippets. I know that I went to my parents’ bathroom where I found my dad’s blood pressure medicine and my mum’s kidney medicine. I also found a box of Panadols. I can’t remember how much I drank or how long it took to drink the pills. I do remember sitting up against the bathroom cabinet and crying uncontrollably. I crawled to my dad’s bedside table and found a pen. I wanted to shout for help, I wanted to call my parents and tell them how desperately I need them. I remember feeling a sharp pain on my wrist as I was trying to scratch out the words HELP and GOD on my lower arm. My cry for help was silent yet visible. The alcohol and pills had now taken its full effect and I was losing consciousness. I felt my body shivering, my face was ice cold, and I fell over into a foetal position and that is how and where my mum found me. Mum tried to wake me up, and I do recall my name being called. Mum is little, petite even, and couldn’t lift me up or carry me. She ran off to phone my dad, and I can only think that the wait for him to get home from work must have been the longest and most agonising wait. I do remember being in my dad’s arms as he was rushing me to the car…to the hospital…through the hospital doors.

I don’t know what was discussed, which questions were asked or what instructions were given. I don’t know how long I was in the ER, when I was rushed to ICU or when the tubes and IV drips were inserted. I don’t know how long I was unconscious for or when the nurses started to force liquids orally in order to pump my stomach, rid me off the poison that was slowly killing me. Once I realised what was happening to me, I was already crouched over with my head in a bucket, vomiting all contents from my stomach. I was weak, tired and felt sick to my core. I knew what I had done, but was numb to any feelings. The curtains were drawn around my bed and I was isolated. The night dragged on and my short sleeping spurts were rudely interrupted by vomiting spasms. During the night I wished I had perished on my parents bathroom floor then I wouldn’t have to experience this discomfort, the concerning looks from the nurses, the internal voice telling me what a failure I am, and the knowing that I had to face my parents in the morning.

I didn’t realise that I was already in the midst of anorexia and that my first suicide attempt was just the start of my restless battle with mental illness. I didn’t understand the word depression until that day: the despair, darkness and desperation. I didn’t understand the label “she’s an anorexic” until the doctor diagnosed me on the day I was discharged from ICU. I didn’t know that I would stare death in the face twice before reaching a turning point and head towards recovery.

*fast forward 17 years* and here I am. Life sure has been a whirlwind of uncertainty but I’m still here. If you are reading this and have a blank space filled with nothingness, I need to tell you that right now, at this very moment, I am thinking of you. I need to tell you that life is so much more that the struggles you are facing; there is hope, kindness, forgiveness and love.