The scArlet letter

Anorexia, a word I have come to hate. Why hate? Because the word alone brings with is discomfort, confusion, questions and often misinformation. The disorder itself is a death trap, literally. It destroys the victim, their families, creates distances between friends and dishonesty, doubt and brokenness spread like a disease. It is a word that usually doesn’t cross my lips and the only time I talk about it is when I blog.

Imagine my surprise when my 12 year old daughter asked me if someone we know “has anorexia?” In utter disbelief my first reaction was, “where did you hear that word”? I could feel my heart racing and a cold shiver run up my spine. She said very innocently that her best friend (from gymnastics) mentioned it. Now I don’t know where her friend would have heard the word, but she is first year high school and I think it is something her mom would say is general talk. I then asked my daughter what does she know of that word? She said that it is when someone doesn’t eat and gets very skinny. I told her that yes, it is correct but there is more to it than what most people make of it. I know that my daughter need to be aware of these disorders (and others) but I truly believe that 12 is too young to expose her mind to such knowledge. There will be a time and place for it, and I will surely correct her if her friends provide her with non-factual information.

The person she was referring too when she asked the question is a lovely young lady and ex-rhythmic gymnast who has now turned her passion for this beautiful sport into a small business as she makes gorgeous leotards. I met her for the first time last year March when my daughter trailed to compete overseas. She attended the event as one of the gymnasts needed alterations to a leotard she made. I didn’t know at the time who she was, but it was clear that she was not healthy and you can also see why most people would jump to the assumption of her suffering from ‘anorexia’. An extremely skinny rhythmic gymnast in a highly competitive sport = you must have an eating disorder.

I contacted her early December of last year to ask if she is available to make my daughter’s leotard. She was and I was thrilled with her design and colours. So we started the process. Several months had gone and I didn’t hear from her. I took it that she must be a very busy young lady so I will leave it just a little while longer before I contact her. Soon after, my one friend who is also waiting on a leotard from her contacted me and I found out that she is actually very sick. No, not due to an eating disorder, but because she has gastrointestinal problems yet to be diagnosed. She had been sick for over 2 years and her health deteriorates each day. She eats 5000+ calories a day, yet still looses weight. In her own words she describes how the doctors have told her she is dying and there is nothing they can do to help her, except send her for more tests. It is absolutely dreadful and my heart breaks for her. I have seen a recent photo of her on Instagram and I cried.

To place a label on someone before knowing the truth is to dehumanise them. I feel like it could be associated with having a scarlet letter stitched permanently unto your skin. We forget that the person carrying a mental and/or physical disorder is still a person. They are separate from their illness. The disorder should not define them. We would rather whisper behind our hands, these days behind a phone screen, before offering assistance or help.

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Quantity during recovery

One of the times I visited Jess (please see Be that someone! for an introduction on Jess), she was an inpatient at the Child and Family Unit (CFU) at Starship Hospital in Auckland. I remember being apprehensive to see her as I know that sending her there was (another) final resort from her parents, clinging to any hope for recovery. I knew it meant that she was again very sick which meant she isn’t reaching her target weight set by one of numerous dieticians. The last time I stepped into a rehabilitation centre was for my own admission while battling bulimia. I didn’t know what to expect and felt very nervous.

When I walked in the unit felt welcoming. The living and dining quarters were all open plan with a lot of natural light coming in from the wall of windows. There were several private rooms in which Jess accommodated one. The unit had several teenagers staying there, receiving treatment for a variety of mental illnesses. The majority were for drug abuse, self-harm and depression. There was an entire unit separated from the main centre for high risk individuals. You can’t imagine that the patients in here are no older than 18. I felt great sadness as Jess showed me around. The light coming into the unit is in stark contrast to the darkness which bears down on these youngsters.

Jess and I spend some time in her room, talking and looking through her diary entries and art work. We must have been in her room for nearly an hour when there was a knock on the door and a nurse announced that it was lunch time. As I wanted to excuse myself and leave Jess to it, the nurse asked if I would like to stay and sit with Jess at the communal dining area? Jess sounded desperate when she said “Yes please, will you?” I felt my heart sink to my stomach but I couldn’t say no to Jess.

There were about 15 teenagers and staff seated to have their lunch. They offered me a plate too, the exact amount that Jess was being served. Everything in me wanted to reject the offer. Why? Not because I wasn’t hungry, but because of the amount of food that was presented. The meal was served in a plastic sealable container. In it was a small tub of yogurt, a fruit, a juice and a lettuce, carrot, chicken and cheese filled sandwich. I looked at this meal with dread and could only imagine the internal battle Jess was having with her demons. Jess picked at her food, but was forced to eat it all within a given time. When her time was up, I had just finished the sandwich and juice. I was so full! The only excuse I could think of for not eating all my food was that I was planning on having a meal on my way back home on my 2 hour drive. I couldn’t admit to Jess that the meal was too much even for me to eat even though I am recovered.

I honestly don’t know if this extreme approach to recovery is doing any good. Perhaps when you are further along in your journey and you have overcome the fear of weight gain. But for someone still in the midst of recovery, continuously relapsing? I completely understand that these measures are often taken because of frustration, taking a no nonsense approach to the patient. But at what point do we ignore a patients’ mental state and start enforcing far-reaching treatments?

During my stay at a rehabilitation centre (receiving treatment for bulimia) I too was forced to eat a considerable amount of food. I couldn’t believe how much they were expecting of me to eat. I was not treated any different to the other patients there. I was the youngest in my ward and the ONLY one with an eating disorder. My food was not prepared any different nor was the quantity adjusted. I remembered dreading meal times. I purged a few times during the first two days. It was as if they didn’t understand that I was there to learn how to control my binging and not be overwhelmed by large food intakes and feeding off the need to purge. When the second week came around and I have had intensive therapy sessions, I was able to eat the meals without feeling guilty for which I am now truly thankful. It still strikes me as odd that the meal plan was not adjusted and gradually increased.

I need to add that the above mentioned approach was so much different to my personal dieticians though. She was amazing! She was there during both battles with anorexia and bulimia. She was careful with all the meal plans, slowly increasing as was needed. Yes she was disappointed when I lost weight, but elated when I ate any additional food that was otherwise stated on my meal plan, or when I controlled any outbursts by going for a walk instead of binge eating.

I wonder if that is the difference with private and individual care compared to state care? And is there even such a thing as a standard meal plan when treating an eating disorder? Obviously it will be adjusted depending on the needs of each individual, whether they are diabetic or have food allergies/intolerances. Or should health professions look at quality vs quantity?

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Night anxiety

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For most people having a large meal accompanied with a drink or two (whether it be alcoholic or not) and perhaps a sweet treat to end the evening off, the feeling of being full is satisfactory. And I can say with confidence that a lot of the times that is the case for me too. But then there are nights like the one I had a few nights back  when anxiety creeps in as I feel how the food pushes up. If there is one thing I am most uncomfortable with, not only during my battle with ED but also after recovery, it is the sensation of feeling full. And it has nothing to do with how much I have eaten either.

I had a late dinner as I only ate after fetching my daughter from gymnastics training, followed by a cup of tea and a biscuit (I can’t have a cuppa without something sweet) and not long after went to bed. Lying down I could feel the food pressing up and even though I didn’t over-eat, my mind immediately went into defend mode.

Defend mode = compulsive behavior:

  • repeatedly going over how much I ate during the day
  • mind racing trying to justify what I ate
  • combating negative thoughts with constant reassurance

Apart from the compulsive behavior, I also battle the old voice of bulimia trying to convince me that I should just purge. “It’s easy, you should know.” I don’t though because I know if I start I won’t stop. I have not spend years in counselling and recovery to relapse. The post-recovery battle is often worse than the recovery itself.

Nights like those are dreadful but my assurance comes from knowing that I will be okay. That after the night dawn breaks and I wake up with an empty stomach and another day starts. A day which I can take head on because I survived my internal nightmare. A day which starts with a cup of tea and a small breakfast whether it be a muffin, slice of toast or an egg on toast because I need to fuel my body. A day I can celebrate because I am no longer defined by my mental disorder.

You will be okay.

Day 55 24 February – pen on paper

My co-worker is away for a few days so I had the short straw on being at the shop until early evening. I don’t have a problem with this at all as it was reasonably busy at times, but there were moments of ‘you can hear a pin drop’ silence which frustrates the living daylights out of me. I don’t like being alone with my thoughts and need something to distract me. So I did what comes naturally, and that’s to draw.

I am a self-taught artist. I have mentioned in my blog entry Colours that both my ouma and oupa were artistic people. From a young age my sister and I were encouraged to find our own creative personality, and mine has been to draw. My mother enrolled me for art lessons during my final year of school as a way to help my destructive ED thought pattern and focus on positive creativity. The art teacher was a renown local artist called Spies Venter. I had an interview with him as he wanted to see my portfolio before taking me on board. He was impressed that I was able to teach myself still portrait drawing, but he noticed several mistakes and saw potential for improvement. He agreed to put me in a morning class for the times when I couldn’t attend school. I was the youngest person in my art class which suited me as I didn’t feel the need to compete with the other ladies. And I learned so much: depth, shadows, colours. I was thrilled when I was invited to have 2 of my art pieces on display at an exhibition for young artists.

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I have since drew several pieces for family as gifts, but haven’t put pencil on paper for 10 years. Today, with a burst of frustration I took the nearest pen and paper and started drawing. Tension leaves my hand as I focus on the detail of the owl’s face.

Breath, draw, repeat.

 

Fuss over Vitamins

I have been encouraged, by my husband and mother, to consume a large amount of Vitamin C for my current head cold. Vitamin C helps your body to fight the nasty little bugs by boosting your immune system, and also helps with the absorption of other vital minerals such as iron. Vitamin C is essential to combating colds and flus. And I know this because I remind my children of the exact same thing and therefor they have their multi-vitamins and Vitamin C with Echinacea every morning. But as an adult I almost feel like saying “Do I really have to?”.

I don’t have a problem with taking additional Vitamin C although I prefer it to be in an effervescent tablet. What I do have a problem with is taking multi-vitamins. It is really hard to explain the reasons and no one actually understands because I am not allergic, or have a health related issue that I can’t take it. No, the reason is simply that in my post-recovery mind multi-vitamins provide additional nutrients, which I can’t get myself to accept.

During my battle with ED, both anorexia and bulimia convinced me that anything additional I put in my mouth, whether I glass of water or a multi-vitamin tablet is one extra foreign object in my stomach which will make me fat. I know how ABSOLUTELY  ridiculous that sounds, trust me even typing it out and reciting it back to myself I sound like a complete nutter! But it is the honest truth. I think it most likely came when the doctor informed us (my mother and myself) that taking a multi-vitamin will give my body the desired nutrients it needs as it was then being stripped from all that is good. My corrupted mind told me otherwise: drink multi-vitamins and you will be feeding your body. Uhm, what?! I didn’t touch a single tablet during that time much to my mother’s frustration.

Some years after my recovery, when I found out I was pregnant with my first child, our doctor instructed me to drink a pre-natal vitamin, which is required for when you have another little human growing inside of you. I forced my fears aside and took the tablet once a day. Shortly after her birth I stopped taking the tablet and tried to continue with a multi-vitamin supplement but I often “forgot” to drink it that I gave up.

Apart from drinking Berocca in the morning, as I suffer from fatigue due to low iron levels, I can’t fathom drinking anything else. But I DO want to get better from this horrid head cold! What a conundrum. Perhaps I should just put my big girl pants on and take the vitamins like the grown-up I am. Sigh!

Recovery, it is worth it!

by Anonymous Recovery is a constant decision. It’s downloading and deleting that calorie counting app over and over again. It’s having a panic attack after hearing your family talking about diets at the Christmas dinner table. It’s texting your best friend and feeling like a burden because you’ve needed her support every day this week. It’s…

via Untitled — Beating Eating Disorders

The above piece of writing is worth sharing, and for you, worth reading. Recovery continues to be a daily decision, and at times not an easy one to make BUT it is worth choosing life, overcoming and victory.

Much love to you all battling this horrid illness. May today be better than yesterday, and tomorrow may you claim a small victory over your ED.