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.

18, and still counting.

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7, the year standard you were when you entered our school and our lives.

1, the number of days it took for me to secretly fall madly in love with you.

3, the number of classes we had together: English, Biology and Registry.

2, the number of Judo Jnr World Championship titles you held.

2, the number of times we were dared by our friends to kiss each other in socially awkward moments.

0, the amount of times we actually followed through on these dares.

Too many to count, afternoons we trained together in our local gym, just as friends.

1, the number of chocolates we gambled on in support of each other’s weight loss/weight gain.

1, the number of times I won our chocolate gambled bets.

3, the number of dances we attended separately, with me wishing I was the one holding your hand.

1, the number of times we actually danced together.

18, the age you were when you decided to end your life.

4, the number of family members you left behind.

Too many to count, the number of people that attended your funeral.

12, the number of times you have haunted my dreams and filling me with a desperate hope.

18, the number of years it has been since that dreadful day.

You will stay forever 18, while we keep on counting the years without you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 34 3 February – revival

Several weeks ago my husband was mowing the lawns and noticed what he thought was a large weed growing in the flowerbed. It is safe to say that the weed didn’t get see the sunset. Early that evening I went outside to collect some eggs when I noticed the Christmas Lily is gone! I looked in disbelief at the non existing stems, and thought ‘surely my husband wouldn’t have mowed over it?’ But he did. I was disappointed so say the least and upset. They were very close to forming buds, which blooms around Christmas time. I know they are only flowers, but I honestly felt like sobbing.

About 3 weeks ago I noticed a stem peeking out of the soil…surely not…it can’t be the Christmas Lily? A few days later once the stem started growing leaves I could tell that it was indeed the precious flower. I was hoping that it’s not too late for it to bloom. Over the weekend it formed a bud and this morning my daughter came rushing into the house after feeding the chicken and with great excitement announced that the flower has bloomed. I was so happy and I knew that it was going to be my photo of the day. It is majestic, pure and elegant.

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This afternoon I couldn’t stop thinking about this plant, this single, lone standing, young plant. How it survived being torn up, shredded, hurt. How above all odds it grew, even though smaller than what it would have been. How it was revived through nutrition, water and sunlight. How it survived. Our mental health struggles are very similar to this phenomenon. Our disorders destroy us, strip us from our identities. But when we allow for healing we have an opportunity to grow again. And once we bloom, we are magnificent.

Next year, if it remains unharmed, the Christmas Lily will have a supportive shrub and more stems which will produce more buds. The same applies to us. If we take care of ourselves, feed our minds with positivity and our bodies with nutritional substance, we too will have opportunities to expand creatively, think clearly and make progress.

May your day be filled with rejuvenation.

Day 30 30 January – Muriwai Beach

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Today was exactly what we as a family needed, time outside absorbing Vitamin D in its natural element. The best part of living in the Auckland district is the fact that you don’t drive far to reach beautiful beaches; to the east you have white, sandy beaches often covered in shells and to the west soft, black sand beaches. We have never been up far west before and I was really impressed with the vineyards. One after the other you drive past row after row of luscious green vines. It is definitely a place I would like to visit one day, perhaps a light lunch with my husband accompanied by a sweet, fruity glass (or 2) of wine.

The drive itself was about 1 hour 20 minutes, but it certainly feels short because the scenery captures your attention. From small towns to vineyard mansions to what feels like secret forest passage ways. We arrived at our destination, Muriwai Beach, and I think most Aucklanders had the same idea as us, sun = beach! There is an advertisement on television of people speed walking over hot sand as their feet is burning, which made me giggle as I could only image what we must have looked like walking on the beach to our perfect spot in the sun.

The black sand was in stark contrast to our very pale skin. But I was captivated by the sand, it is super fine so when wet it almost turns into mud and walking on the beach feels like a fitness mud camp. And all that glitters isn’t gold, as the sand literally glistens in the sunshine, as if a bag of tiny diamonds was spilled over the sand. Lying down, my body covered in SPF 50+ sunscreen and tingling in the sun, hearing the waves crash and the kids laughing, my mindset was in a safe space. A place where I am content, where life seems to stand still for a few hours and you have an opportunity to feel.

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Obviously we had a packed picnic: salad filled sandwiches, boiled eggs, cherries, apples and savoury muffins, all baked and made early that morning. I love feeding my family. On our drive back we celebrated the sunstroke day with fresh strawberry and blueberry ice creams.

Blessed, sun tanned and well fed. It was a good day.