I should start by warning you that this post is perhaps something that you would probably not expect to see on here. It also contains language, references and photos that talks about mental illness, eating disorders and suicide. If you need to talk to someone, call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14, or talk to someone you know.
So, why am I sharing this? And why here, and now?
Because I can’t not.
In many ways, I wish that I could have told my story like this – raw and unedited – earlier. But at the same time I knew I wasn’t ready. However, almost eleven years on, I know that I am strong enough to share this story with you, in hope that it can help someone. Anyone. If it’s not you, perhaps it’s a friend. A college. A sister, a daughter, a brother or a cousin. I want you to know that there is a way out of any kind of darkness in your life – whatever that may be and how impossible it can seem. My hope with this is not only to raise awareness, but also try to demonstrate in someway – that these things are OK to talk about, and that it is always OK to ask for help.
Firstly though, I want to apologise for the way this has been written – off the cuff and without an editor. I’m by no means a writer, and though I have drafted and redrafted this story more times than I can remember, there comes a point where you have to set it free. And that’s what this is!
And lastly – a disclaimer. I am not a doctor, a health coach, a dietician or a phycologist. This post entails my personal experience of living with, and over coming an eating disorder that completely ruled my life (or mental illness, as some like to call it). The methods and techniques that helped me, are some I would never push on anyone else. Journeys are personal, and I want to share mine because it saw me through to live a full, vibrant and incredible life. My only hope is that some of these words can help you, or a loved one, in the same way it helped me. And if you’ve never dealt with something like this before – I hope that, first of all, you never do, but secondly, I hope that it will give you an insight into how you could possibly support a loved one who is going through it.
It’s something that has always been within me, and in a big way. I believe it’s in all of us, to some degree. As much as it’s sometimes terrifying, it is also what makes us human.
Even though it’s now something that does not dictate my decisions or actions, I’ve also accepted that it’s part of my personality. A bit like how different cars are built and designed for different purposes – it’s pointless comparing a sports car to a family station wagon. They have completely different purposes. Humans, too, are designed differently. We have different desires, personalities and purposes. My “car” was built with a slightly larger compartment of self doubt. They say “no one is perfect” – our flaws are what make us – us. However this was a concept so foreign to me when I was younger, and I refused to accept that this was who I was. I knew I wanted to change.
I was born in Sweden, into a very loving family home in the outskirts of Stockholm. My parents, to me, are the foundation of my own picture perfect version of a family. I am not saying this because I should, nor am I saying that we haven’t had our trials and tribulations (as you’re about to find out), but I would not have come very far in life without my Mum, Dad and Brother. I would not have made it through this time of my life that I am about to describe to you – without them.
When I was six, my Dad was offered an opportunity overseas, which took us on a 10 year stint in South East Asia. I remember being incredibly excited about starting a new school, making new friends and learning a new language. I look back on this time now, and wonder where on earth my self doubt went. I was a very happy kid. A little shy perhaps, and somewhat cautious, but ultimately up for an adventure.
When we moved to Singapore five years later, I was well into my teens, and I started to notice this new found fear of what other people thought of me. Self doubt had made a grande entrance into my life, but it wasn’t crippling in a way I was yet to discover. Starting a new school as a teenager is never easy, for anyone, and I found it particularly hard to find a new set of friends that I felt a part of. I was the “in between” kid – I hung out with the popular kids, the nerds, the sporty kids, the boarders and the loners. I never felt like I was part of a group or like I belonged. I started to blame myself for not being able to fit in properly, thinking it was the way I looked, spoke or behaved, that made me feel like I was the odd one out.
Four years later, we packed up again to move back home to the sweet little town that I’m from, in the outskirts of Stockholm. I am so, very grateful for all the moving that we’ve done. As a result, I have friends all over the world, received a world class education and I have come to know and appreciate different cultures in a way I never could have if I did not experience them. I would not change a thing about my early years.
But the move back to Sweden proved a tricky time for me. Hand on heart, I can say that it was not physical move that rocked me, but facing yet another school, being the new kid, in a country I ultimately did not know – was terrifying. I also felt that I should have know my home town better. I should have know the streets of my home city. I should have know the local shop owner and I should have had more friends on my street. I should have know which train lines takes you where in the city. I should have known the local hangouts and my friends phone number off by heart. But I was lost. And I most certainly, did not feel good enough. Totally self inflicted and uncalled for – as I was never bullied or told these things by other people. But it was an expectation that I has put onto myself. I did exactly what I shouldn’t have done – I bottled it all up, and the notion of not being good enough just grew stronger.
I decided that I promptly needed to get out of this new reality, and that setting my own roots would be the answer to everything. My mind set was dark. I know every teenager thinks that the world is against them, but I started to contemplate letting everything go. To disappear from it all. I was already underweight, but I started following “pro ana” (pro anorexia) blogs and sites which were a great reminder that not only was I not good enough, but I was not thin enough. All of this was happening in the dark, away from my friends and family. I did not tell anyone. Why would I? They would just think I’m even more weird than they already think I am. I also felt like it was all normal, and that I had it under control.
I started to attract people that were not good for me, or happy with themselves. I was consumed in unhealthy and frankly destructive relationships, but I wanted them. I needed them. I figured that I deserved them. The desire to leave only grew stronger, and so I pursued my passion for design, and was lucky enough to get accepted into a graphic arts college in Sydney, Australia. I remember that my parents received my acceptance letter the night of my high school ball, and called to tell me that it was sitting on my bedside table, unopened. I apologised to my date and ran home. To me, this was a ticket out of my own head. I thought that going to Australia and starting a ‘new’ life, would change everything.
When I asked my Mum to send me photos from 2005 – 2007, she told me that she often wonders why they let me go, in the first place. But I think ultimately, it was the best thing that they could have done for me. I needed to face myself, on my own.
The most common response I get asked when I explain to people that I came out to Australia on my own at 18, is “Wow, that’s so brave of you! That would have taken some confidence.” It couldn’t be further from the truth. But the desire and drive in me to try to ‘fix’ whatever I felt was broken inside me, was stronger than my self doubt. And in the beginning, everything was wonderful. I loved university. I loved that feeling of independence. Paying my own rent. Making my own money. Making my own friends and falling in love. For the first time, ever, I felt like a grown up.
But the self doubt that had been quietened due to all of this excitement – started seeping back into my life. And quickly. Everything started becoming trigger again – for not feeling good enough. An imperfect grade. Missing the bus. An argument with my boyfriend. Feeling like I wasn’t visiting my parents often enough. Not having lots of money. You name it – and I could put a negative twist to it. I realise now, that the relationship I was in at the time was not making things better, either. Never, ever would I blame someone or something for how I was feeling (because ultimately, you are responsible for you), but I was not strong enough to stand up for myself in my relationship. I don’t know why we held on they way we did. Maybe we needed each other, to feel bad together. We fought and argued, yet would make up and start again. I figured this was what love was, and I felt like this was what was meant to be.
My eating habits had also spun out of control, in just a few months. As you can probably tell by now, it was always in me, but it was a blaze, out of control, at this point. I felt like I needed to lose weight, so I figured the best way was to stop eating and ramp up the exercise. I ran anywhere between 5K – 20K everyday, and decided I needed to save money on public transport, so I walked half way to uni, so I only had to catch one train, instead of two. The walk was 50 minutes each way, every day. I walked in rain, hail and sunshine. I also decided I didn’t need to spend my money on food. I would buy a bag of apples to get through the week, as well as instant coffee. On occasion I would eat out with my uni friends, but mostly, I would move the food around my plate or just say I’d already eaten.
I felt great. I thought I was totally in control – and I was on a constant high (probably from caffeine), and feeling slightly super human. That lasted about a month. Then slowly, I started to notice strange changes in the way I felt and behaved. My jeans no longer fit me (they literally fell off), my hair was falling out in the shower and I couldn’t sleep at night. I would feel light headed all the time, and would almost faint when I stood up from sitting at my desk at uni. But the obsessive behaviour continued, and no one really seemed alarmed. So I figured, that it couldn’t be that bad.
At the time I worked at an ice cream shop at nights to make some extra money. As you can imagine, I was not into ice cream at all, but my boss and my colleagues were wonderful, and I loved my job. One night when I was cleaning up after a late shift, I decided that I couldn’t touch the ice cream. It would probably make me fat. I would put on gloves, and wash my hands vigorously after the clean up. That night my boyfriend had made me dinner when I got home. It was apparently our anniversary. I panicked. Not because I had forgotten our anniversary, but because I didn’t know how I was going to swerve the dinner, with just the two of us at home. That was the first night I vomited up my food. I did it in the shower so that he wouldn’t hear it. And I was hooked. I quickly adopted this technique if I was ever faced with a university get together. So what ever nutrients I was getting from these occasions, was now also – gone.
I started to miss my family dearly, and thought about my childhood a lot. I later learned that this is very common for people dealing with anorexia nervosa, and you draw back into yourself and try to remember times that you were happier. I decided, out of the blue, that I had to go back home. As this was a time before Face Time and even extensive use of Skype, I hadn’t ‘seen’ my parents in over 7 months, and they hadn’t seen me either. I guess it was lucky I booked that flight home.
The last few weeks at uni before I left is a complete blur. I remember people starting to comment about how I looked, that my “clothes don’t really fit me”, and that I “looked very tired”. I had started fainting in the corridors, one time so badly that one of my teachers rushed to my side and brought me into his office. He asked me to please try to get home to see my parents, and also – to ask my boyfriend at the time to stay away from me.
I remember wanting to sleep, all the time. I never really could, but even just closing my eyes and not having to deal with life, was good. The flight home was just that, and if air hostesses insisted that I eat something, I asked for a diet coke.
About a week after coming home, still in denial about having issues with food.
My Grandma was the first person I saw at the airport. I can still remember the look on her face. She looked so worried and frankly, confused. I had been writing her letters the last 6 months – sometimes a couple a week, because I missed her. She took me in her arms, and asked me “Where are you, my darling?”. When my parents arrived a f ew minutes later, I couldn’t hold back my tears any more. It was like I had been out at war – with myself for all this time, but now, with them, I was safe. I sobbed into my Dad’s embrace and remember wishing that everything would end now, because I was home.
My parents knew. They had seen it within me when I was younger, and even though I had done my best to hide it, there was now no question what was going on. They took me to a clinic called Mando Meter – where I sat down with them, and a case manager for an initial consultation.
They asked me if I had a problem with eating.
I looked at them as if they were speaking another language. Of course I didn’t have a problem. I had just been going through a tough time in Australia and had lost some weight. When I later demonstrated that I could, in fact – not eat – and not even drink water, I was admitted to full time day care at the clinic. This meant that I was allowed to sleep at home, and that I would go to the hospital during the day. I was still in complete denial about everything, and was wondering why I was in this room full of other girls who were so skinny that they looked like they would break if someone touched them. I was not one of them. Or at least, that is not how I saw myself.
I was constantly cold, and had fine hair growing everywhere.
(the body’s response, trying to keep you warm)
Believe it or not, things got worse from here. At home I found a scale under my parents bed – which they had been told to hide. But I still managed to find it. I hadn’t weighed myself since I had gone to Australia, and at that time I has weighed around 57kg. Until this point, the number on the scale had not been an obsession of mine, but as soon as I stepped on it again, and saw 36kg, it was my new obsession. I was slightly shocked at first, but then I wanted to make that number smaller.
This proved difficult, as I was under full time supervision at the clinic and at home. We had agreed that I was going to try to drink four Ensure Plus drinks a day – at least, to try to keep me alive. If I failed to do this, I was going to be put on bed rest – with a tube up my nose and a drip, in hospital. Let’s just stop for a second and try to laugh at the situation. Here I am, 20 years old, and being told to drink meal supplements and being watched over like a child. It sounds like either a four year old’s, or an old person’s life. Not a 20 year old girl who supposedly, has her whole life in front of her.
The way I manipulated not only the people at the clinic, but my own family and friends, to feed my selfish desire to lose even more weight – was absolutely disgusting. I took showers after every “meal” (drink) to vomit everything back up. I stood up or was moving all the time, even through I was asked to rest in bed, or at least be sitting down. I snuck into my parents room to continue to obsessively weigh myself. I did sit ups in my room. I basically did everything that I was told not to do. And I was breaking the hearts of the people who loved me the most. I remember a very specific moment with my Father in my room, just a few days before I was admitted to hospital. I was standing by my window, after having spent the last 3 and a half hours refusing to drink my chocolate flavoured Ensure Plus in front of my Mum. Needless to say, it resulted in screaming, crying and slamming doors. I had shut myself in my room, standing by the window, and rocking – side to side. I later learned that this is very common with people with extremely low weight. You have this burning desire to move all the time, because your body is so malnourished, that your brain is desperately telling you to move, to go seek out food. My Dad came into my room and very kindly asked me to please, at least, sit down, never mind the missed drink. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even look him in the eye. The voice in my head was telling me to keep moving, to keep burning calories. Just a little bit more. My Dad put his arms around me, and sobbed into my hair. I could feel his desperation, his sadness.
What was I doing? Why was I doing this?
It took several moments like this for me to realise that I actually had a problem. I could no longer keep my Mum company in the kitchen, because I thought the fumes and oil splashes from the food would make me fat. I couldn’t even have my best friend over any more (who tried endlessly to come and see me) – because there was no normal conversation to be had, or activity to do. She had enough of me one night, when we were watching a movie on my parents couch. Mid movie, she hit pause. Looked at me, and said “Steph, I can’t do this anymore. If this is how you’re going to treat yourself, we can’t be friends.” And walked out. I spent that night crying on the floor in my Mum’s arms. But I was starting to see how much I was hurting the people I loved.
I continued to attend the day care, but my heart was not in it. I continued to refuse my meal supplement drinks and vomited up anything that got into my system. I had also stopped swallowing my own spit because I thought it would make me fat. The daily blood tests made me faint and fall into my case managers arms, and some days they had to poke me up to 9 times to find a good source of blood flow. Because I refused to do what I had promised to do, I continued to lose weight and was admitted to full time care in hospital.
The first weekend I was allowed back home. Blood tests happened daily, some times twice daily.
I will never forget my first night there. The nurses would come in several times a night, just to check out heart rates. This was actually to ensure that we were still alive, still breathing.
This part of the hospital housed girls with the same problem as me. There were no mirrors, no magazines, and we could only watch TV supervised. I don’t remember a whole lot from this time. I remember crying a lot. And missing my family. They came to visit me a few times, but they also made it clear to me that this was no life to lead. They wanted me back. I remember the look on my brother’s face when he saw me in there. I did my best to put on a smile, show him around. This was my new home. The people I was spending my time with. There was no mistaking the sadness and desperation in his eyes, and as much as I wanted to ensure him that I was OK – that everything was OK – we both knew it wasn’t.
I knew then, I had to change this.
When I decided that I wanted to get better, I expected everything to be easy. I thought that it was simply a change of mind set, and everything else would just follow. Oh boy, was I wrong. At this stage I had reached a weight so low, that according to my case manager, I was at high risk of suicide. I was asked to sign a piece of paper stating that if I ever had thoughts of killing myself, that I would tell someone. I don’t know what my weight was at this point, but it was lower than when I last weighed myself.
Keeping a journal is something that I’ve done since I can remember. At this point, it was a blog hosted on a password locked site, and it was especially helpful during my recovery. Below is my blog entry from that evening, before being admitted into hospital:
Thursday, August 17th 2006, 9:49pm
They’re locking me up in a hospital today.
I’ll be gone for a while.
And I feel enormous. It feels like my stomach is hanging over my jeans, that the fat is just piling up under my shirt, making my skin look like the ones of those dogs with too much of it. My arms feels like they’ve been injected with air. I have to check every minute that I can still feel my bones, that my stomach sinks in and my hips stick out.
I need to be able to feel the bones in my back and in my shoulders, and I need to see the ribs on my chest.
I don’t what else I am without this.
I can’t let it go.
Friday, August 18th 2006, 10:16am (in hospital)
It’s so frustrating that these places don’t have any mirrors. I need to see what I look like. I want a scale. I need to know my weight. I’m panicking, I can’t think about anything else. Eating is just becoming harder and harder and the nights worse.
I feel like I want to crawl out of my skin and into someone else’s. Anyone else’s. I want to get better, but nothing is working. I want out, I don’t want to do this anymore. I feel like I’d be happier dead than anything else.
It was so much easier in the beginning. They said it would get worse, but that I’d get over it. I’m not getting over it. It’s like an itch I can’t scratch. It’s driving me fucking crazy. I think I’m going insane.
I feel like a crazy person.
To any normal person, this is all crazy talk. And I can, hand on heart, look back on these entries (there are tonnes), and not recognise myself. If someone spoke to me like that today, I would not know how to handle it, or know what to say. If it was coming from someone I loved, the desperation to try to help them, to comfort them, would be absolutely overwhelming.
I finally felt like I had lost control.
And I wanted to get out. The road looked too tough, to long and too hard. I wanted to die. And I decided I wanted to try to end my own life.
Suicide is still something I find very hard to talk about. It’s something I don’t understand, even though I have looked straight down the barrel of it with a straight face. But I do know, that what you chose to leave behind is far more worse than the challenges you might have to face, when trying to get better, and work through your own darkness.
There is always light at the end of the tunnel.
Even if the tunnel looks very, very long. The hurt that I saw that I had caused my closest family and friends, was what got me back up one last time. I decided that even if things felt hard for me, it was not bigger than letting my friends and family down. Plus, the thought of what life had in store for me – if it was all true, sounded exciting.
The treatment that I received through the Mando Meter Clinic is unlike anything I have ever seen or heard of before. I did not know it at the time, but I have looked back on all aspect of my time with them, through many times of my life. Once I had made the decision that I wanted to get better (note the use of ‘wanted’, and not ‘needed’), I was made aware that if I committed to this, I had to commit 100% in order to succeed. There were no ribbons for second or third place. You were all in, or you were out.
As some people would put it –
You’re either in, or you’re in the way.
And I could not tell you how true this sentiment was. The clinic has a very high success rate, but with this very clear guidelines and phases of recovery. Nothing gets missed, and nothing is rushed. As I’m sure you can imagine, once I had decided that I wanted to get better, I wanted it to happen instantly. But there was no such magic pill.
Basically, my treatment program treated me as if I had “forgotten how to eat”. It sounds ridiculous, but it was true. I was afraid of food, and I was afraid of what I thought it would do to me. If you have ever done any research on eating disorders, or dealt with any before, you would know that most people classify anorexia nervosa as a mental illness. The Mando Meter Clinic take a different approach, and look at dealing with the problem patients have with food, before looking at mental disorder management. To me, at the time, this sounded very daunting. I personally thought everything stemmed from my head, and that I needed counselling before I could actually face a plate of food.
Allowed out for a few hours for a graduation party under the supervision of my brother and my best friend. I remember being freezing the entire night, but determined not to wear too much clothing as I wanted to burn calories through shivering. You can see the fine hair that had started growing all over my body.
But then one day, after a chat with my case manager, there it was.
A plate of food.
Perfectly portioned, with veggies, protein and carbs.
My skin started to crawl, I started to sweat and the tears were pouring down my cheeks. I was a 20 year old woman, sitting in front of a plate of food, scared shitless. I remember sitting there with my case manager at the time, whom has a plate of her own. She was eating the food, acting completely normal.
She looked at me and said
“You know how you said you wanted to get better?”.
I hesitated. Then said:
“Well, if there was a magic pill, that would make you better… Would you take it?”
“That plate in front of you, is a fraction of that pill. And you need to take it. Now.”
I made it through half of that plate that day. And I was so damn proud of myself.
This was my life for the next year and a half. And it was not without it’s trial and tribulations. The incredible sense of unease and regret after finishing a plate of food was extremely intense. Something that the program helped me combat using heat. Yes, heat. After meals we would be put in rooms with big heat panels above the bed, and we would sleep, until the next meal. This was amazing for battling the little monsters inside my head, because usually, they would go away once I fell asleep.
Once I got out of full time hospital care, we mimicked this at home, using heat bags. Sometimes the anxiety was so bad that I would sit up with my parents, hugging a bag of heated beans or a hot water bottle, and just needed to be around people. I needed this because I had to refrain from trying to vomit up my food, and to keep my mind off how shit I was feeling, for eating.
A weekend away from hospital.
Very fragile but happy to be with my brother.
Things got better every day, but it was a long journey.
I still had a big list of forbidden foods, and I was obsessed with monitoring how my food was cooked. Butter was off the list for a long time, as were many ingredients, and if I ever felt like I had been ‘tricked’ into eating something, I would quickly take 5 steps back. My family and friends put up with hell. And I don’t say that word lightly.
But slowly, I was finding myself. I was allowed to go out with friends again. I remember being able to go out for coffee with friends again. To be able to have a drink with them again. Get a bit tipsy. Kiss a boy. Laugh about it the next day. Missing out on dinner and making up for it with a big breakfast the next day and not worry about it. I had the taste of life in my mouth again, and it was amazing. How could I have ever wanted to say no this before? Why had I wasted all this time worrying about things that don’t matter?
I was put into remission three years after I was admitted to hospital. Recovery time with Mando Meter is five years, with first monthly, then yearly check ups. We are now 11 years on from when I was first admitted to hospital, and I’m finding myself wiring you this story, feeling like I am telling the story of a completely different person.
After finishing a meal I surrounded myself with warmth. And I needed to be in good company. This is me and my Dad after a ‘tough’ meal.
Slowly but surely, I was getting better.
My mind set was also shifting. After initially wanting to get better for my family and loved ones, I found this burning desire to live my life again. I saw all my friends going out, traveling, doing sport, finishing their degrees, getting jobs. I was still terrified of never feeling good enough, but eventually the desire to join them became too great.
I wanted my life back.
Part of the treatment program (once you have hit a certain goal weight) is to start socialising again. To be normal. I remember the firs time I plucked up the courage to go out for a few drinks with my girlfriends. It was hilarious, and I came back home on an absolute high on life. How could I have ever said ‘no’ to all of this? Why did I waste my time with things that really, didn’t matter?
Soon, my desire to return to Australia and finish my degree was back at the top of my list. It was my goal, and whenever I faced a little bump in the road, that was all I thought about. And it worked.
My first weekend away with my best friend,
in France, about 6 months before remission
I am so incredibly lucky to have received the treatment that I did. It has also taken me this long to be able to admit that I was addicted to something in a way that was out of my control. It’s really no different to someone being addicted to drugs, alcohol or battling depression. I still struggle a little to understand why I allowed myself to subject my nearest and dearest to what I put them through. And in a way, I wish I could un-do it all.
But, everything happens for a reason.
This is something I have believed in for a very long time, and it’s given me the space I’ve needed, to better understand what happened. But it is also just a moment in time, and the biggest triumph of all, is being able to face and work through tough times with the people that you love the most. That is what makes you stronger.
Everything is OK in the end. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end. So allow yourself not to be OK. Just know that the best way through anything, is to ask for help, even though it doesn’t feel comfortable or appropriate at the time. And if you’ve found yourself in a situation, a state of mind or on a path in life that you’re not happy with – change it. But you need to want it enough, and be open enough, to accept the guidance from people who know what they’re doing. But they can never want it for you – that has to come from within you.
I cannot imagine missing out on the life I am now living. I would give anything to be able to have all of this – the ups, the downs, the triumphs and even the lost battles. Life has so much to offer, and it’s up to you to create yours.
Don’t ever waste it.
If you would like to talk to me personally about my treatment, please email me – [email protected] — It’s my greatest desire to help anyone, even if it’s just a little bit, in any way that I can.