I FEEL like I’m coming home from a really long trip abroad … reacquainting with my loved ones and trying to remember bits and pieces of my whirlwind journey.
Except much of the last year I don’t want to remember. You see, it wasn’t a journey of my choice to a destination I fancied.
My trip was of a sinister nature, to a dark place I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. It was to a place that accommodated me for an extended stay exactly 20 years ago. A place I vowed to never visit again.
A place no-one, surely, wants to reside or even visit on a casual basis.
But, it seems, that once you get there – if all of the signposts align to send you that way – you sometimes find yourself stuck and unable to find your way home.
That’s the reality for approximately nine per cent of the Australian population, and that was my reality for the most part of 2017.
It’s a place called Anorexia Nervosa. Not a geographic location, but in the physician’s textbook, it resides next door to Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) and, most recently, Orthorexia (the latest eating disorder to be classified, indicating an extreme obsession with health).
Arguably, I have oscillated through all of the above during the past year, as I grappled with multiple contributing factors – a transitional period in my life with children growing up and going off to longer hours of education, the demands of owning a business, grief and supporting my husband and his family through the loss of an immediate family member, a desire to etch a social life for myself once again, and questioning my future employment options, after being on unpaid maternity leave since I was pregnant with my eldest 11 year old son.
I started a new sport, playing touch, tag and league tackle rugby, and became involved in the committee, which not only swallowed more of my time, but introduced me to a diverse range of people from various sectors of the community, all with their own life stories.
I realised what a sheltered life I had led for the past 11 years, as I gave my heart and soul to raising my four beautiful children – now aged 11, 9, 7 and 5 respectively.
So when the opportunity presented itself to mix with other people while playing sport and improving my fitness, I jumped at the chance.
Some of my close rugby friends also attended the same gym and we would spur each other on in the stakes of the fitness world.
Most people aspire to be fit, don’t they? Even aim to be the fittest they can be? Health professionals and government campaigns are drilling this message home almost ad nauseum.
And for good reason – obesity rates are climbing, and this is impacting our nation for myriad reasons.
But at what point does a healthy pursuit turn into an unhealthy obsession?
My story isn’t particularly harrowing and, despite the fact Anorexia Nervosa boasts the unenviable highest mortality rate of any mental health condition, I was never at risk of dying from the disease.
Not this time, anyway.
Maybe back when I was 17 years old and suffering the first time, when my weight at one stage plummeted to an alarming 38 kilograms.
But this time around the circumstances were different and, because I was so focused on reaching my full potential at the gym and on the rugby field, I never fasted completely and my lowest weight was 48 kilograms.
Even so, at the time I was wearing size 10 to 12 girls’ clothes and having a plethora of tests to see if I had created long-term damage to my struggling body.
Blood tests revealed a flagging liver, my GP was concerned about the ramifications on my bone density and because I suffered from amenorrhea for nine months, further tests were ordered to see if my eating disorder had sparked early onset menopause.
During the stage at which I was most consumed by the condition, I was running 24 kilometres a day and pumping out lengthy and gruelling weight-lifting sessions at the gym.
I was obsessed, running through a knee injury, torn hip flexor, a tendon injury and torn abdominal muscle, and lifted weights the day after I broke a finger and knuckle playing rugby. I didn’t even seek medical advice about my obviously deformed finger, as I was scared this would sideline me from rugby and gym, and on several occasions I shunned the advice of my expert physiotherapist in pursuit of the “perfect body”.
Maybe my body could have sustained the level of exertion I was imposing, had it been adequately fuelled.
But at the time I was existing (barely) pretty much entirely on vegetables.
I became irritable, found it hard to maintain concentration, my memory suffered and my patience, particularly towards those closest to me, was greatly reduced.
I certainly didn’t mean for this to happen – it wasn’t a conscious choice and I wasn’t even aware until I booked in to see a wonderful local dietitian about a sports performance diet.
Diplomatically, he steered the conversation in a different direction and before I knew it I had a health care team and another piece of paper to add to my medical file.
What followed were months of follow-up visits, tests and an emotional rollercoaster as I grappled with overcoming this insidious disease, all the while trying to shelter my children and family from the possible ramifications.
During this awful period in my life, every day people would comment on my physique and pay tribute to my fitness levels, as I chased the elusive ‘six pack’.
I won’t lie, my ego loved it, but it created more pressure to retain my current image and fitness levels, and further incentive to build upon these. It also gave strength to the eating disorder.
Happily, I can say this is not the person I am today.
I am still very driven by fitness and love to challenge myself in and outside of the gym – my ‘playground’, and happy space - but I am no longer governed by it and I no longer starve myself, binge, purge, adhere to food restrictions or obsess over every morsel that passes my lips.
Probably a diagnosis from my dietitian was the awakening moment, but the incentive to once again model positive behaviours to my children and to return to my former ‘bubbly self’ was the motivation behind the arduous task called recovery.
But it wasn’t an easy road and it certainly wasn’t plain-sailing.
Re-introducing myself to all food groups was terrifying and watching and feeling my body change was devastating for me.
Part of me was like a crazed monster emerging, trying to make up for lost time during its months of food deprivation, but when I would eat, I would feel overfull and the guilt would be crippling.
Enter sporadic periods of bulimic behaviour and increased guilt, which only fuelled the fire.
I feel ashamed that I became so superficial and that my physical fitness and body image goals took over my life.
However, life goes on and guilt is useless.
So where am I at now?
Physically I’m the fittest I’ve ever been. Behaviourally I’m recovered. Psychologically I’m still playing catch-up.
I won’t lie and say I don’t grieve for the body I had when I was most unwell or the ‘abs’ I was starting to sculpt, but when I’m weight training at the gym first thing in the morning I feel good about myself.
And even though an obsession with the gym was a catalyst for this eating disorder, the functional strength I have gained from weight training and endorphins released while running, together with the personal satisfaction from pushing and challenging myself physically, are pertinent to my recovery.
My body may still change further, as I continue to balance my lifestyle. My intuitive eating has been fully restored, but I am still pushing the boundaries with fitness. Right now that feels great, but may not always be sustainable for my body or life circumstances.
My recovery will undoubtedly be further facilitated by the journey I commenced today, as I was introduced to the final tier of my treatment plan – a psychology team – arguably the most skilled in this field in the region. I have been on the waiting list since October last year.
My story is not unique. It doesn’t make for comfortable reading and it leaves me wide open to the scrutiny of you, but if I can help just one person by sharing my journey, it’s well worth the possible negative ramifications.
And while I continue my journey, I ask this of you, community of North East Victoria.
Firstly, understand eating disorders are common and they are a true diagnosed mental health condition. They are complicated and multi-faceted.
Everyone looks a certain way from the outside and everyone has their own unique story. Please don’t judge and please don’t think you have someone summed up based on appearances.
And perhaps we should have a collective movement away from fitness at any cost towards health at every size.
Further to this, think twice about passing comment on someone’s body shape or size, even in a complimentary fashion. You never know what problems this could cause or exacerbate.
Finally, thank you to those people who have supported me unconditionally during my toughest days, namely my husband and children, family (particularly my big sister, whose yoga skills and essential oils have been invaluable), and tireless mother.