The truth — my mental health story. Eating disorders, body image and suicide.
It’s the last day of Mental Health Awareness Week here in the UK. On Tuesday night I went to a talk by a panel of mental health advocates at General Assembly. One of the common themes that was brought up was the stigma that surrounds Mental Health. We all have mental health, we all have mental capacity and we are all varying in degrees of mental fitness. So why do we still feel the need to hide it when we are struggling?
My truth is that I am struggling. I have struggled with my mental health since I was 11 years old. Perhaps even longer than that. I was one of those children who just could not express herself. Even as a little girl, thoughts, feelings and emotions would build up without expression and it would get to an unbearable stage, where my cup was full to the brim and I would just burst. At 15 years old I had my first suicide attempt (I now know that taking 24 paracetamol washed down with 500ml of Ribena will do little more than make you feel a little bit ill). But they did not stop there and were accompanied by self-harm, alcohol abuse and a steady flow of self-destructive behaviours. Age 11 was the first time I witnessed my mother attempt suicide. I don’t blame her — she was deeply lost in herself and filled with so much pain that she didn’t know what else to do. It began with overdoses on painkillers and progressed to slitting her wrists in the bath. Thankfully her life has a deeper purpose and she is still here today and a beautiful example of working through your shit to come out the other side with wisdom and grace. But the attempts were almost annual until I was 19. I remember my brother and I being taken out of school one day to stay with our neighbours because mum was in hospital having her stomach pumped having been discovered by my dad in a bad way. Another time I remember my brother and I being in our rooms next to each other and mum staying in the spare bedroom (her and dad were having issues, which is where it all blew up) and as we were falling asleep we were listening to mum tell us both how much she loved us, how sorry she was and how she wishes all the happiness in the world for our future. At this point we both intuitively felt something was not right and then followed another night of mum refusing to get into the ambulance to save herself.
Age 11 in a spiritual sense is the age of development of Vishuddha a.k.a the Throat Chakra (the blue one if that helps). This chakra is all about expression. It’s basic activities are speaking, creativity and outward expansion. It is our honesty, our truthfulness and when the energy is blocked it becomes the seat of addictions. From age 11 I became withdrawn, fearful of expressing myself and began a journey into inner turmoil, full of self-rejection, self-doubt and a deep lack of self-love. The blocked and stagnant energy of the throat chakra can also manifest in the form of eating disorders. My mum’s suicide attempts stopped when I was 19 and age 19 was also the beginning of my eating disorder. I began using food to comfort myself during hangovers — which were frequent at this age!— and quickly gained some weight. I was 165cm and I weighed 56kg. To me I was obese (don’t worry — i’m very aware this is a very healthy and normal weight). I had always been a very thin and dainty child, I could take or leave food and it never had any power over me. But this all changed completely.
I remember my first binge. I had been dieting through Weight Watchers. When I mentioned to my mum that I needed to lose weight she came with me to a local Weight Watchers meeting. I JUST made the minimum weight for being accepted to join the program. I learned all about how different foods had different points and how to plan a days food on the point system and how to add in exercise to gain bonus points. I started to lose weight but I gained an over anxious mind and an obsession with food. I was continuously body checking, looking at my shape in the mirror, weighing myself and working out to burn off extra calories. My first binge happened at midnight after an evening shift at work. I worked at Blockbuster and we often took home the just out-of-date chocolates and sweets. I took home 2 bags of M&M’s and put them on my desk. It got to midnight, I couldn’t sleep and the M&M’s were screaming my name. I told myself i’d just have a couple. 10 minutes later I had eaten both bags and was dealing with feelings of disgust, shame and panic. I told myself there was nothing I could do now — they were all inside me — and i’d need to eat even less tomorrow and work out more to make up for it. Which I did. But something inside me changed. I kept thinking about how amazing it felt to sit there and just eat 2 bags of M&M’s. The feelings of guilt and shame disappeared and all I could think about was that euphoric rush I felt while eating.
The binge urges kept coming. I was already dieting and restricting my food intake which made the desire to binging even stronger. I thought maybe it was the sugar or the processed foods, as I had learnt all about how bad these were. So I decided to stop it all in its tracks and go on a detox diet. I cut out all sugar, processed foods, dairy and meat. After a week I started to feel great and lost a little bit of weight. I had been able to manage the urges. All until one day, when I ate a mini apple pie (Mr Kiplings, in fact), filled with sugar, trans fats and all the ‘bad’ things I had been avoiding. I panicked. Why did I do that? What will I do now? I’ve undone all my hard work! Then I remembered — one time, 2 years earlier, when eating dinner I discovered that mum had accidentally not cooked the chicken all the way through and it was raw. She told me that I should try and make myself throw it up so that I didn’t get food poisoning (At 8 years old I was bed ridden for most of the summer holidays with salmonella food poisoning). Yes! I could just get rid of the apple pie and all would be fine and back to normal. It would have never happened! So I went to the toilet and I regurgitated the apple pie along with the salad and tofu sandwich I had eaten before it. It was so easy. Just like the times I drank too much and sat by the toilet at a house party, surrounded by my girlfriends telling me to put my fingers down my throat to bring the alcohol back up. It became undone.
Here it began. I had just discovered that I could eat something and I could just throw it up. All those foods I had been restricting and telling myself that I could not eat for months — I could now eat them and get rid of them like it never happened. This was a dieters dream! Not only that but I could now restrict food all day and then when it became too much I could binge on anything I wanted and I could get rid of it. I lost weight. I got down to 50kg and I was getting compliments left, right and centre. I was going to the gym a lot and had moved my diet to a healthier, natural and whole foods approach so everyone around me thought I was doing great. And I felt great. I was finally in control of my body and food. I knew I could just stop any time.
But the binge/purges became daily — and expensive. I became addicted to the feeling of binging. I became addicted to the food and after restricting my food for so long I started to feel completely out of control around it. I couldn’t resist it anymore. I couldn’t leave it alone if it was there. I started to feel like it tortured me. I wanted to stop eating but yet I couldn’t stop. I was obsessed. Old feelings of depression started to come back in full swing and I was spiralling. I wanted to know what was wrong with me and I began to research bulimia and anorexia. I joined pro-ana and pro-mia forums in an attempt to regain control. *(for those that don’t know these are online communities where girls support each other in their eating disorders — I don’t know if they still exist — I switched on very quickly to the fact that they were a terrible idea). Researching bulimia told me that I was broken, that I couldn’t cope with life and I used food as my coping mechanism. So I told myself — “this is just how I cope”. And soon enough for every uncomfortable feeling, thought or emotion in my life I turned to binging and purging. It became my safety blanket.
What followed was years of ups and downs. I knew bulimia was what was ruining my life yet it was how I got through life. I hid it all for a little while but it became noticable and I was showing signs of depression again. It was also taking a huge toll on my body. One evening I had just binge purged and I was due to be driven to work for a shift. I was so exhausted from the intensity of the purge and malnourishment due to not eating much other than during binges that I fainted. I came around and burst into tears. I had to tell my mum what was wrong.
And so I began counselling. I talked about what I was feeling and how completely out of control I felt. I hoped that by talking about it, it would serve as a release and I would feel better. That the weight would be lifted off my shoulders and I could feel free again. But it didn’t. All my attention became focused on my eating disorder. And if the eating disorder wasn’t the focus then it was body image, having the right clothes, being seen at the right clubs and taking enough drugs or drinking enough alcohol to completely numb myself from the inner turmoil. I was living in a constant state of self-avoidance and self-obsession. And whilst my counsellor was telling me all the right things, teaching me about mindfulness, encouraging journalling and self-acceptance, I just couldn’t do enough to make it stop. One day it became too much.
I had been taking a lot of drugs and partying a lot. And while I was still living at home, I became difficult to be around. I had a fight with mum one day in February 2008 and it completely tipped me over the edge. I found every single tablet I could find in the house — painkillers, antihistamines, random old prescriptions and swallowed them, washed down with a litre of absinthe (yes I actually had a bottle of absinthe in my room). This was it. I really wanted to die. I felt worthless and hopeless. I couldn’t handle being me anymore and this was how I could escape. Afterwards I put myself to bed. I remember my best friend called me and in my drunken dillusional state, I answered. She knew there was something wrong. I told her what I had done and she called my parents straight away. Mum told me to go and throw it all up. I remember swaying over the toilet, with my fingers down my throat and thinking do I want to die? Part of me still wanted to and so I stopped. Mum asked me if I had gotten rid of it all. I said yes. I went back to bed and that’s the last thing I remember.
Some time later my brother came home from work and he heard me. I had gotten up and collapsed, convulsing on the floor. He rushed me to the hospital and I was admitted into A&E. I went into a psychosis. The hospital announced a code grey and I had to be restrained to the bed to stop me from harming myself or others. My heart was failing and I was shocked back to life a few times with the defibrillator. I woke up in a hospital ward 2 days later and I had no idea where I was or what day it was. My brother had been sat by my side almost the entire time. I woke when he had left to go to work. My mum was called and she came to pick me up. I went home exhausted, confused and lost. It took me a few days to recover and the energy of my friends that came to visit was extremely helpful. I remember my brother not knowing exactly what to say to me but looking me in the eye and saying “you really scared me”. I felt terrible to have done that to everyone and having come around I got straight back into ‘Operation Beat Bulimia’. I think I went a week before my next binge.
That was the last time I overdosed and the last time I attempted suicide. My brother and I became closer (we were always best friends growing up being just 15 months apart in age but had grown apart a little in the recent years) and he became a huge support in my battle against bulimia which still continued to control my life. We started hanging out more and going for coffee where he would coach me through my issues and tell me with honesty what I needed to hear — that I was good enough and needed to stop fighting myself. My world and my life completely changed just under 5 months after I came home from the hospital.
I had been out on a big night on July 3rd. Chris was meant to come but he decided to stay home and said I should come out with him the next night. I was too hungover and told him I would be staying home. At 3.17am he rang my phone. I had just gotten home about 2 hours ago after dropping my friend home, he had called me to come and collect him from the city as he had been in a fight. I looked at my phone as ‘Chris calling’ flashed on the screen. I was so tired from a big night and after having driven to the city and back, that I didn’t answer it. I thought to myself “he’s just going to tell me how much i’m missing out on a fun night because I stayed home”.
I went back to sleep and was woken a couple of hours later. It was only just starting to get light outside and there was a knock at the front door. Confused and a little panicked, Dad went downstairs to open the door and I followed. When the door was opened there were 2 police officers standing there, grim faces and carrying a certain air of energy to them. My heart sank. Mum joined us. We stood there in our pyjamas as they told us that they had found Chris’s body on the pavement at the south end of the Westgate Bridge. That he has fallen 18 stories to the ground. That he was dead.
At that moment I experienced exactly what it feels like to be truly heartbroken. What it feels like to feel as though whilst you stand and breathe, while your senses are still alive, that your heart shatters into a million minuscule tiny pieces. So small that you feel as though it will never be put back together again and at least certainly not in the same way again. My heart has never felt whole since. A part of me died the day I lost my brother. And all we were left with was “why?”, “how?”, “what if?”.
We never knew Chris was hurting so much. It’s not a place for a 20 year old, good looking, intelligent and caring man to be open. Not a single person knew or had any clue. For him to drive his car to the Westgate Bridge and stand at the top in despair and confusion about whether or not to just give up and give into the wind, was just unfathomable to us all. His funeral attracted over 100 people. I remember standing up in front of the microphone to speak and looking up to see the room packed to the edges. His death affected and touched so many people around us. Lives were changed forever from that point.
I decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life offering my support to people struggling with themselves. I wanted to become a healer which was what I had been told was my calling by a number of people with exceptional talents in intuition (yes, I have seen many psychics in my years!). I couldn’t imagine being a healer whilst I still felt I was so broken but I wanted to change my direction. I was just about to complete a Bachelor in Multimedia and Marketing with the aim of getting into Digital Marketing and eCommerce Design (it wasn’t as big in 2008 as it is today- it was before the age of Instagram, Twitter and when Facebook was just for sharing photos and statuses). In February 2009 I started a Bachelor of Health Sciences in Naturopathy to train to be a Naturopath. I loved it. I felt like I had purpose in my life and I was on the right track. I stopped the drugs, the alcohol and I enjoyed staying in to study.
But I still wasn’t ok — emotionally I was still a wreck and the bulimia continued almost every day. I began a relationship with an old friend who was 6 years older than me. He took charge of my life. Completely. And it became a toxic, co-dependent and emotionally abusive relationship. In a way I can appreciate that I needed someone like him to keep me going. If I didn’t have someone completely controlling me I don’t really know how I would have coped dealing with the loss of Chris. I don’t even know if I can blame him. Was I just too emotionally vulnerable? During these years though, I did a lot of work on myself. I saw a spiritual healer who helped me heal my feelings around my childhood. I saw a chiropractor for kinesiology who helped me to discover some of the many repressed emotions I had stored in my body. An accupuncturist who taught me the importance of stillness. And I saw a lovely psychotherapist who helped me realise that its ok to feel sad, upset or want to cry. But the bulimia and self-unacceptance continued.
In 2011 and I decided I couldn’t continue my toxic relationship anymore and decided to up and leave to backpack around Europe with my best friend and some friends. On my travels I met a very charming Englishman who I quickly fell in love with and decided to leave everything in Australia to start again in London. In Melbourne I was still in the same house, the same room next to Chris’s and his room was still more or less as he left it. London was new and exciting but I was overwhelmed, still not at peace with myself and binging and purging at every chance I got. My boyfriend began to get more frustrated that he couldnt help and I continued to spiral in and out of depression and while he spent more time out with friends, I spent more time on my own binging. We broke up in 2014. Since being in London I have had ups and downs. I finished a diploma in Naturopathic Nutrition and have been too afraid to begin a career as a healer due to my own insecurities and mental health issues. I am now in an incredibly supportive and loving relationship with an amazing man who is literally just my dream come true. I have beautiful friends who make me laugh and want to be a better person. I’ve found myself in a career as an Office Manager and to me, its the most ‘structured’ way that I can support people’s wellbeing. But it’s very stressful and the pressure to be ‘on it’ all the time is high which is detrimental to my mental wellbeing. I still feel like i’m not listening to my true calling. The binging and purging still hasn’t stopped and now, at age 30, I am still having thoughts of ending my own life when I feel like this battle will never end.
I still feel the stigma. I still feel like I shouldn’t talk about it. I have days where I want to hide and I just want to give up. I have dreams of being a wife and a mother to beautiful children. I have visions of coaching and supporting women to break free from their self-limiting beliefs, addictions and end self-sabotage. To stop chasing the ‘ideal body’ that still portrayed in the media. To stop trying to be someone other than their wonderful selves. I know exactly who I want to be, who I can be. And I know it is there within me. I know that wellbeing is within me. But why can’t I stop the bulimia? Why do I still hate the way my body looks? Why am I so conscious of gaining weight? Why do I still self-medicate with food? Why do I still love the feeling of binging on food? I am so scared of spiraling too far down that I won’t get back up. I need help and I need support. I don’t know what to do. This is my mental health struggle.