Bronwyn’s Anorexia Recovery Story
Bronwyn’s Anorexia Recovery Story
The following describes my experience with anorexia as a young person – the start, the low-lights, and the highlights as I reclaimed my health. I hope by sharing my experience it helps readers who are in a similar space to know that there is always hope for recovery, and that it helps friends, family, and loved ones to understand the complexities of living with this illness.
I am now fully recovered – happy and healthy – and am a professional public speaker on mental health, psychological science, and effective communication. You can read more here and get in touch here. Thanks so much for reading.
I was hospitalised with anorexia at 18 years old and it was the lowest point in my life. In hindsight, the things that led to anorexia started when I was 14 years old. It’s not unusual for teens to have thoughts centered on their appearance but, for me, it was all I would think about. I believed I was repulsive, and by age 15 I’d refuse to leave the house on weekends because I believed I was too ugly to be seen in public. At age 16 I found myself standing in front of the mirror and crying at my reflection.
I managed to place top of my class in a few subjects when I graduated from high school and began to prepare for an audition to get into a competitive music course at university. Playing music with other people was the only time I felt like I really belonged so I desperately wanted to get accepted. I put all my energy into the audition and my music teacher said I was guaranteed a place. So, when I got the call that I didn’t get accepted, I was gutted. Suddenly, the voice that had always gotten me across the line grew a bit meaner and it said, ‘You’re a failure.’ I felt a deep sense of shame. I thought that not getting accepted meant that there was something wrong with me – ‘how could I be so stupid, pathetic, and weak?’ I thought. I knew I needed to fix myself. The only thing I was having success with at the time was healthy eating, so I began to think that if I just ate perfectly and exercised then I could hide how truly repulsive I was from other people.
Over the next few months, I invested vast amounts of time into healthy eating and exercise. I became obsessed with eating as little as possible while exercising as much as I could. My worst fear became gaining weight because doing so would mean that no-one would love me. I would go to the gym instead of seeing friends, stopped letting other people cook for me (so no restaurant or take-out food), and found that I could no longer cry or laugh or feel anything for that matter – I was completely numb. Underlying my obsession was a deep sense of self-hatred and gut-wrenching loneliness. I wanted so much to feel loved and accepted, but I felt I needed to isolate myself otherwise other people would interfere. I told myself that “I don’t deserve to eat” and “I’m disgusting”. As the obsessions took more hold of me, I would wake up every morning wanting to end my life rather than have to face eating food.
Obsessions turned into an eating disorder, which affected both my mental and physical health. I’m in the shower and clumps of hair begin to fall out, my skin turns blue, my hip bones become so weak I’m labelled as having osteoporosis, I leave my part-time job as I was no longer physically able to stand for long periods of time, and I become so malnourished that my heart-rate drops to a dangerously low 30 beats a minute. At 17, doctors feared I was going to have a heart attack.
I knew something was very wrong with me but I couldn’t stop because I believed I still needed to fix myself. My illness rapidly took over and I lost all hope. I was fortunate enough to have a doctor who helped me to understand that I was very sick. At this point my life was controlled by rituals and obsessions, and every time I attempted to deviate from these rules a voice in my head would put me back in my place. With the support of my family and friends, and on my psychiatrists recommendations, I eventually agreed to go into hospital, which continues to be the best decision I have ever made. I participated in therapy and began to regain weight.
The Trigger for Recovery from Anorexia
In hospital I was still in two minds about recovery. Recovery was a very scary prospect. It would mean leaving all my rituals and obsessions behind that kept me ‘safe’, and venturing out into the unknown, where I could be judged, ridiculed, and rejected.
The trigger point for my recovery came from a therapy session that happened while I was in hospital. The other patients and myself were told that there would be a guest, and this guest was going to tell us about her recovery from anorexia. When the guest arrived, she told us that a few years ago she was hospitalised with anorexia, was on a feeding tube because she refused to eat, and that she wanted nothing more than to die. ‘But now I’m recovered’, she said. We were gobsmacked. We asked her, how exactly did she recover?’ She replied, shrugging her shoulders, “I just started living my life, hanging out with friends, and getting coffee. I was so busy enjoying myself that I forgot about food”.
I think the other patients were skeptical of her – we all looked at her stomach and thought, ‘I don’t want to be fat like that’ and turned our noses up at her. In spite of these loud anorexic thoughts at back of my mind, I held on to what she said and it became the most valuable thing I have heard said about recovery:
“I was so busy enjoying myself that I forgot about food”
She started living life and the eating disorder became powerless. That’s exactly what I wanted and, just like that, I realised that my life was going nowhere. Deep down, I felt a strong conviction that I still had something to contribute. I couldn’t end my life now and let anorexia win. I had to get a move on, start living life, and I had to do it right now.
Life after hospital was better but still not smooth sailing – living always involves its ups and downs! I developed bulimia a few months after hospital – spending hours each day exercising while binge-eating between; I abused laxatives; purposely gave myself food poisoning which landed me in hospital; and engaged in a number of other disordered behaviours.
Although I was working very hard on my self-esteem, my core belief was still that I was unlovable. I was also still working on getting past the obsessive rituals I had put in place during my eating disorder. And there were many! Every aspect of eating was governed by rules. I had to make a commitment to challenge myself everyday to break these rules. As the obsessions began to lift, very slowly, I began to enjoy life. Anytime I got invited out I would say ‘yes’, no matter what it was. I began to listen to music again, enjoy art, books, and felt that I became much more lively. I began to feel emotions again: I could laugh again and, after a long stretch of not being able to cry, I finally felt genuinely saddened over things.
The most helpful step I took was making a commitment to stop criticising myself and trying to change my body. I was not ready to do this at first, of course, and it took the help of my therapist, as well as some excellent self-help books to help me make this decision. (There’s a complete list of the resources I found helpful at different stages of recovery here).
When I made the commitment to stop criticising myself my recovery really gained traction. I stopped habitually thinking that there was something wrong with me. Better yet, I stopped trying to control difficult emotions with self-criticism, food, and exercise. This was very difficult, because during anorexia you try to control everything so precisely that even a little bit of freedom feels disastrous. But, as I challenged myself, I found that I no longer needed anorexia to live the life I wanted to lead. I let anorexia go.
I’m not going to sugar-coat this part, though: it did take me years to get to a stage where I felt okay with myself. I did have to work everyday to put my vision of an eating disorder-free life into place. I got angry at myself when progress was slow – sometimes I would make the same mistake over and over again until something clicked and I could move on. It took years to remove rituals involving food, the diet mentality, self-criticism, and to shift my core belief that I was unlovable.
Since that time of living with an eating disorder can truly say that I like myself. Most of the time I give little thought to my body, and I love that. The voice that would tell me I was worthless and unlovable has become dull, white noise. Now, I have no room for thoughts that tell me that I’m nothing.
I think my greatest pride in being recovered is in being truly, authentically me. Since recovering from anorexia, it’s like I finally fit into my shoes. I am me, I am OK with that, and there is nothing I would change.
If you are currently living with an eating disorder then there is no better time than now to seek help. Call The Butterfly Foundation support line on 1800 33 4673 (1800 ED HOPE), e-mail email@example.com or obtain further information about services and accessing clinical experts at www.nedc.com.au (call 02 9419 4499).