Home ContentMirror Mirror on the Wall…

Mirror Mirror on the Wall…

Published : July 21, 2015

Eating disorders are complex and no individual experience, cause or cure is the same. For some they may suffer years while others will turn around their illness within months with no long term damage.

Here we bring one woman’s story of how her obsession with food and body image started and has continued throughout her life.

Readers are warned that they may find the content disturbing.

“My father started to sexually abuse me when I was 3 years old.  It happened when he began to bath me and put me to bed at a time when my mother had a job working evenings at the telephone exchange. She confirms that I did tell her then that I didn’t like to stay with my Daddy because he hurt me, but she did nothing about it. They separated when I was thirteen years old (still telling her not to leave me with him, and that no, I would not visit him) and I thought all my Christmas’s had come at once. They got back together eight months later, when I was nearly fourteen. The abuse escalated – I had grown a bit and blossomed whilst he was out of the house. So I stopped eating. Sounds really clear-cut when written down like this, but it was nowhere near as simple as this.

Even as a young child, I was driven to achieve perfection in everything I did, as if somehow, if I pleased him he wouldn’t hurt me/bother me. At the age of eight I was entering national art competitions (and winning prizes), competing in horse riding events and academically topping all classes, to the point of being jumped two years ahead of my age at primary school when moved for the umpteenth time. I went to thirteen schools in my scholastic career – we often only stayed 6 months, and 2 years was the longest until I managed 3.5 years at one high school (although in that time my parents had split up and got back together again). So we as a family were isolated and always the new kids in school. Although outwardly sociable and quick to make friends, they were fairly shallow friendships, and only during school time, since we usually lived a long way from the school we were attending, which meant socialising out of school-time was difficult. Because of this my brothers and I relied upon each other for company – I play a mean game of French Cricket! Not having long-term friends, I had nothing to compare my home life to, so assumed it was normal.

My parents got back together despite my brothers and I emphatically telling my mother we wanted to stay away from him. He was outwardly charming – a handsome, educated, intelligent, ambitious company director, and a monster in his home.

He had started having an affair with his secretary within weeks of persuading my mother to return home to him, and she found out, so their marriage was a complete sham. However, she agreed to stay with him for appearance sake and for financial gain. At that time he was satisfying his egotistical desire to be Lord of the Manor and we were in the midst of renovating a manor house that had been derelict for many years, had no glass in its windows, no running water etc. It was totally unsaleable in its present condition, so the agreement was that they would stay together until the house was finished and could be sold, and in the meantime I was sacrificed to keep the peace (ended up being 2 years).

About this time he started insisting I accompany him out for dinner, both on my own and to company functions.  I was expected to play the part of charming, intelligent, loving daughter, replacing mother who was unwell that evening, or home looking after other child, who was unwell, or some other excuse… It was all very confused in my mind, but part of me decided that by not eating I was at least assuming some control over my life (you can take a horse to water etc...). Also in there was the thought that if I hadn’t developed physically, maybe he wouldn’t have progressed in his attention to me, so by getting thinner I would get rid of breasts and any womanly shape, which was very confused thinking, because he had started abusing me when I was a toddler.  But I suppose I separated the two phases in my mind to that of the pre-separation when it was never full intercourse, to that of after, when I was raped, often violently, or rather, violently if I put up a fight – arm broken, tooth knocked out, that sort of stuff.

Anyway, food, eating, or not eating became the focus of my life, amidst still having to achieve top marks at school (every O Level more than 90%, 4 A levels instead of the more normal 3, one of them - Maths, pure and applied - done in one year instead of 2), and compete in county athletics plus play for every team in the school.

I knew the calories in every single food stuff imaginable, could calculate exactly how many minutes of which sort of exercise I would have to do burn off what calories I had consumed. I would have a full-blown tantrum if my mum hadn’t bought whatever bizarre foodstuff was the only thing I would eat at that time. I remember a period of boiling chicken breast (the smell now nauseates me), which was portioned into tiny amounts and eaten on its own, nothing else. I remember even now the absolute feeling of panic that there was no chicken, since I might then eat something else and that would be unforgivable, but I was starving, literally.  My eating was totally regimented.  A dry savoury biscuit was something to be looked forward to for hours and a tiny teaspoonful of cottage cheese was weighed to the minutest gram, after three hours of study, or exercise, or whatever task I had set myself.  At the same time, I took over all the cooking duties for the family, and would cook elaborate, three course meals, of which I would eat nothing.  It was as if by doing this I was continually testing myself and usually winning, as I would manage to abstain in most cases.  If absolutely forced, I would vomit immediately after eating.  Recipes were collected and stuck into albums, and I spent my day obsessing about food, whilst eating nearly nothing and successfully losing weight.

When I was sixteen, after O levels, we moved down to England, I started A levels, and my parents were still together, carrying on the charade (“new company, very conservative, only got job because they thought he was good family man” – why did my mother believe this crap?).  So I moved out.  And they split up a couple of weeks later.

So, sixteen, at high school, sharing a flat with two other girls, working all the hours outside of school possible whilst still doing judo three or four times a week, playing county hockey and having risky liaisons with mature men, one of whom became my husband when I was nineteen.

Felt great, getting thinner, no periods, very fit, and mostly out of my Dad’s clutches.

At the same time, very miserable, hopeless and in total despair, life spiralling out of control, never felt good enough, huge shame and totally convinced that I was some fat, loathsome slug, who had crawled out of a dark hole.  Terrified of failing and had no internal measure of what was good enough, hence competed actively at everything that had a definite outcome. Any little success gave a moments high, but then was quickly lost as it was explained away – the reason I won that judo competition is because the other team’s best player was unwell and not competing, or I only got the school year prize because I was lucky that the right exam questions came up – anything other than that I deserved it.

The absolute only thing I felt was in my control was my food intake and my weight.  This was made even worse, when my boyfriend slept with his ex, got a STD and gave it to me, aged 17, so had to admit all.  And guess what, she was toying with anorexia, so I assumed that I was still hugely fat – he obviously liked girls thinner than me, so I got thinner.  Always trying to please, that was me.  At the same time, I wanted to punish him, since he worried about me being thin, and every time I refused to eat, I pissed him off, but he wanted me to eat, and if I didn’t, I was in control.  I had to go to bed feeling hungry, since if I could do this, it meant I had won.  I never just sat and watched TV – I would always be on the floor doing exercises.  I avoided all social situations where eating might be expected.  I went walking at lunchtimes at school and later at University and work, had always “just eaten”, or was “eating with friends later”, and kept no food in the house when on my own (my husband used to travel abroad for his job, several weeks/months at a time) since without someone there I might lose control and eat everything.  Stepping on the scales became an obsession, several times a day if possible. A slight increase was punished by more exercise and a feeling of panic.  I never felt thin; I was always fat in my eyes, even when trying on tiny clothes in a shop and being told by saleswomen that I needed a smaller size.  My amenorrhoea was a measure of my success, so it was an indication of how much I wanted to have a child that I managed to eat sufficiently to resume menstruation (took two years of a few steps forward and one back) and give birth, but then went straight back to my old ways after producing my son, convincing myself that the baby would get all the nourishment he needed from me, at my expense.  Needless to say, I was soon in the psych ward, since health professionals were around at this time in my life.

In hospital I was treated for my bipolar depression, and actively treated for my eating disorder. I was now 25 years old, 1.61m and only 43 kg, but I still maintained that I was disgustingly fat and I really meant it.  If forced to look in a mirror (a thing I hated to do) I could honestly see rolls of fat (now I really can!).  It was only after I started dealing with all the parent stuff that I was able to let go of my control over my eating. I maintained this weight for several years while working through these other things, then started to use other, more healthy methods of coping and put weight on.

I have done a lot of work with several psychiatrists over the last 17.5 years (since they got their clutches on me after my son was born) and so have been able to work out a lot of the motivation behind my actions. Nothing is ever as clear-cut as this will seem, written down in black and white, since often the feelings are confused and even contradictory.  For instance, I recognise that I hated having a womanly shape and being attractive to men (my father), but I wanted my boyfriend to love me and not leave me for his thinner ex-girlfriend.  Mostly, it is about being in control of something, when all around you is out of control.  It is about striving for perfection, because nothing you do ever seems to be good enough.  It is about trying to live up to impossible expectations, when the goal posts shift and you are punished again and again.  And usually, these expectations and/or pressures are placed on you initially by the most powerful people in your life, but gradually or quickly, internalised…so sorry, but in my experience, the parents usually do have a lot to answer for.  Anorexia and/or bulimia for me were, or rather, are, coping mechanisms for dealing with an erratic life, whether internal or external factors are at work.  And what I really know is that it doesn’t just go away.  I have battled these feelings for 28 years and even now, certain foods are good and certain foodsare bad.  If I get depressed, my first reaction is to stop eating, since all the old feelings come flooding back.  I am just not as successful at losing weight now, since my joints are seized up and arthritic and I cannot do the exercise that I used to!  But the good thing is after many years here I am, fat but alive with a wonderful son, good job and generally more happy, surrounded by fantastic friends with a great future as I am slowly getting better.”


Useful Contacts:

Women’s Health Works 
Women’s Health Works is a non-profit community organisation that provides a range of education, information and support services to women, including self help groups for people experiencing an eating disorder.
Telephone: (08) 9300 1566
Fax: (08) 9300 1699 
Website: www.womenshealthworks.org.au
Email: info@womenshealthworks.org.au

ARAFMI Mental Health Carers & Friends Association Incorporated
ARAFMI is a non-profit community based organisation that provide information and support for families and friends of people with mental health issues, including: family support counselling, support group program advocacy, respite and community education.
Telephone: (08) 9427 7100 or 1800 811 747 (rural freecall)

WA Eating Disorders Alliance (through carers WA) 9444 5922

Carers WA 1800 007 332  www.carerswa.asn.au

ARAFMI 9228 0577  www.arafmi.asn.au

Sexual Assistance Rescource Center (SARC)
24 Hour Crisis Line 9340 1828
Free Call 1800 199 888

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