by June Alexander
I’m in a coffee shop with a friend. We’re enjoying our usual cake and extra hot large cappuccino. We belong in the “senior citizens” age bracket. Folks passing by will never guess, looking at us, a bespectacled pair with hair more whitish-grey than fair, that for decades we each were a prisoner of the deadliest of all mental illnesses, severe and enduring anorexia nervosa (SEAN). We look “normal.” We are in a normal place doing a normal thing. We laugh about this. A good healthy-self laugh.
Today my friend and I are reflecting on where we are at right now. As survivors of SEAN, we strive to live each day of our hard-won freedom to the full. Our weekly meeting in the coffee shop is a tick in our “keep well” box. Remember, it helps to connect and share with like-minded others.
We each feel blessed to have children, grandchildren and friends who know all about us and love us anyway. Besides looking normal, whatever that is, we talk about normal things, like our dreams and hopes for our loved ones. But appearances belie the struggles that even today simmer within.
Living today to heal a lost yesterday
Even the happiest of conversations can invariably trigger memories of loss – of relationships and family times that our eating disorder denied us, especially when our children were young. The grief of irretrievable lost moments lingers. We acknowledge this, share the pain, hold each other’s hands.
We steer talk back to today, focusing on the fun we are able to share with our grandchildren and on what we are doing to maintain our independence and stay out of hospital. We are growing older (“maturing,” my grandson Lachlan would kindly say). We love showing our old eating disorder selves how strong we are in taking care of our healthy-selves.
Some of the therapists who helped to save our lives over a long period are no longer here; others are nearing retirement age; parents, in both our cases, never understood our illness.
Like everyone else who is ageing, we are constantly learning to be grateful for what we have and to do the best with what we have got. We each are our own prime caregiver.
We know that adequate, regular nourishment is absolutely vital for healing and ongoing recovery; we know we need our sleep, our exercise, and social connection. As with everyone entering their senior years, we note we tend to reflect in our quieter moments. Unresolved mental health challenges and/or associated trauma can mean this pastime is sometimes fraught with pain but in a supportive environment, it also can be healing. Many losses can be resolved, and those that cannot can be repackaged into a form of liberating acceptance.
The happiest phase
For instance, residual trauma due to relationship breakdowns and the physical impact of prolonged self-harm and malnourishment, like vulnerability to auto-immune conditions, as my own life illustrates, can provide obstacles on the healthy-self path.
However, sitting here in the coffee shop with my friend, I muse that I am in the happiest phase of my life. I am happy being imperfect. I am happy with healthy-self me. I welcome every day. I cherish my family, friends, home, garden and pets.
I practice self-care. Three times daily I cherish taking a minute or two to pause and listen to my body tell me what nourishment it wants for my next meal. My mind and body are one. I balance my meals and snacks with adequate exercise, sleep and social connection. All of these things are part of my daily wellbeing program.
I also practice not caring. Not caring about the negative voice that occasionally intrudes, not caring about being a little late for an appointment, not caring about what I look like when I rug up to go for a walk along the beach, not caring about what others think when I talk to my cats as though they are bosom friends (they are), not caring about the cost of purchasing books, plants or a manicure as treats for me (I deserve them), and not caring about drawing on savings to attend eating disorder conferences (always a wellbeing boost).
I care about and address, but refuse to be affected by, the misconceptions, misunderstanding, shame and stigma that sadly persist around eating disorders in the wider community. I care about and address, but refuse to have my energy sapped by things that ignorant people say to, and about, people who have an eating disorder.
I care about conserving my energy for healthy-self and for people who want to self-improve and make a positive difference. I care about being happy in my own skin and avoid negative people who have their blinkers on.
Happy as an explorer of life
My family are my greatest source of joy and wellbeing, and a wonderful trio of health professionals, together with friends in mainstream and in the eating disorder field, help to keep me on track. I reach out to them through writing, whenever I feel my healthy-balance needs reinforcement. Sharing with trusted others through writing always helps sort things out.
I engage locally and globally through sharing my passion for healing through life-writing (I love mentoring people in recording their stories, for everyone’s story counts), and through involvement as a Rotarian. Connecting daily with others is as crucial as eating three meals and three snacks daily.
My reward for taking care of healthy-self-me is the joy of living in my own home, with freedom to do what I want, when I want. My children seem more mature and wiser than me but that’s okay. They accept and love me as I am. I continue to feel anxious sometimes; I continue to make a lot of mistakes.
The difference now
The difference now is that I know it is okay to feel anxious sometimes, and it is okay to make mistakes. The difference now is that I have skills to nurture and help my healthy-self find solutions. I continue to learn that “well, that is not for me” and give myself permission to try something else. I continue to explore life, catching up on experiences and self-growth that my eating disorder shelved for decades. Every day provides an enriching learning experience. Life is more than good. It’s absolutely fabulous.
My friend and I look at each other. We smile, and we hug, and we say “see you next week.”
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I have written nine books about eating disorders since my recovery (my “reconnection with true self”) from anorexia nervosa and other long term mental health challenges in 2006. In 2017, I graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy (Creative Writing). My contribution to the eating disorder field was recognised at the 2016 Academy for Eating Disorders International Conference in San Francisco where I was awarded the Meehan/Hartley Award for Public Service and Advocacy. I am currently a co-chair of the NEDC Steering Committee Evidence of Experience Group, a foundation steering committee member of the annual World Eating Disorders Action Day, and an Advisory Panel member for F.E.A.S.T.