Picturing a world without my eating disorder

Like most things in life, there are many types of photography. Landscape, portrait, wildlife, aerial, macro, abstract, the list goes on. Each form of photography requires a slightly different set of knowledge and skillsets, for example, the way you set up a camera, choose a lens and structure your composition is different when taking landscapes as opposed to portraits. If you love to freeze the world around you into a shot that you can keep to remember, landscape is your thing. Whereas, if you get a buzz from capturing people, families and children, chances are your preferred style is portraiture.  There is no right or wrong, all forms of photography are amazing, it simply comes back to what YOU love.

Which brings me to my story about healing from a persistent and long-time eating disorder (ED). I’m Sam, in my early 40s, a mother of two young girls who has lived with varying eating disorders since early childhood. Food bingeing for comfort as a child spawned a stream of food and body related problems that pursued me through adolescence into adulthood, consuming and tearing me apart. 

I grew up in difficult circumstances, with a mother who was battling her own eating disorder and additional mental health issues, a schooling environment that I shudder to think could be happening now, (newsflash, children should not be weighed at school!) and a serious lack of self-concept and confidence. As a child, I never felt like I belonged, and developed a serious case of “people pleasing” in order to try and fit in.

A significant milestone in my adult life occurred when I admitted to myself that I was suffering an eating disorder (ED). I was unwell and needed help, desperately. Until this point I thought of my symptoms as a weakness, not an illness. I would soon learn from health professionals that I had a dangerous disease.  A disease that could take my life, a disease that deserved and needed treatment, just like anyone with a serious physical ailment would expect to receive.  

For many years, home had been my refuge and my world. I’d make any excuse to avoid leaving it.  “When I weigh ‘x’ amount, I can go out again”, but ‘x’ was never enough and during one period when I believed ‘x’ was enough, ED managed to sabotage that, always playing a nasty game with my mind. ED was trying hard to control my life, but what life?  I had anxiety attacks before going places where I was likely to see others, fearing, ‘what will they think?’ These self-attacking and crippling thoughts flooded my mind every day, sometimes even in my dreams; the underlying intent of the illness thoughts was to keep me locked up like a prisoner who had committed a terrible crime. 

Two years ago my life began to change when I accessed the right support to help me to heal from the eating disorder. Then, about a year ago, my family gave me a camera. 

Initially I wondered. ‘What I will I capture on this shiny brand-new piece of equipment? What will be my focus? Where will this camera lead me, and can it be a catalyst for the change I’ve been longing for?  Given the generous nature of the gift, pushing it to the back of the cupboard gathering dust was not an option and I had already nailed the art of self-isolation, rarely venturing out of the four safe walls of my home. So, what pictures would I take?  

Looking at my iPhone, I currently have 24,945 photos. Most of my pictures are of my children (and maybe 10 of me). So that’s what I assumed my pictures would reflect — a mum at home taking pictures of her two children, capturing their life stories in photographs. Memories to look back on, memories that someday, my children could share with their children. Sounds reasonable, nothing wrong with that. 

So that’s what I did; besides taking shots of bottled water, candles, home garden, running showers, I immersed myself in learning to take fun and memorable photos of my children and close family. Playing with slime, dress-up days, birthdays, laughing faces; I got it all and have some beautiful photos to look back on my children grow. No doubt about it, this is special, and I am lucky to be able to take the pictures without paying a small fortune to a professional photographer.

Understandably, I sensed that maybe my children and family were tiring a little of having a camera stuck in their faces so often (or maybe that was just ED doing his thing). My family is not camera-shy (quite the opposite actually) but having the lens of a camera pointing at them during most waking hours, inside the home was getting a little annoying for them. I understand that as I hate having cameras pointing at me; my ED has made my life void of photographic evidence because I cannot stand to see pictures of myself. 

Pictures of myself continue to arouse a sense of self-shame, embarrassment, disgust and an insistence that they be deleted straight away. I cringe at the very thought of seeing pictures of myself. I simply can’t do it. I remember to this day having the same feeling, every year, on school photo day at school. 

I always wanted to hide in the back row for the class pictures. I did not want to be seen, but as always, I got put in the front row for everyone to see, “There she is, that big, fat, ugly girl”. This was most certainly my ED’s voice in his earlier stages but even at this early stage, he called the shots, he held the power. I was a puppet acting and believing every thought he injected into my young and innocent mind. But how was I to know that? I thought everyone hated having photos taken, well, that’s how they would act anyway.

So, back to today. Equipped with scooters, helmets, camera and a spare battery (never leave home without a spare), we began exploring our local neighbourhood on foot. I was still taking photos of my children only now it didn’t seem to bother them; they were scooting, running, throwing leaves, playing in the park; this environment was less intrusive than inside a confined space. I have some great action shots, beautiful shots of my children interacting with nature and I feel deeply thankful for having my girls.

Nevertheless, gradually my eyes began to wander away from the kids. I began to notice shapes, structures, colours, plants, patterns in my everyday surroundings!  Where have these been for my whole life? I’ve walked the streets more times than I’d like to admit and all I ever noticed was ED belittling me over and over, telling me not to eat, try this diet, I look horrible, no-body would want to be seen with me. This has been my norm for as long as I can remember. 

So powerful was my ED I had failed to notice the world around me; ED made this impossible. Yet through the lens of a camera, I was beginning to see and appreciate the world around me which in turn meant less time focused on what ED was telling me. Lessons with a local photographer helped to strengthen my healthy self. I was encouraged to look for the photo, the lighting, the subject. Consequently, I found the more I took notice of my environment, the less time I had to focus on the ranting and demanding nature of the eating disorder. Just like that, I was able to do something I’d never come close to doing (and I’ve tried A LOT), that is, turning the volume down on ED’s voice, even if only for a short time. 

I didn’t realise what was happening immediately, but over three or four months it became crystal clear.  Photography was enabling me to take on a new identity, new thought processes; it was encouraging me to look at the world and hopefully, a new way forward in life.

Take home message 

Being a mother and having an eating disorder has been tough, I certainly don’t recommend the combination. Each day is a battle with self and a hard slog to take care of people who depend on you for everything. Each day I fear for my children, wondering ‘Will they inherit my disease?’, I’d never forgive myself if they did, and ‘What will they think when they know the truth?’ These questions remain two of my biggest fears. 

Yet the combination of my girls on their scooters, guiding me forward along the path into the world with my camera around my neck, have been the two defining building blocks that have allowed me to see that there may be a way forward. I’ve begun to find my feet and take steps. The steps are small, but they have a domino effect and eventually, the many dark, horrifying moments I have experienced will become all but a distant memory. 

We regularly go to places now and take notice of the little things, the beautiful things, the odd things, and the downright funny things. I capture the images on my camera, it gives me something to have pride in, I love my photography. Likewise, should my girls read this blog one day, I want them to know that they are my inspiration and my guardian angels, I will be eternally thankful to them and will always try to do my very best at being their mother, a caring and nurturing mother. Thanks to my two girl angels and that day we first ventured out together with scooters and camera, they somehow quite literally loosened ED’s grip on me and began showing me the way out of his big black hole. The eating disorder’s words quietened, his control eased as my children pulled me along and I captured them on camera. I never want to return to ED’s dark place. From this day forward, scooter rides and photography are the way to go.

Today, I still take photos of my two angels; I’m still that mum capturing her kids. Only now, my real passion has turned to landscape photography as I take in everything that I’ve been missing for my entire life so far and that’s a lot. The beauty I have discovered is uplifting.  

My hope for you is that you too can find something you love, something that inspires you; something that squashes that voice of ED in your head that wants nothing but misery and self-destruction for you. You deserve more, you can find more. Go for it and don’t look back.

I invite you to take a look at my website at www.thepicturehealer.com, see the world through my eyes and join me on a journey of recovery.  We can do it.

Sam