June, a reporter at age 19

June, a reporter at age 19.

About

A lifetime love of words and writing has helped June beat her eating disorders, which began with anorexia nervosa at the age of 11. She won a pen for her first essay competition at the age of nine and trapped rabbits on her parents’ farm to sell their pelts to help buy books. A journalist since the age of 18, June worked for many years on rural and suburban newspapers as senior writer, editor and newspaper columnist. In 2006 she turned her attention to researching and writing books about eating disorders and mental health issues.

You might wonder why a grandmother is writing books about mental health. The answer is found in my childhood.

I developed anorexia nervosa shortly after my 11th birthday, in 1962. I lived on a dairy farm in the southeast corner of Australia. There was little understanding of the illness at this time and 20 years would pass before I received a correct diagnosis. By then my illness had transitioned into bulimia with co morbid conditions of chronic anxiety and depression.

The creepy thing about anorexia nervosa is that, initially at least, the sufferer is not aware the thoughts and feelings belong to the illness and not them. This is why early intervention is crucial. Generally, the longer the illness goes unimpeded, the more its behaviours and thoughts become entrenched.?Anorexia nervosa can happen to any child, anywhere in the world – whether in a rural district, a small town, or the middle of a big city. It can happen to any child from any social status – wealthy or poor – or any culture.

At age 11, my world revolved around riding my bike, horse riding, swimming, reading books and happily helping my parents to look after the cows, calves and chickens. No glossy magazines or suggestive television shows came into the family home to influence my thinking.

While almost 50 years have passed since I developed anorexia nervosa, memories of this time, when most of my thoughts suddenly became no longer my own, remain crystal clear. My parents and my sister, who was several years older than me, seemed unable to comprehend that I had an illness. My parents took me to one doctor, when I was 12, who advised them that I did ‘not want to grow up’ but that was the limit of any explanation. At this time there was a lack of awareness not only about anorexia but also about mental illness. The reason I did not want to grow up was because I wanted to be a boy. (This story is told in my memoir A Girl Called Tim.)

Literature and writing were my ‘escapes’. At 18 I began a career in newspaper journalism, and when I married a farmer at 20, three of us walked down the aisle – my husband, my eating disorder and myself. I tried to be “normal” but my torment grew. My illness continued to gnaw holes in my mind and my soul.

By my mid-twenties, although working full-time, studying by correspondence and being a Sunday School teacher, I feared I was going crazy and would be locked up and separated from my husband and four beautiful little children. I strove to keep myself busy to try and escape the constant emptiness within. It didn’t work. Death seemed the only way out but my love for my children gave me strength to confide in a family doctor. By now my illness had been untreated for 17 years. For the next five years, I was misdiagnosed; I was 33 when referred to a Melbourne psychiatrist who understood my illness and my struggle. This was Professor Graham Burrows and he remains a rock for me today.

My undiagnosed anorexia and bulimia had set me on a roller-coaster path of chronic depression and anxiety, self-harm and broken relationships. I gradually became estranged from my parents and sister. They did not understand my illness, and would often enable its triggers. The only way to avoid such setbacks was to stay away.

Another casualty was the breakdown of my first marriage – in my desperation to escape the torment, my illness convinced me that my loving husband was holding me back from recovery. Of course the opposite was true – without his support, my illness worsened – and for years I verged on the brink of insanity.  I’d lost my family and had almost lost myself.

My long journey of recovery was about to begin. However, unlike the stories in My Kid Is Back, my journey was undertaken without the support of my parents and sister. Sadly the effects of the illness forged a rift that grew bigger and bigger between them and myself.

Relapse was common. My illness thought patterns were entrenched and for years, I would slip into a depression and take months to haul myself out. Without my family’s acknowledgment that I was an ‘okay’ person, worthy of their love and approval, I floundered about, unable to find a firm foothold on which to rebuild my self. The little girl of 11 remained in my troubled mind and body but needed help to escape from the prison of my illness.

I married and divorced another two times and moved house more than 20 times, always seeking a ‘new start’ to escape my torment. Of course, the torment went everywhere with me. When it raged, I allowed men into my life who were attracted to my illness rather than me. With my sense of self-shattered, all my morals went out the window.

My illness led me to behave in ways that the real me would never approve of or consider, making me appear unreliable and extremely unstable. One divorce was bad enough – three were unheard of! The pain of being misunderstood pierced my soul; my sense of isolation and rejection was extreme.

Months turned into years, and years into decades. I lived for the day when I could shout to the world: “I have recovered my soul! I have peace in my heart and my mind!”

At 55, I was free to do this. I’d got myself back!

June in vegetable garden

June's vegetables like herself are doing great!

I’ve regained my life without my family of origin but I wouldn’t wish such a lonely journey on anyone. Recovery from anorexia nervosa, as with other chronic illnesses, requires a team effort. Without family support, the rebuilding of one’s identity is more arduous; the reclaiming of self-worth more difficult. If you don’t have immediate family support, be open to accepting help from extended family or friends you know you can trust. If you don’t have a family, create one. Include this family of choice and trusted health professionals in your treatment and maintenance team.

A ‘cure’ is not possible for me, but I am ‘recovered’ sufficiently to embrace life to the full. Twenty-three years of ongoing therapy have helped me to re-discover myself, improve my quality of life, and set me free. To be at peace within my mind, after more than 40 years, is a continuing joy.

My illness now has no more than 10 per cent say in my life! I have acquired skills to avoid bruising myself mentally, emotionally or physically. I am my own best friend. For years my illness did not allow me to do enjoyable things, like dining out with friends, or being with people I loved, especially my children. I looked after them but rarely allowed myself to play with them or be involved in their school or sporting activities. They didn’t like to invite friends home because they didn’t know if I would be having a good day or a bad day – if I would be happy or if I would be depressed and crying. I tried to explain my illness and my struggle to them as they were growing up. Today, as adults, they are a source of strength and inspiration. In many ways, they provide the emotional support and understanding that my parents and sister were unable to give.

Other very important people include my GP, psychiatrist and therapist who believed in me, when I was unable to believe in my self, and persisted in their guidance.

My recovery took a big step forward when dietician Belinda Dalton suggested that I try to separate my illness from my sense of self. I was 47 years old. Under Belinda’s gentle guidance, I began to recognise what thoughts belonged to the real me and what belonged to my illness. This helped enormously in gradually piecing together my sense of self. Sometimes I slipped and regressed but gradually I rebuilt my identity.

There is one simple but powerful get-well tool that therapists, for all their care, cannot offer, and this is LOVE. Families can offer this in loads. Love is the most powerful tonic of all.

In place of my family, psychiatrist and my therapist helped me feel I was ‘okay’. Their guidance, together with the understanding and love of my four adult children, and the life-long friendship of their father, is a huge reason why I have recovered sufficiently to help raise awareness of eating disorders.

Three years ago I resigned from my position as a newspaper editor to climb what I called my ‘literary Everest’. At 55, after decades in ‘training’, I was ready: strong enough and resilient enough, to expose my anorexic-bulimic tormentor, in the only way I knew how: with words.  I would share my story in A Girl Called Tim, with the wish that other children would not suffer so long. While researching for my memoir I learnt about the Maudsley Approach and thought: “this is the answer! This is what I have dreamed of, and yearned for, through my struggle!”

My memoir went on hold while I wrote My Kid Is Back. I didn’t want children to suffer as I did, into their adulthood.  I wanted their personalities restored, quickly, surrounded by their family’s love and understanding. I didn’t want their illness to tag along, as mine did, when they left home, entered relationships and embarked on careers.

Estrangement from my sister is a legacy of my illness. Right until the deaths of my parents in 2009 and 2010, the little girl inside me longed to hear them say: ‘I love you’. I’m sure they did love me, but not in the way I needed. This is why the Maudsley Approach/Family-Based Treatment is important in fighting anorexia nervosa. It not only helps the child recover; it bonds and helps families stay together. Nothing is more important than this.

…. Postscript: Today my eating disorder does not stand a chance with my children and three beautiful grand children – Lachlan, age four, Ashton and Olivia Rose, both one year old – all helping me to live in the present and celebrate each moment.