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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Meet My Friend: Natalie - Her 27 Year Battle with Anorexia

Warning: This post contains details and pictures of a person with anorexia, which may be distressing or triggering to some people. 

My friend Natalie has struggled with anorexia for close to 27 years.

I met Natalie, at the age of 12, in 1983 when we started high school together. We became good friends that year and remained fairly close during those early years at school.

When we were both 14-year-olds, Natalie became anorexic, and has had this insidious disease ever since.

After school finished, Natalie and I gradually saw less and less of each other, until we got to the stage of only seeing each other at various friends’ weddings etc. We recently reconnected on Facebook.

I think, during the process of writing this post, I’ve come to realise that I’ve not been completely honest with myself over the years. I’ve always put the distance between Natalie and I down to a natural parting between high school friends. Even though that’s probably partly the case, it’s also likely a little more than that.

Watching Natalie treat her body the way she did back then was not easy. In fact, at times it was nothing short of frustrating. I never saw Natalie as ‘fat’. Never, ever, ever. I can still recall the fun-loving, full of life 12-year-old I met in Year 8. I don’t think, in those early days of Natalie’s disease that I fully understood what she was going through. I recall thinking she was ‘silly’ for wanting to be so thin. ‘Ridiculous’ for wanting to be able to bend over and see her backbone jutting out, as she observed herself in the mirror, standing next to me at a friend’s birthday party in the late eighties one night.

The fact that during school I was the victim of cruel taunts about my own weight – ironically, being called anorexic myself (I wasn’t) - and trying desperately to gain weight – I just couldn’t relate to Natalie wanting to not only look like me, but look even thinner than I did.

I think that – without admitting it to her or even to myself at the time – I opted out of being Natalie’s friend because I found it ‘too hard’. (Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be the last to do that.) I didn’t get it. At the time, I thought a few harsh, “Don’t be silly, Nat,” comments would work.

I really knew so little about the mental illness side of anorexia.

So many years later, slightly wiser and far more understanding than I was as a young, at times fairly selfish teen and young adult, I am so thankful I’ve been given the opportunity to reconnect with Natalie.

I recently asked Nat if she would agree to me writing a post about her struggle with anorexia. She immediately agreed and has been nothing but candid, honest and so very helpful (as well as patient!) through this whole process (as you will see). It hasn’t been an easy post for me to write. I doubt it’s been easy for Natalie to answer my questions either.

It’s fair to say that I had no idea just how much Natalie had been through during those years we lost touch.

This is Natalie’s story.

*   *   *   *   *

When we were both fourteen, Natalie struggled when she was teased about her weight by a few boys at school. She was not ‘fat’. Not by any stretch of the imagination. However, she was below average height, and had started to develop physically earlier than most of her peers, and the boys played on that.

Kids can be cruel.

Natalie in 1983. When Nat saw this picture
recently, she described herself as 'huge'.
Although Natalie and I recall differently where we had the conversation, we both clearly remember the day Natalie announced her plan to become an anorexic. We were at school one day, and Natalie was telling me how angry and upset she was about the boys teasing her, and said, “I’ll show them. By the end of the year, I’ll be anorexic.”

She was.

“I wanted them to pay for being so mean [to me],” she explains. In addition to that, the fact that she had put herself on a diet and people had started complementing her on her weight loss, only fuelled her desire to lose more weight.

By 1985, Natalie’s condition had worsened and she was admitted to hospital for the first time. During her stay, Natalie claims she was both physically and mentally abused. “They did…things to me like tie me to the bed, throw me in a cold bath fully clothed and proceeded to put paint in to the bath…[which was] supposed to cheer me up. Yeah, right.” As an outpatient after her hospital stay, a doctor touched her inappropriately. “Back then I didn’t know if that was just part of the treatment.” Natalie was only fifteen at the time.

Since then, Natalie has been in and out of hospital at least ten times.

After that first hospital stay, Natalie went home and, in a desperate attempt to lose the weight she had gained, started making herself sick. For the next nineteen years she would suffer from bulimia as well as anorexia.

Eventually, this all took a toll on her body. In December 2004, after all the pressure her body had been under from both diseases, Natalie suffered major liver and organ failure. Her friends and family – including her husband - were advised to say goodbye to her. The doctors gave her only 48 hours to live.

However, Natalie survived, and only then – after already twenty years of living with the disease - she decided she wanted to get better. “Since then, [I] have been trying to beat it, but…the last five to six years have been the hardest part of my life. Before [that], I was happy being an anorexic, bulimic, alcoholic and taking lots of prescription drugs I shouldn’t [have] been taking to keep me slim.” Stopping the bulimia, Natalie admits, continues to be a challenge for her.

The disease affects the way Natalie sees other women’s bodies.

“When I see overweight people, I’m a little disgusted, but I know some can’t help it because of medical reasons. When I see skinny people I get quite jealous, or wonder [if] they have a problem too, so it’s a bit of a mixed bag on that one.”

Natalie admits that her disease has seen her lose some of those previously close to her. “I have lost some friends over the years, but that’s understandable as they don’t understand [my anorexia], or it’s all too hard for them to deal with. My only regret is losing R (Natalie’s ex-best friend) about ten years ago, and to this day I’m still not quite over it, but I have to respect that she couldn't take it any longer.”

However, Natalie still has a sound support network. “My friends are very supportive, especially my closest ones like P and B (Natalie’s friends from a young age who are also mutual friends of ours) and the girls I’ve hung out with for years. Plus we have a variety of friends and close family - for example, cousins - who are always there for me.”

Although still underweight at around 42kg in this photo taken
in 2009, Natalie believes she was the healthiest she'd been in years.  
As Natalie explains, it has been difficult for her family to watch her struggle with this disease for so long.

“My family… are very supportive, even when it gets to the stage when we all have had enough. My brother [and I were] estranged…[over] the last year but [he] is now coming around again and we seem to be good [now]. [My sister] never stops worrying to the point it gives me the shits, but I know its because she cares so, so much.”

Natalie’s parents have always been very supportive. “Mum and Dad are brilliant, and when it gets all too hard for [my husband] they are always there to take me home to give him a break. I couldn't ask for any more.”

Natalie admits that her disease has been, at times, a strain on her relationship with her husband. Together for 23 years, and married for 13 of those years, means her husband has been by her side for the majority of the duration she has had anorexia.

“When [my husband] and I got married, I [told him that] I would get better. Not long after [our wedding] I went to the Psych ward [at a local hospital] to give it a go, but they weren't geared up for eating disorders [there], and I really wasn't ready to give [up anorexia at that stage], so I only lasted one week.”

For the next few months, as Natalie explains it, her husband would hardly speak to her. Natalie says he felt as though she had let him down. “The first year of our marriage was hard, but over the years it got better. Before we were married we broke up twice - both times for about a year - before officially getting back together, so it did take its toll in the early days.”

These days, Natalie describes her husband as her ‘rock’. “He suffers from the effects, but only really has a hard time when I’m wanting just to die...[when] I just don’t want to be here anymore as it’s all too hard. I tell him this constantly and usually I’m hysterical as well, so it [has] taken its toll on him over the years, especially the last few.”

Natalie admits her relationship with her husband, although obviously challenged by her disease, is what gets her through from one day to the next. “When I’m really bad, and depressed, I quite often tell [my husband] to leave, and go find a better wife who will make love to him and have kids [with him] etc. The things I can’t give him. But he still insists on hanging in there [which is] so lucky for me, because without him I would let myself just die, I think.”

Natalie says her husband’s family is also there for her with love and support.

“I’m a very lucky girl [with all this support], but I still can’t seem to break the nightmare I live in daily.”

Natalie, who recently spent eight weeks in hospital after hitting her lowest weight to date (31.3kg), says that much has changed with treatment of people with eating disorders since that first hospital visit in the mid-eighties, including better medications, regular therapy sessions and visits by her doctor, as well as a more pleasant experience overall.

“Now the treatment [is] a lot more friendlier. I tell the girls [in hospital] they’re on a holiday camp compared to what I went through. They are allowed up to walk to meals and [move] around the ward, [whereas] in 1985 I was in bed – full time – for six weeks.”

Even though Natalie knows she must maintain a good weight, it is a constant battle for her. She did not quite meet her 43kg goal weight before leaving hospital, reaching just 38kg. “I should be at least 40kg, but that’s freaking me out at even getting there.” She admits she hasn’t come out of hospital as mentally healthy as she’d like to be. “But [I] had to come home as being in the clinic was doing my head in.” She has already lost 2kgs, but knows she needs to put the hard work in to gain weight again, and hopes that starting back at work will provide the distraction she needs right now from her disease.

Natalie knows only too well what the disease will continue to do to her body if she doesn’t maintain a healthy weight. At age 40, she has osteoporosis to the point that her body is the equivalent of a 65 to 70 year old, and by the time she reaches 60 years of age, she has been advised that her spine might start crushing in to itself.

After Natalie collapsed in 2004 following her liver and major organ failure, her body was opened up at the time to find the cause of her collapse, leaving her with a scar from her breast to her pubic bone. “Luckily I was already in…hospital [at the time] or I wouldn’t [have] survived.” After complications following her body shut down and subsequent operation, Natalie’s feet and hands turned black due to the lack of circulation. Her right foot eventually developed a bone disease and gangrene, and as a consequence, half of her foot was removed. Her blood circulation – especially to her feet – remains far from adequate, with only one working artery in each leg instead of three.

This photo of Natalie (with her niece) was taken just prior to her recent
 hospital stay after she reached her lowest weight to date at 31.3kg. 
Natalie has had so many operations and procedures that she has lost count. Her teeth have been badly affected. She has all the traits of a diabetic, even though she isn’t one, eg prone to ulcers, doesn’t heal well and prone to infections.

Natalie’s whole digestive and bowel tract doesn’t work, so she takes medication and laxatives as a consequence. She also suffers from a constant itch on her arms that doesn’t go away.

“I do want to say goodbye [to anorexia] this time, but I don’t think that will ever happen. I might be able to manage it better, but I really do feel I will never be rid of this nightmare no matter how much I try…the voice never goes away.”

Natalie speaks of the ‘voice’ (or ‘voices’) as if she is controlled directly by them. As Natalie puts it, the voices are constantly telling her what to eat and when, as well as controlling her to the point of telling her what she can and cannot do physically. “I’m constantly hungry, even after I’ve eaten, but I’m only allowed [by the voices] certain things and certain quantities. Unless I’ve been quite active, I’m not allowed any extras, so it gets very frustrating, especially when [I’m] hungry and all [I’m] allowed is a coffee and maybe one rice cake as a treat - or a tiny piece of fruit to try and fill myself up [with]… between my main meals.”

Natalie describes her main meals as being set by the voices in her head. “[The meals] are very rigid…usually the same thing every day, and if I change my [dinner], my head [the voice] is trying to justify the change and making sure its the same calorie wise etc so I don’t put on an ounce of weight.”

Natalie admits to still using laxatives to make sure her weight does not increase substantially. “But I’m only trying to use them every second or third day, as I’m trying not to abuse them like I used to.”

As Natalie is not working many hours at present, she finds the extra time she has on her hands make the voices more prominent. “Because I’m not busy…my head [tells me] that…I should be eating even less, because I don’t deserve to eat as I’m not doing anything.”

It’s a vicious circle for Natalie. Not eating means that Natalie feels even weaker. Therefore, she does less activity, and the voices then tell her she must eat even less – because she’s not using up the energy. “It never stops. It’s like a double-edged sword - I just can’t win, and then I…lose weight and it goes on and on and on…it never stops!”

When I asked Natalie how people can help her, she replies, “Just be there for me, because there is nothing anyone can do or say that will change the thoughts in my head. I have to be the one to do that and that’s why it’s so hard, because those thoughts are so severe.

When someone is in the grips of [an eating disorder], it doesn’t matter what you say to them, they will think, ‘It will never happen to me.’ Well, I thought that and look at what has happened to me in the last few years. If I was to do a talk to a school, I would go through my life story, show them the battle scars, tell then the ongoing issues I have now and how I could die tomorrow if my heart or liver packs it in again. If I could just save one girl from this nightmare of a life, I would be a happier person to know I have touched someone.”

Thank you so much, Nat. xxxxx

If you think you might suffer from an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia, or know someone that does, you can visit The Butterfly Foundation for more information, or contact their support line on 1800 ED HOPE or 1800 33 4673.

Top image: We Heart It


Lauren Finn said...

Hi Nat and Jodie

Amazing article. A completely incomprehensible disease. There's a woman that spins with us each morning - a beautiful human being with a terrifying mindset about food and exercise. We never talk about it because it isn't our place to do so - we're just there and we treat her like anyone else. Nat - I wish you well and hope you stay healthy. Love and light x

Kellie said...

I really don't know what to say. Thank you so much for sharing this with us, and Nat you are amazing. I wish you all the best on your journey x

Tara @ Our Whirlwind Adventures said...

I am at a loss for words.
I have not, nor ever had an eating disorder so I am not going to pretend I understand what Natalie has been through or will continue to go through. All I can say is I wish her and her support people all the very best for the battle ahead xo

Miss Pink said...

Wow. Thank you Natalie for sharing your story. I hope it reaches many many people and gives those voices in their head the shake they need to get out and let them get better.

Anonymous said...

may natalie get better soon and stay well. It is the hardest disease of all to overcome - no tablet will make it go away. It is hell.
many good thoughts coming her way.

ClaireyH said...

Amazing what the mind will put the body through.

I don't understand this disease at all, and can only hope it never darkens my door with my own daughters. It is an unforgiving and misunderstood disease that hurts too many.

purple_cath said...

Fanatastic post with such consideration. Wishing Natalie all the best with wellness and health on this journey. -xx-

ForeverRhonda said...

Thank you for sharing this. I think there needs to be more awareness regarding eating disorders so that people will be better equipped to help those in need.

Helen Abbott said...

Beautiful summary of agony. I was bulimic for many years, but thankfully I am past that horror. Natalie, your explanation of the "voices" reminded me of a brilliant book I read recently by Richard C. Schwartz, who worked with many bulimics and found the current models couldn't explain the way bulimics described the various "parts" of themselves, and how they were at war, and controlled their actions. It's called Internal Family Systems Therapy. It helped me understand the war that I lived (and still do live, though not as intensely). I hope you can make peace with the voices.

Anonymous said...

I'm hoping if Natalie can find the strength to talk so openly about her disease, she can find the strength to fight it. Because she deserves to feel strong and healthy and live a long life.
Thank you for being so brave Natalie and sharing with us, and to Jodie, thank you for the insightful post, as ever. x

AlyceB said...

Natalie, thank you for sharing your story.
Jodie, thank you for sharing her story!

River said...

I was surprised to read that Nat actually chose to become anorexic. I've never known that to happen before. Most girls start with wanting to be thinner, then the dieting becomes compulsive as the anorexia takes over.
It's an insidious disease, creeping up on you, much like the bulimia does.
I hope Nat continues to improve and has a better quality of life now.

Anonymous said...

That is the only thing that comes to my head after reading this. It was so brave of Natalie to share her story. As someone who stuggles with bulimia and who has at times wanted to be anorexic it brought a tear to my eye.
I didnt realise half of the complications which could develop and i am thankful i read this story.
Thank you both and Natalie, all the best for the future xo

Hannah Brockway said...

Thanks to both of you for doing this. I've posted this to my fb page too, so let's hope it helps someone.
I really don't know what to say; I guess I've said it all to you already anyway.
Just tell Ed to F*#! off from me, yeah?

Thea said...

What a cruel illness.
I hope Natalie is cured of it one day.

Megan Blandford said...

An amazing post - thanks Jodie for giving us that insight, and Natalie for sharing your story. I hope things improve for you soon. xx

Melissa said...

Amazing, heartbreaking. I hope that one day she is well, that the voices can be quieted.

Thank you for sharing this with us.

Cathy said...

Jodie, this was a beautifully written piece. It was obvious that you had spent a great deal of time putting it all together.

Natalie, thank you for sharing your story. I hope many people read it and as a consequence understand anorexia and bulimia better.

The most important line in the story was when you wrote:
"I really knew so little about the mental illness side of anorexia."
It IS a MENTAL illness - so many people don't get this. That's why they don't understand how a person can't just 'snap'out of it.

I hate when people/adults call kids
'fat' (or some derivative of the word) in jest...it may seem funny now, but if that child's mind is wired to take that comment in and have it colour the way they perceive themselves, it could well be the seed to a life of pain.

I also think adults need to be careful about how they talk about their own weight and body image in front of young children. Children are sponges and they take it all in.

I have seen anorexia up close and it's a frightening thing. I am the mother of 3 boys and conscious of the fact that boys as well as girls suffer from theis terrible illness.

I've rambled on but again, great post. The Butterfly Foundation (if I'm not confusing it with another) is something I researched a while back when someone close to me seemed to be heading down this dangerous path - I think it's a great organisation.

bloggingmumof3 said...

wow. having suffered from this myself for 13 years i understood everythign she said. it's scary. so scary. i really pray she will recover adn live a life free from it

bloggingmumof3 said...

wow. having suffered from this myself for 13 years i understood everythign she said. it's scary. so scary. i really pray she will recover adn live a life free from it

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