How I survived near-fatal​ anorexia

How Writing helped Me Survive.

Note: This article appears in a different form on the website

In the early fifties I was sent away from my family to an aunt & uncle on the other side of the continent because I was ill. My symptoms were extreme loss of weight, obsessive walking, and refusal to eat. Desperate, my parents consented to ECT, which in those days was extremely primitive. I was hospitalised for several weeks and underwent cruelly painful sessions of electro-convulsive therapy without anaesthetic. I also witnessed other patients convulsing while having the treatment. I was fourteen and weighed less than 27 kilos.

The ‘shock treatment‘, as it was called then, did not work. It left me with headaches, and an increased inner compulsion to starve myself. To this day I have poor spatial skills such as direction-finding, and have lost chunks of my childhood memories.

My parents did not know how to help me when my eating disorder developed, and, as a next step, they consulted a psychologist. It was this psychologist who recommended that I should be sent away from the family to live with an uncle, who was a GP living in Western Australia. These days the treatment approach for Anorexia Nervosa is the opposite: the whole family is encouraged to participate in the treatment, and the sufferer is given strong family and social support.

The psychologist in NSW had heard of a Freudian psychoanalyst in WA who specialised in treating children. She suggested that I consult this analyst, although this was unknown territory and there was no guarantee analysis would work.

Lonely and isolated in Western Australia, my only solace was my journal, into which I poured my frustration, anger, and sorrow. I wrote frequent letters to my parents and sisters back home. One sister remembers me writing ‘No-one can ever understand.’ During the following two years in WA, I further deteriorated and was too ill to attend school. My face, arms and legs were covered with long fine hairs, and I had no periods. No matter what I did, it was impossible to quell the voice inside me forbidding me to eat.

My journals and letters were destroyed because my family was ashamed of me, to the point of almost denying my existence. My sisters were told not to mention my name when they visited relatives. They had no explanation for my absence other than that I was crazy and had driven my parents crazy, and thus had to be removed from the family ‘for my own good’.. Only one photograph remains, of me in so-called ‘recovery’. In the black and white print, my body and face are cadaverous. I’m smiling for my parents, showing off the summer dress my mother had sent me from the eastern states. It swamped my body.


 I myself didn’t understand what was wrong with me; as the disease which we now know as Anorexia Nervosa had not been named in the Antipodes, at least not in the small communities in which I lived.

One day, when I was sixteen and sheer skin and bone, my uncle the doctor called me into his surgery. He told me two things: the first was that, according to his medical journals, I was a textbook case of Anorexia Nervosa. The second was that, unless I began to eat, I would be dead within two months.

The effect of naming the disease was electrifying (excuse the pun). My uncle sent a telegram to my father, telling him that at last there was a diagnosis. It meant I was no longer judged as a malingerer by my family, but as a genuinely ill person. The partial removal of blame was like a magic tonic. It changed the way I thought about myself and externalised my illness, so that, with my psychoanalyst’s help, I was able to look at it objectively.

Amazingly, I didn’t die. When I was told that I had only two months to live, I made a supreme effort to force food down, which I immediately vomited up. 

I credit my survival to two factors: the first was the eventual naming of the disease, which somehow gave it a legitimate status in the eyes of my family. The second was my treatment by a psychoanalyst specialising in children. She saved my life not only by her skillful exploration of my psyche, but also because of her kindness, and her belief in me.

 I still fear the stigmatisation, which was entrenched throughout Western society right through to the nineties, and to some extent still is. However, the recent discovery of genetic and metabolic causes of anorexia nervosa has helped me to see that I was powerless to control the disease and therefore was wrongly blamed by my family and society. This has made a huge difference to my tendency towards depression and the residual guilt.

The urge to write has stayed with me. Over the years I have filled many journals with stories, poems, thoughts, and ideas. I’m now working on a semi-autobiographical work of fiction, which draws on my horrific experiences as a person with undiagnosed anorexia nervosa. I have made my story fiction to protect those family members still living, and to give me the freedom to use such techniques as dialogue, metaphor, and descriptive processes not always found in non-fiction. Its working title is A Difficult Daughter, which of course is ironic. I anticipate its publication in 2020.

My key messages to sufferers and their families are contained in A Difficult Daughter. In brief, I advise anyone with an eating disorder to recognise that you are not responsible for your illness, and to avoid people who blame or judge you. To your families, I recommend extreme patience, understanding, and support. Rather than allowing your child to be identified by her illness, reassure him or her that he/she is still your child. Above all, let your son or daughter know that you love them. Rather than being critical, assure your child or family member that you will help them to fight the disease.

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Categories: A Dangerous Daughter

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