By June Alexander, Australia
I was a grandmother when I ‘came out’. The event was a school information night; the year, 2007. Forty-four years after developing anorexia nervosa, I was sharing my inner story publicly for the first time. My message to students and families was that early intervention in treating eating disorder symptoms is crucial, but importantly, there is hope at every age. To help one person, one family, know that an eating disorder was an illness from which recovery was possible, would make my own suffering worthwhile. So began the most fulfilling, contented, purposeful period of my life. I became an advocate in raising awareness of eating disorders.
My stepping-stones to eating disorder advocacy were a little like Dorothy discovering the Yellow Brick Road in the Wizard of Oz. Initially there was a lot of meandering, for I had no idea what to do or what I would find when I got there. But I felt driven to find out. Emerging into the light of true self after decades of being lost in an eating disorder, there was a lot of exploring to do. Writing a memoir (A Girl Called Tim), was one way to continue the healing process and and, tentatively, I began to reach out and talk to people as part of my book preparation.
The first person I met was Claire Middleton (Vickery), founder of The Butterfly Foundation in Australia. Claire was very helpful. I shared my story with her, and explained that I had become alienated from my family of origin during my long struggle with my eating disorder. I wanted to write a book so that others would know there was hope, even when families were unable to provide support. Claire suggested (insisted!) I talk with Professor Daniel Le Grange, about his research with Family Based Treatment (FBT). I had not heard about Professor Le Grange or FBT before for, after years in the dark, I was fresh on the path of enlightenment, self-discovery and awareness. I immediately thought ‘I wish this support for families had been around when I was a kid’.
I emailed Prof. Le Grange with much trepidation. I was someone who happened to have had an eating disorder since childhood, living in Victoria, Australia, and he was a world-leading researcher in the USA (based at the University of Chicago at the time). Prof. Le Grange responded immediately. I flew to Chicago, we met, and together we wrote My Kid is Back. Writing this book took precedence over my memoir, which followed, because I wanted to help families know about FBT as soon as possible. I wanted their children to have every chance of getting their life back quickly, and for families to be unified and strengthened, not isolated and destroyed like mine, by the effects of the eating disorder.
From there, I began to meet people, online, and at conferences, and my interest in advocacy took seed and grew. I attended an eating disorder conference for the first time, in 2009 – the event, run by the Australian and New Zealand Academy of Eating Disorders, was for professionals. My first book on eating disorders, My Kid is Back, had just been released, but did I have a right to be at this conference? I was rich in experience of an eating disorder but had no letters after my name. As the keynote speakers began to describe their research outcomes, however, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority gave way to elation. I wanted to stand, clap my hands and shout ‘You are describing my thoughts, my life!’ The illness that had consumed me for decades seemed to be under their microscope. I began to feel understood. I began to feel I belonged. I began to feel more hopeful.
‘Coming out’ was opening up a whole new world, one in which I found acceptance and purpose. Epiphanic moments appeared and shone like stars twinkling in a clear night sky. Comments like ‘pull up your socks’, ‘you think too much about yourself’, ‘why can’t you be like everyone else?’ had silenced me for years, but now I began to learn about, and to observe with clarity what thoughts and behaviors belonged to the eating disorder and what belonged to the ‘real me’. I began to see the illness in the context of my life. I did have a right to be at that eating disorder conference. I departed for home with a tingling new sense of self-belief. I began to believe I was actually an okay person whose life happened to have been sabotaged by an eating disorder bully. Sadly, this revelation had come too late for my family of origin to understand, but at least now I was out of the eating disorder’s clutches. I was free.
Another person among the many who were especially helpful in guiding my path was F.E.A.S.T. founder, Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh. To be accepted and respected, understood and acknowledged by people who knew my illness story, after decades of silence due to fear of stigma and shame, was a revelation. The little 11-year-old, who developed an eating disorder, was resurfacing and finding her voice. That I was a grandmother by now did not matter.
It is never too late to heal from an eating disorder.
Today I represent patients and their families on national and international organisations, including the NEDC, F.E.A.S.T. and the AED. I write books so that we can learn from each other, for we are all in this, together.
My wish is to see the creation of more supportive health care environments for patient-centered and family-centered healing. Everyone in the family is affected by an eating disorder and, for the best outcome, everyone needs to be involved in the healing process.
Look for the person beyond the eating disorder. Respect them, and help them find their voice. This is my wish for June 2, 2016, our first World Eating Disorder Action Day.
June Alexander is writer and grandmother. She developed Anorexia Nervosa at age 11, in 1962, an illness which has largely shaped her life. Today June is a non-fiction storyteller, with a special passion for the diary. Her latest upcoming title, Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders — The Diary Healer, is the main component in a PhD in Creative Writing. June resigned from a long-time career in print journalism in 2007 to write her memoir, A Girl Called Tim – Escape From An Eating Disorder Hell. This sharing of her inner story led to the writing of a further six books about eating disorders for health practitioners and mainstream readers. June enjoys presenting life-writing workshops and being a life-writing mentor to people of all ages, for everyone has a story to tell. Involved in eating disorder advocacy at local, national and international level, June lives in Melbourne, Australia. Her family comprises four children and five grand children who are her best ‘medicine’ and are experts at ensuring she lives in the moment.
Memoir: A Girl Called Tim – Escape From An Eating Disorder Hell
Join June in supporting World Eating Disorders Action Day. Be sure to follow along on Twitter @WorldEDDay and hashtag #WeDoAct, #WorldEDActionDay, @WorldEatingDisordersAction on Instagram and World Eating Disorders Action Day on Facebook.