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Get Ahead Kids - Vol. 4, No. 3 - May/June 2012

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Understanding the Language of Eating Disorders

By June Alexander

Six years into freedom, I remain gob-smacked at the ability of an eating disorder to twist and turn words. Not only the spoken word but also the silent words that for decades raced incessantly, like champion dodgem cars, around in my mind.

Say one word and my resident eating disorder would grab and magnify it to the point where confusion reigned and common sense was vanquished. One word could trigger a thousand irrational thoughts.

An outsider would never dream of the connection. They would scratch their head, wondering what they had said, as a cloud swept over my face, my sunny nature swallowed up by the Eating Disorder. Babbling one moment, silent the next.

I had lived with an eating disorder since age 11 and had no idea what life could be like without the tormenting thoughts. Frankly, I did not know life could be any other way. By the time I entered adolescence, the language of the eating disorder had become embedded in my thoughts and behaviours; I did not know that my friends did not have a bossy voice in their brain like me.

My mother did not understand what had happened to me. She growled and criticised when I did not eat my meals, and when I refused to stop running. Because we did not understand each other, a rift grew between us. I kept to myself, more and more. It was like the weather became the only safe subject on which to communicate.

From my early twenties onwards, I became aware I was often making decisions that were not in my best interests, and could not understand why.

The torment did not relate only to food and exercise. It related to relationships. And to feeling safe, stable and secure. Language and communication on every level was affected.

Life was a rollercoaster and I had no idea how to get off. It was scary because chaos was a great partner for my eating disorder. Together the two fouled up both inner and outer communication.

I was in and out of relationships that were attracted to the eating disorder characteristics rather than mine.

One of my sons, aged 14 at the time, said quietly one night: 'Mum, you are 'as bad' (hurting yourself as much) as those abused women you write about in the newspaper.' He was right.

I could see that. But still I could not escape the bullying language of the eating disorder.

Each time I managed to get on the verge of a safe place - a place where I could be secure and have plenty of support while recovering my 'voice' - I would take fright and make life doubly difficult - chaos was something I knew about; I yearned for peace within but was scared of it - afraid of the stillness, of the 'nothing' but me and 'it'.

So I would return to a relationship that my treatment team, children and friends had encouraged me for months to leave. I would be aware I was not behaving in my best interests, that I was letting my children down (again), that I was hurting the feelings of a nice man who I knew would be 'safe' and who declared love for me despite my illness, that I was making life hard for myself - but I would go headlong into fresh chaos and do it anyway.

An eating disorder and breakdown in communication; went together like a horse and carriage.

I would sell a house and go into new debt. One time I even bought a house back, that I had sold only three years before - paying almost double. Telling myself I needed to buy this house back, to fix up a mistake in the past. And then my road to peace would become clear. So fuddled was my thinking. The eating disorder had a grand time playing with thoughts and emotions.

Emotions? What were they? I had no idea!

Eating disorders had been bossing me around since childhood. Now I was a middle-aged woman! Emotions and feelings were a foreign language to me. I was completely out of touch with both. Besides not knowing how to communicate with others, I had no idea how to communicate with myself.

Then, at age 47, I discovered feelings were the key to beating the horrid eating disorder.

The moment of enlightenment occurred when my therapist suggested identifying the language of the eating disorder and separating it from the thoughts that belonged to the real me. I could identify the eating disorder language - dominating and manipulative as it was - but catching and de-fusing it before those dodgem car thoughts roared out of the pits of my brain was a huge challenge.

'Focus on your feelings and food will take care of itself,' my therapist said. She was right. The process took eight years but the day came when I could eat normally, peace reigned in my heart, I stopped moving house just to 'have a new start', I embraced stability, security and safety, I became my own best friend. I rediscovered the language of self that had been sabotaged by Anorexia Nervosa more than 40 years before. I learnt how to communicate with others and myself.

No more dodgem car thoughts racing around in my head. No more misinterpretation, no more chaos. Everyone who loved me heaved a huge sigh of relief.

Example conversations of how eating disorder language misinterprets conversation said with the best of intention:

Parent: Oh good for you, you're eating your dinner before I even had to remind you it's meal time.

Child: What have I done! I'm so weak and pathetic! I'll stop eating right now!

Parent: I know you've been lying to me and exercising in your room when the doctor has told you not to. Why do you do this when you know it is harmful for you?

Child: She's been spying on me and now she hates me. I have to be more careful not to get caught. I'll wait until she is asleep.

Parent (at restaurant): Oh c'mon honey, hurry up and choose your dish. Everyone's waiting for you.

Child: Well thanks a lot! Now I can't even look at the menu. There's nothing on here I can eat. There are too many choices. I don't want to be here and now everyone's looking at me. I want to go home!

Together with co-author Cate Sangster, June Alexander is writing ED says U said, a guide to understanding the language of eating disorders which is due for release in early 2013.

About June Alexander

June Alexander grew up on a family dairy farm in Victoria in the 1950s. As one of two daughters, she was her father's shadow on the farm. Her mother called her 'Tim'. She attended a one-room primary school. Around puberty she began to experience what today would be called a body image problem. In grade six, she developed anorexia nervosa, a severe psychiatric illness that would challenge and shape her life. A love of the written word became a tool for survival.

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 the past three years, she has written and edited three books about eating disorders.

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