EATING disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia can worm their way into the lives of mothers, sisters, daughters, sons, fathers — even princesses.
Bulimia embedded itself into the charmed life of the late Princess of Wales, and Princess Victoria of Sweden spoke of seeking treatment in the USA when she felt under pressure undertaking royal duties at the age of 18.
The message is, eating disorders can strike anyone at any time.
Anna, who is a 40-year-old mother of three, and a nurse, knows this only too well.
“I lost 14 years of my life,” says Anna, who lives near Blarney.
“People think an eating disorder is all about food. That is a myth. It is all about control.
“You think you have control and then you have no control at all. It is a constant tug of war.
“It is about the voice in your head, telling yourself that you are not good enough. It never stops,” says Anna.
“The voice gets very loud. Life becomes chaotic. You can have everything; but it means nothing.”
Anna has got her life back on track and is a volunteer at the Eating Disorder Centre in Cork, a service which was set up in 2007 by a concerned group of parents in direct response to a lack of support or any dedicated treatment centre outside of Dublin.
“I decided to use my experience to do something positive,” says Anna.
“Telling my story came into play. The recovery from an eating disorder is individual and specific.
“You can recover,” says Anna. “It is no bed of roses, but you are not alone. You are not the only one. It is OK to ask for help. “I thought recovery was possible for everyone else; but not for me.”
Anna grew up in Kerry and she moved to Cork after her nan died in 1995.
“I was very close to my grandmother,” says Anna. “We minded her at home until she went into hospital.
“My mother was very upset when she died. I didn’t show my feelings. When I moved away from home to Cork, I felt that I had a lesser role and that triggered feelings that I wasn’t ‘good enough’.”
Her nan’s death and having to repeat her first year nursing exams along with nine other students, compounded the feeling of not being ‘good enough’.
The little voice that became louder and louder in Anna’s head took up residence, constantly reminding her that she fell short of expectations. She couldn’t control the voice — but she could control her eating.
“Avoiding food became a way of coping,” says Anna.
“It was a protective thing. I avoided situations where food was involved.
“I used to pre-plan and make all kinds of excuses to avoid eating. It was tiring and it was draining, trying to put on that all was fine,” says Anna.
“The critic got louder in my head. I was never ‘good enough’. I was losing weight slowly but surely.
“I used to panic. I had control all day; then no control at all. It was a constant tug of war. My own voice became my best friend and my worst enemy.”
Anna met her best friend who became her husband.
“I never told him,” she says. “I camouflaged the eating disorder. It seemed better that he did not know too much.”
But the voice in her head knew that another, welcome trigger was around the corner.
“Getting married meant fitting into ‘The Dress’,” says Anna.
“That was another trigger. Every time I had a fitting for my wedding dress, I made sure that it had to be taken in each time. I set myself that task. If it wasn’t taken in; it was like a punishment. When the dress was taken in each time, I thought I’d done a good job. It felt like I might be good enough. You think that, if you see a lower number or a smaller clothes size, then you’ll be happy. But you are never happy. You lose sight of yourself, of the real person.”
Were her parents worried about her?
“You are always on the defensive,” says Anna. “I tended to wear black, baggy clothes.”
It is like knotweed. “It takes hold of you and it starts to smother you,” she says.
How did Anna cope with the sneaky, repetitive voice in her head when she became pregnant?
“I was able to put it to one side for nine months,” says Anna.
“I was responsible now for somebody else; so I was able to do that. The first three or four months were difficult because I didn’t look pregnant.
“In the latter stages, I looked big anyway, so I carried on as normal.”
After Anna’s daughter was born, the voice came back with a vengeance. It got louder. Anna heard it loud and clear.
She describes anorexia at that time thus: “It seemed like I’d had a mental holiday.
“But there was no respite from the constant voice in my head. It was inevitable. There was no escape.”
Anna had to find another route to quell the constant reminder in her head, that she wasn’t ‘good enough’.