Here at See Change, we passionately believe in the power of story-sharing to foster a shared understanding of the mental health problems that can affect any one of us. This week, we’ve asked published Irish writer and award-winning journalist, Leanne Waters to put pen to paper on her experience of sharing her personal story in the context of her relationships with others and with herself.
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Guest Blog: ‘I am’ by Leanne Waters
Knowing what’s left to say about my eating disorder is as definitive as a tide washing up on the shore. Some days, I feel as if I have talked myself dry of all feeling, all history and all connections to who I was when I suffered with bulimia nervosa. And then there always comes a point when past and present get confused again and who I was then by contrast to who I suppose myself to be now become uncomfortably mingled with one another.
I suppose this is the difficulty when you’re “post-recovery” from an eating disorder; always pushing to escape it and yet still living in fear that if you get complacent, it will undoubtedly make a vicious return once more. Or maybe I’m just too scared to accept that I’m fully recovered. If I do, it means I’ve let go of an intricate – albeit horrid and destructive – part of who I am. I’m scared to do that, mostly because I’m still searching for the person who was hidden beneath my bulimia for so long. That, or else I’m not looking to resurrect myself; I’m looking to create myself all over again. My bulimia consumed me to a point where reality and illusion had become a toxic concoction that guided my life and the decisions I made. Everything I did – the fasting, the binging, the purging, the seclusion, the constant self-condemnation – had a goal, a purpose. That purpose was to fuel the psychological leech that was my illness.
Now, objective is mine alone to create. The purpose my life has now is whatever I give it. Reassuringly – thank God – though this is a daunting realisation, it’s also a liberal one. The choice of deciding what gives my life meaning and how to productively accomplish that meaning is more liberating than my bulimia ever was. Whereas, I sought relief via purging and fasting, that same need is now catered to in the form of overcoming daily challenges, accomplishing life-long goals, stabilising the self I had denied for so long up until this point. More than any of this, relief comes in the faces of loved ones.
The guilt that once burdened me, as a result of all the pain I caused them, has subsided and nearly disappeared. They know the truth. I know the truth. And miraculously, life has gone on. The past is our tool to work towards a better future. As humans, I guess that’s all we can do. This is all terribly simple isn’t it? Get sick, get help and get better. Then you’ll be happy. Well, not quite. For me, it was more than just getting help. What a lot of my own recovery came down to was a conscious investment in myself. I invested in my emotions with the ambition of taking care of them, being sensible with them and sensitive to them. I invested in my thought-processes; how I interpreted the world, broke information down and consequently what about that process had to be changed to bring me to a new point of understanding and a new method of coping with it all. I invested in my past and brought to light old wounds that had been previously buried beneath years of unbearable rubble. Only in doing so could I finally be free of them and the pain such memories caused. What all this sums up to is essentially this notion of redirection. I didn’t change myself. I redirected myself. My bulimia had been a coping mechanism by which I could feel normal.
Today, I would probably say that normality is an idealistic horizon line that, as we approach it, gets further and further away. Surely, the dynamics that conduct our multi-faceted society are too rigorous for such a word to even exist anymore? Yet here so many of us still are, starving ourselves, purging ourselves of illusionistic sin and abusing the natural order of our own birth right. It’s not our fault. This, I maintain fervently. The conscious evolution of society has strayed from the unconscious evolution of nature. Whereas once the celebration of the feminine figure was dominant in our glorious culture, now the average woman is bombarded with skeletal images and apparent ideals. And let’s not even get into the steroid-pumped, must-see-every-muscle pressures that men are faced with. Personally, I’d take a love-handled Jason Segel or Vince Vaughn any day. But hey, each to their own.
The point I’m making here is that we have surely gone starkly against the natural order. What our biology determines as attractiveness and what contemporary fashion industries are trying to convince us is the ideal are two very different things. On this matter, I’m finally starting to give the ‘beauty’ machine a kick up the backside and trust what Mother Nature has herself ordained. All a bit too heavy for you? Well, yes, sometimes it gets a bit heavy for me too. At the end of the day, I’m a 21-year-old girl living just outside Dublin. To say that I’ve done a 180 degree flip from bulimia to entirely embracing who I am would be a lie. So let’s just skip the facade and get down to the nitty-gritty. Nothing has called my confidence in how I look, how much I weigh and the value of my own self worth more into question than the publication of my eating disorder in my memoir My Secret Life. Indeed, there were nights writing that book when I thought I could surely never escape the trap of regression. I don’t believe I have ever cried so much in my life as when I had to document every dark and perhaps even disgusting crevice of the life I have lived. Yet, I feel it was necessary.
If not for my own mental well-being, then just for the sake of someone somewhere putting a face and voice to bulimia and thereafter being convinced that it’s not in fact something to be ashamed of. Irish people have been historicised terribly, haven’t we? Our mothers told us as children not to ‘air our dirty laundry out in public’ and worse still, good old Sigmund Freud even went as far to declare that ‘this is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever’. Well sorry Doc, but I beg to differ. Two things, my dear reader: firstly, psychoanalysis has been key in my battle against bulimia and without it, I would surely have been weapon-less; secondly, ‘airing my dirty laundry out in public’ has set me free. I am no longer under the burdening constraint of secrecy. I no longer deny all that I am – for better or worse. In short, I am at liberty to be post-bulimic and as much woman, daughter, sister, friend, student, lover and writer as I ever was. Even more so than before, I daresay. Knowing, accepting and loving everything about yourself is quite possibly our most powerful means of surviving the matrix of life and what’s more, enjoying the bloody thing. And so, the big question: with the secrecy and shame of an eating disorder and being mentally unwell finally lifted, how do people treat me differently? They don’t. End of. While I fretted over the relationships and social impressions that would surely change forever, they haven’t and I am who I have always been to them.
Nothing more, nothing less. If anything, my heart has been filled with words of utter encouragement, support and at times admiration, which you can imagine has humbled me tremendously. The people who have shared their own stories with me since the time of that publication have reminded me that we are all one and the same; all flawed, all wounded and all merely looking for that divine happiness in our own lives.
This kind of search is never-ending and now that I no longer consider myself defined solely under my own bulimia, it continues forthright. I am not a bulimic writer, bulimic student or bulimic woman. I am a person who has suffered with bulimia, may suffer with it again and stands audacious in the face of anything that dares threaten my mighty pursuit of happiness. We are all darkness, we are all light, we are all failure, we are all success, we are all weakness and we are all strength. Without these things, we are not all-human. My bulimia is who I was and my recovery is who I am.
I am as I am and I’m not ashamed. Nothing could be more beautiful. ‘Let the darkness out and let the light in.’
Leanne Water’s book My Secret Life: A Memoir of Bulimia (Maverick House Publishers) is priced at €14.99 and is hitting bestsellers shelves in bookstores around the country.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues 0in raised here, or if you need to speak with someone, click through for a list of organisations that can help.See Change understands that there is a complex multiplicity of perspectives on mental health problems and the experience of being unwell. See Change encourages the publication of material that promotes understanding of mental health problems, the experience of being unwell, and recovery. The opinions expressed by contributors to the Make a Ripple campaign are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of See Change, funders, or partner organisations.