I get asked a lot “why Skin Deep?”. What have I experienced to lead me to want to start this conversation? So for the first time, on World Mental Health Day, I want to share my story but assert again that you don’t have to be an expert to start a conversation – you just have to care.
I remember playing in my English neighbourhood with my best friend, told to “go back to where you came from” and those at primary school who chose to bully me because I didn’t wear brand named clothes. Lucky for me my family, friends and school built me up to be stronger than they’ll ever be.
At 12 years old the school nurse stuck me on some scales as part of a check up and told me I was slightly overweight for my height before sending me on my way. Thanks for that information, which I had no idea what to do with. It was probably the first time I’d thought about my weight like that.
Australia came…a quick, joyous leap into an exotic unknown. My accent was of great interest to everyone and I made fast friends with the kids at school. Darwin was up next; a multicultural haven with people I fell head over heels in love with, making high school a relatively blissful time, although I can trace back early stages of excessive anxiety to then.
I was healthy. A little bit of puppy fat perhaps, but happy, healthy and carefree – until I wasn’t. In year 10, I heard about some dangerous sub cultures on the internet about eating disorders, and decided THAT was what I was going to do my English oral presentation on. I delivered a passionate talk on why these pages should be permanently shut down, but will admit that I read more on them than I needed to for a three minute presentation, and at that stage of my life. My diaries started to reflect a different attitude toward my body. Any little comment about my body or weight, now matter how well intentioned, became almost a challenge for me…I wanted to prove how much I didn’t care, even though I did.
18. Boys. Going out. New clothes. Alcohol. A strong group of friends meant that I made it through, body and self esteem mostly intact. I went on a weight loss program and sustainably lost weight over 12 months; something I was very proud of. Looking back, it’s funny how much your body and the focus of others upon it factors in for many of us.
I moved interstate with my then boyfriend. It started to fall apart. I distinctly remember days of calling my parents and friends in tears; hitting the gym to avoid home and dealing with my feelings; an incredibly kind colleague and friend who brought to work an extra sandwich to make sure I was eating, checking in and hanging out (I never did thank you enough). Around then it happened. The conflict between feeling strong in your decisions and yet so utterly broken. The surge of nausea; of anxiety and grief. The mental battle between logic; what I KNOW and the intense desire to control something. ANY THING. I purge.
It was not a regular occurrence but something that remained in the background for a while. It never made me feel any better; in fact it confused me, broke my heart and made me question what I knew about myself. At some point I made the decision to tell a couple of people around me. I needed to have people to be accountable to because I knew I was teetering on the edge of an incredibly slippery slope.
I had moved back to Darwin, maintaining my health kick of gym-ing, healthy food and growing a very large pile of health magazines. People complimented me while my ‘control’ mechanism, however irregular, had turned my thoughts about food into ones of guilt and control; my measure of success and achievement was whether I could fit in more incidental exercise. Tracking websites were king. Mum had cottoned on that there might be some thing going on, but deny, deny, deny. I didn’t want people to worry. I was very self-aware of losing interest and enjoyment from things I had before; I was exceptionally scared of failure (something I embrace now).
There came a point where I decided that I wanted to seek help for my anxiety. After many phone calls and google searches about how much it would cost (in some cases quite high), I took the plunge through a free appointment associated with the place I worked for at the time. “I’ll hint at the past control coping mechanisms and the little voice that tells me it will help” I thought. It didn’t work. I was told that some young girls do it for attention before moving on to an electronic check list for my anxiety that I’d done myself previously on the internet. Needless to say, I never went back to him.
I had started to do my own research and got involved with youth mental health services; their information helped me, and helping others helped me. Something else happened though…I met my partner Jake. Wow. When Jake and I started dating we hit up every beautiful place in town. We tried new things while we rapidly fell in love. I was falling in love with something else too. I was quickly regaining my love for food and the pleasure, the bonding that can come with a beautiful food experience. We would walk on the beach or trails, but it was just about hanging out, being ourselves and seeing some cool things. He wholeheartedly supported everything I did, and listened, even when he didn’t understand. I connected with an excellent psychologist about my anxiety who didn’t discount anything I raised and who gave me strategies and encouragement. I began to feel again like I am enough.
So when we encouraged others to do the Mission Australia Survey of Young Australians in 2010, and someone told me they felt guilty for putting body image down as their number one personal concern, as though it was too trivial, we had to do it. The Skin Deep conversation had to happen. About a year and a half ago I listened to a friend recount her eating disorder experience at a conference and while I never would profess to have had that experience, I left the room with tears in my eyes for all who have experienced that voice inside that defies all logic.
I’m still a little all or nothing. I have to exercise (no pun intended) restraint around buying health magazines and ‘tracking’ my activities. I don’t want to look at food as fuel, because I don’t think that’s good for me. Most importantly, I steer clear of making any one thing my crutch to cope when things get stressful and rely on a range of different things. Food is not good nor bad. It’s about balance, and feeling good. And hell. I love myself. There, I said it. And it feels good.
It is my wish that no other young person seeking help, is dismissed. It’s my wish that other young people who recognise the signs that things aren’t right for them get the support that they need and that those who are in places much, much worse than I ever was receive the care that they need from professionals with some understanding of what they are going through. It’s time.
Every day I reflect and I feel so completely, overwhelmingly grateful for my lot in life. My family, friends, mentors, experiences, the people who share their stories and thoughts with me, and the platforms to start something so important to me completely fills my heart and soul, and I’m so appreciative to share this with other people.
For help in relation to eating disorders you can call the Butterfly Foundation on 1800 ED HOPE / 1800 33 4673 Monday–Friday 8am to 9pm, or email them. There are fact sheets and help available for young people 12 – 25 years through headspace. For crisis support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.