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A Story of Hope – Emmy

I never thought I would have the strength and courage to overcome the eating disorder that was both my greatest friend and deadliest nemesis. This love hate relationship I had reluctantly shared with my anorexia had dragged on for more than half of my twenty eight years. It was a harrowing and gruelling battle and I was beginning to feel defeated and hopeless. I wanted to lay down my arms. I miserably started to acknowledge the possibility that I might have to settle for the colourless outcome that was half recovery, a slightly healthier and no longer lethal place of physical and mental health, but still bad enough to be a sort of half-life.

The impassable walls that the illness had thrown up around me were made ever the less traversable by the rock hard fears and core beliefs solidifying them. First implanted within my brain in the initial years of my illness, the passing time and developing power of the anorexia saw them become embedded ever and ever deeper. So much so that, they didn’t feel like anything but my own beliefs; attached inextricably to my values and soul; meaning that going against them was inconceivable. To put it into perspective, imagine if you share my core belief that animals have feelings and rights the same way as humans, and that they deserve our love, respect and protection. And then imagine what it would be like if someone told you you had to go against that belief and go about destroying animals’ native habitats and homes. It’s unthinkable, right? You can’t bear the thought of it; it sickens you to the very core. And this was exactly how I felt, if just the flicker of the notion of going against my rock solid core beliefs brushed against my mind. Unthinkable, impossible. Easier to plunge into the depths of an unfathomable ocean than to dare even consider doing that.

I believed that I would never feel happy…in the healthy, womanly body which deep down I knew was what was natural and healthy for me. I wasn’t naturally skinny – that, I knew without a doubt, because I had seen and felt the proof of it. But yet thinness and depriving myself of food was all I had ever known and what I clung to now, with the deathlike grip of the drowning sailor clinging to the remaining piece of driftwood. And as for beautiful…? Forget it. Never once had I found beauty in the wraithlike appearance my body had donned when my anorexia was at its worst; that much was certainly true. But I fervently believed – or rather my ED made me believe – that those crippling feelings of ugliness and self disgust would amplify, a hundred times over, if I were to gain a single more ounce of weight; to go above and beyond the dreaded “minimum”, “healthy” bmi.

And thus was the mental scenario I found myself in, at the halfway point of my recovery journey. The first part of the recovery process had been the hardest and most torturous journey of my life. And now here I was, in a body that felt different, bigger, heavier than anything I had ever been used to. And things hadn’t…gotten…any easier. Those fears that had been there at the start of recovery still seemed as huge and as unpassable as ever; those malignant core beliefs, still the same; so sharp I could cut my brittle skinned fingers on them.

But what I finally came to realise, after years of being stuck, miserable and motionless, in this mental space of some sort of physical stability, but where inner battles continued to rage deep within. Was that that deep and unfathomable ocean which I was so scared to dive into…was exactly where I needed to go. The enigmatic and terrifying sea that was recovery, real recovery. I didn’t know how deep it was; how far I needed to swim until I reached the other side. But I knew I needed to do it, to learn to swim again. This island of isolation that I myself had stranded myself on – at that point in my recovery journey when I felt I had not the strength to continue – was going to be the place where I died, I knew, if I did not decide to save myself. No hero’s ship was going to magically appear on the horizon to save me. I had to somehow find the strength and courage to do this by myself.

But how? My little candles of hope had long since burned out. How to start the journey again when it felt like there was no hope left?

But what I had been doing wrong all those years was that I had been waiting for someone else, something else, to relight that candle for me. Years of peering out into the darkness, from my vantage point on that solitary shore; peering out, looking for the beckoning light of that something that was going to be my hope and heroic saviour. But now I needed to realise that that candle was something I could set alight again, myself.

A little flickering candle flame is small, so fragile; it is all too easily extinguished. But you have to nurture it and protect it; to let no-one or nothing stamp it out. And with time, with determination and persistence, you can let that tiny flame grow into a beautiful and formidable fire.

I started to build up my strength. There was still a very big part of me which didn’t believe I could achieve full recovery; I started to tell that voice of doubt to leave me alone and that I was going to try, anyway. It was a good bit of faking it till you make it, at the very beginning; it felt a good bit like blind faith. But despite the not knowing, despite the roaring uncertainty that reared monstrously around every corner…I pushed on, trusting that deep and innate feeling that I felt deep within my soul. That somehow, things were going to work out. That real recovery was, in fact, not impossible. I had survived this long and harrowing journey through the entangled webs and labyrinths of anorexia, for a reason. The reason being that I was destined to recover. I made myself believe that. And, day by day, this formerly shaky belief became stronger.


How did I do this?…

It wasn’t until I overcame all of the ED core beliefs and rules that I was able to truly recover. Recovery is different and personal for everyone, but I can identify a number of key components that were essential to mine:

1. Realising and acknowledging a sense of my own self-worth. Building enough self-esteem and respect for myself, and a value of my own life and identity, to actually want to recover and to go through the pain and heartbreak that true recovery involves.

2. Knowing that, both during the weight gain process and long after that – it was perfectly ok and absolutely what I needed, to eat whatever I wanted and in whatever quantities I was craving.

3. A support system that included someone who never stopped assuring me I needed to eat as much as I could, even after I had reached the supposedly “healthy weight”. And who constantly reminded me that I was worthy, beautiful, and capable.

4. Tools that helped me get through the manifold challenges and seemingly unmovable obstacles; that helped me navigate through the most difficult parts of the recovery journey.

And as I nourished and fostered that blossoming sense of hope, I also started to build some sort of strange and powerful momentum.

One of the most amazing and fundamental discoveries of my own recovery journey was realising that one single act of courage and defiance against the eating disorder would correspondingly lead to another.

Indeed, choosing consciously, every day at every opportunity, to do the things that were harder, tougher, and scarier served to further increase my courage and resilience and lead me towards taking on even greater challenges. It was like building a momentum of sorts, and I think in recovery it can work in both ways – forwards and upwards and, unfortunately, backwards and downwards, too. Giving in to the ED makes it all too easy to give in again the next time; letting the ED win an inner battle consequently increases its strength and power over you. And, vice versa, as I outlined above, choosing to defy it leads to further acts of defiance.

Think of a young tree growing upwards – it takes every opportunity that comes its way to become taller and stronger. It develops shoots that will eventually grow to become tougher and more resilient branches. And now it is strong enough to withstand the more violent storms that would have torn it down as a seedling.

And so is the case for recovery. Maybe this would make more sense if I was to explain it in terms of my own experience. I remember, during the half recovery phase, eating any food that my brain identified as being naughty or indulgent became a bit of an ordeal for me. My ED would kick up a jarring and seemingly unbearable storm of emotions that were terrifying in their intensity when I tried to eat certain foods. In particular, it stirred up a very unpleasant fear of consuming something without enjoyment – the ED would make me see this purely in terms of eating calories that were “wasted” unless I enjoyed every single little bite. I shake my head in disbelief writing this, now, but I know all too well how powerful that fear was and how real it felt for me, back then.

And even though I wanted to eat these foods, my fear of them led to me becoming very obsessed and anxious to the point I started to not even try anymore. So much so, I couldn’t drink a child sized cup of my beloved Butlers hot chocolate (I am most definitely their biggest fan!) without freaking out. This fear and anxiety began to seep out into my ability to eat other foods. And of course this started to affect my weight, but most of all my recovery motivation. I felt stuck. I felt powerless. I knew I was slipping back, had not the faintest clue how to stop it.

But then one day my boyfriend and I decided to go for a hike. And on the way, he looked at me and asked if I would like to try to have a Butlers hot chocolate. To try. He put no pressure on me, no expectation, but the fact he cared enough to ask, to potentially waste his time by bringing me there and buying me something we both knew I probably wouldn’t be able to drink, moved me to my very core. It was enough to prick me out of my mental immobility and make me want to be brave. So I gathered up the shattered remnants of the courage that I had remaining to me, and off we went together.

My heart was racing, my cheeks felt like they were on fire from the coursing anxiety that raged through me as we approached the cafe. But there was a flicker of something calmer, too, just within my reach. And I seized that and let it settle over me. To try. I had to try. There was an awareness of something else, too. That if I already assumed that I was defeated and that I wasn’t going to be able to have it, then I certainly wouldn’t be able to. I had to be brave and open minded. And I told myself firmly that I could not give up on the first terrifying sip. Em, I told myself firmly, in a voice that mimicked my boyfriend’s tone – gentle, yet firm and unyielding. That first sip is not going to be easy. You’re not going to enjoy it. ED will try to tell you you’ve just consumed x amount of calories without enjoyment, and it will probably start screaming out abuse and having a proper temper tantrum. But you’re going to just have to tell it to leave me well alone(I wasn’t as polite as that, if you know what I mean!)and just get on with it, anyway. And the second sip won’t be easy, either; but just keep going..keep going…it will get easier, it will get easier, you can enjoy this, you can do this, you can drink this. I can do it. It’s all in my head. I’m not going to let a voice in my head tell me I can’t drink this cup of hot chocolate…!!!

I repeated this like a mantra in my head, to the tune of my favourite Taylor swift song. And as we drove away I took the leap. I didn’t sit there paralysed, I took a sip and though my hands were trembling and my mouth was dry and my head felt like it was going to explode, I kept sipping and when we got to the first set of traffic lights, my boyfriend looked over at me and stared in amazement as I began to drink that hot chocolate in earnest.

I’ll always remember that day. And then what happened afterward.

I went the next day, and did the very same thing. And the next. It didn’t matter that the cafe was 17km from my house; I took the bus and went there anyway. I felt like I had started something…momentous. And nothing was going to get in the way of letting that something…grow.

A few days later I nervously contemplated trying something… even harder. The complimentary truffle that always comes with the hot chocolate in Butlers. I was afraid and didn’t want to do it, but then I remembered how petrified I had felt that very first day in the car with Eddie. And so I applied the same technique, if you could call it that, and I ate that truffle and drank the hot chocolate down to the dregs.

I continued this for a whole entire month. And when I felt like that invisible hand gently pull at me, that soft voice of sagacity, so different to that of my eating disorder – now I know, it was my own voice; only then beginning to establish itself – turn me to contemplate the next act of bravery that I needed to take, I listened and considered carefully instead of merely resisting. At this point I was beginning to feel the beginnings of a sort of curiosity. There were so many delicious things out there and I wanted, secretly, to try them all. Fear remained, of course, but…close to getting near as strong as that, was bravery and determination, too.

And so the next day I bought a hot chocolate…I bought a packet of coated digestives, too, and dared myself to eat one with it. And when that one was gone, I realised that I could do even better than I had dared. And so I had another. That feeling of triumph and power that soared through me was so breathtakingly beautiful, I felt that I could dance; right there in the middle of the shopping mall. The joy I felt, the sense of wonder at my own strength, was akin to that surely felt by the young bird who has only just learned how to stretch her wings and fly; to soar the winds; strong, confident and free.

Now, a year later, you would never recognise that girl who trembled and broke down in tears when she attempted to drink hot chocolate. Oh, no. I’m the one in the cafe with her book and scruffy notebooks, munching away on a cookie sandwich. Not instead of the hot choc; as an accompaniment, of course. It’s hard to believe how far I have come. Hard to believe that that seemingly simple but yet fundamental way of thinking and the attitude I adopted when faced with something challenging, enabled me to change so profoundly. How one single and simple act of courage and defiance led me from struggling to finish a kiddie sized hot chocolate, to being able to have an extra strong (like the consistency of chocolate custard, yeah. That’s how I like my hot chocolate 😉 ), regular-sized one with biscuits…or cheesecake…happily included on the side. And may I mention as well, I do so without harbouring one single shard of guilt. My friends call me the hot chocolate girl, and I bear my title with pride.

I was able to apply this technique, and mental strength, to other foods and challenges and situations. My fears weren’t only limited to hot choc and sweet things, it goes without saying – eating out, French fries, cheese toasties, crisps, my own baked goodies; the list of fear foods and I can’t do its went on and on and on. But in time I came to realise I could use this approach to eating and trying something scary to these other fear foods and challenges, too.

And now, a year later, so much has changed; in the most beautiful, magical, and extraordinary, of ways.

A few years ago, I would never have believed it if someone would have said to me, I could reach a time and a place when I wouldn’t even think about all those fears anymore. But yet, here I am.

I accept my body and even believe that it is beautiful. I feel feminine, attractive, and alive. I don’t think twice about the width of my thighs, and the way my tummy is no longer flat. I don’t feel heavier, or bigger, and certainly not ugly; as I believed I always would, back in those days when anorexia ruled my body and my thoughts. No. I feel stronger, prettier, and true to my own true self – I found myself, I found the real Emmy. And more sexy, and more confident, than I ever could have dreamed of when I was underweight or half-recovered. The mental shift I have experienced is as profound as it is wonderful.

Two months ago, I had my wedding day, and married the love of my life (yes, you guessed it, the same boy who brought me for hot chocolate in the little recovery anecdote above.) And I loved the way my wedding dress moulded to my figure, with all its womanly curves that hadn’t been there before. I felt beautiful and it wasn’t just because of the wonderful job my hairdresser and make-up artist did. It was…because of me, of my body. Because of the work I did in my recovery, for the way I nourished my body and let it become what it was always supposed to be.

Never forget there is always hope. I overcame the illness that had plagued my life for the entirety of my adolescence and most of my twenties. I was convinced anorexia was my life and that it would ultimately be my death. But yet despite those convictions I discovered that I had the strength and courage to fight back. To break down the walls and set myself free. To take the terrifying plunge, and cut strongly through the waves towards the beckoning sunrise.