Continuing on from Part 4
The only true hunger that I always felt to the point in which it hurt so much I couldn’t bully myself out of bed in the morning was to live as an artist. Not the daughter of second-generation Italian parents who wanted me to become a teacher so I could be home in time to pick up my children and make my ‘Italian’ husband dinner. The Italian husband I was supposed to meet at an Italian wedding just as my parents had met. He’d understand my parents’ ways and agree to live within five minutes of them. Nothing could’ve turned me off the idea of marriage and motherhood more.
As a teen diagnosed with anxiety and depression at a time when no one had really heard of them, the science-obsessed side of me knew that to use disordered eating to get high when I wasn’t using alcohol, pharmaceuticals and risky behaviour wasn’t the right answer. I simply couldn’t remain conscious enough to sustain it because getting my body from one class to the next had become hard. I was always on the verge of blanking out. To make it up the stairs most times I’d have to visualise honey milk running through my veins fueling my body with the energy I needed. All this time I’d be promising myself that if I just made it through this next class, I’d eat an apple, and chopped carrots and celery I’d wrapped in foil, only I never ever kept these promises to myself. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t be that kind to myself. I didn’t believe I deserved to eat or exist.
Nothing and no one could stop me from using my addictions to avoid feeling my emotions and falling even deeper into my negative core beliefs. A cousin of mine had shown up at my parents’ house one day wanting to help me. I was offended at what she had to say and asked her to leave, furious that she had so much to say about what was none of her business.
Furious that she didn’t really know what she was talking about because she didn’t know enough about the truth of what was going on with me. I blamed her for not understanding, unable to respect the fact that there was no way she could know. I hadn’t said anything to anyone. I also hated that my Italian family must’ve been talking about me behind my back and passing judgements about me. I hated the idea of them talking very publicly and so opinionated on what was very private and vulnerable for me. I could almost hear how the conversations went, I’d heard them speak about plenty of other people before.
I think the main reason it infuriated me in the way that it did was that I judged myself so harshly that I couldn’t handle anyone else judging me. However, looking back I see that it was more than likely concern and possibly even a sense of helplessness as to what they could do that fueled their discussions. But I couldn’t consider it this way back then. In fact, this possibility had never even begun to occur to me. All the while though, I continued under the assumption that these habits I lived according to were nothing serious and something I could shake off if I wanted to. If I had a reason to stop I would and could. Like that. But I had no reason to. I just held onto the fact that soon enough I’d turn eighteen and be able to buy all the alcohol and cigarettes I wanted.
I was so fixated with the fact that no one had bought any of my artwork at the market stall, which meant that I wasn’t good enough to study art. The only thing I wanted to do when I completed my VCE. I never took into account that I was only fourteen at the time of the market sale, that the artwork was made on scrap paper, leftover pieces of Masonite board and house paint or that most importantly it was amateur work not made to be sold or even seen. I’d failed to appreciate that a lot of people had actually taken the time to look through my stuff, talk to me about it and compliment my talent. Because they didn’t buy it, all I saw was that I was shit, made shit that wasn’t worth shit. That was the meaning and associations I gave to it not anyone else. Not even my dad.
Furthermore, my dad hadn’t done this to prove I was shit but to see if it was possible for me to make a living out of painting should I take this path. He came from poverty, was afraid of poverty and didn’t want for me to have to experience it to the degree he had. Also, years later, once he realised how sick I’d made myself over art, he actually took me and all my work for an interview to study art at VCA.
I had chronic fatigue at the time and was highly suicidal, so I hate to think how I presented at the interview I don’t remember. During this super dark period, I didn’t function on the most basic level in that I couldn’t stay focused long enough to understand what people said when they spoke nor string together a coherent sentence myself. At best I could nod my head for yes, shake my head for no and shrug my shoulders when I didn’t know. Unsurprisingly I was rejected from VCA and used this to confirm that I was indeed shit at art and not good enough to make it. Which in one way was a relief because I’d never have managed to commute in and out of the city to attend class.
One afternoon my dad came home with twenty large picture frames to hang up the portraits I’d made of my brother and sister along with other paintings he liked around the house. He said one day they’d be worth a lot of money and it would go to my brother and sister because the portraits were of them and therefore theirs. This was a positive and supportive affirmation about my art, but I took in none of it. I just obsessed over the negatives as though I were determined to squeeze them for all that they were worth to make myself sicker. It was like I had wanted to be as physically sick and starved as the truth of me felt because on the inside I really was starved and ill. However I didn’t know it when I was just going through it, experiencing it but looking back now and writing about it, I can see this is precisely what it was.
I can also see the irony of how everything I put inside my body had to be clean despite my hygiene was very poor. I would stay in my clothes up to two weeks at a time. I didn’t have the energy to take my clothes off half the time but even more than that I couldn’t bear to be even slightly naked while I changed into or out of my pyjamas or to shower. When I finally did I either covered the mirrors with towels or made sure to keep my eyes shut so I didn’t have to see my body.
But even in the shower or bath I’d wear a bathing suit and change out of it and into my underwear with utmost caution to never be completely naked. To do any of this though required the right mix of alcohol and pharmaceuticals. During this time I’m also confident that I had mild OCD because I had to lock and unlock the toilet and bathroom doors with a cloth or tissue, never my own hands, the same with particular drawers that kept specific clothes which were permanently dirty regardless of them having just being washed and ironed.
The clothes I wore were dark, baggy and heavy. They were old, secondhand and as ugly as I felt. I was thin, but I felt as enormous as the weight of silence and rage I carried within me. I drank until I felt strong, mean and like nothing mattered to me, but the truth is I felt terrified, vulnerable, defeated and it mattered, it mattered a lot to me. I didn’t want to care, but I really did, about everything.
Twenty-two years later and I can’t ignore that disordered eating is the last addiction to go because it is has been the hardest for me to break. Instead of shame and judgement over my history with it, I observe this maladaptive behaviour with a broken heart, compassion and the determination to share why this path is what I lived out. My motivation for doing so is so that others can recognise earlier than I did that this is not the path that they have to take. There are alternatives. Once can choose differently at any time. What I have to offer is the particular route–through a story–that worked for me.
I think it’s worth noting that to maintain the lifestyle of disordered eating takes a high level of discipline, independence, discretion, intelligence, strategy and dedication and it is, in fact, these capacities that made me suspect that I had what it took to arrive at the other side of this. Both experience and research (specifically in others accounts of their experience) suggest that anyone who has what it takes to have an eating disorder has what it takes to live without one. So long as they have the will and dedication to carry out the work required for them to do so. It’s not easy but certainly possible. With a reason, plan and shift in perspective those with an eating disorder, or any addiction for that matter, can redirect their qualities of self-discipline, dedication, a single-minded vision of pursuit, intelligence and strategy into life-affirming actions and reality.
Continued: Part 6
As demonstrated above, with the example of potatoes, I will proceed in future posts to include concrete examples to show what I’m talking about coming to know one’s story with disordered eating.
I share the story of how my eating disorder evolved further from eleven and outline a detailed account as to my understanding of why. I wish to be clear that from this point on I will discuss how my disordered relationship to food and my body, since the onset of puberty, is significantly bound up with and informed by, experiences of complex childhood trauma.
Should this be triggering for you please do not read further however if what I’m sharing is of any assistance to you it would be much appreciated if you could let me know. Also feel welcome to share it with those it would interest and benefit.
Dr Angelina Mirabito
PhD on the therapeutic value of reading and writing trauma fiction and its potential value in the post-traumatic growth process.