Seven Years On

Seven years sounds like a long time. I suppose that’s because it is a long time. A lot has happened in the last seven years – I completed my last two years of high school, obtained a university degree, moved interstate and out of home, and started full-time work, among other things.

Despite this, the memories of my eight week voluntary hospitalisation for anorexia nervosa seven years ago today remain fresh, vivid, strong. This is because what happened in those eight weeks, all the work I did to understand myself and my mind, has informed the past seven years.

I am struggling to describe this process without turning to cliches, so I’m just going to use them anyway. My hospitalisation was a turning point in my life, the beginning of a journey which continues to this day. This is why every year I use the 11th of April as a prompt to reflect on where I’ve come from (the journey so far) and, importantly, to celebrate the successes and achievements of the previous year(s).

The fruits of my reflections have been many and varied over the years:

This year, I can finally say that not only has all this work been worthwhile, which is something I already believed, but that all this work can eventually result in happiness, wellbeing, ease. Because despite all the wisdom and profundity of my posts on the 11th of April each year, I have not yet written one of these posts while feeling a sense of contentment with my life.

It has just occurred to me that I once read somewhere that it takes seven years to fully recover from an eating disorder. I have no idea where I read this and it is probably not scientifically verifiable but it does ring true for me because seven years later, I am finally able to say that I am, I think, happy. Happy for the first time in a long time, perhaps since I was a child. It feels strange to be saying this, to be feeling this, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s true, so I’m say and feel it anyway.

This is not to say that my recovery journey is over. It’s not and it never will be. I still subscribe to the notion highlighted in Four Years On Part 6 that my recovery will last as long as I do. I am in a really good place, but I still have mental battles about my eating and body. The important thing to note is that these mental battles do not negate the possibility of feeling happy. The two seemingly contradictory elements can and do coexist.

This being the Easter weekend, I plan to eat plenty of hot cross buns (in fact I have a Skype hot cross bun, tea and crossword date with my parents soon) and chocolate (my housemate is making triple chocolate Easter egg brownies and we’re planning a backyard (weather permitting) egg hunt for tomorrow).

Seven years on, here I am, a functioning, contented adult human being. I have moved interstate and out of home and now live with two other amazing human beings and a cat. I pay my own bills and cook my own food and take care of all the life admin I never thought I’d have the capacity to do. I work full-time at a job which I love and am able to handle its intensity and frenetic pace (I’m working in the thick of Tasmania’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic). I love getting out for walks, gardening and doing yoga, but I am also learning the value of being still and teaching myself to embrace stillness.

Who’d have thought? The broken person I was seven years ago today certainly didn’t imagine I would be in this position. Even the person I was last year didn’t imagine it. But it’s real. I’m here and I’m happy, well, at ease.

Love, hope and peace from Emma.

 

NOTE: If this post has brought up any uncomfortable thoughts or feelings for you, please do not hesitate to contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Beyond Blue support service on 1300 22 46 36 or visit the Butterfly Foundation website to access a range of eating disorder specific resources and support services.

March Favourites

Fiction books

It’s all fiction books this month, I think because work has been quite intense so I’ve been drawn to books which are something of an escape from the real world, books I can dive into with gusto and lose myself in.

 

81ubujP4l-LMedicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

I read my first Wagamese book last month and raved about it in my February Favourites post. Medicine Walk was just as fantastic. Wagamese’s writing is masterful – heartfelt prose dripping simultaneously with the aching sadness and dazzling beauty of life. In essence, this is the story of a young man’s troubled relationship with his father and their journey to understand each other before it’s too late. I know Wagamese’s books are not the easiest things to find in Australia but they are worth seeking out.

 

9781921922084Floundering by Romy Ash

This book reminded me of Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe and Tony Birch’s Blood. All three are books about the resilience of children and solidarity of siblings in the face of parental neglect. Floundering is at once beautiful (thanks to the prose), disturbing (thanks to the behaviour of adults) and heart-warming (thanks to the behaviour of children). This is my favourite type of fiction – the gritty, realist novel which shows humans at both their worst and best.

 

liazrdLizard by Banana Yoshimoto

I’m a bit beyond the eight ball when it comes to Japanese literature. While it has been popular for many years, I think this was the first example thereof I had read. Lizard was another recommendation from my lovely housemate who raved about Yoshimoto’s writing style. There is indeed something distinctive about the short stories in this book. The writing is at once spare and full. Spare in terms of words, full in terms of meaning and affect. These are short stories so they are yummy little morsels you can snack on when you need a break from reality.

 

TV shows

The Heights – back for a second season, season two of this classy soap opera is almost as good as season one. I say almost because while the writing and acting is as good as ever, there has been a change of actor for one of the main characters and the substitution is not particularly convincing. This is not a comment on the new actor, it’s just that the old actor was quite distinctive looking and fit the character he played so well that the change has been quite jarring. After four episodes with the new actor, it’s still bugging me. However, I love this show so much that I’m persevering.

You Can’t Ask Thatperhaps the most perfect idea for a TV show, You Can’t Ask That is back for season five. So far, there have been episodes with firefighters, nudists and people who’ve killed someone. All have been just as insightful as previous seasons’ episodes. Everyone should be watching this show.

 

Film

I don’t normally have a film favourite, but The Australian Dreamwhich I wrote a whole post about, was the most affecting and important film I have seen in quite some time, perhaps ever. It’s no longer available to stream on iview, but keep an eye out for further screenings and make the most of them because it is such an important film.

 

Podcasts

  • This anxious life: Dr Mark Cross from ABC RN’s Conversations – Dr Mark Cross is the psychiatrist who starred on the ABC TV show Changing Minds (screened a few years ago now) which followed patients in the Mental Health Unit of Campbelltown Hospital. What you don’t learn in the show about patients with complex mental health conditions is that Dr Cross himself has spent years suffering from anxiety himself. He’s such a wonderful person and this is a delightfully touching interview.
  • Jackie French and the Valley from ABC RN’s Conversations – Jackie French is an iconic Australian author who just happens to be dyslexic and to live on what sounds like the most amazing property in the Araluen Valley in NSW which is a haven for her, her partner and lots of wildlife. This is the story of fire in her valley – the way it has impacted the landscape, the wildlife, her and her partner, and their community.

 

Self-care action

I’ve been doing a whole suite of self-care actions over the past few weeks which I wrote about in a separate post Staying Sane In Insane Times. Take a look if you’re interested or need a refresher.

 

Food

My lovely housemate (not the one I mentioned earlier) baked some decadent gluten free chocolate brownies last weekend which were absolutely delicious.

 

Event

A couple of weeks ago it was the brownie baking housemate’s Birthday. The whole celebration weekend was lovely. On the Saturday, I baked my favourite gluten free apple and almond cake which we enjoyed that evening while having the most beautiful chat about how all three of us are currently feeling the happiest we’ve ever felt!

Then on the Sunday morning, the book recommending housemate made us a scrumptious pancake breakfast. Toppings included banana, blueberry compote, maple syrup, strawberry jam, tahini and lemon. They were extremely good and the conversation and company was excellent too!

 

Sorry this is a few days after the end of March. Sitting down to blog (ie sitting down at my computer) doesn’t exactly appeal after sitting at a computer all day at work, so I left this post until the weekend! This is probably the new normal.

Love, hope and peace from Emma.

Staying Sane In Insane Times

Just want to share some of the things that are helping me to cope with the covid-19 pandemic and all the ensuing craziness.

 

Only consuming covid-19 news during work hours

There is so much information out there about coronavirus that it’s utterly overwhelming. So, I’ve made the call that I will only consume covid-19 news during work hours. This gives me some headspace away from the panic and chaos in my home and weekend time, allowing me to recharge my batteries as best I can. The past two weekends have been really lovely and have felt quite normal, despite what’s happening in the world.

 

Staying up-to-date from reliable information sources

There is lots of information out there, but not all of it is good information. I’ve focused on tuning in to the latest updates from leaders (eg Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein’s daily press conference) as well as the insights of experts (eg via the ABC’s new daily podcast Coronacast which features physician Dr Norman Swan and health journalist Tegan Taylor, podcast This Won’t Hurt A Bit’s special covid-19 episode). I am trying to limit the amount of time I spend scrolling through Facebook and news websites. The information which pops up on these is not always reliable and tends to be sensationalist – the whole point is to catch your attention.

 

Staying connected with family and friends

I may be as good as trapped on my little island home of Tasmania, but I am staying connected with family and friends through messages and calls. I am talking to my parents and brother more regularly than I was previously (now basically every day) and have been in touch with a number of friends, whether it’s me checking in on them, or them on me, or both. It’s so important for my mental health that I remain socially connected even when I am feeling uncertain and somewhat anxious. It also reminds me that it’s normal to feel uncertain and somewhat anxious at a time like this because this is how my family and friends are feeling too. That sense of all being in this together has been really reassuring and important for me in managing my emotions at this time.

 

Going for a walk

This is one of my normal activities I can thankfully still do at present. Getting out for a walk helps to make me feel more normal for many reasons. I can have safe (ie 1.5m distance between us) interaction with fellow human beings via a smile or greeting who aren’t my housemates or colleagues. I can breathe deeply the fresh, clean air. I can connect with the natural environment which remains just as it was before covid-19 hit, reminding me that this too shall pass. Going for a walk is also a great way to get out of my own head because there are so many things to look at, hear, smell and feel.

 

Cooking good food

I was doing this before the pandemic hit, but it’s become even more important in the present climate. Each weekend, I cook up two big batches of food. Last weekend this was a pot of pumpkin soup and a pot of vegie-full chilli beans with rice which I am gradually eating my way through. Getting good nutrition is really important for both my mental health (your brain doesn’t function anywhere near as effectively if you’re not well nourished) and physical health (managing fatigue and pain, reducing my risk of contracting covid-19 and reducing the risk of severe illness if I do contract it). It’s also calming to have this established routine in my life to continue with amidst all the other uncertainties.

 

Watching animal videos

So I’m not really a fan of zoos, but I have been watching Melbourne Zoo’s live Snow Leopard Cub Cam and Penguin Cam recently. The cubs and penguins are very cute and it’s nice to have something purely pleasurable to turn to when so many activities, even going to the store, require you to think through your hygiene practices and be constantly aware of your environment.

 

Doing yoga

Even if it’s just for 15 minutes, giving myself some time to stretch out my body, work my muscles and return my attention to my breath is proving extremely important and useful at the moment.

 

Hope some of these suggestions and links might be useful to you.

Love, hope and peace from Emma.

The Australian Dream

Until 24 March, the documentary The Australian Dream is available to stream on ABC iview. Between now and then, I urge you to set aside the hour and three quarters necessary to watch it.

The Australian Dream tells the story of Adam Goodes, an extraordinary Australian Rules football player, proud Aboriginal man, passionate anti-racism advocate and former Australian of the Year. A man who, despite his immense grace and tolerance, was effectively booed, harangued, abused and belittled off the football field and into retirement.

The way Goodes was treated was appalling and took an immense toll on his mental health. This is how he described how he felt at the height of the public backlash against him:

“When you’re in a dark place, it’s like you’ve completely forgotten everything anybody’s ever said to you that was good, or you think of all the bad things that have ever happened you, or you think about all the bad things people have said to you. And it’s on a stereo playing the loudest possible decibels in your head, echoing in your mind, you’re worth nothing, they don’t even care about you, go away.”

This is not an easy documentary to watch. It is the story of Australia’s racism and its deep connection to the very foundations of our country as we know it. Expertly told by the extremely talented journalist and writer Stan Grant, this documentary is poetry in motion. Add to that a suite of diverse interviewees whose perspectives shed light on the issue – retired Aboriginal football players Gilbert McAdam and Michael O’Loughlin, Collingwood Football Club President Eddie Maguire, sports journalist Tracy Holmes, conservative commentator Andrew Bolt (his reflections did not improve my opinion of him) and Nova Peris, Australia’s first female Aboriginal federal parliamentarian.

Every Australian should watch this documentary. And it’s not just me saying that. Someone with more political clout than me, ABC journalist and 7.30 anchor Leigh Sales, said the same thing. So please, please watch it. I guarantee you will be moved by it.

Love, hope and peace from Emma.

The Happy Ending Is Just The Beginning

I have spent many years wishing, hoping, willing my problems away. Wishing, hoping, willing that headaches, unhealthy thoughts about food, fatigue, deep sadness, migraines and tension would evaporate from my life. They didn’t.

And so, I have spent many years working away at these problems. Analysing them, reframing them, medicating them, medicalising them. Throughout, I have continued wishing, hoping, willing my problems away. Analysing, reframing, medicating, medicalising – none of these processes are easy. My problems have required me to constantly work away at them, a process which has been exhausting, somewhat ironic given one of the original problems was itself fatigue.

But then, in the past year and a bit, I could feel myself making progress. After years of feeling like I was surviving, subsisting, stagnating, I finally started to feel like I was moving forward.

Instead of crying raucously, hitting myself and going into that dark place in my mind every single time I got a migraine (and for some years this was once per week or fortnight), I started to experience calmness and equanimity when a migraine struck. I would take my (largely ineffective) medication, go lie down and that was that.

Instead of feeling absolutely dependent on my Mum and Dad to care for me, protect me, love me, I started to feel capable of providing these things – care, protection, love – for myself. This allowed me to go on solo trips where I would hike, read, cook for myself and manage my own energy levels and pain.

Instead of feeling constantly exhausted and unable to get through a day without a rest, I started to feel more energised, more able to live my life fully, to schedule full days, to manage my energy levels within this context.

And then, I did something massive. I moved interstate from Victoria to Tasmania, I shifted from my family home into a share house, I transitioned from university study and casual work to a proper full-time job. And I did all these things at the same time. And it was fine. It is fine. In fact, it’s more than fine. It’s great.

All that work, the years upon years of struggle, got me to a place where this massive change felt possible. More than possible, it felt exciting, energising, inspiring. And it didn’t really feel massive at all. It felt just right.

The change has happened. I’m living it. I’m loving it. And it’s been working out so well that it’s almost too good to be true. But it’s not, because the reason I’m here is not because I have successfully wished, hoped and willed my problems away. Instead, it’s because I have dealt with some of them and am dealing with others. I have found ways, with plenty of assistance and lots of personal work, to sit with my problems, to understand them, and to move through them.

I’ve finally got my happing ending. I am, I think, finally happy. Happy for the first time in a long time, perhaps since I was a child. I’ve said happy ending but really, it’s just the beginning – the beginning of my career, my independent life, my adult experience of the world minus the weights of depression and exhaustion.

To the Emma who wanted to die because she believed her life would never get better and her problems would never go away, what can I say? Keep going, everything will turn out okay in the end? She’d (I’d) have laughed derisively at that, done her (my) signature eye roll and wondered how people can believe something as ludicrous as that. Perhaps I just needed someone to hear a story like mine, to see some living proof that, although it may take almost half a lifetime, it is possible to recover your happiness and to feel competent, capable, confident.

I have written this sitting at the kitchen table in my Hobart share house while morning sun streams through the window, allowing me to see the steam swirling off my cup of tea. I have munched my way through my favourite breakfast – wholemeal sourdough toast with peanut butter and banana bathed in this beautiful Autumn sunlight. Outside is a hive of activity – New Holland honeyeaters dash from tree to tree, while sulphur-crested cockatoos screech and blackbirds sound warning notes to each other, perhaps because our resident tom cat Brian is on the prowl, even though I have already fed him and I’m not convinced his somewhat bulky build would allow him to actually endanger a blackbird’s life. And finally, after perhaps eleven years of struggle, I feel at peace.

Love, hope and peace from Emma.

Mindful Eating

Several days ago, one of my housemates recently commented on the fact that I almost always read while I am eating. This sparked a realisation in me that I almost always eat without actually paying attention to my food.

When I go for a walk, I never have headphones in and rarely look at my phone, the whole point is to tune in to my surroundings – what I see, hear, smell, touch. But when it comes to the act of feeding myself, of giving myself the nourishment I need to be able to do such things as walking mindfully, I am rarely mindful.

I’ve never really considered why I read while I ate, other than to think that I do it because I enjoy reading. But why, when there are so many hours in the day, is that 15 extra minutes of reading time so important? And why, when I know that there is much more pleasure to be had from an activity when you are focused solely on it, instead of distracted by something else, do I insist on combining these two activities?

One possible reason for me reading while I eat is that, despite years in recovery from an eating disorder, I am still deeply and profoundly uncomfortable with the act of putting food into my body. And thus, to distract myself from my discomfort, I read. Or, by not paying to the act of eating, I can pretend it isn’t happening and thus bypass my discomfort altogether.

Whatever the exact psychology that sits behind this habit of reading while I eat, I’m not convinced it’s a healthy one. And so, over the days since my housemate’s comment, I’ve been experimenting with mindful eating. This has brought up several things for me.

 

  1. I still have a sense of guilt and discomfort about eating which sits deep within me.

Even though I know I need food to survive and thrive, and even though wanting to eat food is a natural instinct, deep down inside me there is still a sense that eating is somehow shameful, that I don’t deserve nourishment. This is deeply troubling. But the more I practice mindful eating, something I am easing myself into, the more I can feel the guilt and discomfort being undermined. By eating mindfully, I am facing up to these feelings head on and deliberately demonstrating that they are misplaced because I am feeding myself and meaning it. I am repeatedly sending the signal that I am worthy of nourishment.

Beyond this, there is some work to be done on allowing myself to enjoy food. This will be a particular battle when it comes to foods I deem to be unhealthy, naughty foods. Step one is to get comfortable with nourishing myself, step two is to get comfortable with treating myself. There are additional psychological barriers and resistance in this space which I will have to face up to in due course.

 

  1. I haven’t really been tasting my food.

This isn’t really surprising. Books are quite absorbing and human brains are not designed to focus on two things at once. Consequently, by focusing on what I am reading, the taste of my food has passed me by unnoticed. Eating mindfully has really brought out the flavour of my food, making it much more satisfying.

 

  1. I haven’t been tuned in to my satiety levels.

As they have with flavour, books have also taken my attention away from my hunger cues. This means I often end up feeling dissatisfied despite having eaten a big bowl of wholesome vegetarian food. This isn’t surprising other. It’s quite hard for your food to hit the spot when you’re not paying that spot any attention.

 

  1. I struggle to keep my attention trained on the act of eating.

When I have attempted to eat mindfully, I have discovered a strong urge to find a distraction. I find myself picking up whatever is around me (my phone, a packet, a magazine) and looking at that just for something to do. Alternatively, I find myself gazing mindfully out the window instead of gazing mindfully at my food and training my attention on it. Even having a conversation over food is a welcome relief.

This urge to find a distraction is definitely connected to my sense of guilt and discomfort about eating, but it is also a function of habit – I am so used to doing something (typically reading) while I eat that it feels somehow wrong to not being doing it. I am hopeful that by practicing mindful eating this is a skill I will get better at and a healthy habit that will start to feel more natural.

 

It’s amazing what one simple exchange can spark, what insight a different perspective can inspire. I had never really thought about why I read while eating. I assumed it was a good, healthy thing to do because reading is a good, healthy thing to do. But reading being a good, healthy thing to do doesn’t mean it’s a good, healthy thing to do while you do other activities. I don’t read while I drive or walk in recognition of the fact that these activities are much safer and more enjoyable when done with awareness.

Having thought about it, I’d place eating in the same category as driving and walking – an activity best done without reading at the same time. Making the transition to mindful eating will require significant psychological work on my part, both to address my feelings of guilt and discomfort and to simply break the habit, but I feel like this work will be worthwhile.

Love, hope and peace from Emma.

February Favourites

Fiction book

8193+a8LxALIndian Horse by Richard Wagamese

One of my housemates has kindly provided me with a selection of a few of her favourite books. This was one of them. Author Wagamese is a member of the First Nations of Canada, so this book complemented the deep dive I’ve been doing into First Nations Australian writing really well. It’s a slim book but it tracks a substantial chunk of the protagonist’s life from growing up with his family to life in a residential school to a troubled adulthood and finally an ending of sorts. The protagonist’s life is painful, but the writing is a pleasure to read – highly evocative with every word and phrase adding value to the story. My housemate has now given me two more Wagamese books which I am thoroughly looking forward to diving into!

 

Non-fiction books

imageHeadscarves and Hymens by Mona Eltahawy

Loaned to me by my other housemate, this was a really interesting look at gender politics from a writer who is fierce, frank and a pleasure to read. Lots of food for thought in this book.

 

81WlzOCzMPL._SL1500_The Long Hitch Home: Tasmania to London on a thumb and a prayer by Jamie Maslin

I purchased this book from the author at Hobart’s famous Salamanca Market. It was a great read. As the title suggests, this is the story of Maslin’s adventure hitch hiking from Hobart all the way to London. What I loved about Maslin’s travel writing is that he pays close attention to the historical, political and social contexts of the countries through which he travels. Consequently, you learn lots while having fun, because alongside the serious stuff is his account of the adventure itself which includes lots of colourful characters and some close shaves.

 

BOOKS_Gay-1Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture by various (edited by Roxane Gay)

Wow, yet more fierce and frank writing from a plethora of amazing women and men. As the title suggests, this is not en easy read, it’s about sexual harassment and violence, but it is such an important contribution to popular discourse as it highlights just how many different and perfectly acceptable ways there are to express and cope with a trauma which is all too common. There were a lot of gems in this anthology, but a single line which stuck with me was this: “A good therapist knows you have to live in the house while you remodel” (& The Truth Is, I Have No Story by Claire Schwartz).

 

Podcast

The unusual life of Rima Hadchiti

Rima is one amazing woman. Multi-talented, fierce and also really funny. Such a pleasure to listen to this interview.

 

Self-care action

I have been taking myself off on an adventure each weekend since starting work. Whether it’s trying a new cafe, hiking for hours or both, these weekend adventures have been a great way to hit the reset button after a week at work.

After my first week of work I kept it simple and went to Hamlet cafe, a social enterprise which employs and trains up people who have struggled to find employment for various reasons. I had their falafel bowl, the highlight of which was the freshly made flatbread warm from the pan and sprinkled with whole spices – delicious.

After my second week of work I headed off on a hike along the Waterworks Track, which skirts around two reservoirs which used to supply Hobart’s water, then up the Pipeline Track which is built on the old pipes which brought water down to the reservoirs from up kunanyi/Mt Wellington. I made it all the way up to Fern Tree, seeing lots of Bennett’s wallabies and pademelons along the way.

After my third week of work I tried out a cafe called Bury Me Standing which both my housemates had raved about. It was extremely good – their bagels (that’s their thing) are delicious and I say that as someone who is often unconvinced by bagels.

I also went for a big hike that weekend, driving just beyond where I’d got to the previous week and climbing the rest of the way up to the peak of kunanyi/Mt Wellington. It was hard work but the views were spectacular! I really enjoyed the route I took to get back down. Instead of a clearly made path, you had to follow the arrows and make your own path across the rocky landscape. I got be a child and squelch through mud and puddles in my hiking boots which I thoroughly enjoyed!

Finally, after my fourth week of work, I headed off to Kingston Beach to hike along the cliffs and stick my legs in the water while I still could. I lay on the sand and read my book, saw lots of cute dogs, and ate an ice cream to top off the beach day.

All of this without ever driving for more than 20 minutes and often not driving at all! Nature in all its forms – alpine, coastal, forested – is so accessible here.

 

Event

Pretty hard to pick a favourite event in a month where SO much has happened. I started work, something I am thoroughly enjoying, and have been on lots of amazing adventures as described above.

I have to say it was pretty special when in my third week of work my manager told me that the amount of work I was doing and number of projects I was involved in was “not normal” – in other words, she was blown away by everything I was already doing. I’ve had a bunch of positive feedback from her and other members of my team which has been really lovely, although not really an “event” as such.

 

Love, hope and peace from Emma.