Anna shares her story for World Mental Health Day

10 October 2019, ACT – The theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day is ‘Do you see what I see?’, with the aim to:

  • Challenge negative perceptions of mental health.
  • Encourage people to shine a positive light on mental health.
  • Make a way for people to seek the support they need.

At batyr, we want to amplify the voices of young people in order to smash mental health stigma and increase help-seeking rates in Australia. It has been proven that sharing lived experience stories is the most effective way to change negative perceptions of mental health.

Anna shares her mental health journey and talks about what World Mental Health Day means to her.

I am originally from the Hills District of Sydney and am fortunate to have a very tight knit family. Since 2017 I have lived on campus at the ANU in Canberra, studying a double degree of Laws/Politics, Philosophy and Economics. I have loved living in Canberra for the last three years and have built an incredible community down here. I work as a tutor for High School students and as an electorate officer for Federal MP Julian Leeser (who plays a leading role in mental health advocacy in the Parliament). When I’m not working or studying (which takes up a fair bit of my time) I love being a member of the theatre community on campus.

My mental health journey started just over five years ago when I was 15. I had a wonderful family and good friends, as well as having a natural talent for academics and leadership. At the start of Year 10 I decided to try and lose a bit of weight and improve my fitness. I desperately wanted to be thought of as more than just ‘the smart one’ and thought this was the answer to that problem. I started making focusing on being ‘healthy’ in a way that I never had done before. It felt amazing to receive compliments from family and friends and feel the rush of meeting another goal.

However, I soon became obsessed with feeling that rush and stopped caring about moderation or reasonableness when it came to food and exercise. By the middle of Year 10, I was completely controlled by my disorder. I kept telling myself I would reach out for help when I had reached a certain weight because then I would be “sick enough”. I didn’t realise that, for an eating disorder, there is no such thing as “enough”. 

Eventually, my parents figured out why their usually bubbly daughter had become such a different person. I began treatment and was soon diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. However, I wasn’t ready to make the repeated commitment to choose recovery which is necessary to emerge from an eating disorder.

When the consistent weight-loss began to take a significant toll on my heart, my psychiatrists, parents and I decided that I needed to be admitted to an eating disorder clinic.

I ultimately spent seven weeks in hospital. Being in the clinic was incredibly difficult, but unquestionably saved my life. Before I was possible for me to move forward, I needed to accept some more intensive help. My time in hospital helped me to normalise my relationship to food and exercise, and complete the vital process of refeeding to a normal weight. Being in hospital with male and female patients from 16 to 70 also inspired me to commit to recovery, both through their support and my realisation that this illness would not just disappear of its own accord.

I certainly was not fixed when I left hospital. My disorder had less control over me, but it was still a powerful presence in my life. Without the consistent support of my parents in ensuring that I stuck to my meal plan, it could have been a very different outcome. Nonetheless, every day that I fought against my eating disorder was a day that I felt stronger. Over time, my relationship with food and exercise has finally become healthy again. I no longer hate myself for existing within this body and my existence in this body is not the only thing about which I can think. Even being at the ANU is a genuine privilege, because five years ago I never could have been able to move away from home and look after myself.

Having dealt with mental ill-health for a while now, I have a strong tool kit for dealing with the difficulties which life throws my way. My journey has been long, and it’s not over. But I’m proud to say that now, even when times are hard, I don’t suffer them or survive them. I manage them, and that’s something that I feel pretty fortunate to be able to do.

Did stigma prevent you from reaching out for support?

To be honest, stigma was not the main factor that prevented me from reaching out for support. I felt more compromised by my own internalised misunderstanding of the illness, and my belief that I would have the capacity to reach out when I was “sick enough”. In that sense, my barriers to reaching out were internal rather than external. 

I also didn’t reach out for support because I didn’t want people to try to fix me. Eating disorders can be highly misunderstood, and there were many occasions after I reached out for help that my family and friends fundamentally misunderstood my illness. However, that was something that I coped with rather than it stopping me from reaching out for support.

What do you wish someone knew about what you were going through?

I wish people knew that anorexia is not its stereotype. 

Stereotype One: Anorexia is not pretty. The classic image of anorexia is a petite model politely denying a cupcake. That could not be further from my experience. Anorexia was damage to my external appearance and my internal organs. Anorexia was isolation, because food lies at the heart of so many of our human interactions. Anorexia was notes full of numbers and a photo stream full of food photos. Anorexia was screaming matches with my parents and tantrums like I was a toddler again. Anorexia was exhaustion, from how I was treating my body and from the constant disordered thoughts streaming through my brain. Anorexia was a constant fight against my own mind, which I was no longer able to trust. Stereotype Two: Anorexia is an illness which only touches white female teenagers. I was in hospital with men and women from 16 to 70. Most of the patients were well beyond their teens. Eating disorders often start in the teenage years, but they don’t end there, and they don’t discriminate in who they touch. 

Stereotype Three: Anorexia is about self-control and the single-minded pursuit of perfection. In my experience, anorexia meant living without control, because I was so controlled by my eating disorder. If people had understood that, I think they would have better understood that I wasn’t making rational choices and that “just snapping out of it” wasn’t going to be an option.

Tell us about a moment or conversation you had that ‘shone a light’ on the challenges you were facing and encouraged you to reach out. What was that moment like?

My journey has been filled with so many moments, which I often only realised in the long-run were actually turning points. Of course, there are moments which stand out particularly strongly in the narrative of my memory. The initial process of me getting help started with five words: “Mum, I’m just so sad.” My time in the clinic shone innumerable lights on the challenges of anorexia and helped me to feel that I wasn’t alone. There are things which my psychologist has said to me that helped me to alter my mindset at the time. There were victorious or peaceful moments in which I stopped to realise how far I had come, and how much I wanted to keep moving forward. However, no single moment was uniquely or exclusively motivating or illuminating. Recovery is a constant process of repeatedly choosing to fight rather than stand still or move backwards. For me, recovery is a hike rather than a flight.

These moments shine light on what you’re experiencing like sun rising from behind some mountains, rather than like flicking a light switch. It’s not instantaneous, but eventually they shine enough light that your world actually feels bright again.

How do you challenge misconceptions about mental health and encourage positive conversations? 

I share my experience with an appropriate level of honesty. Detailing the worst moments in hospital, for example, is not helpful to anyone, including myself. However, if I’m engaged in a conversation and it’s appropriate to mention my experience with mental illness, I will do so. That doesn’t have to be as part of a deep and meaningful discussion. More often it’s in passing when I want to contribute a relevant story, but need to provide some context on the time, place, or participants in order for the story to make sense. These kind of references to my illness present it for what it is – a significant element of my life which has shaped me without defining me, and which shouldn’t be a closely held secret. It also helps to challenge the misconception that mental illness is something to be feared or hidden, whilst encouraging others to view their mental illness as part of the broader, richer tapestry of their life.

What is your pledge for World Mental Health Day?

My pledge for World Mental Health Day is not to just talk about my experience with mental illness and mental ill-health in the past tense. I’ve become very comfortable talking about my experience with anorexia as a complete narrative, which has a positive conclusion. I find it much more difficult to accept and talk about the ups and downs of my mental health in the present tense, when the positive conclusion hasn’t yet been reached. However, it’s perhaps most important to talk about the present realities of mental ill-health so that the stigma of what a mentally ill person looks like can be dismantled. My journey is ongoing, but that doesn’t make it any less valid as a success story.

If this story has brought up strong feelings for you, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.