My Mum Saved Me

My name is Zoe Sheehan. I’m a 27-year-old neurodivergent and queer (yes, I’m proud!) creative, working in the media space as a product designer. I absolutely love design, art and all things creative! I used to say as a kid “When I grow up, I want to be an illustrator”. And I have recently published my first book “Neuro the Cookie”.

This book tells my story about my life struggles, but in a more fun, positive, and colourful way. It celebrates diversity and inclusion, and shines a positive light on neurodiversity, eating disorders, disabilities, and LGBTQIIA+ communities. Apart from the daily grind, I advocate for mental health through content creation, workshops, art and my recent podcast: Safe Space with Zoe Sheehan.

Instagram: @zoesheehan
TikTok: @zoecsheehan

I could talk about all of my traumatic life experiences for days on end, from coming out of the closet and being bullied, to domestic violence and sexual harassment, but I want to focus on my eating disorder recovery journey and a key influence in that. I believe being open, honest, and having an accountability buddy is a way to not only commence, but aid your recovery. For me, that person was my mum.

I have had Anorexia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, Bulimia Nervosa, and Body Dysmorphia over the course of 13 years. If I am being honest, I don’t think eating disorders ever fully leave you … a bit like grief. It feels like you’re carrying a permanent brick in your pocket – it gets easier to carry as time progresses, but you’ll always feel it and sometimes it weighs you down. As you get stronger, it becomes lighter and as you find new coping mechanisms, you can carry it more comfortably. Not to say some survivors don’t achieve food freedom, but I think the stubborn grip these eating disorders have alongside the lifelong psychological damage, it is hard to shake them entirely.

Eating disorders are beyond complex, and I’m still discovering new lightbulb moments every day with my experiences. For example, I was recently diagnosed with ADHD and have been told by health professionals that I have OCD, which brings me “ah huh” moments on certain things. As humans, we want all the answers and I think recovery begins with acceptance. We have to accept we are never going to pinpoint every accumulated microscopic cause of why this happened to us. We need to accept our predicament and understand that it’s a long journey ahead that won’t be linear. We have to accept ourselves holistically and be grateful for the body we were given. And last, we have to allow acceptance from others. We are all worthy, we are all loved, and this is by no means determined by our body weight or body image. We will never be everyone’s cup of tea – no matter if you’re tall, short, or have larger hips or smaller boobs. People will always love you no matter what.

Eating disorders from my perspective are created by a multitude of things, and what we hear a lot is they start from a desire to gain control. If I had to assume what made me develop my first eating disorder at 15 years old – I would say partly my environment with obsessiveness around diets and weight at home, bullying in school about my height and weight, a bodybuilder boyfriend who forced me to lose weight and skip meals, undiagnosed ADHD, perfectionism, OCD, low self-esteem, confusion with my sexuality, lack of control, and lastly, lack of acceptance.

The reality is, I wasn’t accepted from a physical appearance standpoint. I wasn’t accepted for my “queer tendencies” and I wasn’t accepted for my ADHD behaviours. I was bullied for all of it. I felt unworthy and because I didn’t conform to society’s expected unrealistic norms, I isolated myself and found control in food and therefore gained the acceptance I thought I needed from the wrong people. I became stick thin (which is what my boyfriend at the time wanted) and I hid my sexuality. But did I accept myself? No. I ended up losing the bubbly, outgoing girl I was and developing the deadliest mental illness – Anorexia Nervosa.

So how did I get out of this? Well, let’s just say it took A LOT of trial and error over many years. All eating disorders had a chokehold on me and honestly, if it wasn’t for my mum telling me she’d be gone right after me if I didn’t make it through – then I wouldn’t be here. She was my rock and still is. She has never once judged me or spoken down to me – she has always called me beautiful no matter how much my weight would fluctuate. She never complained about the chaos I would constantly cause in my battle, literally kicking and screaming, writing suicide letters, and running away. All she wanted was for me to be happy and healthy again.

My mum and I have always had an extremely close and honest relationship, but admitting to the eating disorder was extremely tough. I would constantly lie to her, which was so unlike me and to be frank, it wasn’t me – it was that monster that took over. When I started admitting things during therapy, she would get upset and wonder why I didn’t feel safe telling her and why I lied to her. I have to reassure any carers and mums out there that it is not your child that is lying – it is the mental illness lying. She eventually understood the psychology behind Anorexia Nervosa and was there for me every step of the way. It is hard trying to explain this to someone who hasn’t had a lived experience because it seems so simple – why don’t you just eat? I can’t tell you how many times I heard that! But talking always helps and sharing the demons that are buried inside you will always make you better off than letting them multiply in isolation.

Having a community of supporters whether that be a carer, a family member, or a friend is so liberating. It makes you realise you are not alone, and it gives you some sort of accountability in your recovery journey. The first step to any recovery is admitting you’re struggling – so trust me, put your hand up for help. If you are a parent or carer, don’t let the behaviours you’re seeing develop into a severe mental illness – spark the conversation before it’s too late.

My last bit of advice for carers and parents – consider your child’s ingredients holistically (you’ll understand the ingredients reference if you read my book!). I’m saying don’t just look at eating behaviours or their food relationship: consider whether they may be autistic, have ADHD or OCD, whether they may be gay, lesbian, bi, transgender, or if they have any other disorders such as anxiety or depression. If you can combat one of these things, it may prevent or minimise the impact of the other as they all can correlate to one another – kind of like dominos.
You’ve got this, your relationship will become stronger if anything!

Zoe Sheehan