My name is Dannii, and for most of my life I’ve lived with an eating disorder (ED). My story is a 35-year battle and journey to full recovery. To be honest, I never really believed I would be able to say the words “I am recovered” because I couldn’t see myself ever escaping the grips of my ED. The longer it went on, professionals would tell me that my recovery chances were slim as I was a long-term chronic ED sufferer.
There wasn’t a lot of hope and I felt powerless over my eating disorder. My family also felt powerless and helpless as they didn’t understand what was happening to me and didn’t know how to support me. It all seemed so grim and hopeless for decades.
Until the day I met a therapist who came from a strengths-based, humanistic approach and who saw me as a person not my illness and most importantly gave me the gift of hope which helped me to see a life outside and free of the ED.
All the way back to the beginning
I was 7 years old, when I first developed my eating disorder. I was a sensitive child and always the “good girl”. One lunchtime while playing on the monkey bars a girl called me fat. I remember this as clear as day. And that was the moment I stopped eating.
I had also started entering tennis tournaments at this age, and training. I had a goal to be the best tennis player in the world. So, I started to exercise a lot, and not eat enough. I found a sense of power and control in this combination which ended up becoming a very toxic and disordered relationship with food and exercise that I carried on with for years up to my early 40’s. I found comfort as a small child in my eating disorder so I nurtured it and protected it.
A sense of safety and power to help cope in a dysfunctional family unit
My father had acute PTSD from the Vietnam War and was mentally unwell. Life at home was uncertain, scary and like ‘walking on eggshells’ much of the time. My ED gave me a sense of safety and sense of power in a family unit that was out of control and safety wasn’t always available. So, you can see how easily it was for me to befriend the ED and use it as my coping mechanism and safety blanket.
Diagnosed with Anorexia at 11 years old
I recall my mum dragging me to see a psychiatrist and me being so terrified that I said absolutely nothing. I recall the psychiatrist at the time telling my mum she had a very stubborn daughter. I was fearful, and a child who had no idea what to expect from going to a psychiatrist, didn’t want to be there, and definitely didn’t want anyone taking away my now best friend, my ED, from me.
I remember my mum being angry at me for not eating, forcing me to sit at the table while I pushed food around on my plate, and calling me stubborn like the psychiatrist had described me. I know she loved me, but it felt like punishment when really all I was doing was my best to survive, cope in this environment and be “the perfect little girl and daughter” but I was failing on all fronts.
I was taken to a well renowned dietitian when I was 12 or 13 years old. Mum was at her wits’ end. The dietitian was a nice lady and I built up some trust in her. I started to put on a little weight and my tennis career was taking off. I was in state squads and training daily, so I knew I needed the energy to train and perform and sports nutrition became a major focus.
I was never approached by coaches or sports medicine teams about a possible eating disorder although it was there, hiding under the veil of being a dedicated junior elite athlete.
Additional stress fuelled my eating disorder
At 16 years old I started to purge. I was then diagnosed with anorexia purging type. Up until this point I had practised only restrictive eating and compulsive exercise. The purging started as a result of additional stressors of seeking out athletic scholarships to the USA for university, the final years of high school and the pressure to be an elite athlete and win tournaments. I managed to hide the purging from my family and used it to self-soothe whenever I couldn’t sit with difficult emotions or felt like I had failed. I felt an intense need to punish myself and numb myself of all feelings.
This need or desire became so addictive.
I had lost all control to my ED at this point. Purging was a daily affair.
Manipulation and Lies
The day before I left to go to America on a full scholarship my mum heard me throwing up in the bathroom. She told me I wasn’t going to America because I was sick. This was my worst nightmare as I had worked so hard to get this scholarship and I needed to get away from my family at this point. I could not be around and live with the stress of my father’s mental illness anymore.
I was shattered. My mum was furious with me. This hurt me so much as I didn’t want to make mum feel this way. I wanted mum to be happy for me and not worry about me, and most of all let me go to the USA. This heartbreaking disappointment further fuelled my eating disorder behaviours, and I became more and more secretive about them, and I lied, and I did everything I could including manipulation to cover up my ED. I couldn’t lose that too!
The ED turned me into someone I wasn’t. The manipulation and lies were not me. The ED changed who I was. It was the ED talking – not me.
Mum finally agreed to let me go to America. I was so relieved. My life was back on track, sort of!
My eating disorder was obvious to my American coach, and for four years I was instructed to remain at a certain weight to keep my scholarship.
Eating disorders were common in college – no-one batted an eyelid, and my eating disorder went from strength to strength. My moods were up and down, I was highly emotional on and off the court, yet I looked fit, thin but fit, and people frequently commented on my good body, toned legs, good arms.
During a college summer break, I went to train and coach at a famous tennis academy in Florida. There was a culture of disordered eating and over exercising, and it was one I fitted right in to. I was free to feed my ED without distractions or judgement here. Wow! I thought this was great at the time.
Living a secret – From Chicago to Singapore
I managed to graduate from college with my eating disorder still dominating my life albeit mostly secretively. I moved to Chicago for a job in business. My ED got much worse due to the stress of a new city, navigating my first job, and being alone. But again, I managed and hid my private pain and disordered ways.
My career flourished. I met my fiancé in Singapore, and sought help from a psychiatrist for my eating disorder. This was the beginning of a very dark period as I was wrongly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and heavily medicated. I had to stop work, and was hospitalised for self harm. My partner found the cultural stigma attached to mental health issues too much.
After more than a year of engaging in specialist psychiatric support in Singapore, and progressively getting worse the doctor advised me to return home and get treatment in Australia. He was concerned for my life and believed I needed to be home to access specialist ED support and care which was not available in Singapore at that time.
Coming home to Australia
So, I left Singapore. I had lost my job, my partner, and my life as I knew it.
I went to live back home with mum. During this time my father who was estranged from the family, took his own life. It was a terrible time for us all. I was suicidal myself as my ED had taken everything important to me away including my sense of self and future dreams.
I recall my mum taking me to the local hospital emergency dept and sitting there with me for 8 hours until I was finally assessed. I was on suicide risk, but given a few days Valium and nothing else.
Time went by, and I was in survival mode and barely even existing. I had a number of suicide attempts as I was at this point so tired of fighting this beast that my ED had become and I was chronically depressed. I just didn’t want to fight anymore. My ED was out of control and all-consuming. I ended up in ICU on life support three times in my late 20’s. I just didn’t think I would ever get better and couldn’t see the point if I was to go on living like this.
My saving grace
After my 3rd ICU admission, and after having spent all my money on private mental health support, I was referred to public mental health for an assessment with a psychiatrist from a CCU. I was referred to VVCS (Vietnam Veterans Counselling Services) now called Open Arms, as my father was a veteran and as a child of a veteran, I was eligible to receive this support.
This is the day I look back on and thank my lucky stars.
This was the day that things started to turn around. I was assigned a case manager, a psychologist who worked intensively with me on a weekly basis for two years. His name was Matt, and he gave me hope and saw me as a person not my illness and identified all my strengths and helped me to dream again and see a better life for myself.
He didn’t focus on my ED like all the other professionals did. He gave me constant reassurance and messages of hope. He understood complex trauma and helped me to work through unresolved pain, and emotions that were in part fuelling my ED. I’ll never forget Matt and what he did for me. With his help, professional therapeutic skills, and authenticity he gave me the ability to believe in myself again and that’s what made all the difference and helped me build up the courage to fight for my recovery.
I was discharged from the service after those two years of engagement as I had improved greatly. My ED was still there but not dominating my thoughts and behaviours and my overall mental health was in a much better place. I had a range of tools and strategies to use and apply whenever I felt highly distressed, emotional, or felt the urge to participate in old ED behaviours and ways. I was also not on any psychiatric medications.
How I broke up with my eating disorder
It would be another decade until I finally broke up with my ED, a relationship I had endured pretty much all my life, and that nearly took my life on more than one occasion. I was 42 years old when I fully recovered. It took many years of slowly, slowly regaining my healthy-self and letting go of my ED-self. But I did it. I am now 47 years old. I am healthy, have reached a point of body acceptance (not love but that’s okay), and I have a normal relationship with food and exercise (which honestly, I never thought would be possible).
I attribute maybe some of that ‘stubbornness’ the childhood psychiatrist talked about as helping me get through it. I wanted to live, and I wanted to be able to experience joy and moments of happiness and feel love again, all things my ED had taken from me. I have a lot of living to do, and I cherish my health and my life now.
I’ve also changed careers as part of my recovery journey and for the past 14 years as I was recovering, I studied and trained in mental health. I am a mental health practitioner in the public community mental health sector, and I’ve also just started my own mental health and wellbeing coaching practice specialising in eating disorders recovery coaching, disordered eating and body image concerns incorporating the expert knowledge of recovered lived experience called The Practical Practitioner.
You can recover and rebuild after all this time
I hope my story brings readers hope and is testament to the fact that individuals, and families can recover and rebuild after being in the trenches and fighting the often long and brutal battle with an ED. I am closer than ever now to my small family; my mum and brother mean the world to me. I know they went through all of this with me whether they were near and far. I love them dearly even though through the decades of battling the ED I couldn’t always show it and was even combative with them at times, I truly and deeply loved them and needed them.
And, to Matt the psychologist wherever you are – you saved my life. I will never forget you.
With hope and much love – Dannii x
PS. If you would like to connect with me, please send me an email to: email@example.com
“Looking back over my photos & adventures abroad and came across this photo of me in Gwangju, South Korea. I must have been about 30 years old here and still firmly in the grips of my eating disorder. As a younger person I was always brave and excited to go forth, travel, live overseas and experience the world, but I wasn’t brave enough to face my lifelong demon – my eating disorder.” Dannii