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MY STORY by A.P.

From the age of three, I was mentally and sometimes physically abused by my Grandmother. She treated me badly in many different ways, repeatedly telling me that I was worthless, unlovable, ugly and fat even though I was none of these. She constantly played cruel tricks on me (such as force feeding me and abandoning me in shops) and gradually my self-esteem was destroyed. Many horrific memories remain, including the time when I was seven years old and my Grandmother forced me to walk through the Chamber of Horrors in Madame Tussauds. She told me that I was a revolting person and belonged in this place with all the other disfigured and damaged faces.

I saw my Grandmother every day in an attempt to protect my Mother. My Mother suffered from migraines and I realized that these headaches became worse whenever my Grandmother treated her badly. Quickly I learned that I could stop my Grandmother from being cruel to my Mother if I took all the abuse instead. I was too frightened to ever tell my parents about my Grandmother’s ill treatment because she said that she would kill my parents if I spoke out about it, so I stayed quiet.

My Grandmother often told me that I was a failure and said that I would never do well at school. This caused me to work even harder at my studies and I would always complete my homework the night it was set. Even though my Gran didn’t live with us, she was often in the kitchen with my Mother when I returned from school and I became afraid of going home. I began to join in all the after-school activities available, including swimming, hockey, computer studies and gymnastics. I was wearing myself out though and by the age of 13, my body was no longer able to cope with all the abuse and hard work and it began to shut down.

I developed ‘glandular fever’ and after many months of illness was admitted to the children’s ward of our local hospital. My Grandmother visited me every day and continued to whisper cruel words to me. At the same time, she told the doctors and nurses that she believed my parents were abusing me. The doctors decided to stop my parents from visiting so frequently and instead encouraged my Gran to visit more often. I became very unhappy and stopped eating, so the doctors prescribed adult doses of anti-depressant drugs.

Almost immediately, these powerful drugs caused me to start hallucinating. The doctors thought I was telling them lies to avoid doing my homework and just increased the dosage of the pills. The hallucinations became more frequent and I couldn’t look at a page or blank wall without horrific images appearing before my eyes. A few days later another problem developed and I found that I was losing the ability to read and write. When I looked at a page of writing, the words began to swim and move around so that sentences became meaningless.

It took my parents a number of days to convince the doctors that I was telling the truth about my condition and the pills were stopped but the damage had already been done. After I left hospital, I slowly taught myself to read again with the help of a piece of card that isolated just a few words at a time. Over the next two years I became used to reading and writing in this way and took all my ‘O’ level classes during this period. It wasn’t until I began my ‘A’ level studies that I was able to read and write normally again.

By the time I was 17 we were having serious family problems. To help with her migraines, my Mother had been on tranquilizers since I was six years old. Now, 11 years later, she was taking a massive cocktail of them together with some very strong painkillers. She had disappeared into her own fantasy world and was writing strange poetry and letters to the singer John Denver. My Grandmother told me that my parents’ marriage was in trouble and that they were going to get divorced. She said that this was all my fault.

It was then that I decided I had to disappear. I felt worthless and as if all I did was cause problems. I believed that I no longer deserved food and so stopped eating. I didn’t feel this was enough punishment though and also began to seriously self-harm. Trapped in an impossible situation, I realized I was developing anorexia.

For the next four years my weight slowly dropped. I managed to keep my illness under control while my life was relatively calm but as soon as there was any extra stress, that dormant monster anorexia reared its head again. I left college at 19 because I was bullied by a ‘friend’ and instead started work in a solicitors’ office. The first three months were fine but in time my boss began to treat me badly. My Gran’s treatment had led me to believe that I deserved to be abused by anyone and he soon realized he could sexually harass and humiliate me. This behavior continued for over two years.

By the age of 21 I was very ill. Two days after my twenty-first birthday, my parents told me that I was ruining their lives and making them both ill. The guilt I felt was tremendous but I simply could’t eat, even for them. I felt totally controlled by an anorexic ‘voice’ in my head that sounded just like my Grandmother. It told me I was fat and ugly and had to starve myself. It yelled loudly every time I ate, repeatedly telling me I was a very bad person. I was now completely obsessed with food and did everything possible to avoid eating. Unable to force myself to eat, I grew extremely weak and had to give up my job as a legal secretary.

My parents took me to our family doctor who was horrified by my weight loss and immediately sent me to see a psychiatrist at our local hospital. She diagnosed anorexia nervosa and I felt as if my deepest darkest secret had been discovered. I felt ashamed and very alone. I had to agree to see a psychiatric nurse once a week but the shame I felt left me unable to share my true thoughts and feelings with her. Misled by my confusing answers to her questions, the nurse disagreed with the original diagnosis and started to treat me for the illness N.E. (chronic fatigue syndrome).

Relieved that the nurse no longer believed that I was suffering from anorexia, I fell even deeper into the illness becoming more withdrawn every day. Just after Christmas I felt so desperate and alone that I attempted suicide. Halfway through the attempt, I realized that my Mother would return home to find my dead body and I just could’t hurt her in that way. I felt that I had already caused her enough pain by what I believed to be my ‘selfish’ behavior. I put away the knife and bandaged my bleeding wrist.

Later that year, my Father retired from his job and we all moved to Cornwall to try and escape from my Grandmother. I managed to avoid doctors for three months but eventually we had to join the local health center. The doctor I saw was horrified by my condition. During my physical examination, the nurse had discovered that I was trying to cheat the scales and they realized that my weight was now at a life-threatening level.

After just three months in my new home, I was confronted by two doctors who wanted to admit me to hospital. I tried to beg them to allow me to stay at home but my Mother said that she could no longer cope and I was admitted to my first psychiatric hospital. I was put on complete bed rest because my weight was so low that the doctors were scared that I could have a heart attack at any time. I should have been safe in the hospital but my Grandmother still managed to reach me there. She sent me letters telling me that my parents did not love me and asking why I didn’t just let myself die? Instead of showing the doctors this evidence of her abuse, just as my Gran had instructed, I carefully tore up the letters and hid them at the bottom of my waste bin.

After a month, I had gained six pounds and managed to convince the doctors to discharge me. I began weekly therapy that increased to daily therapy as my weight slowly began to fall again. I had left hospital determined that the anorexia would never win again but after a few weeks at home, it had regained control and the ‘voice’ was louder than ever. I was once again lying and cheating so that I could lose weight. I hated myself every time I pretended I’d eaten or hidden some food but I felt I had to obey that ‘voice’. My parents tried to force me to eat more but this just led me to become even more cunning and secretive.

One horrific day, two years after my release from hospital, I managed to totally block the drainage system in our Cornish home. I can still remember the complete terror I felt when I heard my Father’s words: "She’s really done it this time! I don’t want to call her my daughter any longer!" My Mother was equally angry and said that she didn’t believe my Father would ever forgive me. I vowed never to hide food or cheat the scales again but anorexia is a very powerful illness and that whispering ‘voice’ in my head soon took back control.

Three years after the first hospital admission, my weight had dropped to its lowest ever. I was seeing a psychiatric nurse every day and he was measuring out tiny portions of food for me to eat but my body could no longer process solid food. Even though I was eating, I was losing more weight every day. I tried to fool the doctors into believing I was heavier than I really was but eventually my tricks were discovered and I found myself back in hospital again. This time I was admitted to an eating disorders unit 200 miles from my home, where I was told that I was now just hours away from death.

Looking in the bathroom mirror for the first time since my illness had begun, I saw how I really looked. I was a walking skeleton, with my skin stretched tight over bones. My face had become a skull and when I smiled, it looked like I was wearing a horror mask. For that brief period of time I could understand why everyone was so worried.

The hospital saved my life and I stayed there for six months, working hard at therapy sessions each day. I wasn’t completely honest with the doctors though, as the anorexic ‘voice’ in my head was still very powerful. I had learned so much therapy over the years that I was just repeating it back to them without feeling anything. My occupational therapist did realize what I was doing though and decided to play me the REM song "Everybody Hurts". As I heard the lyrics about holding on and never giving up, I broke down for the first time and started to talk very vaguely about my Grandmother’s abuse. When I was discharged from the hospital a few months later, I was physically better but mentally and emotionally I was still very ill.

For the next five years, I lived at home with my parents. The confidence I had developed in hospital slowly began to disappear. I had been able to talk and joke with anyone in the hospital but once I was home, I started to hide in my anorexic shell again. Gradually my weight dropped once more, although I managed to maintain it at a level just high enough to keep me out of hospital. I started my own needlework business but this just gave me another safe reason to stay hidden at home. I led a very isolated life, seeing only my therapists. The few times I went out were with my parents and we lived a very controlled, timetable existence. I was an adult woman, living the life of a child.

At the age of 29 I felt that my life would never change. I believed that I would always have anorexia and although it stopped me from doing so much, I could see no other options. The loneliness eventually became too much to bear and I joined a pen pal club. Through this group I met Simon, who I soon learned also suffered from low self-esteem. For the first time in my life, I felt able to tell someone about the abuse and my anorexia. This was the real start of my recovery because Simon was able to show me that I was not the terrible person my Grandmother had always told me I was. Slowly I began to realize that I did not need to punish myself by starvation and self-harming. I learned to trust Simon’s view of my body rather than my own distorted anorexic view.

Simon was the first person to show me unconditional love and after a few months, we became engaged. With Simon’s help, my recovery continued and I am now living a fulfilled happy and healthy life. Recovery is not easy or quick and the fact that Simon was willing to stand by me however long this took gave me the courage I needed to keep making progress.

I decided to share my experiences in the hope that I could help other sufferers beat their eating disorders. I wrote my autobiography "Anorexic" and soon found that many people began writing to me to share their own experiences. I began to realize just how huge a problem eating disorders really were and how little practical information and advice there was available. This is was why I wrote "Diet Of Despair", a self-help book for sufferers and their families. I have since also written "Running On Empty", a novel for young people about eating disorders and friendship. Through my books, I hope that I will be able to help sufferers and their friends and families to fight these killer diseases.

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