How diary writing helped me to survive and heal from an eating disorder
“When I was 11 years old, I developed anorexia nervosa. The same year, I received a diary as a Christmas gift.”
A gift of a diary, in the same year I developed anorexia nervosa at age 11, became an instant friend. The first entry, on January 1, 1963, is crammed with minute details such as the time and amounts of food consumed and exercise taken, and the time of awakening and going to bed. Until the diary arrived, secret thoughts had been crowding in my head, with nowhere to go.
Sharing them with my new friend the diary somehow eased my feelings of anxiety. When I transitioned into anorexia-bulimia, in adolescence, more self-expression began to tumble out, as I tried to make sense of thoughts and feelings. My world was small. There was the diary, and me. Not for many years would I learn there was also the eating disorder, and that the diary’s influence extended far beyond the two of us.
The illness, like the diary, thrived on privacy, and encouraged the keeping of secrets. In childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, my diaries were safe places in which to express and analyze thoughts, and develop coping strategies. But, without guidance, confiding in the diary also strengthened the eating disorder, its unrelenting and stringent demands becoming increasingly impossible to meet. Nothing I did was enough and the rules of the illness became secrets within secrets that had to be guarded and hidden. For years the diary was my only outlet. By age 28, my diary had recorded an almost complete disconnection of self from body.
Trust was essential in transforming the diary from a secret-keeper that aligned with my illness, to a healing tool for my true self. I had several U-turn shifts in healing from severe and long term anorexia nervosa. Firstly, at age 28, when I sought help for the first time, and secondly, in my early 30s, when I met the first health professional to ‘see’ me beyond my illness and gain my trust. Development of trust is vital when embarking on the healing path, because one needs to trust the therapist more than the powerful eating disorder thoughts within.
Outwardly, I presented as a wife and mother with a full-time career but within, the diary revealed a desperate struggle to honor daily lists and pledges, such as, having a strict weight limit; running a set distance; and noting every calorie. At age 28, thoughts of suicide after 17 years with the disorder drove me to break the silence, and reveal the thoughts hitherto confined to my diaries, to a doctor. I was terrified I would be locked up and separated from my children for sharing my dark, dark thoughts. Would I be considered mad, or weak? The possibility that I had an illness did not occur to me. However this first doctor and other doctors who followed, did not call me ‘mad’ or ‘bad’. Rather, upon learning I kept a diary, they encouraged the continuance of such writing as a tool for expression. However, like me, these doctors were ignorant of the illness that kept me prisoner, and they too were unaware of the diary’s potential to play a pivotal role in my illness, and of its ability to be a foe as well as friend.
Eventually, in my 30s, a psychiatrist (‘Prof’) gained my trust and suggested the diary could assist my healing process. He encouraged its use as a means to engage in written communication with him. Gradually, aided by patient, therapeutic guidance and discussion, what I wrote in my diary began to reconnect with and strengthen authentic thoughts and feelings. Self-abuse and self-harm gave way to self-care as my body and mind progressively reintegrated.
Decades later, at age 55, upon healing sufficiently to re-enter life’s mainstream, as I ‘came out’ and began to share my story publicly, the diaries ‘came out’ too. For instance, besides providing the main resource for my memoir, A Girl Called Tim (2011), the diaries became a pool of documented ‘lived experience’, for other literary works. In another heartening outcome, people with experience of eating disorders wrote to share their stories which until now had been revealed only, if at all, in their diary. Many adult readers wrote at length, explaining that, like me, they had felt isolated and had kept their eating disorders a secret for decades, but upon reading, connecting and identifying with my story, were able to share and externalize their thoughts and experiences for the first time.
A learning tool
It was only upon reflecting on the responses from readers that an epiphany occurred with recognition that perhaps my friend the diary had been destructive as well as constructive throughout my long illness, leading to my latest book, The Diary Healer.
The essence of diary writing is about being a friend with your self. In this way, the diary is like a trusted, best friend, who knows all about you and loves you anyway. In people who develop an eating disorder, avoidance may kick in and lead to layers of deceit, not only with friends and family but also with your diary. With guidance, however, the diary can become a reflective, exploratory and healing tool, and help you to discover or re-discover parts of true self. Therefore, besides providing a safe place to store and ‘let go’ of emotion, the diary can serve as a personal trainer.
Hear my story – podcast
To hear how diary writing has helped me to heal from my eating disorder and gain the freedom to live a full life, listen here as I engage in conversation with Sydney psychologist, Ruth Nelson.
About the Creating Space Project
In the Creating Space Project podcast, Ruth Nelson interviews women and asks them for a personal story. In this way, Ruth is exploring ways of using her skills as a psychologist to work on prejudice reduction in the community. She hopes to increase what she aptly describes as ‘the store of compassion in this world’. Ruth explains:
“Together, we explore what that story says about each woman’s values and ideals. The purpose is to create a moment of emotional connection between storyteller and listener. Human beings are, at our core, storytellers. For me, it is one of our most wondrous attributes. Stories nurture both the teller and the listener, with the power to transform both. In the podcast, I believe there is power to strengthen the storyteller, to highlight their dignity and resilience. There is also power to nurture compassion in the listener, allowing them, perhaps, to let go of some prejudices as they listen, noticing what it is they share in common with the storyteller and to notice, without judgment, the differences that emerge.”
As always, I encourage you to share your story too.
Your friend in diary writing,