Picture this: a creative solution to managing eating disorder recovery and surviving the pandemic
Sam Tench was recovering from a major life challenge when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. She had just hit upon writing and photography as a way of cultivating connection with her healthy self after years in the clutches of a long-term eating disorder.
Only a month or two before the pandemic spread, Sam had established a website, The Picture Healer, as her creative space and platform. This website was enabling Sam to explore her newfound freedom from the eating disorder. She was discovering her identity, and her place in the world, through writing and photography. She was leading herself to a safer and far more productive place mentally. When the pandemic began to impact her life, amazing things began to happen. The Picture Healer took on a fresh significance. Sam began to use her writing as a coping tool not only to sustain her eating disorder recovery, but also as a way to understand COVID-19’s harsh realities affecting life around her.
Sam began to develop the voice she had never been able to use, passionately expressing her views through the written word as events unfolded. She continued to take photographs, but now her subjects began to reflect something very different from her usual photography style. Increasingly, her pictures demonstrated a growing sense of resilience in the face of adversity. Rather than be suppressed by events beyond her control, Sam was confronting the pandemic by embracing it and capturing its effects on camera.
Sam’s determination to push on, despite cliffhanging moments when life seemed too hard, has culminated in a book, Resilience – A Year in Pictures (a personal journey through the pandemic). Resilience defines Sam’s path throughout 2020 and beyond. We have all faced similar obstacles; we’ve been climbing the same steep, obstacle-riddled mountain. The path has been challenging for us all.
Sam’s resilience project took seed on New Year’s Eve 2021, when she sent an email, sharing her idea for a book with me. I was on board immediately. As her narrative mentor I have witnessed Sam tapping into her creativity to forge a path through tough times. Even during the most difficult circumstances, I could always see something creative and of great potential within her. My role was to convince Sam to allow her healthy self to shine.
Sam’s decades-long secret struggle with an eating disorder had reached a crisis in 2019. At that point, She made a life-changing decision. She had felt disconnected for years; life was passing by. The time to surrender was now or never. It was time to let go of her false illusions of well-being and address an underlying feeling of a life without purpose. At the age of 38, Sam had no idea why she existed:
I thought I was a waste of space. I wanted to know what I should be doing with the life I’d been given. To find out, I needed to find a sense of inner strength. A sense of inner toughness to confront and silence that relentless, compelling and destructive voice that had lived inside my head since childhood.
That bad voice was my eating disorder. It was time to make him squeal in excruciating pain, just as he had made me squeal for years. However, I faced one major difficulty. Only I could be responsible for making this happen and this would be no small task. How could I find the courage? After all, this voice had always told me I was the weak one. If that wasn’t enough, I was taunted by daily messages that insisted that everyone else was superior, thinner, smarter, insert any other words here you like and I can guarantee they will apply. Nothing about this decision would be easy; I was confronting my ultimate challenge. A challenge I wasn’t even convinced I was up for. As a first step, I knew I would have to succumb to fear and face the truth.
In February 2019, Sam admitted herself to an inpatient eating disorder program in her home city. For 42 days and nights, confined to the white walls of the clinic, Sam’s life and her eating disorder were on constant watch by others.
Following her discharge from the eating disorder clinic, Sam received a new camera from her family as a gift. Her husband, Giang, had always believed she had an eye for photography and that she appreciated the artistic works of others. Little did Giang know how significant this gift would become. His timing with this gift was perfect. Sam’s fledgling healthy self began to grow wings. She began taking photos immediately and soon discovered a new healthy passion, filling a void that had long been missing.
Sam began thinking more about photography and less about her bossy eating disorder
Sam’s website, The Picture Healer, went live in early 2020, just prior to the spread of the pandemic, and gave Sam something she hadn’t been able to find elsewhere: something to lose herself in, to feel passionate about, and a platform to reveal her developing photographic skills.
Writing and photography have led me to a safer and far more productive place mentally. The site has given me a sense of life and purpose. The Picture Healer was never just about me though. My biggest hope was that by helping myself and sharing my journey with the world, in turn, I might also inspire and be a positive influence for others who find themselves in challenging positions. I would feel my experience was worthwhile if I could help just one other person see that they deserve more out of life than hospitals and force-feeding. If I could help another person with an eating disorder see that a new path is possible, I would feel content.
There are many positive roads out of the black hole that is an eating disorder; you simply need to find something that works for you.
When starting The Picture Healer, I intended to write solely about my experiences of overcoming an eating disorder. However, the events of 2020 caused my journey and focus to take a rapid turn. I began writing about the newly enforced way of life that we all had no choice but to accept. As I witnessed the spread of COVID-19 worldwide, each week, I started to write about how the pandemic was impacting not only my life but also the lives of those around me. Writing became a type of coping tool and therapy. I developed a voice and wasn’t afraid to share the messages that rang true to me. Crucially, my healthy-self voice was beginning to be heard.
Through her blogs, as the weeks and months rolled by, Sam passionately expressed her views of challenges presented by regular COVID-19 lockdowns. At the same time, often from the confines of her home, she adapted and developed her photography style to reflect the environment of the times. Her lens provided a tool to validate the struggles, and build resilience in the face of adversity.
The word resilience is significant. Not only has my sense of resilience become stronger, I also now have the consciousness to identify it as part of my life.
We can all relate to the need to cultivate resilience. We’ve all had good days and a generous serving of bad days. We have got through. This is resilience, the ability to keep fighting even when it feels impossible to do so. This is the thread that underpins Sam’s book and 2020.You don’t need to have had an eating disorder to relate to Sam’s story; we have all experienced our own struggles.
Importantly, Sam’s blogs and photographs log self-growth and progress during a period of isolation that could have caused her to scuttle back to her eating disorder’s prison.
Eating disorders thrive on an individual’s self-doubt. The eating disorder’s mantra is “isolate and conquer”. One loses not only trust in one’s own body, but also in one’s basic abilities, talents and intuition. Learning to trust one’s healthy self is paramount for recovery. Writing with a trusted mentor can be a very helpful coping tool in rebuilding trust and self-love. The more Sam has strengthened trust, confidence and validation in her healthy self, the weaker her eating disorder voice has become. I feel honoured to be her writing mentor.
A note from Sam
My name is Sam. I’m married, a mother of two young girls, and live in the Victorian regional city of Geelong. I have established The Picture Healer website to showcase my photography and writing. I began creating the website in late 2019; and despite the difficult learning curve, I have persisted, knowing this was the right thing to do for my well-being and potentially, the well-being of others. My work has also been featured on The Diary Healer, The Butterfly Foundation and Eating Disorders Victoria websites. Throughout my journey, I’ve been incredibly lucky to find an amazing team of individuals to help me navigate my personal and difficult journey through life. With the impending release of my first book, I hope to reach more people and pay forward the gift of inspiration and hope for individuals in need. I hope Resilience – A Year in Pictures will be the first of many books whether it be my writing, photography or both. If you identify with any of my thoughts and feelings, I invite you to connect with me at www.thepicturehealer.com. And I hope you enjoy Resilience – A Year in Pictures.
- To pre-order a copy of Resilience, write to firstname.lastname@example.org