From a very early age, I was known “affectionately” as “Big Mary”, as distinct from my beautiful, petite cousin “Little Mary”. My mother used to make excuses for me, declaring, “I don’t know why she’s so big as she doesn’t eat that much.” This statement made me so conscious of eating in front of people and I began to eat most of my meals secretly, bringing only a small portion to the table.
My mother took to the bed often due to sickness, which I later realised, was her way of escaping. As a super-sensitive child, I was aware of all the responsibility that fell to my father who had to work and take care of his fragile wife and nine children. As the oldest daughter, I took on the role of carer. I tried to fix things so that my father wouldn’t have to deal with them but when I couldn’t, I’d blame myself. My siblings would shake off the bad atmosphere and run out to play. I didn’t. I planned on how to keep things running smoothly.
I constantly worried that something would happen to my father. This fear lasted until the day of his death when I was forty-five. I could never allow myself to sleep until I heard his bike being parked in the shed at 10.30pm each night.
For three years, I only attended school for half-days, as my mother had become even more depressed, while my father worked the late shift. I fell behind in all my subjects. Instead of making allowances for my poor results, my parents, teachers, and especially myself, punished me and continuously compared me to other girls. I felt like such a failure. The same applied to how I felt about my weight. I wanted to be invisible.
My only worth was in doing things for others, be it averting crises or anticipating the needs of relations, friends, neighbours, even animals!
Then, the unthinkable happened. I was hospitalised with cancer and underwent surgery. I got better as quickly as possible. The cycle continued for ages until the day came when I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t help others any more. My worth was gone. There was no ‘me’. I had only existed for others. The depression set in. I isolated myself and became a prisoner in my own home for many years.
I made many attempts to get better. I tried cognitive therapy, psychiatrists and hypnotherapy. Eventually, I had to give in to taking anti-depressants, sedatives and sleeping tablets. These were increased steadily over ten years. I was informed that if I lost the weight I wouldn’t be depressed as I’d look and therefore feel better.
My weight was blamed for many things including dental problems, trouble with my gall bladder, stomach ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, psoriasis and back pain. No one informed me that I might be suffering from an eating disorder.
All my life my weight would fluctuate. I was very tall with a big frame but I know now that I was probably a normal weight for my height. Due to negative comments, I’d starve, lose weight and then be praised. In the end, I’d put the weight back on and more. My father would take me aside and advise me, “for my own sake”, to eat less. He decided the reason why I wasn’t married by my mid-twenties was my weight.
I remember, at forty-five years of age, my father stepping on the scales, and then weighing me. I was much heavier than him! I have never, in all my life, felt more shame. I wanted to die. I didn’t speak to anyone for days. I was so hurt. I felt like such a glutton.
I would eat everything in sight until I’d decide on a new date and diet plan. Then, I’d stick rigidly to whatever diet I’d take on be it the Atkins’ Diet, the Cabbage Soup Diet, Weight Watchers, Low Carb, Celiac… I’d take every diet to the extreme. I’d have to lose weight quicker than everyone else. Everyone would compliment me so I’d try even harder. Eventually I’d get down to nine stone. I could never get any lower than that. To stay at that weight, I’d have to feel hungry all the time so, naturally, when people stopped complimenting me, and life kicked me down again, I’d start eating normally again, then feel guilty, eat more…until I’d reach twenty-five stone.
I have always been either on the way up or down. I never felt happy anywhere. Finally, I found myself at an Over Eaters’ meeting saying that I was “powerless over food” and that my life had become “unmanageable”. It was great to meet people I could identify with. We shared our stories and learned to trust each other and God.
It was there that I heard of the Marino Therapy Centre where our condition is called ‘Eating Distress’, a much more dignified title. I started attending there three years ago and I have never looked back. It has been tough going but each day my life gets better.
I need to accept myself as I am now, learn to love myself and get the tools I need to aid me in this world as a super-sensitive person, to help me cope with whatever life throws at me.
It was only through interacting with sufferers of anorexia and bulimia that I realised that the person who weighs four stone has the same mindset as the person who weighs thirty stone. It took me almost a year and a half to understand that this condition has nothing to do with food or weight and everything to do with emotions, low self-esteem and negative thinking.
I fear that the Department of Health’s Obesity Task Force will make matters worse. They have no understanding and have ignored our attempts to get them to tackle the emotional issues. They are concentrating only on diet and exercise.
It’s through information, awareness and education that we will be able to make headway with tackling this crippling and life-threatening condition.
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