Re-Feeding Hope, by Olivia aged 17

This is one of the 25 stories from a book written by young people throughout NZ, entitled “Been There – Young People’s Stories of Struggle and Hope”.  This book can be purchased here with all profits from the sale of the book going to the Christchurch Youth Hub.

Hope and I used to have a close relationship. Rather like a helium balloon, attached to a string I held in my hand, for the first twelve years of my life it followed me everywhere. Through my primary schooling, my soccer games, family game nights, the bitter New Zealand winter and the salt-tinged beachy summer. I held tight to it during a massive move overseas to Hong Kong, where my family lived for 4 years, and then back again to start Year 9 in New Zealand. It bounced alongside me, raising me out of my temporary life dilemmas and pushing me forward to my future.

Mental illness is a funny thing. It strikes when one least expects it, to those who seem least vulnerable. Like some twisted pokie machine the factors lined up: genetic potential fell into line with psychological factors and environmental triggers; and I fell a victim to a mental illness jackpot.

There was no choice involved. I did not want to be sick with this. Very suddenly food became threatening, an evil danger to be avoided. Not eating just felt… right. The glory of an empty stomach produced a sense of rightness that soon became the only thing I craved. The bright, open view of my world became dark and tinged at the edges. Anorexia focused my whole life to a pinprick that revolved around food and food alone.

It was a rapid spiral: within 6 months I was no longer myself but the embodiment of the deadliest mental illness. I couldn’t recognise myself in the mirror as I viewed in muted disgust the gauntness of my body. But no matter how much I knew I needed to gain weight, eating was not an option. As my body starved so did my soul. As my muscles atrophied so did my dreams. And as my spirit fled my protruding bones, the string attached to my balloon of hope slipped out and away from my fingers.

I was admitted to hospital two days before my thirteenth birthday. I was an emaciated shadow of who I once was and my only intent was to escape this hell. Upon first meeting the doctor who would care for me, I rolled my head back to look at her through my clouded vision and gasped,

‘Kill me, please.’

Hospital was hell. Every day for the next two months I would be fed six times. I would sit there, gasping, crying, screaming and chewing, until the meal was done and I would be allowed to sit and wallow in fear for my next meal. If the monster inside of me clenched my jaw shut, the nurse would hook up my nasogastric tube to a liquified meal. The genuine, primal fear was evident. I was nothing more than an animal caught in a pure flight or fight response.

My voice grew hoarse from screaming in mental agony, my legs and arms were scratched red from my raking nails, the cold and unforgiving nasogastric tube was a cold snake curled down my throat.

For a long time, all I did every day was cry.

When my hope had long since sailed out of my grasp and into the imposing clouds above me, I learnt to borrow other people’s hope. My family all held out their balloons of hope to me, that one day I could be well and strong. The nurses I met, the doctors and therapists, all my teachers at school and the people in the future I hadn’t even met yet, they all let me have some hope when mine was gone. If I couldn’t see the point of my own life, at least others could.

It came back to me bit by bit. The first time I glimpsed it was a month later, after I had been on strict bed rest. I was allowed to walk to the toilet, unassisted by the wheelchair. I could not stop smiling. The freedom was incredible.

Just for a moment I saw that balloon of hope peek out from the clouds.

Then I was allowed a 30 minute wheelchair ride in the hospital garden. Fresh air tasted sweeter than the ice cream I was so afraid of. The wheelchair jostled over the uneven pavers of the sparse garden. The park bench by the meagre koi pond became a safe place to eat my snack with shaking hands. That wheelchair was a flying chariot and that garden was my kingdom.

I was discharged two days short of two full months in hospital. I resumed recovery in the comfort of home in the care of my parents. Whilst life wasn’t easy, I had some sense of hope. The clouds had thinned and I could see it bobbing above me. I remained, for four years, in this state of ‘recovering’. In the lukewarm, ‘trying, but not there yet’. Wanting my life back but fearing food. Ready to be free, but not to gain weight. Hope’s string was twined around my fingers, but nothing ever changed.

I guess it was only waiting to happen.

A pseudo-recovered eating disorder, my parent’s separation and country-moving pinged once again in the dreaded pokie machine and I was once again admitted to the hospital.

This time was worse, way worse. This time I was forging my way through the tracks that I thought I had left for good. I was fully aware that rather than moving forward, I had come full circle.

This time, hope for recovery did not seem to slip out of my fingers but had instead burst open in my face. This is me. I am anorexic. This is my life.

My values and beliefs had slowly evolved to align with anorexia’s. My once-friends had been scared away, then pushed away further. My life was an existence, filled with rituals and counting and exercises and calories. I didn’t know who I was or who I wanted to be. I had no friends, no passions, no sense of purpose. I didn’t know if recovery was possible, if I didn’t even know who I was.

The night of my third admission, I had wrapped a noose around my neck. I was ready to die. I was sick of being dragged along the rubble of my life, the dreams of my future ashes beneath me. My existence was only hurting others, and certainly hurting myself. I was done.

But as I inched the black cord tighter and tighter around my throat, something whispered to me.

Wait.

What about tomorrow?

I didn’t want to live. I prayed desperately every night that I wouldn’t wake up the next day. Why would I go another day through hell just to kill myself?

I could probably survive tomorrow.

I couldn’t last a week like this, let alone a month or even a year. But I could probably do one day.

So I did.

And then I did it again. And then when that got too tough, it would be an hour at a time, a meal at a time, a bite at a time. But I could do it. Those four weeks were the hardest of my life.

When I was discharged for the third time, something had changed. I knew my fear, and it was huge, but so was my hunger for a real life. This time, although the fear and despair and depression came in waves so strong I felt like I was drowning, I would fight and I would swim back to the top. I refused to stop at anything other than full recovery.

I can do hard things.

Somewhere along the way, I realised that hope didn’t have to be always there. It didn’t have to be following me closely on a tether, where I could see it guiding me through my life. Sometimes, it is going to hide behind the clouds and sometimes it is going to disappear altogether. But that doesn’t mean that hope won’t come back.

I lost my hope for a long time. I had to borrow other’s, and when even that didn’t work, I had to continue down the journey myself. On some days I still wonder why I didn’t just save myself so much pain and let myself die that night. But by forging my way alone through the unknown, the fear and the torturous mental hell, I find my hope again. Turns out no matter how lost you feel, if you just go a little further the sky clears and suddenly you find joy again.

Please remember that hope doesn’t need to be right there with you when you face your darkest days. It hasn’t abandoned you - it’s waiting on the other side for you to push through.

And you will. You can do hard things.

My life is different now. I don’t just seem like a person cast in the shadow of anorexia but instead, I am whole. Now I’m a person with hope, interests, passions, talents, a loving family, a colourful (ever-growing) life, and (ever-diminishing) anorexia.