We have all heard that the more entrenched anorexia becomes, the harder it is to achieve recovery. That's true, and yet far from a certainty. If you have been tempted to give up the fight against your disorder, take a moment to hear June Alexander's story. It is an amazing saga of perseverance and courage, and its message, says Alexander, is "hold on to hope."
Alexander grew up on a dairy farm in southeast Australia. The typical risk factors were not there for her. There was no peer pressure to look a certain way at her one-room schoolhouse. At home, there were no glossy fashion magazines lying around and no television. Yet at the age of 11, she developed anorexia, and in her teens, bulimia. She was not diagnosed until she was 31, suffering for another 16 years before breaking through her eating- disordered mindset. So little was known about eating disorders where she lived, and the access to treatment venues and health information that are a cyber-click away in this day and age didn't yet exist. It was not until she was 47 that Alexander found a therapist who provided the magic key to unlocking the evil spell of her disorder: Alexander needed to separate her eating-disordered thoughts from her real thoughts.
During the years leading up to that epiphany, even amid the deepest turmoil of her serious eating disorder, Alexander managed to marry, have four children and build a successful career as a journalist. By the time she was 28, she says, "I feared I was going crazy." Her marriage fell apart, and she cut off contact with her sister and her parents, who could not understand how she could succeed in the world of work but not her personal life. She moved more than 20 times in an attempt to escape her disorder. You can read her remarkable story in full in Alexander's memoir, A Girl Called Tim: Escape from an Eating Disorder Hell.
After her breakthrough moment at age 47, says Alexander, "I began to recognize which was the real me and which was the illness." She discovered that "love is the strongest medicine," and that "when your family can't provide support, hope remains....get it from someone you trust." When she was at her low point, enmeshed in a series of destructive relationships, a group of friends staged an intervention and gave her no choice but to end the latest in the toxic series. "The more entrenched the eating disorder, the more work you have to do," she counsels. "Get in touch with your feelings, and guard against letting anxiety build up-attend to those feelings immediately."
Another piece of invaluable advice Alexander gives is when you know you are going to enter a highly stressful situation rife with triggers, you have to "prepare for it like a soldier going into battle." She told me a remarkable story about how she did this herself: Her daughter announced her wedding and the date of the ceremony to the family. Shortly after that, Alexander's estranged sister's daughter announced that her wedding would take place within days of Alexander's daughter's. Alexander's niece invited the entire family to the event except Alexander. Alexander and her daughter decided that they would take the high road and invite both Alexander's sister and her daughter to her own wedding.
Alexander knew that her daughter's wedding would be highly stressful because of this family drama, and worked hard with her therapist to visualize the moment when she would have to greet her sister and her niece at the wedding. She imagined being a bird, soaring over the scene, free from anger, anxiety or bitterness. At the event, Alexander did just that. She was gracious, composed, and the wedding went off beautifully. Afterward, George, her ex-husband and staunch supporter, told Alexander, "You deserve a gold medal for what you just went through."
Now fully recovered, June is close with her four children and her grandchildren. Her priorities are family and work, so when she's not traveling the world to promote her three books, or working on the three more that she has in the works, she's spending time with her grandkids in Melbourne or walking on the beach at her seaside home on the Bellarine Peninsula of Australia
The unique combination of recovery from a long-term eating disorder and polished writing skills has made Alexander a highly sought after author, co-author and lecturer. In addition to A Girl Called Tim, she has written A Collaborative Approach to Eating Disorders with the Maudsley Hospital's Dr. Janet Treasure and My Kid is Back: Empowering Parents to Beat Anorexia Nervosa. In the works, she says, are collaborations with Drs. Daniel Le Grange and Andrea Goldshmidt on a textbook on binge eating disorder for clinicians; another with Dr. Treasure on an update of her book Anorexia Nervosa, A Survivial Guide for Families, Friends and Sufferers, and a collaboration with Dr. Ivan Eisler focusing on multi-family therapy.
After I spoke to Alexander via Skype from Australia, she emailed me with a final thought. "The bird imagery I described - it is really about living in the moment; at times of heightened exposure to anxiety, intensely so. The focus on the beautiful bird flapping its wings gently and soaring with the breeze is a tool to distract from the anxiety, which in my case, fed the illness. The mind is a wonderful thing. By learning coping skills, it can be our best friend, rather than our greatest tormentor."
She's at peace now, and wrote, "Today I love being with myself. I love my own company. I am at peace and feel content.... I want others to know that they can be free, too."
Nutritionist Marcia Herrin and Nancy Matsumoto, co-authors of The Parent's Guide to Eating Disorders, Gūrze Books. Marcia is also author of Nutrition Counseling in the Treatment of Eating Disorders.