Teen's details eating order recovery in new book ‘(Not) a piece of cake’
“The day I turned 18, I realised I couldn’t stay in this state of mind for my entire life. I was so scared to have cake on that day but made up my mind that from that day onward, I would commit fully to creating a healthy relationship and mindset with food.”
Every person has a defining day in their lives. That was the day for Hannah Altmann who has now written a book about her battle with anorexia nervosa.
The dictionary defines anorexia nervosa as a lack or loss of appetite for food (as a medical condition), an emotional disorder characterised by an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat.
Altmann, who turns 20 in May, said her body started becoming “questionable” when she was in Grade 10 but the disorder fully took hold a year later.
“I realised I had a problem at the beginning of Grade 11. It got progressively worse throughout that year, but my relationship with food and my body started becoming questionable in Grade 10. I couldn’t say there was one specific thing that caused my illness but rather a build up of pressure I put on myself, stress and needing to remain in control of my life during a phase of immense change,” said Altmann.
Her battle with anorexia nervosa lasted for two to three years, with periods of seeming okay and then relapsing into a bad mental state.
“Mentally, in the beginning, I was under a lot of stress, about school, sport and my social life. This caused me to latch onto something I could control, which in this case was food. During the time I was clinically ‘anorexic’, my mind was completely obsessed with food and calories and maintaining control. I had no energy to spare a thought or care for my family, school or anything else. In retrospect I think I must’ve come across as completely selfish and rude, but at the time I thought only about myself,” she said.
Physically, Altmann said it was a roller coaster ride with her weight fluctuating. In the first few months, her weight went down consistently, until she started seeing a dietician to get help.
“I would zig-zag up and down, but never fully reach the clinical ‘healthy’ weight. When I eventually did, it unfortunately sent me spiralling back into a bad mental space,” she said.
Altmann said having a supportive family is key in fighting anorexia nervosa.
“My family was understandably very concerned about me. My mom instantly started doing as much research as she could to help me, speaking to mothers who have experienced the same thing, reading books and blogs. My father couldn't exactly understand the situation, but nonetheless was worried and anxious and looking for a way to help.
“As a whole, my family became very on edge, as I was like a bomb, ready to go off if something wasn't right. We experienced a lot of fighting, tears and misunderstandings, but I am thankful that they stuck with me through it all,” she said.
Altmann stressed that people should know that every case of anorexia is unique, and every person suffering from it goes through a different, personal journey.
“Those that are near to someone suffering must also understand they cannot fix or cure the person. It is up to the one suffering to make the decision to heal. However, one can learn what not to say around those suffering. It’s never a good idea to talk about weight, food or diets around someone with the illness, and it's important not to comment on the person’s body or what they are eating or avoiding. Comments from other people tend to simply perpetuate any fear or stress that the person is going through. One thing you can say is simply that you are always available to talk, or simply to be a shoulder to cry on. Emotional support is always helpful,” she said.
But despite her years of hell, Altmann said it is completely possible to recover.
“This is not a sustainable way to live. Embracing a changing body will give you so much more freedom and happiness than having control over food,” she said.
Asked if one ever fully recovers from anorexia nervosa, Altmann said: “I think it is possible to reach a place of contentment and neutrality with food and with your body. Someone can definitely be cured from the clinical version of anorexia, but mentally, disordered thoughts may remain for years to follow. The important thing is to acknowledge these thoughts without letting them have any control over your actions or emotions. We have the power to choose our actions, and I believe we can be at peace with ourselves if we try hard enough.”
Brown. Gooey. Thick. It lay on the table in front of me. I could smell it from where I sat. The scent made my stomach queasy, bubbling with anxiety. My friends surrounded me, smiling and laughing. They weren’t concerned about it. I dared not join in. My hands shook, so I hid them under the table. I tried to smile along, failing miserably. I couldn’t concentrate on what they were saying. Only one thing was on my mind. How on earth was I supposed to eat this. You might be thinking, what the hell was on that table? What disgusting, foul, nauseating thing did I have to consume? You’re probably thinking of something along the lines of what your dog plants on your living room floor when you’ve kept him inside for too long. In my opinion, what lay in front of me was far worse than anything your dog can produce.
It was a piece of chocolate cake. You read that correctly. A slice of dark, rich, moist, potent chocolate cake, adorned with icing and all. It even had candles on top. Why did it have candles on top? Well, I was turning 18 you see, but that wasn’t important. What was important is that I could absolutely, positively, 100% NOT eat this slice of cake.