This week I talk to June Alexander, who was in her fifties when she fully recovered from long-term anorexia.
June’s personal bio:
I love sharing my writing passion by helping people with eating disorder experience to tell their stories. I believe everyone has a story to tell and the way it is told makes all the difference. When you have had, or have an illness, the story creation process can help you to see that your life counts because it involves being an observer as well as participant of your experiences. I offer guidance and mentoring in achieving these outcomes. Following a long newspaper career as reporter, sub-editor and editor, I wrote my memoir, which explores the effect of developing restrictive anorexia nervosa at age 11, and how this severe illness shaped my life. This led to a further nine books on eating disorders and a PhD in Creative Writing, focusing on the therapeutic value of non-fiction writing in recovery. I run group workshops and work privately with individuals to record their narratives. I aim to and inspire hope at every age through story-telling. My website, The Diary Healer , which includes a weekly blog, delves more deeply into this aspect of my work. I offer a wealth of insight and wisdom and know what it means to experience and heal from an eating disorder and other traumas. My story-telling work has achieved global recognition, winning the Academy for Eating Disorders’ 2016 Meehan-Hartley Advocacy Award for public service and advocacy in the eating disorder field. I serve on national and international organisations in the mental health field and my mantra is ”there is hope at every age”. I live in Australia and am the proud mother of four children and grandmother to five children, and share my home with Norah Cat.
Hello there, welcome to this weeks podcast. This week, I’m going to talk to a lady called June Alexander. June lives in Australia, she wrote a book, I best know her from her website The Diary Healer which includes a blog and she talks in that blog about how writing and therapy and the value of writing in recovery. She’s also written her memoir, something like 9 books on eating disorders, June is part of the eating disorder recovery community. She’s also part of the professional community and she is also part of the advocacy community. While she does live way way across the pond in Australia and while this is the first time we have actually spoken, other than social media, I do feel like I know June. I also know that she likes cats, she’s got a cat called Norah. Anyway, this is our conversation. Here’s June:
June: I’m June Alexander and I live in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. I am a grandma of 5 children and a mother of 3 sons and a daughter. I grew up on a dairy farm in the country in Victoria. In a beautiful valley with a river flowing through it. Lots of animals, really idyllic place next to what we call The Bush in Australia. But it’s called The Woods or a forest elsewhere in the world. So I grew up with animals like kangaroos, wombats and platypus in the river and Goanna’s and then a lot of farm animals.
So I had a really, I guess I grew up close to nature which is something I think has given me a strength throughout my life which just as well because when I was 11 years old I developed Anorexia Nervosa and this was at a time when it really wasn’t known about very well at all so I was in my, I’m leapfrogging here a little bit, but I was in my 30s before I was correctly diagnosed. So the illness had had a long time to get embedded in my brain and really I didn’t know any other way to think and I was quite suicidal in my late 20s then it took 6 years to get the right diagnosis.
So then what happened was a long recovery period and which took a very long time about 25 years but I eventually got there and also one thing that had happened when I was 11 years old besides developing anorexia which of course I didn’t really understand what was happening, but I also started to write a diary and so my whole illness was documented in my mind, through my mind in my diaries. So when I recovered, by which time I’m in my early 50s, a thought that sustained me through my illness was that I was misunderstood especially by my family members. Throughout my long illness of course I was misunderstood and growing up in a country area it was often OK, you’ve got more understanding if you had a physical problem like a broken leg, with a mental problem you were told to pull up your socks because you think about yourself too much. And just get on with things. Which I tried to do, but of course it meant I kept it in.
I was in my 20s, a working mother of 4 young children, I had 4 children in 4 years. But I was also studying at university level, helping my husband on our farm. I was doing everything and I still couldn’t get this torment out of my brain. So the recovery really involved taking the engine out of the car and putting a new one in. I had to find a whole new set of gear sticks to get through every moment in every day. I had to find new ways of thinking and of course food was just part of it. It was so hard to learn how to eat 3 meals a day and have 3 snacks a day because I had restrictive anorexia so then I for years I got caught in a binge cycle like I’d either eat a lot and then restrict again and then eat a lot and restrict again, so my moods went up and down like a roller-coaster.
It was really, as you would appreciate anyone who’s been here, this cycle is very hard to break out of. But gradually I did. And I used to dream and wonder, could I ever, could I ever just be able to let my body tell me what it wanted to eat for the next meal. That just seemed to be an impossible dream. But I actually got there, it took a long time. And what I guess the secret or the key thing to do was even when I binged the night before, when I got up the next morning, I needed to eat a normal breakfast. For years if I’d binged the night before then I would qualify that in my eating disorder thinking, that I won’t eat breakfast.
T: Yes, then you restrict and you start the cycle again. It’s the restriction that leads to the binging.
J: Exactly yes. It’s like you’re a captive of this illness and it just keeps pulling the strings on you. Yes so by eating the 3 meals a day no matter what, it’s amazing really because the urge to binge just fades away. Today I keep a selection of little chocolate bars in my fridge door and once upon a time I would not have been able to do that. I would’ve eaten them all on the first night that I’d put them in there. But now I can look at them and if I’m feeling like one then I can think which one do I really want to eat right now? And I really enjoy it and I just want to eat that one little snack bar, I don’t have that urge, I don’t have that feast and famine thing that our body because it’s been starved, it thinks it needs too.
T: It’s not that it thinks it, it does need to stuff itself because it’s been starved. Yes and actually my binge/restrict cycle was just the same June. I had a good 4 years I was in a really quite severe binge/restrict cycle. A daily cycle and it was only when I force-fed myself during the day that that started to diminish and it didn’t happen overnight. It wasn’t like I fed myself 1 day and the same night I didn’t binge. It’s just gradual when your brain starts to learn it’s going to get the food it needs during the day.
J: Yes and amazing things start to happen then don’t they? It’s not just with the food, but it’s like for decades, every decision I made, could have been someone’s invited me to a party or I’ve got an important meeting, I worked with newspapers for many years, I’ve got an important meeting at work, or I’ve been sent out on an important assignment and I’m going to meet someone who’s very high up in politics or someone who’s a movie star or whatever and my immediate thoughts whenever I would hear of something I would need to do would be to think about how much I’m eating and whether I needed to restrict myself and I would restrict myself as a way of coping with anxiety as well. Which was of course, it was the opposite to what I needed to do. I needed to keep eating those 3 meals without fail and snacks.
So it’s amazing, for people who are listening right now, even when you’ve had the illness for a long time, mine had a 20 year head start before any treatment of any sort started, today well I’ve been free and able to eat my 3 meals a day, live and think like life in the mainstream, 12 years have gone by and in that time I’ve written 10 books and done a PHD. Things I couldn’t have done.
T: Oh absolutely. And how old were you when you started proper recovery?
J: I was about 32 years old. Yes and I was 28 years old when I was very suicidal and that was when I first summoned the courage to go and talk to a GP, the family doctor for the very first time. I was terrified, I was terrified because I feared I would be told I was going mad and my children would be taken from me, they were all aged at that time 2-6 years old. But you’ve had this secret in your head for all these years, when you are still a child you develop this illness, you don’t know any other way.
You know my mother would say things like, why can’t you be like the other girls? Why can’t you be like Mary? Or you know friends in my school. That made me feel worse because I didn’t know how to be like them. I didn’t know that my brain was different to their brain (laughs) So I guess I just felt different but I didn’t know why and at school I would look at kids, they would be able to order at the school canteen and they would be eating pot pies and ice creams and things and I’d think, how can you eat those things without feeling really guilty? And I’d be eating carrot sticks and things and I think but even I guess, I was very fortunate that I loved writing.
The writing and eating disorder both started at the same time but of course I guess when I did my PHD I only graduated with that at the end of 2017 and it was only when I was researching and reflecting more deeply that I realised that my diary had actually been mine, not so much a friend but a foe for many years. Because the narrative, with an eating disorder you tend to have your life with regulations and rules and we’re always making new ones because we can’t keep any of them. So I’d actually been using my diary for many years to try and create a structure for getting through each day but it would be, I could have so many calories, I’ve got to do so much exercise, I can only eat these foods and not those foods. And so I had all these rules going through my diaries, it made me quite sad but it actually helped with the grieving process when I read through my diaries.
I could see for a couple of decades there was no real me there at all. It was all illness and it was like I was lost in a forest and I couldn’t find my way out. I would eventually, gradually I did with the help of my long term psychiatrist who I did meet in my early 30s,I really had to retrain my brain. Letting go of the eating disorder thoughts, I guess people like Jenni Schaefer, goodness me she was half my age. But she was very helpful, her book. Goodbye Ed I think it was 2004 when it came out, I read that book I was just like almost there with my own recovery and I think it’s like you’re a butterfly coming out of a cocoon when you’ve been in an eating disorder a long time and so I started to read any books that were there.
This was before the internet was really getting helpful, like with your wonderful blogs and then back then in 2007 I started to share my story publicly for the first time I can remember I was terrified. I was invited to speak at a night at a school for parents and grand parents. And then I started to talk, I wanted to write my story so at least my children would understand that I wasn’t really such a bad person. When I wrote that and actually it was published and then that lead to a lot of other wonderful things. I met Daniel Le Grange and we wrote My Kid is Back which is about family based treatment because I had wished that my parents had known about that when I was a kid. You know my poor mother had no idea what was happening.
A lot of meeting others with the illness, like I’d grown up in a rural area and then I’d moved to the city to get help in my 30s, but still I wasn’t really talking to anybody else who’d had the same illness as me. Now that I do a lot of work internationally and nationally, as you do, one big discovery that you make is that the eating disorder has a language that it universal and wherever you live, the thoughts of the actual illness are the same. It’s scary and amazing at the same time so what it does is it makes it easier to identify the thoughts that belong with the illness and then recovery involved being able to recognise the thought that belonged to the illness and then recognising my own true thoughts.
That took a lot of practise but that’s where the diary also came helpful, writing became very helpful because writing things down as well as thinking them helps make the thought stronger and you do many repetitions too because maybe you are having an unexpected crisis, which is probably not really a crisis, but the eating disorder brain will try and tell you it is, but being able to be self aware enough to recognise that before it hits the default button and runs away with an eating disorder behaviour. But recognise it and implement a healthy June behaviour which is of self compassion and self love rather than doing something like stuffing yourself, or starving yourself or denying yourself in some way that’s self harming.
Yes, it’s really about taking the hand of that little child that you were before the illness developed and leading them and caring for them. You miss out on a lot of life, a lot of living while you’re caught up in an eating disorder. With my grandchildren they are now aged 6-11 but when they were 2 and 3 I would love to go to the playground with them and crawl through the tunnels and swing on the swings and just do a lot of fun things because with the eating disorder often with my own children when they were young, I didn’t, I denied myself doing fun things with them and they suffered too and actually it was only just, my daughter is 42 years old now, with a family friend just the other day and she was asked, did your mum’s illness, does it still affect you today and she said, yes, she said all I ever wanted was a mum so she wanted a mum without the eating disorder but of course it was very hard to distinguish the two.
I think when healing takes place, sadly my parents and my sister, my family of origin I became alienated from them. I think too many years had gone by and they had lost sight of the real me and it was something that I could not get back. So what I had to do was focus on what I did have which was my children sadly my marriage had also been lost. This was just when I was starting to get help and my eating disorder brain convinced me that my husband who was actually a very stable, secure, safe person, was the reason why I wasn’t recovering. But we are very fortunate in that we’ve stayed friends. And we still share Christmas and all the kids birthdays and of course there are more of them now that there are grandchildren. While the illness took the marriage, it didn’t take the friendship and as parents we’ve been able to stay united and the grandchildren are at an age now where they are thinking we’ve got a grandma and granddad.
T: And so you think that your children and the family that you do have, in you getting better there has been a healing affect there for everybody?
J: Yes, yes and when I wrote my memoir, I had to mention my family and one of my sons read the manuscript on behalf of his siblings because it was their journey as well as mine. Some healing came out of sharing the story.
T: For sure, I found the same definitely.
J: Yes and it comes from unexpected places. My daughter was not ready to read the book but what happened was some of her friends did. She was in her 20s I think and so they shared with her and they helped her I think see the situation in a new light. In many ways we had to restore these things so we could all move on and heal together. That’s the power of the narrative isn’t it?
T: So what age were you when you think you reached full recovery?
J: I was 55. It was a long time, 44 years from age 11 and it was actually a very defining moment. I can remember I was sitting on my veranda and I had my dog and cat at my feet and I was looking up at the stars, it was a summers night and where I live in Australia, you can see the milky way. I was looking up at the milky way and suddenly I had this ping in my brain, I knew I had crossed the line, I knew I had got over the finishing line and I never, I would have slips and slides you know still. But I never went back into it’s clutches and gradually those slips and slides became less and less and I’d had the occasional binge and go through that self loathing but then the period of feeling terrible would get less and less and until it’s just wonderful.
I gradually, people might say overnight, no it doesn’t happen overnight. But it does happen and I just love it today. I love listening to my body tell me, do I want a piece of salmon or a steak or avocado and chicken? For my meals, I actually look forward to every meal. And I love going out to dinner. I love going to restaurants. I love meeting friends for lunch. It’s a social, the social life is so impactful.
T: Yes, it’s wonderful isn’t it?
J: Yes I know.
T: I think the message really, I do speak to a lot of people, adults who have eating disorders around the 40s, 50s, 60s age range that say, it’s too late. I couldn’t recover. It’s like, no! I know plenty of people who have fully recovered in their 60s.
J: Yes! I know there are women and men who are in their 50s, 60s, 70s there are people in nursing homes who are suffering with an eating disorder and living in shame and secrecy and I just want them to know, it’s never too late. There is always hope, even if you are 70 years old and able to eat 3 meals a day and have your 2 or 3 snacks a day and have peace in your heart and peace in your mind and peace in your soul.
That is a gift, that is beautiful. We don’t think about the lost time, yes we need to grieve for that because some things when we recover and heal, I like to call it ongoing healing, there are things that we can not get back, but there is a lot that we can. And we can start to enjoy things that we have never been able to enjoy but yes it’s never too late. The thing is to reach out and like I think it’s just wonderful the work that you’re doing in coaching people, gosh if I’d had a coach in my 30s it would have been so helpful. I grew up in a time when the help was not available.
T: yes, you’re just doing it blind.
J: Yes, doing it blind and how difficult is that? The eating disorder is bossing you around. To have a coach and be able to reach out in those vulnerable moments, because we know how important it is to reach out as soon as you become aware that the panic is setting in that I need to do something quickly, to be able to call someone right then, or email or as we can now with the internet is such a help. Talking to someone who understands or talking, when I say talking either verbally or in writing, even when we are writing, it slows that panic down, it slows those thoughts down.
T: You are so right. I say to my client, email and usually in the process of emailing by the time they’ve got to then, they’ve answered their own question.
J: Exactly (laughs) I see life in images and when you just described that right then, my image is of a horse escaping from a stable or a field and it’s running, running, running gradually it slows down to a canter and then to a walk because writing thought it doesn’t really matter how they are written, just getting them down, write and write until you’ve got nothing left to write and it releases the moment and I think that’s so powerful and to be able to write without, you are writing to somebody you trust is really really helpful because you are not afraid of being judged.
To write without fear, fear and trust in having a guide or coach is such a powerful thing to have because recovery involves trust, you’re out in the rough seas of this illness and you need to get to the land where you can put your feet down and know that you’re not going to sink in quick sand. So having that coach or having someone who understands, they are on the shore for you. You have to be able to trust them more than that 24/7 illness thoughts in your mind. So it’s a really strong lifeline that you can trust.
T: I think the other thing that writing does is that takes whatever it is you are scared of and when you externalise it by writing it down, it just makes it seem so much smaller.
J: Yes, yes, it gets it out.
T: Because when it’s in your head, it seems huge, it’s the biggest problem you’ve ever had to deal with. Then when you write it down, it’s like, oh I’m freaking out about a piece of toast.
J: Well that’s right because the eating disorder thoughts are not logical or rational and they love us to think the very very worse and often a comment may be made and nobody else will think anything of it but eating disorder brain will take that and tell you that you’re ugly or you works not up to par and so writing that down in our journal, or writing it to someone we trust and we are able to see it for what it really is and it disentangled our eating disorder thoughts from the reality, it helps us see, oh there’s another way of looking at this and really that’s not what they are saying, they are not saying I’m stupid. It really helps writing it down and seeing it for what it really is. Disentangling, it’s like having a ball of wool that the kitten has got and turned it into knots and you get it all out.
T: I think it’s a perception thing, it’s a change in perception because your perception creates your reality and when you’re adjusting your own head, your brain can convince you that your perception is reality but when you get a change in that perception and write it down then you can take an alternative view and you can understand it differently.
J: That’s right and part of recovery is about learning new ways of thinking and so you know we can ask ourselves, is there another way of looking at this? Yes there is. I guess it’s being able to stand outside ourselves a little bit and be observers and write down the things that we actually know the facts, write down the facts and that helps those eating disorder thoughts which are never factual. It’s like a term that’s very popular now, the term Fake News. We don’t want the fake news of the eating disorder.
T: Yes, don’t listen to that.
J: Yes it’s very destructive, we want the real news and that is of our real self and it’s a wonderful warm feeling to know that we are having our own thoughts and to be able to share them is so powerful and strengthening.
T: Well I think you are an absolute inspiration June and where can people, if people want to connect, where can people find out more about you or your books, where can they do that?
J: Well, they can go to my website which is www.thediaryhealer.com
T: I will link to that in the show notes so people can find that.
J: Please do and I have a weekly blog, I love to have people sharing their stories on the blog. I love connecting with other people. I find it, really really important for anyone out there who is feeling isolated and thinking well I’ve tried and I have not got there. Please reach out and try again there are wonderful, wonderful people who understand what it’s like and they are here to help you so please reach out. Yes.
T: What an inspirational lady. I hope that there are people listening that are 40+ and have been sitting there thinking before, recovery is a young persons game, it’s not for me any more, I can’t do it because I haven’t done it. Not true. The reason that you can’t do it is because you haven’t done it. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to do, if you do like we were talking about, that eating the day after the binge, if you do the hard work, the hard mental work. Which requires taking action, that comes in the form of not restricting then you will get there.
It doesn’t matter what age you are, your brain will rewire itself. Your brain is neuroplastic. It does has the capacity and the ability to change if you are consistent with your actions. So I hope that June’s story brings you hope, also knowledge that yes you can do this and I’m a very keen writer and so although I’ve never journaled, not consistently, I’ve journaled a couple of times when I was 12 or 14 and all I wrote about was ponies and then I think I’ve lost those anyway so I don’t even really know, but I’m pretty sure it was about ponies at that age. So I’m not actually somebody who has ever consistently written a journal but in June’s experience that was actually a very productive exercise for her, so maybe that’s something to try and you could probably check out her website to get some more tips and ideas on that and read some of those books.
I’ll link to those in the show notes. Thank you for listening, contact me if you have a recovery story to share. I love inspiring people like June. When inspiring people like June Alexander come out and tell their stories it does just that, it inspires others to do great things, so if you have a story to tell, get in touch. firstname.lastname@example.org Cheers and until next time cheerio.