“The journey of recovery may be long, but it is worth it”: Jennifer's 15 year road to recovery

1 Jun, 2020

For 15 years, Jennifer Hamer believed her eating disorder made her feel safe in a world that is full of uncertainties, but it robbed her of everything in life that brought her joy, including the chance to run for England. Here’s how she changed her course and what’s she’s learned along her recovery journey.

The thing with eating disorders is you don't have to look ill to be suffering. Eating disorders are really nothing to do with food. Recovery from eating disorders are long journeys and one thing is certain - the journey is never linear.

If you’d told me at the age of 12 that I was about to venture on a rollercoaster ride with an eating disorder, I wouldn’t have believed you.

I had a very healthy relationship with food. I ate what my mum packed in my lunchbox and what she cooked for dinner. I loved nothing more than a yummy apple crumble and custard on a Sunday after our roast dinner.

I loved life and lived and breathed every moment.

I was an A-grade student at my village community school in the UK; I had a lot of friends, I excelled in sport and I thrived off the praise of teachers. I loved being the best.

'Things began to spiral’

This all changed very suddenly when I moved to an all-girls' secondary school.

For the first time in my life, I was in an environment where I was not the best. I didn’t know how to manage the emotions that arose from not feeling like I was good enough, not feeling accepted. I felt inadequate.

I started to restrict my food intake. This was a way I could feel in control and empowered. I could be the best at this. I could suppress any emotions I was feeling about not being ‘perfect’.

As time went on things began to spiral; the more I restricted the stronger I felt, though in reality I was getting weaker and weaker.

My Mum clocked on to me cutting out foods and swiftly referred me for treatment. Mum knew the signs for anorexia because she too had experienced it as a teenager.

I managed to make a partial recovery over the next couple of years. I say partial because I was still very controlling of my food, yet I managed to consume enough food to appear healthy.

‘A painful existence’

At 14, I started to compete in sport at a high standard. I was on track to run for England and I was prepared to do anything to get there.

I managed to maintain my weight, win races and everyone assumed I was fine. Little did they know I was still struggling with anorexia, with the constant battles in my head

I went off to university when I was 18 and this was the start of a very slippery slope. A case of bullying in my first term led me to slip back into bad habits. I began restricting again and started losing weight. This happened very quickly. I was falling sick and I was pulled out of university.

The next few years I can only describe as a painful existence. Each day, anorexia took hold of me with greater strength and I had no strength to fight back.

I was ready to let anorexia win this battle, but my parents were not ready to lose me. They dragged me to a consultant - an appointment which saved my life.

I was admitted to hospital, under 24-hour observation.

‘Glimmers of hope’

The next five months of my life were the toughest I have ever experienced. Life in an inpatient unit felt like a prison - always being watched, under strict orders, and forced to eat.

The first few months were a constant battle - a battle with myself, with anorexia and with the staff who were forcing me to eat.

But as time went on, we started to see glimmers of hope, and occasionally, I would be able to articulate a desire to recover.

I was discharged from the hospital. I appeared ‘healthy’, I was smiling, and people deemed my recovered. But recovery from eating disorders are long journeys and one thing is certain - the journey is never linear.

In truth, I felt lost after being in hospital. I was suddenly exposed to the big, wide world again, not knowing how to navigate my way.

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The aftermath of anorexia and the ‘sweet taste of life’

Anorexia had ruined my dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete. My bones were brittle as I was riddled with osteoporosis from years of malnutrition - something you’re meant to get when your 80, not 21.

My family relationships had been destroyed and needed rebuilding.

Friendships were lost and needed rebuilding.

My social life was non-existent.

Basically anything that had brought joy to my life, anorexia had taken away.

But I managed to turn things around. Over the next few months, I started to find joy in things which anorexia had robbed me of, for so many years.

Family holidays, meals out, laughter, and dare I say it - I started having an interest in guys for the first time in my life. I was beginning to experience the sweet taste of life and it was good.

Soon after being discharged from hospital I started a Sport and Exercise for Health degree at the University of Kent. I graduated with first class honours in 2018. I then studied my Masters in Eating Disorders and Clinical Nutrition.

But recovery was not going to be as linear as I wanted it to be. I became obsessed with ‘healthy’ eating.

Facing what lies beneath

The thing with eating disorders is you don't have to look ill to be suffering. Eating disorders are really nothing to do with food. They are a coping mechanism.

For 15 years of my life an eating disorder helped me feel safe in a world that is full of uncertainties. I created safe food rules, safe food lists, safe exercise routines - everything to make me feel safe, in control.

It helped me manage emotions that felt too overwhelming to deal with - like uncertainty, loss, pain and inadequacy. To manage these difficult feelings, I turned to food and exercise to help provide that sense of safety and achievement. It helped me feel good enough.

I was driven by perfectionism, always in need of acceptance and external validation, and anxious with the fear of not knowing what comes next, not knowing how to navigate the world, or deal with low self-esteem.

The problem is no matter what coping mechanisms you use to numb the difficult emotions, whether it be food, exercise, alcohol, or smoking, it is temporary. The emotions always come back - until you deal with them.

You cannot fix someone with an eating disorder solely through food. Of course we can restore weight, which is what the inpatient treatment accomplished with me, but for full recovery you must deal with the underlying emotional difficulties.

Reaching out for help again and again and again

People would say: 'Jen you have done so well', 'Jen you look amazing' (which I have always found hard to hear), 'Jen you’re glowing', 'Jen you really kicked that eating disorder to the curb, you are an inspiration'.

After all, I’m the girl who came out of inpatient treatment and was deemed recovered, a success story.

Yet this led me to continue to hide for the next two years how much I continued to struggle every day. I was scared to challenge fear foods. I still felt the need to control and stick to those foods I deemed ‘healthy’ and whilst I was eating well, I knew I was not over this eating disorder.

I still had issues with certain foods. I still had issues with my body image. I still exercised to feel in control.

I realised that I did not want to live like this. So, again, I reached out for help.

I met an incredible eating disorder dietitian who helped me to start breaking through the beliefs I had created, breaking down the rules I had created and to start dealing with some of the really difficult emotions I had suppressed for so long.

Gradually, I started having small breakthroughs. I started to challenge my fear foods. I rediscovered my love for dairy. I started to enjoy meat again and now have my childhood favourite breakfast of porridge oats most days.

However, I still have a way to go.

When food rules and exercise rules interfere with happiness and fun, I ask myself: 'is this really how I want my life to be?'

The thought of never being able to return to the one thing I love - sport, to improve my bone health, and who knows, be able to have children one day is sure enough reasons to convince me, right?

‘Life after anorexia is so good’

Fast forward to today and I can now say life after anorexia is so good.

Yes, I am still on that recovery journey, but I am embracing every step of it, because it has made me an eating disorder warrior built of strength, courage and determination.

I have gone from a near-death experience, barely existing, to now living on the Gold Coast in Australia, working towards my PhD.

I know my future is bright and my experience of fighting my eating disorder has quite literally made me who I am today.

I struggle daily to understand why I had to experience these battles. But hopefully I can inspire and help others realise that the journey of recovery may be long - but it is worth it and that giving up is never an option.

Embrace your story with arms wide open and make sure it is a good one. Promise yourself never to stop chasing rainbows.

Love and hope

Jen x x x x

If reading this story has brought up any issues for you, contact Butterfly on ED HOPE or Life Line on 13 11 14

Sharing personal stories challenges the stigmas associated with eating disorders and can inspire others in their recovery journeys. To share yours, head here:

https://insideoutinstitute.org.au/get-involved/share-your-story

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