‘I recovered from adult anorexia' - 2 women open up about their midlife eating disorders

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  • Among many triggers, pressure to show no visible signs of ageing can lead people toward the slippery slope of eating disorders. 
  • A physical education teacher shares her experience of going from a cycle of restrictive eating since she was 18 years old to finally restoring to her body to a healthy weight. 
  • Mental Health advocate, Joanne Cook, warns not to ignore the signs just because you're older. 

You may think eating disorders only affect teenagers, but a growing number of over-30s are falling victim to an unhealthy relationship with food.

Professor Cynthia Bulik from the University of North Carolina, recently launched the Anorexia Nervosa Genetics Initiative (ANGI) research in Australia - the world's largest study to identify the genes linked to anorexia nervosa.

"There is no question that we are seeing more midlife eating disorders in treatment centres around the world," says Professor Bulik.

"We are seeing three patterns; people who have had eating disorders in their youth, recovered or partially recovered, who relapse in midlife; people who developed eating disorders in their youth and have had a chronic or relapsing course well into midlife; and a smaller group of individuals who seem to develop eating disorders for the first time in midlife."

READ MORE | ‘I don’t love or hate my body’- Jameela Jamil on body neutrality 

"Transitions and loss are common triggers of eating disorders in people over 30," says Professor Bulik.

"These may include divorce, infidelity, children leaving home, menopause, loss of job and socioeconomic pressures. Also sociocultural changes - pressure to be thin and pressure to show no visible signs of ageing can lead people toward behaviours that set them on the slippery slope to an eating disorder."

"Eating disorders take an enormous physical toll on just about every bodily system, and the older we get, the less resilient those systems become," explains Professor Bulik.

"So we're seeing often quite severe cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal and even dental problems in older adults with eating disorders."

Although not easy, recovery is possible.

READ MORE | 'I did not eat my 18th birthday cake' - A writer shares her personal journey to Anorexia recovery 

Here, two women share their stories of living with an eating disorder and how they found help:

"Eating disorders are not a lifestyle choice." - Cate Sangster, 41, physical education teacher

"Since I was 18, I cycled between restrictive eating and restoring to a healthy weight. But it was only after the birth of my third daughter that my maternal and baby health nurse noticed my dramatic weight loss and mentioned anorexia. Even while still in the hospital I started hiding food and pretending I was asleep when the dinner trolley came around.

"Thad maintained a good weight during my pregnancy, but by the time my baby was 12 months old I was underweight and my GP tried to reinforce to me how seriously ill I was. It was difficult for me to believe - because I was 37 I thought I was too old to have an eating disorder.

"I also suffered from anxiety caused by the malnutrition, which got so bad I couldn't sleep or even sit down to read. I also started getting bradycardia (slow heart rate). My eyes started to go yellow and I could feel the muscles in my thighs tearing.

"Thankfully most of these symptoms reversed upon recovery.

"My eating disorder was not about looking good or losing weight. For me, it was a way of coping with stress and what I saw as the overwhelming responsibility of parenting. It wasn't about control either - I think that's such a clichéd view, and it implies I had a choice.

"I focused on measuring everything I ate, counting kilojoules and exercising at every opportunity as a distraction from thoughts about bad scenarios - like at night when I worried about cot death. At least that's how it started. On the surface it seemed as though the eating disorder thoughts played a positive role in helping me to cope but it then took on a life of its own. It completely took over and I was incapable of thinking about anything else.

"It's hard to believe I ever managed to keep going and to hide so much of it from everyone for so long. Luckily for me, my GP had a special interest in eating disorders and was persistent in convincing me that I did have an eating disorder and needed treatment.

"Recovery was hard work and required me being honest and, with my doctor, dietitian and psychologist, working through triggers and challenges as they arose. I was determined to get well in order to make sure I was around to look after my own children and provide them with healthy coping skills and the education that I didn't have at their age.

"Recovery was hard work and required me to be honest with my doctor, dietitian and psychologist as well as working through triggers and challenges."

READ MORE | Could modern diet culture encouraged by most celebrities disguise distress signals in young women?

'Don't ignore the signs just because you're older.' Joanne Cook, 54, chief executive of Tasmania Recovery from Eating Disorders (TRED)

"I developed an eating disorder at age 43. I wanted to improve my health but what started as cutting down on unhealthy foods soon moved to eliminating whole food groups like carbs and fats. Within a year, my condition progressed from a healthy eating plan to more of an illness.

"Within eight months my hair started falling out, which I put down to stress. I had four children still in school and was working full-time as a teacher. I was only just under the healthy weight range but my doctor was shocked at the amount of weight I'd lost since my last appointment. She ordered a blood test, usually recommended to check for nutrient levels like iron and potassium and rule out other conditions such as thyroid problems that can cause weight loss.

"I noticed the referral note mentioned suspected anorexia nervosa. I thought that this was totally ridiculous because I wasn't a teenager or a model. Also, I was still having periods so I thought it couldn't be anorexia.

"My GP referred me to a psychologist and I had two weeks off work but on my first day back at school I had a meltdown at recess simply because the fridge in the teachers' staff room only had full cream milk.

"I was given extended leave and prescribed anti-anxiety medication. I also began to see a psychiatrist but I resisted his suggestion that I might require hospitalisation, until one evening I really had an emotional collapse and realised I couldn't continue as I was. I was very scared and humiliated that it had come to that.

"Because there was no adult facility in Hobart for eating disorders, I was admitted to a private psych ward for one night and then moved to a medical hospital for two weeks.

"This was the lowest point in my life. I had to increase the amount I was eating and that was so hard to do. It was especially difficult for my husband because, like many men, the thought that once we had a diagnosis we could get a treatment plan and fix it immediately. It took seven years and a lot of therapy.

"I suffered from depression during the recovery period. I was admitted to a cardiac ward for investigation because eating disorders sometimes lead to heart complications. I had chest pain, which turned out to be related to anxiety. I was also referred to a gastroenterologist for compromised gastric functioning. Fortunately I don't suffer from ongoing health issues. They resolved as late more regularly and had better nutrition.

"Although my employers were very supportive, I never went back to that job. I became involved in mental health advocacy, remembering how isolated I'd felt, just because there was no community-based organisation in my area. I am the founder of TRED, which provides support and information to people in Tasmania seeking help for eating disorders." 

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