What was supposed to be a fabulous family getaway sparked a dangerous spiral into an eating disorder that gripped Hannah Altmann (now 19) for years.
The Noordhoek, Cape Town teen deprived herself of food and became dangerously underweight – but after an encounter with a birthday cake, she decided to focus on her health and motivate others through her journey.
Hannah recently published her book, Not a Piece of Cake, and is now stronger than ever, both mentally and physically.
"At the end of my Grade 10 year in 2016, we were going on a family holiday to Europe and I wasn’t going to be doing my sport, which is swimming. That made me feel bad about eating, so I thought, 'Let me just try to eat less because I wasn't exercising'.
I basically just had vegetables twice a day and I lost a lot of weight over that holiday.
When I came back, I told myself that I’d start eating normally, because I’d be swimming again. But, unfortunately, my brain had already become a bit messed up so that didn’t really work and I kept eating a minimal amount every day.
My mom wanted to get [me] help so I started seeing a dietician because my mom wanted me to.
I went along but I didn't really do what the dietitian told me to do. I was pretending to try to recover, but I wasn't putting in the work.
All I could think about was not gaining weight.
I wasn’t swimming competitively anymore because I was too thin and didn’t have the stamina.
At my slimmest, I weighed in the low 40s – about 20kg less than my normal weight – but I was still forcing myself to exercise.
I also became very depressed and some days I couldn’t go to school.
I was stuck in a terrible spiral and this carried on for quite a while.
Basically, all I did during the day was force myself to go to gym and then sit at home and pretend to try to catch up on work.
This carried on until we went on another holiday – this time to Mauritius – and my family saw how messed up I was.
I’d cry every day and refuse to eat what everyone else was eating.
My parents decided after the holiday they were going to put me in an eating disorder clinic, which was kind of always on the horizon for the worst-case scenario.
This was around June or July of my Grade 11 year. By this time I was so tired that I just said I'd go to the clinic.
The clinic didn’t help much. If fact, it was probably one of the worst experiences of my life.
I got pretty traumatised seeing all the other people in there and felt even worse.
I was supposed to be in the clinic for three or four weeks but I convinced my psychologist to let me out after a week.
I’d actually lost weight in the clinic which was not a good thing.
When I left the clinic, I felt a bit more positive because I'd seen how bad everyone else was in there.
I kind of made a decision to get better, but that only lasted for about two weeks and then I went back to how I was before.
For the rest of the year, I’d tell people I was getting better and try to convince myself that was the case.
But I still wasn't at a healthy body mass index and I was really struggling.
I’d bruise very easily and all my bones were sticking out. Even sitting on a chair would be painful on my back and my coccyx.
I had no social life and didn’t want to see anyone. I wouldn’t touch anything that wasn’t a vegetable or a rice cake.
This carried on until my 18th birthday.
Then something happened to change everything: my friends got me a piece of cake. It was an eye-opening moment.
I felt like I honestly couldn’t live this way for the rest of my life. I needed to like myself.
From that day on, I was committed to properly fixing my brain and my body.
I ate the cake and I enjoyed it. I felt a bit guilty but I told myself I was allowed to feel these feelings but I couldn’t let them rule me anymore.
I worked with the same dietician I hadn’t listened to initially. She was amazing and helped me a lot.
We had a meal plan and weekly weigh-ins and if I’d put on weight, then I was allowed to exercise.
I also had the goal of returning to competitive swimming, which was kind of a motivating factor along the way.
It was a bit of a struggle because I hadn’t swum for so long off but I got there and started producing quite decent times.
It took me about a year to get back to a healthy weight. I read some motivational books but it was mostly the idea of swimming again that kept me going.
In the recovery process I decided I would never weigh myself again and I still haven't in over a year.
I wrote my book, Not a Piece of Cake, because when I was in my darkest state, I wish I’d read something that was relatable to a young person – something that could validate my feelings or help me realise I wasn’t alone.
I hope that if anyone is going through something similar, they can see that even though it’s hard to envision being recovered, it is possible and it is worth it.