Volume 19 Number 2
Choosing Strawberry Milk
01 April 2006

Nicci Dodanwela tells the story of how she overcame anorexia.

WE CRIED, sometimes, my mother and I, when she came to visit. I wasn't sure why I was crying (though now I know it was these tears that kept me alive). But tearless days slid by more easily. I was in ‘North Ward', the psychiatric ward of the city hospital, suffering from anorexia nervosa. My mother made the long trip in whenever she could, in between holding down a full-time job and holding up a household. I was 18.

At 15, it was sometimes hard to get out of bed, but there was the prospect of something better. At 17, I was holding myself together on the outside but crumbling inside. I contained my world, not daring to look beyond the end of my school years. When school ended, life opened up into a black hole before me, and I fell in.

My 19th birthday was 'celebrated' in hospital. I was depressed, unable to think straight, skeletal; my heart struggled to keep pumping. But I didn't care. I didn't care whether I lived or died, and didn't have the strength to choose. I could almost cope with this regulated life of being told when to get up and when to go to bed, when to talk and when to eat. I followed the rules and felt little. If anything occurred unplanned; an unexpected visitor, a change in the time of an appointment, strawberry instead of chocolate milk-I felt annoyed that my life had been interrupted.

How did this happen, this anorexia? For me, the illness was not about slimming to match the 'waifs' in the women's magazines, which I'd never read. I didn't look in the mirror and see an inflated version of myself. I did, however, see someone I'd rather not live with. What was I doing here, taking up space? Who did I think I was?

During the last years, life had grown full of obstacles. Nothing terrible had happened; quite the opposite. I grew up in a happy and loving family, went to a good school where I had friends and did well. In my final year, I was elected captain of sport. But I struggled with the idea that I was a fraud; that I didn't deserve what I had; and that any day I would be found out. I can't explain this sense of illegitimacy, except that I could never have lived up to my own expectations. Perhaps we all feel this at one time or another, but as a teenager it overwhelmed me and cast a dark pall over the future. When people started telling me to enjoy these years, because they'd be the best of my life, the future seemed even more bleak.

It became a battle to push my way through each day and come out the other side unscathed. Being surrounded by people I loved only seemed to make things more difficult. I could not bear to see them hurt or sick or fearful or disappointed. Every human encounter was an effort because I felt (knew) I was a constant disappointment. I also knew that things were not going to change. The people I loved assured me that change was possible, even likely. But I couldn't hear them. My only option seemed to be to become smaller and smaller, to take up less and less space until, eventually, I disappeared. The other thing to do was to control all emotion, to mitigate the fear and the love, to suppress all spontaneity.

Friendship bands
In my 'small' state, I seemed to float through the days. This was strange because walking was an effort, I had hardly any stamina, I was always cold and prone to fainting. But physical suffering paled with the relief of living emotionlessly and obstacle-free. The only time I broke the North Ward rules was during my regular ‘escapes' from the hospital, to wander the surrounding streets and sit in the big park. ('Wasn't that you I saw in the park yesterday?' the doctor asked. I was forever grateful he didn't stop me.) Life in the park slid past, uncontrolled, as if on the other side of a frosted glass screen. I was vaguely concerned about this screen, but too afraid to touch it in case it cracked or shattered. On the other side lay joy, fear, hope, grief, anger, love-components of life I didn't know how to deal with. I also knew, somewhere, that life was nothing without them.

Inside again, I spent the days knotting coloured 'friendship bands'. I could knot for hours, in a kind of trance, feeling nothing and making no decisions other than which colour to use next. Then Sue, a fellow patient who never had visitors, asked me to teach her to make the bands. I did, resenting the intrusion, the forced interaction. As we sat together, she told me a little about her life. I felt her face and hands pressed hard against my glass screen, and I panicked. After that, although I knew she wanted to talk, I avoided her.

When Sue took an overdose, I felt something, briefly-a twinge of jealousy at her release. Then I discovered that her attempt had been unsuccessful, and an unsuspected wave of sadness enveloped me, for her bleak life and for her failed death. The sadness was unbearable and strengthened my resolve to shut out this life component. I knew that joy existed, but it hadn't been a part of my life for so long that I'd forgotten what it felt like, and was happy to sacrifice it to escape the sadness.

Care-less months slid by and my mother continued to visit. I wondered why. Surely she must hate me by now. She looked worn out and desperate. How could I? I always expected that one day she would stop coming. Then, perhaps, I could stop living, give up this charade.

Although I could barely concentrate for more than a minute, I forced myself to read a bit of the newspaper each day, beginning with a target of five minutes' reading. Disasters were occurring somewhere on the earth every minute-hundreds of people were dying and thousands were grieving. I read their stories dispassionately. Perhaps the newspaper was a kind of challenge, to test how well my glass screen was holding up. It seemed to be doing well although deep in the pit of my stomach I felt something again, briefly-an anxiety hatching. Could I feel for these people if I wanted to-just in case-or had I cut myself off with no chance of return?

There was no dramatic shattering of my screen, no epiphany; but, so slowly, the glass became less frosted, and life on the other side less distant. My mother didn't stop coming to visit, and my love for her corrupted my control until I cried. I began to venture out from behind the screen-just experimenting, I told myself.

Sometimes, the sojourns were frightening; things didn't always go to plan and I'd find myself confronted by the turmoil and grief that haunt the earth. But occasionally they held the joy of spontaneity. For moments at a time, I forgot who I was and what I wanted to escape, and discovered again what the present could be...

Paddling in the sea on a warm summer evening. Talking with a friend, not pretending to be anyone but myself. Reading all night. Crying at the cinema. Choosing strawberry instead of chocolate milk! Seeing my mother smile.

Only love them
Without the love and support of my family and friends, my experience would have been different. But they believed in the joy of life, and had a faith in me that I had temporarily lost. I owed it to them to give life a chance.

And I realised I couldn't plan it, that life happened and if I was going to be part of it, I'd have to succumb to its spontaneity-and that I might as well find joy in it. Recently, a friend was talking of her difficulties in bringing up her young children. She'd read heaps of books and knew all the experts' methods, but was finding them hard to follow when real-unplanned-life took over. 'How do you cope?' I asked. 'There's one piece of advice I always go back to,' she said. 'Only love them.'

Now my husband and I are expecting a child of our own. Since my teenage years, I've feared it. What if our child makes me cry, just as I made my mother cry? Children are as spontaneous as you can get. All I can do is love them.

Nicci Dodanwela is an editor with Penguin Books, Australia.