30. Marie-Louise

Through six years of high school Marie-Louise and I shared a love of Phoebe from Friends, a penchant for after-school snacking and a passionate hip-hop phase. Marie-Louise was there for all of my misguided teenage decisions – when I ran away from home, I ran to her house, when I had my first sip of alcohol, it was because we had an argument and when I was grounded on my birthday, she kept me company. Marie-Louise even stood by me during my prolonged Marilyn Manson infatuation. While we no longer see each other on a daily basis, our catch ups are what you’d expect after 21 years of friendship- full of reminiscing. Chatting to Marie- Louise recently about her tireless efforts to support people experiencing eating disorders was eye-opening and I’m proud to be able to share her work. 

ML Laughing

“Whether they feel guilty for eating a bowl of pasta or for skipping the gym when they’re exhausted, unfortunately, I think most people engage in some form of disordered eating.

Our bodies are innately smart, yet we’ve stopped listening to them and started listening to celebrity chefs, trainers and fad diets. A good relationship with food is one where you have freedom to truly listen to your body and respond without judgement.

The first time I was exposed to an eating disorder was in late high school, when a girl in my volleyball team lost so much weight that she couldn’t hit the ball over the net.

It probably wasn’t until my first year out of high school when I volunteered on a personal development program, that I realised helping people was in my DNA.

After a brief stint studying psychology (which I hated because of the statistics involved), I went overseas for a year to think about what I really wanted to do. I found myself studying social work and doing a 70-day placement in the eating disorder unit at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.  I was in the right place at the right time and the placement led to securing a role in the in-patient unit.

I worked with patients from 18 to 80 years of age. Some were staying in hospital for three weeks, others for four months. Many were there against their will because it had been determined that they couldn’t make a decision that was in their own best interest. Unfortunately, when your brain is starving, reason, logic and memory can go out the window.

I had patients who had been chronically ill for 40 years because they weren’t diagnosed when they were younger and it had spiraled out of control. I had patients with kids and couldn’t help but worry the kids would develop eating disorders too. I had patients who would break down when encouraged to eat a sandwich. Our job was to give these patients a better quality of life.

Day to day, I ran group therapy sessions, supported patients to link with other services and took them out to eat socially. I can’t explain the terror and paranoia that comes with eating in public.

Group therapy can also be hard. Sometimes, you’ve got people who are really committed to getting better and others that are just not ready. But, someone who’s really unwell can learn from someone who’s a bit further along in their recovery. It can be hugely beneficial. It can also help because they realise they’re not alone in their experiences.

In many instances, when someone re-entered the community after being in the in-patient unit, we knew they would return to hospital – it’s more common than not for someone to have repeat admissions because it takes a long time to be ready to change. It’s not impossible to recover from an eating disorder but there’s so much work that goes into it, you really have to decide to get better.

But, often, patients don’t recognise the extent of the problem. You’ve got someone standing in front of you who’s clearly unwell, but they’re telling you, with complete conviction, that they’re fine. Their level of distortion is pretty severe. But maybe none of us really know what we look like.

From the role in the Royal Melbourne in-patient unit, I moved onto running a 10-week program for patients who were motivated to get better. From Monday to Friday they would participate in different group sessions, learning about nutrition, self-esteem, communication and assertiveness. You really got to know the patients and could do some really great work in a community of people who really wanted to recover.

I really loved this role. I had so much respect for patients who tried so hard every single day to overcome adversity and deal with their health.

Often, when you have an eating disorder, it suppresses your feelings. If you’re having a bad day you can make yourself sick or you can go for a run and it helps to numb you. When you engage in treatment, all those feelings start to come up in the most intense way. It can be so confronting that an eating disorder seems like the easier path. But, supporting people in this space is so important because it’s where change happens.  

Treatment is different depending on where you live. Some services are more likely to admit someone for long term treatment, whereas others focus more on helping the sufferer to manage their eating disorder in the community. Different things work for different people – some patients need the structure and others respond better to being in the community.

I’m now also pursuing some private practice, where I can offer a more flexible approach to what are complex and extremely personal disorders. I’m offering mindset coaching for people with eating disorders and chronic fatigue. Having suffered from chronic fatigue myself and having no one to help me navigate it, I think I can offer real value.

There are many misconceptions around eating disorders. Many people fail to realise that it is in fact, a mental illness.

Many assume people with eating disorders are always really skinny, but someone of a normal weight who suffers from bulimia can be at higher risk than someone with anorexia who has a very low BMI. It’s not uncommon for someone with bulimia to have issues with their heart because excessive vomiting can impact potassium levels in the body, and potassium helps pump blood to the heart.

I think there needs to be more of an emphasis on early intervention. There’s a barrier from the first point of access because many GPs don’t understand enough about eating disorders. They don’t ask the right questions so we really need to provide more training. The current system will only allow people into hospital when they’re knocking on death’s door. We literally have to turn people away because they’re not sick enough. This needs to change.

I would also love to create more awareness of the negative impact of our dieting culture. There is so much emphasis on how we look. These diets tell you that if you lose weight you will be happier and more confident. And then you’ve got the pressure of social media – picture perfect, photo-shopped images that set an impossible standard, and pro-anorexia sites that teach people how to engage in their disorder. It’s no wonder we’ve got people as young as nine being admitted to hospital for not eating.

I’m not preaching – we all get caught up in it. I just wish there was more of a movement to be comfortable in the bodies that we are given and accept that if you eat a piece of cake, you’re not the world’s worst person.

Most of us are trying to change our bodies too much. We all have a set point, where our bodies sit naturally without interference. The problem is, people judge their set point and compare it to everyone else’s. Some people are just not meant to be super skinny!

Wouldn’t it be better if we just learnt to be comfortable in our bodies in the size and shape they were naturally?”

Photography: Chloe Snaith

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