How Writing helped Me Survive
by Dina Davis
In the mid twentieth century, I was sent away from my family to an aunt & uncle on the other side of the continent, because I was ill. My symptoms were extreme loss of weight, obsessive walking, and refusal to eat. Desperate, my parents consented to ECT, which in those days was extremely primitive. I was hospitalised for several weeks and underwent cruelly painful sessions of electro-convulsive therapy without anaesthetic. I also witnessed other patients convulsing while having the treatment. I was fourteen, and weighed less than 27 kilos.
Lonely and isolated in Western Australia, my only solace was my journal, into which I poured my frustration, anger, and sorrow. I wrote frequent letters to my parents and sisters back home. One sister remembers me writing ‘No-one can ever understand.’ I myself didn’t understand what was wrong with me, as the disease which we now know as anorexia nervosa had not been named in the Antipodes, at least not in the small communities in which I lived.
The journals and letters do not exist today. Along with photographs of me at the time, they were destroyed. Only one photo remains, of me in so-called ‘recovery’. In the black and white print, my body and face are cadaverous. I’m smiling for my parents, showing off the summer dress my mother had sent me from the eastern states. It swamped my body.
Amazingly, I didn’t die. When I was told that I had only two months to live, I made a supreme effort to force food down, which I immediately vomited up. My face, arms and legs were covered with long fine hairs, and I had no menstrual periods.
I credit my survival to two factors: the first was the eventual naming of the disease, which somehow gave it a legitimate status in the eyes of my family. The second was my treatment by a psycho-analyst specialising in children. She saved my life not only by her skilful exploration of my psyche, but also because of her kindness, and her belief in me.
It is only recently that scientists have discovered that anorexia nervosa is genetic, not, as presented in the popular media, a life choice. Nevertheless sufferers are often still blamed for bringing the illness on themselves, compassion goes to the patients’ families, rather than to the sufferer herself. My work-in-progress, A Dangerous Daughter, is a fictional re-creation of my harrowing teenage years. My hope is that, if my novel is published, it will help both sufferers and their families understand this insidious disease, which has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.