A Dangerous Daughter

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.

Author Dina Davis

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.

DINA DAVIS

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ABROAD THOUGHTS FROM HOME

Oh to be in England, now that April’s here …or anywhere else for that matter.

P. and I virtuously practised abstinence from overseas travel last year. We traversed Australia along several axes, promising ourselves that in 2020 we’d visit friends in France and England as well as seeing our children and grandchildren in foreign places.

Talk about the best laid plans! Here we are confined to barracks with two Emirates tickets and deep frozen plans to get moving when the lights go on again. For their part, the far flung family have stepped up to the plate with phone calls, WhatsApp posts and photos to keep us up to date.

The apogee of our online life came on Easter Monday when our enterprising London daughter-in-law arranged an international online hot cross bun bake off for all of our family and various local London friends. Product was judged under four headings, one of which was taste – a challenge for a Zoom get-together — reliant on the cook’s description of the deliriously wonderful experience of eating the bun in question.

P. won the taste piece of the competition on the basis, we were told, of the list of exotic ingredients we’d included (star anise, cardamom, cumin etc) and possibly my description of the eating experience – hints of sour cherries, chocolate, raspberries, subdued tannins and a sustained after palate.

I don’t remember who the other winners were apart from the daughter-in-law’s mother who triumphed in the best looking buns category. I do remember there was a lot of laughing and some very funny looking creations. The runner up in the appearance section was a friend who had bought her buns at Coles. – G.