I was 61 when I sat in a psychologist’s room for the first time. Of course it wasn’t just me sitting there. I was accompanied by that pesky inner voice who’s shared the space inside my skull since my early teens. Let’s call her Samantha.
How self indulgent can you get, Sam hissed, spending money on your so called ‘mental health’?! Why aren’t you giving this cash it to a homeless shelter or some Syrian refugees? There’s millions of people worse off than you!
It took a lot of effort, courage even, to get past Sam’s chatter and into that office. For half a century I’d believed that I could fix myself, if only I could muster enough willpower. Finally, I’d had to admit I needed help.
My psychologist was 50-ish, and slim. As she listened, tapping away on the iPad in her lap, her face radiated kindness and intelligence. She understood that my problems, though undeniably first world, had caused me a sh*t-load of agony. A biggie, and the one I laid on the table first, was the eating disorder which slithered into my life in the form of a too-successful diet when I was 13. I’d managed to overcome that. It took five decades to finally control it, but I’d done it. I no longer spent secret hours stuffing myself so full of peanut butter and Mint Slices and Nacho Doritos that I could barely breathe, followed by days of eating little or nothing.
The problem was, these behaviours had been very effective tools in dealing with intense emotions. Disappointment, anger, sadness, even silly displays of happiness … I was ridiculed and belittled if I expressed any of these in the Iowa farmhouse where I grew up. My mother was the only one allowed to show feelings. She loved me desperately, and I now realise the emotional abuse she dished out was a result of her own mental issues. But when I was 13, and she yelled at me that I was turning into a good-for-nothing, ungrateful teenager like my sisters, I had no idea what to do with my pulsing hormones and passions.
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That’s when I discovered bingeing. Once I’d eaten so much that I couldn’t fit in one more Ritz cracker, all I could feel was physical pain and self-recrimination. Those I knew what to do about: order myself to consume nothing, not even water, the next day.
My eating disorder was at its brutal height during my teens and early 20s. Gradually, by moving as far away from my farmhouse as I could get and feeling the warmth of wonderful friends and especially through the unconditional love of my first baby, I learned that the names my mother called me were not me. And so I didn’t need to binge as often. But like any addiction, an eating disorder doesn’t just go away. By the time I was in my 50s, if I planned every bite I was going to take, I could usually control it.
But bingeing and starving are powerful anaesthetics. At 60, the urge to use them could still feel overwhelming. Say someone reminded me that JK Rowling is richer than the Queen, while my latest book sold approximately 50 copies, I just wanted to cram the envy out of existence with a couple of packets of double-coat Tim Tams. But I couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t. By then I was determined never to binge again.
How did I cope without my drugs? I yelled, I screeched. I ranted and complained. At whom? Not hubby. He’d tell me off for being self-indulgent. Not my friends. I didn’t want them to see me in total loss-of-control mode. It was my eldest daughter who copped the screaming. I’d make sure we were alone before I bombarded her with top volume questions: ‘Why am I such an idiot? How come I’ve made so many stupid decisions and ended up a complete failure?’ None of her reassurances could comfort me, as I worked myself into a frenzy of self-hatred. But, thank God, a remnant of self-preservation allowed me to recognise something in her eyes … fear? Disgust? The beginnings of dislike? She had been my best emotional ally since she was a toddler. The last thing I wanted to do was push her away.
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It was when I’d calmed down, and said I was sorry, that she encouraged me to seek professional help, as she’d already done for herself. Sam, my sneaky skull-mate, tried her best to dissuade me. You’re too old for a psychologist, you weak bitch. This time, I knew I had to argue with her. It’s not a waste of money, I snapped at her. It’s an investment in my future, and my family’s.
And that’s how I ended up in a psychologist’s room.
Share your thoughts below. Have you ever been in this situation and had to admit you needed help?