Melbourne mother of four and body positive artist, Tania Sutton (44), shares how she escaped the shackles of the destructive eating disorder that took over her life. She recovered for the sake of her family.
*Please be aware some readers may find this content triggering.
“Ed, this was the name I gave to my eating disorder,” Tania recalls, “and for a long time Ed was my confidant, my best friend, or so I thought.”
Eating disorders creep into your life without realising it. Tania remembers the promises Ed made to her in the beginning: “It starts out like a new friend, teaching you ways to make you happier, ways to cope and a promise to you that as long as you follow all the rules, you will reach some sort of enlightenment.”
Eating disorders occur for various reasons, including genetic vulnerability, psychological factors and social-cultural influences. Figures show the prevalence of eating disorders is rising rapidly; Beyond Blue reports one in four Australians know someone who has experienced an eating disorder.
Tania struggles to pinpoint the exact cause of her eating disorder, but believes her need for perfectionism and sensitivity about her physical appearance were predisposing factors.
Eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of gender, body size, age and socio-economic factors.
From a young age, Tania felt a constant sense of anxiety; if she was unable to do something exactly right, this fed her belief something was fundamentally wrong with her.
Tania describes an intense need to be accepted by others. “Anytime someone else was complimented on their physical appearance, it reinforced the idea I wasn’t good enough.” Yet, when she received compliments, especially in relation to her body size, it fuelled her desire to continue the behaviours that led to the compliment.
As time went on, Tania struggled to separate herself from her eating disorder. The voice of Ed grew stronger, convincing Tania to punish herself through under-eating in order to equal out all of the perceived faults in life.
“If I was thin, then I would be happy, people would like me and possibly love me.” The truth was, Tania was loved, but her eating disorder made her believe those around her were only pretending, “I felt like I didn’t belong in society, I was a failure, disgusting and unlovable.”
Tania describes how weak she became, both mentally and physically. “Starvation has horrible consequences on the brain, I didn’t have the energy to fight and my ability to think logically had gone out of the window”. She believes this is part of what makes seeking help so difficult, “My thought process was really obscure to everyone else, but to me it made perfect sense. I was convinced I could never get better, I believed everyone was out to see me fail and therefore if I gave up Ed and followed a treatment plan, I would have failed and I couldn’t do that.”
“Ed, this was the name I gave to my eating disorder,” Tana recalls, “and for a long time Ed was my confidant, my best friend, or so I thought.”
Becoming a mother and seeing her body grow and change only emphasised Tania’s preoccupation with her appearance. Feeling incompetent as a parent reinforced to Tania that she needed to keep punishing herself. The use of restrictive behaviours and keeping herself busy became a form of self-punishment she believed would somehow cancel out her perceived inadequacy as a parent.
Tania remembers trying to be there for her children and doing the best she could, but never being able to feel fully present. Tania describes her head as a “battle ground” which led to her being distracted and irritable.
Tania greatly resisted treatment for a long time, deleting her therapist’s number on several occasion. She would lash out verbally at her treatment team and remembers one incident where her GP refused to allow her to see her weight. “I was furious because in my eyes this meant I was not allowed to see what kind of a day I was going to have; at that time the number on the scale would define a good or a bad day.”
Tania’s eating disorder behaviours continued until something convinced her to make a change. Tania recalls driving home from an appointment; her daughter was going through a particularly difficult time, and despite Tania’s best efforts she felt she could not be fully there for her daughter. The eating disorder voice grew louder and louder until it was screaming in her ear, blaming her for everything that was wrong. Tania knew her daughter needed her, but she was chained to her eating disorder. It was at this point she decided to seek help.
“I couldn’t continue the same behaviours and be a mother at the same time anymore, I was exhausted and so was my family.”
“I couldn’t continue the same behaviours and be a mother at the same time anymore, I was exhausted and so was my family.” Although she could never find the strength to recover for her own sake, her family became the motivation she needed.
Tania was fortunate enough to be referred to a psychologist and a dietitian, who each had a special interest in eating disorders and with whom Tania instantly connected.
Recovery was tough, Tania recalls. “I had to relearn to trust my body and myself. I had to let those close to me, my husband and treatment team, be in charge of what I needed.”
Tania credits her family’s support for helping her to recover; “They helped me fight when I didn’t want to anymore, they loved me at my worst and stood by my side.”
Tania says recovering from her eating disorder has enabled her to be a better mum, “we had our fourth child after I had decided to not engage with Ed and I am able to play with him much more; I played with my other kids, but mentally I wasn’t there, now I am.”
“The first time I went out in public after deciding to no longer engage in Ed’s demands, I was in a shopping centre with one of my daughters and I turned to her said ‘wow, it’s so bright and colourful in here’, the eating disorder made my world so dark and dull. The world is literally more colourful without Ed.”
Tania now has four children aged between five and 22 and uses her own experience to teach her children “to question what they see and hear when it comes to societal beauty standards in the hope they will adopt a healthy attitude.”
“Starvation has horrible consequences on the brain, I didn’t have the energy to fight and my ability to think logically had gone out of the window.”
Tania no longer engages in eating disorder behaviours. She enjoys food and appreciates her body; she no longer weighs herself, as it no longer bothers her what size she is. “I have realised my weight does not equal my worth.”
In choosing Recovery, Tania simultaneously unleashed her creative side. “Art became such an outlet for me and a communication tool, it allowed me to transfer the nightmare in my head into a two dimensional surface. Not only was that therapeutic, it allowed others to understand what I was thinking and struggling with.”
Tania uses her talent and love of painting, drawing and printmaking to create figurative and portraiture art work, t-shirt prints and bag designs that spread mental health awareness. Tania recently had the pleasure of designing the logo for the ‘Body Positive Expo’ that was held in Melbourne; an event which united hundreds of people, sharing their own experiences of disordered eating and negative body image. Tania’s eye-catching logo depicted the individuality of all body shapes and sizes to celebrate their uniqueness.
Recovery is something Tania is still working on. She makes sure she does something every day to support her mental health and reaches out when she is struggling.
“Sure I have days where I don’t feel so confident in my skin or in myself but that’s because I’m human. Now though, my thoughts aren’t taken over by self-hate.” She also describes her relationship with food as being healthier than it has ever been: “I honour my cravings and listen to my body. I trust my body and I treat it with love as it is my closest friend.”
“Art became such an outlet for me and a communication tool, it allowed me to transfer the nightmare in my head into a two dimensional surface. Not only was that therapeutic, it allowed others to understand what I was thinking and struggling with.”
Figures show fewer than 25 per cent of people with an eating disorder receive the care they need. Tania hopes her recovery journey and the messages she conveys through her art will reduce the stigma and encourage others to seek help.
“Mental illness is not a choice, but Recovery is. It’s not always easy to work through our struggles but if we push ourselves in a gentle and nurturing way we can come through the other side.”
If you have been affected by any information in this article, please reach out to your GP, health professional or contact an organisation such as the ones listed below:
Poem – written by Tania Sutton
She stands there beaming smile
There is laughter and cheer
She is so content and happy
Friends all around her
She stands there panic stricken
There is turmoil and torture
She is drowning in poison
All alone in a crowd
She stands there as the same
There are two people in one
She is only known as one
The other is a secret.
LOCKED IN A BUBBLE
You have me locked in a bubble
I can see what you are doing
Yelling out for you to stop
My efforts going unheard
You have locked me in a bubble
Sometimes I see a faint glow
Mostly just darkness
Trying desperately to find the light
You have me locked in a bubble
I want to trade places
But I can’t find the key
Please let me out.