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The missing safety net for Canberrans with eating disorders

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At the ripe old age of 34, I was diagnosed with anorexia.

That’s one of the less known things about eating disorders—they don’t discriminate based on age. They don’t care that you have a child or a job or things to do with your day, thank you very much.

The perception of eating disorders as a teenage girl affectation—a trivial issue of vanity to get over—is something that prevents people from seeking help.

‘I simply have no business having an eating disorder,’ I think as I check my privilege and the scales simultaneously and move on with things.

This stigma prevents people from seeking help. While it’s true that the peak period for their onset is between the ages of 12 and 25 years, eating disorders are complex psychological issues that don’t discriminate against age, cultural or socio-economic backgrounds or gender.

I can only speak about my experience, which has been less about appearance and more about control. The less control I had in other areas of my life, the more I tried to have over my body.

I think of my body not as one entity, but as lots of different bodies, stretching back into my past. My child body was tanned and lean with the effortless musculature of my Rainbow Region youth. Salty hair and peeling nose, body wet from the sea. Prominent clavicles, ribs visible, easy peasy.

My next body was similar but took exhausting self-loathing to maintain. I moved from a tiny Far North Coast town to Canberra to start university. Sitting in lecture halls filled with row after row of talented, beautiful people, I stiffened with resolve. Being skinny would even the playing field.

As the years passed, my body became an afterthought. Until I started bodybuilding, carved out a six-pack and trained to build muscle. I covered myself in a thick sticky tan and a small sparkly bikini and stood in front of crowds under bright stage lights. It’s a glittery celebration of self-control but not a healthy one.

Time passed and I met the man I would marry. Eventually, my favourite body of all was earned. It carried, birthed and fed my daughter. It tore apart and healed back together. It is my most powerful body.

Old habits die hard. COVID took control from us all.

My GP put a name to my condition, and I was referred to the Eating Disorders Program in Philip, the only free specialised outpatient treatment option in the ACT. After my diagnosis, I learnt about the lack of adequate treatment options in the ACT.

The program, despite the best efforts of a dedicated team, has a waitlist measured in months not weeks. Astonishingly, there are no in-patient services for eating disorder treatment in Canberra.

Evidence shows that the earlier you seek help, the closer you are to recovery. I sought help and found a void.

Eating disorders affect approximately four in every 100 people in Australia. At the end of 2020, the ACT’s population was 431,484. That means over 17,000 Canberrans could be living with an eating disorder.

This is a life or death issue. The mortality rate for people with eating disorders is up to six times higher than those without. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric conditions.

The net that should have been there to catch me was frail and full of holes. It needs fixing. To this end, I wrote a petition calling for a renewed focus on eating disorder services in Canberra, and Dr Marisa Paterson MLA agreed to sponsor it.

The more we talk about things, the less scary they become, for us and for others.

Reading about people like Canberran Molly Saunders, who wrote the petition that inspired mine, and hearing Celia Hammond MP in the House of Representatives speaking recently about her experience with anorexia, gives me hope. Intelligent, capable, erudite women have walked this road. There’s no shame, and there should be no stigma.

A year ago, holding my new baby daughter, I wrote this:

‘As I hold you in my hands, I hope you love yourself at every stage of life you get the joy of experiencing. When you feel anything less than perfect, I want you to imagine the pride and wonder I feel now looking at you. All of you is tremendous, brave and enough.’

A year later, I wish this for me, too, now. I wish this for everyone.

Sign the petition here.

Kate Steen lives in Canberra with her husband, daughter and mini schnauzer. She is a lawyer with a penchant for books, champagne and Amy Poehler. She is living with anorexia.

If you or someone you know is suffering with issues relating to this article, please contact The Butterfly Foundation’s website or call 1800 33 4673.


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