Cracks – unsuffering myself and my daughter: a conversation with antianorexia/ bulimia

Julie King and David Epston
Context October 2009 9


For many years I battled anorexia/bulimia (a/b); undiagnosed and mostly unsupported. It began in the later years of my primary schooling between the ages of nine and eleven. This was in the early 1970s. I hadn’t even heard of anorexia at the time. My family noticed my weight loss but did not perceive any connection with the inner battle I lived each day. My mother took me to the doctor as a young teenager due to the mysterious cessation of my menstrual cycle. During my later teens a/b seemed to lose its power over my life, only to reappear more vehemently in my twenties. This was a terrible time for me. I was living interstate, with little support. I was very sick but still did not have a name for my suffering; it was a housemate who identified it as a/b. A/b seemed to miraculously leave my life during the pregnancy of my first child when I was 27. I was very happy and thought it gone for good, experiencing some years of respite. A sense of disintegration and despair hit me when it returned following the birth of my second child. I had to recognise it then because its presence in my life seemed even more destructive. That is when I consciously decided to fight it and a couple of years later, at the age of about 32, I thought I was free of a/b forever. I had two more children and although I suffered lingering depression I didn’t link this with a/b.


I was completely unprepared and shocked when, a decade later, a/b entered the life of my thirteen-year-old daughter in a manner that seemed more cruel and savage than anything I had ever endured or witnessed. My daughter seemed trapped and I found myself questioning whether the freedom I thought I had achieved was an illusion. When my daughter was first admitted to hospital in early 2006 I felt close to being swallowed up again by a/b. So close. A/b hurled vicious and cruel abuse at me, via my daughter as well, telling me I was a despicable human being, that my life was completely worthless. It was so disturbing that I felt I had a choice to make. If I believed what a/b was telling me I would have felt like taking my life. I would have believed that it was my fault my daughter was suffering; that I had infected her with my shame. I could have fallen into the trap of believing that somehow I could save her if I sacrificed myself. The voice of a/b was very convincing and I was struggling. It was then I realised I wasn’t really free. I also realised just how deadly a/b was; I couldn’t minimise it anymore. My daughter’s life was actually threatened. It was deadly serious. I knew I had to summons all the strength I had to fight against a/b; knowing that if I didn’t I would be complicit with anorexia. I knew that regardless of how much a/b tried to convince me that my attempts were futile I had to be stronger. I had to find a way to help free my daughter from the torment and torture I witnessed her suffering.

Fortunately, I had greater inner resources than when I was battling a/b in my own life alone. Some experiences in therapy I had sought assisted me. I also read everything I could and in 2007 I read a book called Biting the Hand that Starves You, a book that changed my life. It made sense of everything I had experienced and I knew it held much knowledge about fighting anorexia. I was so fired by this reading, which was written by Narrative Therapists, that I sought out a Narrative Therapist for my daughter. I also decided to attend a workshop on May 1st 2007, given by one of the authors, David Epston. I met David at the workshop and told him how much I appreciated his book. He was interested in my impressions of the book and so we commenced an email exchange. This exchange evolved into extensive email conversations about my experience and knowledge of a/b, both as an ‘insider’ (sufferer) and as a parent. It was the first time anyone had ever regarded me as having knowledge of any importance.

And so began my introduction to antianorexia; an approach that empowered me to simultaneously support my daughter and experience my own recovery in a more profound way. Anti-anorexia made sense of much of my experience and respected my knowledge. It gave me a context and a platform of resistance from which to challenge and refute a/b. It also gave me hope, showing me a world of untapped insight that had been there, just hidden. The conversations with David form the basis of this a forthcoming book, from which this paper has been adapted. It is a book about ‘unsuffering’ myself and my daughter. David introduced me to the word unsuffering, the word unsuffer having come from the title of a Lucinda Williams song. To me unsuffering signifies the undoing of pain, torment, shame and punishment in a journey toward hope and discovery, choice, excitement and joy: unashamed, unapologetic joy.

It is a journey of speaking out, of releasing the words that had been locked up due to the terror of expression, of letting them run free. The book is an expression of that journey. I feel truly blessed to have had this opportunity with David. I battled constant self-doubt in the writing of the book, but David always reassured and encouraged me.


(Im)morality and anorexia/bulimia

In the attempt to achieve some respite from the feeling of “badness” which blighted my days, I spent years attending therapy and engaging in various species of personal development trying in vain attempts to “fix” myself. The only ways I could view my “badness” were either as a fundamental personal flaw or a mental illness that might require lifelong medicating; or another possibility was a developmental problem from my childhood that seemed impossible to repair. I remember one psychiatrist explaining this to me in developmental terms, claiming that through a long-term therapy relationship I could somehow fill in the missing gaps. However everything I tried – and no matter how hard I tried – seemed inadequate to absolve me of “badness” or offer any relief whatsoever. I was caught up in a daily struggle for many years, trying my best to hang on to a life I felt unworthy of and unacceptable to live.

David: Julie, had anorexia up until then insisted you were both unworthy of and unacceptable to the very living of your life?

This question intrigued me, as it shifted the focus from me to anorexia/bulimia it raised the possibility that my feelings of unworthiness and unacceptability were not necessarily indicative of any essential or fundamental attributes of “me-ness”, but perhaps they were something altogether different. I was challenged by the consideration of a/b as an insistent agent, whose argumentation had such power over me to make me ‘know’ beyond any doubt that I was unworthy. This stimulated a conceptual upheaval and a consequent shift in my thinking. A/b’s power of persuasion was evident when I realised that these feelings of unworthiness didn’t seem the result of a/b’s insistence but were experienced by me as irrefutable “facts” – facts chameleon-like in their ability to permeate every cell of my body and mind as their infiltration went unnoticed. Being unaware of this infi ltration, every small gesture of my life seemed to demand an apology; an apology for still living despite my unworthiness; an apology that was never enough. To live so apologetically while still holding on to what seemed to be a desperate desire to be acceptable to life and love was a painful existence. I experienced a pressure that I was meant to relinquish the living of my life as the only suitable apology and therefore any signs of my life were regarded as a punishable deviation.

David: Julie, from anorexia’s (im)moral perspective, were you incited to execute yourself as your remaining moral act?

I was shocked by this question, even though by now I was becoming familiar with the challenges I experienced when considering David’s questions and the depth of thought and emotion they provoked. They took me to the heart of experiences in my life that had been shamefully buried. These experiences may have remained buried until this inquiry encouraged me to unearth and voice them; in doing so, words flowed like tears, tears of sadness and relief at being able at long last to find a voice I had forgotten; a cascade of words of excitement, recognition and also grief at being able to see and re-experience and tell my life in new and surprising ways; a rambling of words as I took a round-about time and way to find my answer, like a rambling rose reaching out to its flowering; tendrils of tentative words.

These words were now free to be spoken for the first time. I wish I could say I spoke unapologetically, but in those early days of the conversation about a/b I felt I was breaking all of a/b’s rules and so was inviting its wrath. I felt guilty for speaking: fraudulent and unqualified. I felt exposed and continued to apologise but David was always generous and patient in his reassurance and encouragement. I had never been asked before about my experience of a/b. Now someone was asking but also listening. I cannot underestimate the role this played in changing my life.

Returning to the question: Initially I cringed at the use of the word execute. It is such a strong word, bringing to my mind images of torture, hanging, and firing squads. Was it really too strong a word to use in relation to anorexia/bulimia? I had lived with the spectre of death for longer than I remembered. It was the shadow I couldn’t escape from; the shadow I had been close to falling into several times. I have also witnessed others being convinced by a/b that that they were too much of a burden for this world, which would be lightened with their demise; they had been convinced that the pull to death is not a shadow, but lightness itself. I have heard my own daughter beseech me in an agonised tone: “please let me go”. Would such a death be suicide: self-imposed? This is what I had been told by many. Or could it be regarded as an execution? After overcoming my initial shock, and thinking further about the question, I could then accept this word into my a/b vocabulary and could also acknowledge how a/b had at times tried to convince me that my own execution was the only moral act of which I was capable, and moreover that it was inevitable, even though I had evaded it up until that time. It had me believe that I would be relieving the world of a significant quantity of ‘badness’; that by my death, I would finally be doing the good I was incapable of in my life.

Recognising the dictator

David: Julie, did you ever have cause to exercise your own moral agency or ask questions of anorexia’s monopoly on moral judgement? Did you ever wonder how anorexia had gained such moral authority over your life?

When David asked this question I realised that until relatively recently I had never thought about a/b in terms of morality. It was ironic that I rarely consciously thought about morality much at all, despite feeling dominated by notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. There was a time when I was compelled to constantly make lists divided up into good and bad, such as good and bad foods, to keep me in line, or on track. I had never attributed power and motives to a/b before, or related it to my sense of ‘badness’. Although, after several decades of suffering and battling a/b I did have a striking realisation in 2004 (and I remember exactly where and when it occurred) that I had a dictator in my head, attempting to dominate and censor my thoughts and actions. I wondered how this had happened but up until now I was without any answers.

David: Given your awareness of the ‘dictator’ in your head but unable to find ‘any answers’, was this cause for being perplexed, vexed or for despair? What did you do with this new found knowledge of yours that it may not have been a personal flaw/mental illness?

I was completely horrified. The horror and revulsion shocked me into detaching myself from what I had glimpsed. For something that epitomised all that I despised and was willing to fight against in the “outside” world to suddenly appear in this guise so close to home was almost incomprehensible. I must have been very familiar with its dictates, as I had been operating under them for many years. However, I hadn’t previously made any connection with the workings of my mind and the more commonplace meaning of a dictatorship. A/b could have used this to convince me that it was the truth about me: “See you really are a bad human being, the very worst!” but it failed to do so. I wondered why a/b wasn’t successful in having me believe this. Possibly because the realisation came as such a jolt, a/b didn’t have a chance to twist it. Possibly because once I witnessed the dictator I knew it represented the kind of inhumanity I could never support and was actually passionate about opposing in the world around me. I had been writing letters for Amnesty, believed in human rights and non-violence. It was a total shock, and disconcertingly ironic, as if a cruel joke had been played on me for so long. I don’t know where the realisation of the dictator sprang from; it was before I had heard about externalising conversations, narrative therapy or anti-anorexia.

Although I had detached myself from the dictator, I still didn’t understand its relationship to me, and where it came from, and would end up as if it was a force or energy I had unleashed. Despite these uncertainties, I knew that at least a dictator was something I could oppose. Although I felt repulsed, it didn’t have to be me whom I was repulsed by. It didn’t have to be me I was fighting. I was able to separate myself to some extent. This was the beginning of my freedom because resistance now became a real possibility.

David: I see your point here, Julie….Without the notion of the dictator, would you necessarily have been repulsed by Julie?

Yes, and as I already believed I was repulsive, it would have reinforced it to an unbearable extent that I imagine I would have found it difficult if not impossible to keep living. Part of the cruel trickery of a/b is that it can represent you as your worst nightmare, the very things you actually abhor as unjust, and convince you that it is you who embody all those very worst things you can imagine, that you are in fact a monster.

Externalising anorexia/bulimia – the beginnings

David: Julie, was it signifi cant that for the first time you went looking for its sources outside of yourself and your flaws/weaknesses/ infirmities/immoralities?

It was David’s question as much as the realisation of the dictator that was the catalyst for me to really begin looking outside of myself for its source. Previously I hadn’t been comfortable looking outside of myself, as I believed it implied blaming others. I was obsessed with looking within myself and being ‘hyper-responsible’ for my flaws. This involved being fixated on finding the ‘right’ spiritual practice, the ‘right’ diet, the ‘right’ thoughts, and the ‘right’ feelings.

Of course I never found the ‘right’ way and concluded that the reason I failed was because I lacked discipline, or had done something terribly wrong in the past and as a consequence was beyond redemption. I felt completely to blame for my thinking and a/b used the ‘new age’ thinking around me at the time (for example that I had created my own reality) to plunge the knife of blame even deeper.

David’s question became an extremely significant conceptual turning point for me because it encouraged me to look outside of myself, and initiated the process of externalising the dictator that I began to identify and conflate as a/b. I still felt responsible for the dictator but knew now I had to resist it. I suppose it was a relief to have some form or substance to what I was fighting. I regarded a/b as the same as the dictator: a form of fascism like Nazism, though I knew this analogy was extreme. When David asked if having an historical analogy available allowed me a different understanding of a/b to what I had previously, I concluded that it did change my perception by assisting and allowing me to see its extreme nature and capacity for harm. The analogy challenged a/b’s tendency to minimise the suffering it caused by labelling it illegitimate suffering, and by this I mean that a/b argued that the suffering I endured was not valid or real but rather, inconsequential. If it wasn’t ‘real’ suffering it couldn’t easily be protested.

A/b therefore led me to the conclusion that I must deserve whatever suffering I experienced because there was no valid or external reason for it and hence it was also wrong to express that suffering. This belief in the invalidity of the suffering inflicted by a/b can be reinforced by the misperception of those who mistakenly regard anorexia as a self-induced illness or an illness of choice. I have seen and heard this many times in relation to my daughter’s struggle and hospitalisations, and it always shocks and angers me. I know this misperception can also add to the feelings of guilt and unworthiness of the sufferer. This mistaken belief of others is understandable if they haven’t witnessed the damage wreaked by a/b: haven’t seen a person who cannot walk, but is falling over due to dehydration and starvation; a person close to cardiac arrest due to low potassium but who can’t be given potassium because their veins have collapsed; a person whose bones aren’t forming properly and may be weakened for life. And that’s just some of the physical damage, which the sufferer may appear indifferent or oblivious to, due to the psychological agony they also endure. My experience of having a child battling anorexia is that many people have little idea how frightening and life threatening anorexia is.

The historical analogy acknowledges the extent of the imprisonment, deprivation and pain that is suffered. Previously I had thought a/b was a spiritual or psychological failing that I had to work really hard at overcoming. Alone: with only my willpower. It just set me up for more failure, suffering and attempts to amend myself. I was still coming from the position that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. Having the historical analogy allowed a further detachment or separation from a/b and from taking the full responsibility and blame for the suffering it caused. But it was also frightening: there was no longer a shield to prevent me from witnessing its stark treachery.

David: Julie, what was it like in those first hours, days, months and years when anorexia’s treachery became so stark that it could no longer conceal itself nor could you any longer countenance it?

In the early days of recognising and detaching myself from the dictator a/b, I felt that I could no longer trust my own thought processes, as if they were no longer entirely my own. This was a disconcerting concept; although later I came to discover it was also a liberating concept. The disorientation and disconcertion I experienced when considering the possibility that the voice of a/b was not my ‘own’ and not necessarily to be trusted and obeyed was destabilising. “If I am not my thoughts, then who am I? Maybe I am nothing.”

David: Julie, can you tell me in some detail how you survived the ‘destabilisation’ until you were able to find some sort of antianorexic ‘stabilisation’?

This was hard to answer because it reminded me of a period of confusion and pain I had lived through. In the beginning of externalising a/b I felt adrift and groundless. It was a strange day to day existence. I didn’t always survive well. At times I thought I was crazy. I felt fragmented; I didn’t know who I was anymore. When any alternative voices have been largely silenced, the suspicion that there is nothing beyond the voice of a/b can be so terrifying, that ironically, in those moments of total fear of annihilation the voice of a/b can actually appear like the link with life rather than death. As I tried to detach myself from the thought processes that terrorised me I didn’t know which thoughts I could trust and which I couldn’t – it was hard to be discerning. Because I had always strongly identified with my mind, I didn’t know what else to trust, especially considering I was so uncomfortable with my bodily experience. I had felt a vulnerability for a very long time, to the ideas of others, whether medical, psychological or new age. I was still looking for an absolute, for absolution, and for someone to tell me what was solid during my own fragmentation.

Experiences of nature and music were invaluable during this period of destabilisation. In their domains I glimpsed moments of peace, moments of respite. There was nothing asked of me, nothing I had to do and nothing I could fail at. There was no wrong and right. I was experiencing and observing a world that seemed to exist outside of thought, or at least outside of my usual thought. I felt more stable in this world.

Ophelia – thinking about thinking

My survival was also assisted by the university studies I was doing at the time. I was fortunate to come across certain ideas that assisted me. What I had previously regarded as natural or ‘normal’ standards to reach came to be seen as social fabrications (far from innocent or neutral) that could be called in to question. These standards were indicative of particular social/political/historical contexts. It is difficult though to question that which appears natural and immune from questioning. I pondered whether a truth could immunise itself from any contestation by making itself invisible and thereby apparently self-evident. I also wondered if it achieved this by eliminating or crowding out alternative ‘truths’ and knowledges, and so appearing to be a universal rather than a relative truth. It could make alternative truths unavailable or inaccessible. How does it do this? My guess is that there is a kind of mass saturation of the particular ‘truth’ or else such a deeply embedded sociocultural and/or historical base for this ‘truth’ that it would feel too uncomfortable or possibly punishable to question. Then there are the bodies of power able to institutionalise and legitimise certain ‘truths’. I think we are largely brought up to believe in truth as absolute rather than relative. I began to regard the notion of ‘absolutes’ as a sham, and thought maybe now there was a context for my destabilisation that was within my understanding.

While studying Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 2002, I was deeply aff ected by the death in the play of Ophelia who had apparently gone ‘mad’ and drowned herself. I remembered her obligatory obedience to her father and the State, which I referred to in my essay as “the internalisation of obedience”. I think subjects at that time were considered part of the actual body of State. When asked by her father what she thought about a particular matter she replied: “I do not know my lord, what I should think”, and “I shall obey, my lord”. This behaviour was in contrast to her great capacity for irony and wit, which is more indicative of someone who thinks for herself. Although Ophelia was considered to have gone ‘mad’ and was judged by the King as “divided from herself and her fair judgement”, it is paradoxical that she wasn’t allowed her own judgement to begin with. Viewing her voice as somehow being appropriated by the voice of a higher authority helped me think about thinking in relation to the authorities that might direct our lives. Although at the time I wrote this essay, I didn’t make any connections with a/b; refl ecting back on it allowed me to begin questioning anorexia’s moral authority, and also to question my continued obedience to that authority.

David: Is this what was of significance, Julie…being able to ‘think about thinking’ in relation to authorities that direct our lives? However, if so, were you in the frst instance amazed with yourself for having the capacity to ‘think about your thinking’ rather than Ophelia-like obligatory obedience to authority? Contemplating the possibility that such authorities can direct our lives and even our thought processes to such an extent was definitely significant, but also disturbing to me: to think that my mind was not necessarily my ‘own’. I had always taken this for granted. I was excited by what this could signify, but I was also saddened by Ophelia’s fate. How ironic and tragic it was that it seemed to be her obedience that led to her ‘madness’ and death!

David: I love your phrase…’To think that our minds are not necessarily our ‘own’! Did you then ask yourself a question such as this – ‘If my mind is not my ‘own’, then who ‘owns’ it even if it tries to conceal its ownership from me and have me believe I own me?

I did try to unravel this question and wonder who could possibly ‘own’ my mind if it wasn’t mine entirely. I began to question whether I, like Ophelia, also experienced obligatory obedience to authorities or ideologies that directed my life. I began to consider what or who those authorities might be. I realised how vulnerable I was if there seemed no clear or accessible alternatives.

When there are no clear alternatives you might sense that something is amiss and want to seek a solution. But there may be no encouragement, and actual discouragement to explore new domains. If you don’t feel safe to seek out, discover or create alternative moralities (when none are obvious) because there is fear or threat of punishment, exclusion or condemnation, then it can appear there is no choice but the living deadness of conformity to a morality that feels wrong; or the suspicion that the discomfort you experience is because it is in fact yourself that is wrong, not that which is being imposed on you.

Safety and freedom can provide opportunities that are necessary to explore and discover preferred alternatives  to entrenched moral authorities. The alternatives could relate more to choices and possibilities regarding diff erent ways of being, thinking or perceiving, rather than prescriptions or promotions for any particular alternative. I know from experience I can be equally conformist to something presented as an a/b alternative, as to something conventional, merely replacing one authority with another. I know for a long time I just wanted someone to tell me what to do and I would have followed. I needed to develop a level of trust in myself to try new things and look around without paralysing fear.

To glimpse that there were alternative ways of being that were life-affi rming and preferable was empowering. I know for a long time I lost belief that there was any other way than the authority imposed by a/b. A deadening despair can set in when you feel powerless in relation to something imposed on you, especially when you aren’t aware of the nature or extent of that imposition and/or believe there is nowhere else to go.


The result of all this questioning was that cracks were developing in a/b’s previously unquestioned and imperturbable moral authority. I could begin to see that there were other ways, even if I didn’t know what they were yet. I could begin to object to a/b, seeing it in the context of an authority or ideology that had controlled my life, and the lives of others for too long. I began to move from self-blame, seeing myself as the cause of all my suff ering, to blaming a/b. I began to see a/b in a broader and vastly different context, as separate from myself. The cracks were irreversible. I suspected it wouldn’t be easy but the dismantling of a/b’s prison walls had begun.

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen