This week we’re joined by June Alexander, in what we are calling a conversation with June. If you don’t know June, be prepared to hear a story of recovery from someone who battled an eating disorder for decades in Australia, as well as the role writing has played in June’s recovery.
Learn more about June and her writing on her website – http://www.junealexander.com
The Butterfly Foundation – supporting Australians in the prevention & treatment of eating disorders & body image issues.
A listing and access to June’s books
Memoir: A Girl Called Tim
Full transcript –
Kathy: Hello and welcome to ED Matters. I’m Kathy Cortese your host and today we welcome delightful guest June Alexander. I’d like to introduce June by sharing a bit of her bio. June is a writer and Ph.D. candidate. At age 11 June developed anorexia nervosa and this challenge together with the love of writing shaped her life. Upon recovering from her illness at age 55 in 20016 June departed the journalism career to write books about eating disorders combining life experience and professional skills to disseminate evidence base research for health practitioners and mainstream readers. June serves on national and international mental health and advocacy organizations including The Academy of Eating Disorders, FEAST and the National Eating Disorders Collaboration in Australia. Her website and blogs supports this advocacy work.
A mother of four and grandmother of five, June is a Ph.D. candidate in creative writing at CQ University Australia exploring how diary writing can be therapeutically applied in the treatment of eating disorders and is a life story and diary writing mentor. Good morning, June.
June: Good morning, Kathy.
Kathy: It’s our pleasure to have you here. I’m hopeful that we can start our conversation with June Alexander by just hearing a bit about your background growing up in rural Australia.
June: Yes. I grew up in the 1950s which seems a long time ago in some ways but only yesterday in the others. I grew up on a family farm with cows and chickens and lots of other animals. I had my parents and an older sister and yup, for the first five years of my life my paternal grandparents were also in the farm house. It was a happy childhood. I grew up at a time when there was no electricity connected to the house or running hot water so there were certainly no television sets or certainly no internet and so I didn’t have a lot of the influences that perhaps around today and yet I develop anorexia at the age of 11.
Kathy: And, you know, as we continue on I think our listeners will be very impressed but also delighted to learn where you are now in terms of what your scope in the world is coming from this fascinating farm back in Australia. You note that you eating disorder began at your age 11 with anorexia, shifted to anorexia binge purge type during your teens and actually went undiagnosed for 21 years when you were in your 30s. After decades of hard work, you declared yourself recovered in 2006 at age 55. And I see a message of strength, persistence and hope in your journey and would love to hear you speak to this.
June: Yes. I must say even today I received a letter from a woman who is in her early 50s and is writing to say she’s inspired by my story and that always inspires me to keep on doing what I’m doing which is letting others know that you can recover at any age even with enduring anorexia and never to give up and always to continue reaching out. It is hard work, recovering and yet I am fully convinced that, you know, parts of our brain where the illness resides can be retrained and that freedom is possible from eating disorder to live without having to fear or feel anxious with meal time is a joy that it’s just indescribable. So, you know, I was in – yeah, for 44 years my age 11 to 55 was really the eating disorder prison and to be free now for 10 years is I just continue to embrace and relish every day.
Kathy: Thank you. Retraining your brain. That’s an interesting phrase. Can you tell us more about that?
June: Yes. Well, as you’ve mentioned I was in my 30s when I finally met a psychiatrist in Melbourne, Australia who recognized beyond all the layers that had accumulated over 20 years that what my problem was and he gained my trust and I think that’s the very first thing in recovering is feel you can trust your therapist and so then began a very long journey and I learned many skills along the way. I had to – it’s a bit like taking the engine out of a car because it’s a faulty engine and having to put a new one and because you have to learn a whole new way like gears to get through every day, you know, for so many years every day whether it was, you know, it was good or bad day depending on whether I’d eaten so many calories or done so much exercise and you know, that overflowed into every area of life. Relationships, in the work place or at school or in every area of life the decisions always went back to am I happy with myself because I’ve managed to keep all the rules I may have put myself today and so that engine had to go out to recover. I had to get a whole new base of self and reconnect with the true self rather than with the eating disorder and it did take a long time but it was through learning skills and step by step in learning which thoughts were true to me and which thoughts belong to the eating disorder and slowly, yeah, emphasizing the true thoughts and disregarding the eating – sometimes the eating disorder thoughts would run away with me before I had time to be fully aware and stop them but persistence gradually able to recognize those thoughts and say to myself that’s an eating disorder thought. I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to hurt myself anymore. I want to love myself. And because the eating disorder thoughts always want you to self harm in some way.
So it was about having self love and self compassion and allowing myself to do things that made me feel happy rather than made myself suffer.
June: And also to engage outwardly rather than isolate. I learned simple things like make a phone call, go for a little walk, read a chapter of a book, do a crossword, do a Sudoku puzzle, watch a movie, anything to divert the thoughts from the eating disorder thoughts. They were among the many skills that I learned and of course for me writing was always a great healer. The diary I started keeping a diary at the age of 11 when I developed the anorexia and it wasn’t until I actually recovered at the age of 55 and I look back over those diaries and I actually saw how the eating disorder even infiltrated my diary because so many pages were filled with rules and regulations because that was how I was trying to keep my anxiety under control but was actually strengthening the eating disorder and disconnecting me further from my true self.
Kathy: That must have been perhaps a very mixed experience when you realized how much the eating disorder was pulling you away from your real self. Do you remember yourself at that time when you were making those connections and saying this is my eating disorder, this isn’t who I am?
June: Yes. It made me feel very sad. I really had grieved for the June that was lost in the eating disorder for so many years. I see life in pictures and just saw myself lost in the dark forest and not able to find my way out for decades. And I didn’t know which path to take and it’s so – having kept the diary it’s easy to look back and just see how much that eating disorder dominated my thought processes.
June: Plus in behaviors for so many years and yes, it made me want to reach back into my childhood and take the hand of that little girl and say come this way and don’t go that way but the important thing is that while eating disorder disconnects you from your true self, it is important to know that you can find the path back to you and reconnect with your true self.
Kathy: I have two questions that I want to ask in response to what you said, one, how beautiful I hear your compassion and love of self when you want to take the hand of that little girl and you know, you didn’t have that love for her at one point. I’m sure you had great distain for her and so now when you look back and you love that girl and you love you, what do you think helped you cross over to knowing how to have a compassionate understanding relationship with you?
June: Yes, well that – for all those years I was lost with the eating disorder I always felt an emptiness within and being an image person I felt I had to build a solid base with something. I needed to be able to put my foot down in front of me and not fear I was going to disappear in quick sand. I mean, in other words I was always very anxious about making any decision. I, you know, it defected every moment of life. So in building up a sense of self and it was like this building, a stonewall, one stone after another and finding it wasn’t going to slip but was becoming more solid. I found that with every little thing I did for myself and it might be buying myself a bunch of nice, bright, colored flowers, you know, and for me everything I would do for myself actually made me feel warm inside and I learned to love myself and I even continue to do this today. One of my favorite things buying another book because I love books.
Kathy: Yes, yes, yes.
June: So yeah, buying myself a treat is an act of self love which I love buying gifts for other people too but I also buy them for me and even just feeling the breeze on my face when I’m walking along the street and seeing the autumn leaves or the spring leaves coming out, I think having this very acute sense of what life is about is one of the big pluses I’ve had from all those years in the dark in the eating disorder. In many ways I liken my life to that of a cicada.
June: That’s under the ground in the dark for so many years and then it finally burst out and into the bright sunshine. I dreamt of that when I was lost in that dark forest. I dreamt of being like a cicada. I used to think I had a title of a book which I have not written yet.
June: But was when the cicada sings. But just even thinking about was a comfort because it gave me hope like I was visualizing something I didn’t even know how to get there but even thinking about it was the visualization which is another important technique in recovery. It was very helpful in slowly but surely getting across the line.
Kathy: Yes. And I think, you know, I’d like to spend like I would like to emphasize one thing that you’re very well known for and that is your writing. You started writing your diary at age 12 and you found that this more of this expression not only became a way of life but your profession. You’ve written a number of books specifically on eating disorders which include, A Girl Called Tim, My Kid is Back, Ed Said You Said, Anorexia Nervosa: Recovery Guide for Sufferers Families and Friends, Getting Better Bite Bite Bite and there’s a recently published book in which you have a chapter included and the title of the book is called Managing Severe and Enduring Anorexia Nervosa. The fascinating title for your chapter is A Life Wasted A Patient Perspective. We’ve got lots to talk about. Can we start with this last piece about that particular chapter and then maybe speak about some of the other books.
June: Yes. The book Enduring Anorexia which Professor Stephen Touyz of the University of Sydney is one of the editors along with Daniel Le Grange and others, yes, they gave me this title of A Life Wasted: Patient’s Perspective and the first thing I did was say well, I would be pleased to write the chapter but I didn’t agree with the title so I said about showing them why yes, I have had enduring anorexia and yet I don’t feel my life is wasted because I feel I am leading and living a very full life now and I think while I had the eating disorder for a long time, it means I’m packing it in. I’m packing it in and if it is free that I live it like that’s okay. That it’s making a, you know, a loud, a lot of chirping through my writing, you know. It’s my very happy time.
Kathy: Yes, yes. And you do spend quite a bit of time writing so what is the extent some is eating disorder, some is other related so I’d like us to learn more.
June: Yes. Well, I guess because writing was something I love like even at four years old. It was something I love before my eating disorder developed. So I always knew that the writing was my true self and it certainly helped me – the diary helped me survive my eating disorder. It also helped me heal from my eating disorder and also I became a journalist and it gave me certainly helped with keeping hold of my sanity during my eating disorder. It was nothing else was going right in my life, 95% was consumed by the eating disorder but I could still work with that 5% and gain a sense of sanity and some financial income. So writing really has been a thread throughout my whole life. There were times during the eating disorder when it was aligning with the eating disorder and then that was a shock to find that out but then I brought it back and it became rather than destructive it became constructive in the healing process.
Now, this phase in life what I love doing is besides writing books about eating disorders for people with an eating disorder for their families, for the clinicians and with the researchers, I also love doing live writing and I do this with some patients who have an eating disorder and they write diaries and I’m a diary writing mentor with them. I love working with them and I also enjoy with elderly peeps, senior people, writing their life stories, you know, sometimes – I haven’t got anything to tell and once we kept talking, you know, they’re lighting up like a Christmas tree and all these memories start coming back to them and they have got us, everyone has a story to tell. I always say that everyone has a story to tell. It’s the way you tell is that makes all the difference and that’s where I come in.
And yes, any people with a mental health challenge I love working with and people from disadvantage backgrounds, yes, I particularly love just helping people tell their stories.
Kathy: Our listeners can’t see but I can see the joy that comes through you when you talk about your writing and connecting with people the way you do through your writing and their writing. Am I off the mark?
June: You’re right on. Yeah. I love it.
Kathy: Yeah. That’s absolutely wonderful. So I’m curious about the books that I just listed and I know we have another one that’s going to be coming out but do you have one that you would like to tell us about? A Girl Called Tim, My Kid is Back, Ed Said You Said, etcetera, etcetera. Would you like to pick one or more than one and just share some of your thoughts and maybe how you got started and where you were at the end.
June: Yes, well, I think I will choose My Kid is Back because when I came out of my eating disorder after all those years until that point I didn’t realize there was this other world out there. I didn’t realize that there was an eating disorder field. I didn’t realize that there were a whole range of reset articles and books that I could learn about this illness that had consumed so much of my life and so it was Claire Vickery of the Butterfly Foundation in Australia suggested – she knew I wanted to write my story. I did want to write my story because I just wondered if there had been someone suffering as long as myself. I didn’t want them – I wanted them to know they weren’t alone and I also hoped that they might not suffer as long as me and I thought if my story helped one person, it would make my life worth, my suffering worthwhile and then anyway, Claire said, you must speak with Daniel Le Grange and I am way down in the Southeast corner of Australia and at that point Professor Le Grange was at the University of Chicago so I sent an e-mail, you know, and lo and behold he returned and said, yes, he’d be pleased to meet me so I get on the plane and I go to the University of Chicago which is very big university and I’m walking along the corridor and Daniel was coming from the other and we stopped outside the door to his office and shook hands. What a moment that was. I told him I was particularly interested in his interest area of family base treatment because I had lost my family of origin due to my illness and he was doing work that help families stay together and it was more importantly as well early intervention and I just wish that had been around when I was a kid. The way we got the name for this book was I said to Daniel, you know, how do you keep going with all the families and stories, sad stories that you must have come through your door and he said, it’s when the family comes to the door and there’s a smile on their face and on their child and they say my kid is back so that’s how we got the title of that book. It was right there that day and that room before even the book was written.
And so then I went off and interviewed 10 families who had the experience family base treatment and from this book other books came and what I have discovered is that I am – [inaudible [22:38] calls the fairy dust on her research because I am a storyteller, I guess, above all and I can help put the researchers findings into a language that families and sufferers and clinicians can more readily understand and relate to and so I’m helping to disseminate the researchers work and getting it out into mainstream.
Kathy: I was going to say and it is the mainstream that has this wonderful opportunity to learn.
Kathy: And digest it.
June: That’s where it needs to go.
Kathy: Yeah, yeah. So we are going to spend some time talking about your newest publication and it is called the Diary Healer. I’m going to read an excerpt from Dr. Michael Levine’s Rich Introduction in which he describes the Diary Healer as a confluence of four great themes in your life, writing, the experience of having a serious eating disorder, the recovery journey and keeping true to a diary. I know you’ve reached out to many, many people and I’m hopeful that this will get into the hands of many people. What are your hopes for the book and tell us about this part of your life because it’s also a part of your Ph.D. work too.
June: Yes. It is a book about which I am most excited. I really consider this book – I’m quite emotional about this book. I really do consider my life work because really, I started to write it – it began when I was 11 years old but it was when just several years ago I was walking along the seashore back in Australia one day and it occurred to me I wanted – the diary had been helpful to me but I wanted to know if it had been helpful to others because it seemed to me that there’s still gaps in eating disorder field and so what I did was I put a blog up and the response was amazing. And out of that the concept for using writing as a therapy for eating disorders The Diary Healer was, you know, it’s like a seed and you nurture the seed and it blossomed into a plant and this is the way the book took shape.
Kathy: Did you have a struggle – you know, I know that Routledge is your publisher, did they have an immediate response? What was their take and how wonderful that they’ve gone through publication?
June: Yes. I sent the concept off to them and initially they said yes, this is very interesting but maybe you know, we’re an academic publisher maybe June you could turn it around so that it’s more from the clinician’s point of view so I tried to do this. It was roughly turning it on its head because my main voice is in the Diary Healer, the people with eating disorder, it’s their voices. It’s like a Canterbury tales really but anyway, so I wrote back to Routledge and said, look, I’ll try to turn the concept around. It won’t work. This is the patient’s are telling their story, not the clinicians and so they wrote back and said, June, we will go with it.
June: We will go with it.
Kathy: What a fun, fun e-mail that must have been.
June: Yes. And yes, they haven’t asked to change a word of it. I am just –
Kathy: Absolutely remarkable.
June: I feel like it’s on a speedway and it’s just so exciting. It really is so exciting.
June: And I would like to pay tribute to Professor Michael Levine because he has been chief reader with a capital C and a capital R and a wonderful dolphin and a friend and mentor through the writing of this book. And many people have particularly him. He’s been with every word but it’s a book – my hopes for this book that it will help lead to more research in the narrative, in treating eating disorders and that it will be able to be used more in treatment centers, hospitals and as of therapy with the therapist also as a self healer.
June: Because everybody can keep a diary. And so the Diary Healer is full of stories, people around the world shared their diary excerpts with me and I have woven those through this book to let them tell their story.
Kathy: Yeah. What a privilege for you to have had that, yes, yes.
June: I felt like a hen on all these beautiful eggs and keeping them warm and keeping them because to be entrusted with private diary writings is a great honor and responsibility.
June: And you know, of all the people who shared their excerpts, everyone of them has stayed with the whole journey of this book.
June: So I thank each and everyone for joining me on this journey and I hope the readers will enjoy it as well.
Kathy: I think so. I think so. June, I want to thank you so much for this privilege of you sharing your time. I also want to thank you for your knowledge but also your honesty. You’ve shared some parts of yourself with us and that is always very, very special and enormous gift and thank you so much for your time.
June: It’s a pleasure, Kathy. Thank you.
Kathy: You’re welcome.