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A Genetic Gift? - Emily J. Johnson

Trigger warning: This publication contains reference to subjects that some readers may find distressing including: eating disorders, anorexia, binge-eating disorder, OCD, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and gambling. Reader discretion is advised.

I have had my own experiences with mental illness, which began as a teenager, and it is something I have never truly acknowledged until recently. I can recall wandering into the kitchen at about the age of thirteen whilst my mother and stepfather were exchanging heated words about his gambling. She fell silent at my approach.

Still seething, and without warning, my stepfather grabbed a framed picture and angrily smashed it across the back of a dining chair, sending shards of glass flying in every direction across the kitchen floor. He pushed past me, muttering obscenities under his breath as he left.

The front door slammed, and my mother and I jumped with the ferocity of the bang.

Good riddance, you fucking bastard.

Without saying a word, my mother got on her hands and knees and started carefully collecting the shards of broken glass. She glanced up at me with apologetic, tear-filled eyes as I watched her picking up the pieces, both literally and metaphorically.

‘‘Emily…’’ she started to say, but I cut her short. ‘‘Don’t, Mum. Please don’t…’’

Rather than run to her for comfort, or instead, console her, I ran out of the house trembling with the aftershock of my stepfather’s violent outburst. I walked for a couple of miles until I found a bench and sat down, crying. In my thirteen-year-old head, I had run away from home with no thought of where I was running to. The bench was my new refuge.

With no mobile phones back then for distraction, I had no choice but to sit within my own thoughts. I lacked the maturity to process what was happening in my mother’s new marriage.

I’d gone from living with a man whose presence I’d never felt, to living with a man who made his presence very much known, in the loudest most terrifying ways. And so had my mother.

About two hours later, my mother pulled up in her car. She had been driving around looking for me. She sat down gently next to me, and we held each other tightly without saying a word. I could feel her apology and helplessness through the tightness of her grip. She was in over her head and making the best of what had fast become a bad situation.

She took me home; home, to a place where everything felt out control. I decided to take back control in my life the only way I knew how: I slowly stopped eating.

At the time, I was at an all-girls senior school and was always trying to be taller, slimmer, and more popular, to be liked by the other girls. I was moving through puberty and my body was changing shape, which led me to becoming very self-conscious about my weight. That, along with my volatile home-life and the rejection I felt over my father leaving, led to me to restrict my food intake.

It began subtly. I’d give away my packed lunch at school, or worse still, bin it. I’d take my dinner and our dog, Sam, to my room to do my homework and avoid the dinner table at all costs. I fed the dog my dinners most nights, having taken the smallest nibble of a vegetable or two. I was in control of what I was putting in my body and that felt powerful.

My obsession with food gradually led to anorexia and a couple of very worrying years for my mother as I dropped to just over six stones. Even so, I still hated the fat body I saw in the mirror.

It was 1986, and back then, my treatment consisted of an older doctor at the point of retirement telling me if I didn’t start eating, he would admit me to the hospital and force me to eat through a feeding tube in my nose. He scolded me for upsetting my mother, who was sitting in the corner of the room, quietly crying.

I was absolutely petrified at the prospect of being hospitalised and force fed. I was also terrified of this doctor reprimanding me and remember feeling terribly guilty for hurting my mother – though I had never intended to upset her. The poor woman had enough to contend with. I vowed to try eating just a little bit more from then on, but it wasn’t easy. You can’t just tell an anorexic brain to eat. It’s not that simple.

Not long after the doctor’s appointment, I had a shower with a full face of makeup on, as you do as a fourteen-year-old. Stepping out of the shower, I caught sight of my reflection in the bathroom mirror. My mascara had run down my face in rivers, highlighting my sunken, shallow eye sockets. Long black streaks framed my facial features, and I looked skeletal. Glancing down, I saw my shoulders, the bones protruding across the top of my chest, then scanned down my body and saw my pelvis and hip bones jutting out. As if someone had lifted a veil from my eyes, I saw myself for the first time as others saw me: scrawny, thin, and pale. It was a turning point in my recovery.

Coming through the other side of anorexia, I returned to a more normalised eating pattern very slowly under the watchful eye of my mother and schoolteachers. However, the eating disorder left me with some very skewed thoughts about food, and I would inspect food labels for fat content and calories for many years to come, well into my early twenties.

After my father’s death, I became obsessed with ensuring I’d turned the iron and cooker hob off. The stress of my father’s death appeared to trigger a mild OCD. ‘‘Off off off off off…’’ I’d say aloud, tracing the knobs on the hob over and over, ensuring they were in the ‘off’ position. I could see they were off, but I couldn’t accept they were off. My mind kept telling me to check, one more time, over and over. ‘‘Off, off, off, off, off! Oh, for fuck’s sake, Emily, they’re off!’’ I’d shout, losing patience with myself.

I’d do the same with the iron. Once I even made an excuse at work and drove home just to check it was off, which of course it was. It slowly progressed into checking the fridge was closed properly, and all the doors were locked, especially at night.

I became terrifyingly convinced someone would break in, and so created obstacles by the doors and left the dishwasher door down, which obstructed the back door. I placed long pieces of wood in the patio door frames so no one couldn’t open them. I drove John mad with my barricades. It lasted several months and then suddenly disappeared after I returned to the UK.

It resurfaced three years later after my divorce, another period of great stress, whilst I was caught up in the emotional torture of my secret lover. I lived in a top-floor flat at the time, so I felt reasonably safe and didn’t indulge in the door security compulsions again, but it didn’t stop me from getting stuck in the hob and iron rituals once more. Once again, the OCD only stayed for a few months, and when I was more balanced, it disappeared and hasn’t returned.

Jack had never witnessed any of this. The first occurrence was before he was born, and I hid the re-emergence of these behaviours completely from my children.

I’ve never been a drinker, nor smoked or even enjoyed tea or coffee, so I didn’t have the classic go-to when I struggled to cope. So instead, when life spun out of control with Paul, Thomas and Jack, I found myself turning to food. During the most difficult months I discovered food gave me imaginary comfort. It’s not uncommon for people to turn to food to ease anxiety. A full tummy can give you a false sense of contentment, but it’s just an illusion. Food, especially sugary food, can become just as addictive as drugs and alcohol.

As the challenging weeks rolled on, I found myself secretly eating vast quantities of food in short bursts: crisps, chocolate, cakes and fresh white bread with lashings of butter; all calorie-loaded, nutritionally useless stodge. As I was eating the food, I knew it was unnecessary and unhealthy for me, but I found it hard to stop. I was in denial that I had a problem, and it’s incredible how powerful my brain was at convincing me otherwise.

My weight gradually increased, and that made me miserable. I joined an online slimming site and, for three months, stuck religiously to a strict calorie-counting regime. It gave me a sense of control over something again, and I lost a substantial amount of weight. But then my membership ended, and without the daily discipline, the desire to binge again slowly returned, predominantly at night. I was able to consciously witness my behaviour, though, so if I had an angry confrontation with Paul or felt stressed before an appointment for Jack, I knew I’d want to eat. Crunchy food was one of my favourites: sweet or savoury – it didn’t matter. Biscuits and crisps were perfect for satisfying the urge; it was as if I was trying to bite through my anger.

Initially, I didn’t gain weight after one or two binges which gave me an imaginary green light to do it again and again. Slowly but surely, though, I regained all the weight and then some. Things quickly got out of hand and before long, I was bingeing four to five nights a week. It was always in secret and always at night, and I’d hide the evidence at the bottom of the bin or stash food wrappers behind cushions if I heard one of the children approaching. I’d spend weeks yo-yo-ing up and down, starving myself and losing weight, then bingeing and regaining everything and more.

Food became my comforter, a self-destructive soothing blanket. I began to plan my binges. I’d feel tingles of excitement from the anticipation of eating beforehand and would go to a local shop after dinner and look at all the things I could eat.

One evening, even after the entire day’s intake of three regular meals, I consumed an enormous amount of food during a two-hour bingeing session. It started with two family bags of crisps, five bars of chocolate, a large trifle, a box of chocolates, followed by a large bag of popcorn. It all had to be washed down with a drink, always sickly-sweet fruit juice, – it was not unusual for me to consume almost half a litre of fruit juice during a binge.

I went out again and bought a 1kg family bag of cheese savouries and ate all of them, cramming my mouth full, leaving just enough room to squeeze in some juice which would soften the food and make it easier to swallow. Then I ate a box of sickly caramel ice-creams, four in total. Eating until feeling nauseous and bloated, I then ate half a packet of biscuits and three large bowls of sugary cereal, all within a two hour-period. I’d easily consume around four to five thousand calories during one binge.

The crazy thing was I knew I shouldn’t be doing it. My body would never want all that junk if given a choice. Once I started eating, the anticipatory excitement wore off almost instantly, and I munched through the food in a state of subconscious frenzy. It wasn’t that satisfying to eat any of it, but I couldn’t stop myself. It was as if something had taken over and stolen my willpower. I knew it was me, of course, but it was not me: Emily. I was observing this gluttonous feasting from outside of her.

The next day I felt ill, utterly poisoned inside with a toxic hangover from the vast amounts of sugar and fat. I felt downright miserable. I binged like that for three consecutive days. By the fourth night, despite feeling physically sick, I began another planned night of eating.

Mid-feeding frenzy, I decided to look up bingeing on the internet. I know it’s never a healthy or accurate practice to play Dr Google and self-diagnose, however, I stumbled across a site dealing with binge-eating disorder and could identify with all of the associated behaviours. I burst into tears, then went to the kitchen and made two rounds of toast, sobbing as I ate them. I recognised I had a problem, but I felt out of control and unable to manage it alone.

I saw my doctor in late October 2019 and broke down. He was very sympathetic when I told him about my anorexia as a teen and my disordered thoughts about food. The doctor asked me to tell him what I was consuming during a binge. I felt ashamed to admit the truth, but he gave me little choice. It was as if I was reading out a sorry shopping list of processed food, though there was relief in being honest with someone at last. With my history and current food behaviours he agreed to refer me to an eating-disorder clinic for specialist counselling. He was aware of the family history with Jack, Paul, and Thomas and suggested I’d been hanging on for so long, the stress was now coming to the surface in its own way, through my eating. He told me it wasn’t me consciously eating, it was a faulty part of my brain, and therapy could fix it.

Even knowing what I was consuming wasn’t healthy or normal, when the doctor confirmed that I was eating an abnormal amount of food and it was like any other addiction, it hit home a lot harder. I left in tears. I was meant to be the strong one, meant to be keeping this ship afloat.

Now everything in my life felt out of my control, including me, so I re-joined the online slimming club that day and returned to a calorie-counting regime. It’s against their advice if you have an eating disorder of any kind, but I knew it would be several weeks until the appointment came through from the clinic, and I didn’t want to continue bingeing and ballooning in weight, so, I lied.

It gave me back a false sense of control, and the weight started to come off. More importantly, the bingeing stopped, temporarily. I later learned that the yo-yo dieting I was caught up in was one of the underlying causes of my bingeing. The constant deprivation of self-labelled ‘naughty’ foods would lead to inevitable binges of the same foods I’d spend all my time avoiding.

My referral for the eating-disorder clinic came through within a few weeks, and I met my Psychologist in November. We began working through a self-guided recovery program together over the phone. It was a slow process and difficult to stick to, what with so much else going on at home. Deprivation and dieting often underpin bingeing. I stopped weighing myself daily, which, in turn, stopped me micromanaging the ounce fluctuations. When the need to binge arose, I tried to distract myself with writing, or texting a friend. I tried to keep myself occupied at night. Nighttime was always my danger zone.

In the past, when I’d finally got Jack settled at night, I used to reward myself with two or three chocolate bars. I stopped rewarding myself with sugary late-night snacks in ‘my time’, and as a result, my weight stabilised and very slowly started to drop. Food became less of a focus for a while and eating became easier without the constant underlying thoughts about how many calories were in the meal and how much weight I would put on.

I got halfway through my treatment for the eating disorder, and it was helping my eating patterns enormously. Still, like any therapy, it required me to be fully engaged and responsible for my recovery. I found the homework a challenge. Daily meal monitoring fell by the wayside several times. However, I continued to work with the program and have phone sessions with my psychologist until she contracted Covid, and sessions were suspended. I saw her absence as an excuse to quit and in April 2020, I foolishly withdrew myself from treatment. I’d convinced myself I had it under control, and it was an unnecessary annoyance to deal with on top of everything else.

One of the hardest parts of having developed another eating disorder was accepting that it is a mental-health disorder. I struggled to accept that I had a problem. No, not I, I couldn’t possibly… I was the invincible one, tasked with saving everyone else. I couldn’t do that job if I had succumbed to mental illness myself, and I judged it as my weakness, an inability to manage. And so began a phase of crucifying self-criticism.

Anorexia, OCD and binge-eating disorder all appeared in my life when it was at its most chaotic, and more importantly, out of my control. Although I was unable to witness it at the time, each disorder gave me a false sense of control over the situations I was in. I had also succumbed to depression more than once in my lifetime.

Another thought provoked that Guilt Monster of mine regularly: were all these disorders just different traits of a mental illness that I’d somehow bestowed on both my children through my genes?


Emily's book 'Pushing Through The Cracks' is available to buy on Amazon.


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