By Caitriona McMahon
This week is Eating Disorder Awareness Week and so when the opportunity to interview Dr Malie Coyne arose based on her lived experience of anorexia nervosa it became clear she could help others break the chains that bind them.
As a clinical psychologist with over 18 years experience and now working as a part-time lecturer on the Doctorate Of Psychological Science in the National University Of Ireland Galway Dr Coyne cuts an impressive figure – but she’s lived and survived the pain that others suffer today in silence.
Q1: Malie, You have shared with me that in the past you struggled with anorexia nervosa. Can I ask when it all began and what that was like for you?
“It started when I was 14 and I had just moved from Los Angeles to Milan in Italy. This was yet another move for my family due to my dad’s job, and I had really enjoyed living in L.A and had made lots of friends there,” Malie said.
“For some reason, I just could not settle into Milan, I just hated it. Maybe it was my age and how I felt about myself. I was on the podgy side and had been called “pizza” face and been made fun of for my appearance before, which still really resonated with me.
“After spending a few months introducing myself for the millionth time in a new French school, I was moved from there only a few months later into a British school where I had to do it all over again.
“I eventually made friends with this girl I really admired, my first real friend in Milan or so I thought. As she was a bit overweight too, she had decided she was going on a diet and we sort of got into losing weight together.
“It started pretty innocently but went downhill very quickly from there. I went from trying to watch my weight and doing a bit of exercise to it becoming a full-time obsession that I just could not see past.”
Q2. When did you first realize things weren’t quite right?
“I didn’t realise it then but I was deeply unhappy in my new environment and felt I needed to gain control over it in some way.
“Losing weight gave me the control that I desperately longed for. At least I knew where I stood as I watched the scales go down every time I checked them, several times a day.
“What started as something more joined up with my friend became a day and night private obsession for me where all I could think about was losing weight; not eating; exercising; getting thinner; and so on etc… I started to get compliments from my friends on having lost a few pounds and that just set me off even deeper.
“It became like a strict regime where I would have to exercise in the gym every day after school, then go home and do an hour on exercise bike, then do more jumping jacks in my bedroom, all in secret.
“I just couldn’t sit still. Meanwhile I was hardly eating a thing, I would only allow myself strict rations. It was like living under military occupation and the dictator was me and my mind.
“Within three months I had lost 25 pounds and my period had stopped. I would have continued on unless someone had stepped in.”
Q3. Looking back now what would you say to yourself?
“Malie, you are in a sea of confusion, you are so unhappy in your own little bubble of secrecy. You don’t realise how out of control you feel and you need to talk to someone quickly before things get worse.
“You are on the brink of something really dark. You have lost 25 pounds in three months and your period has stopped. You’re hardly eating a thing and you’ re hiding food.
“You’re exercising every second you can. You’re living in your own scary mind and cannot see the world out there.
“You are desperately lonely and cannot see that people care about you and will help if you talk to them. You need to STOP RIGHT NOW.
Q4. At your lowest point what was it like looking in a mirror?
“I still felt like I was fat and could lose more weight. I liked the feeling of my clothes getting too big. Little did I know how pale and sick I looked. My lips had turned blue and I was cold all the time. I needed layers of clothes.
“I have since seen photos of myself and tore them all up as it was too much of a painful reminder of the turmoil my head was in and how alone I felt.”
Q5. What was a typical day like living with the disorder?
“It was like a military regime where my mind was the dictator. I am not surprised this disorder hits people with a tendency towards perfectionism and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, as it was like having an obsession that I needed to act on… or else… There was no option for me.
“I had to restrict or hide food, pretty much starve myself. I had to exercise like crazy after school to burn off any calories and lose even more weight. It was like a living hell that I could not get out of.
“Every second of my day was consumed by thoughts of food and exercise, it was bloody torture.”
Q6. Did others notice? Did you try to hide it?
“As I said people at school complimented me on my weight loss which egged me on even more. I am sure my parents did notice but they were busy getting used to Milan too and had their own things to be dealing with.
“Anorexia is a very secret disease, where the threat of being found out is really scary. Imagine someone trying to disarm your only coping mechanism when it’s all you feel you have?
“You become so good at hiding food and lying about exercising. Secrecy was an essential tool to me feeding my obsession. No way did I want anyone to stop me, NO WAY.
“I didn’t want to gain weight, I wanted to go on losing it. The only thing I had control of in my life was my weight and nobody was going to take that away from me/”
Q7. If I asked you to summarize the impact anorexia nervosa had on you in one sentence what would that sentence be?
“Anorexia has given me the awareness of how negative thoughts and feelings can quite literally take over your life in such a short time and how hard it is to “just snap out of it”!”-Malie
Q8. So much of the conversation around the disorder focuses on food was it about food for you or did it go much deeper than that?
“Although at the time it seemed all about food, looking back it was really about how unhappy I felt as an under- confident teenager in a place I hated, with no real friends and little support.
“My older sister had just moved out to go to college and I really missed her. Anorexia was my coping strategy, like a form of self-harm which gave me a sense of purpose and much needed control over my environment.”
Q9. What advice would you give someone suffering with the disorder now?
“What I would say is that life does not have to be like this. Being thin isn’t the be all and end all. It is all a facade, and not what life should be about. You are beautiful as you are and your life is there for living.
“If you have lost a lot of weight lately through restricting food and over-exercising, I would really encourage you to talk to someone you trust as soon as you can. Don’t be afraid, the goal of recovery is not to gain all the weight back, rather it’s to give you your joy in life again.
“The advice I really want to give is to those who are worried about someone they love. What I would say is tread gently, pick a good time to speak to them, convey your concerns, be specific about what you have noticed and use “I” statements instead of “you” comments which could sound like an accusation.
“Don’t expect the person to “come to their senses.” Expect resistance from that person as they are unlikely to want their coping strategy to be suddenly disarmed. Be patient, keep conveying your concern, and let them know you will walk with them every step of the way.”
Q10. How and when did you get help?
“My sister had just moved away to college and when she came back a few months later and saw the drastic weight loss she was really shocked at the difference in me. As there were a lot of moves in my life, my sister was like a mother to me sometimes and felt this sense of responsibility for me.
“She had a good bit of experience with anorexia so she knew the signs to look out for.
“That Christmas when she saw me hiding my tomatoes under the table and moving my food around my plate for the hundredth time, she spoke to me in private, broke down in tears and told me how worried she was about me.
“What helped was that she didn’t lay blame on me or get angry or tell me to “snap out of it.” Instead she conveyed what she had noticed about what I was doing and told me how worried she was and how she could see how unhappy I was.
“Although I didn’t instantly change my behaviour, her talk was like a wake-up call to me, which almost felt like a re-wiring of my brain.
“Over the coming months, with her support, I began to see things more clearly and to gradually reduce my exercise and to eat more healthily.
“If it wasn’t for my sister, I dread what could have happened to me. She quite literally saved me from my despair and I will forever be grateful to her for that. She cared enough about me to share her concern and she stood next to me every step of the way.”
Q11. Do you feel as a practicing Clinical Psychologist and Lecturer it is important to speak about past experiences?
“Absolutely this is the very reason I am sharing this. I feel it’s so important for professionals to open up about their own difficult life experiences as we are all human at the end of the day and can learn from one another.
“There are many experiences I would like to share in the future when the time is right. Given that it’s Eating Disorder Awareness week, it felt like a good time to open up about my own experience in the hope of helping anyone out there who may be going through something similar and could use a helping hand.
“You are not alone trust me, life can be different, just reach out for help. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
“Although my symptoms were not as severe as some of the clients I have seen, I thought it was important to show readers what a slippery slope this trajectory can be in such a short space of time.
“Given that anorexia nervosa is the most fatal of all psychiatric illnesses, early intervention is crucial, but this needs
to be done with the utmost sensitivity to the vulnerable person.”
Q12. As someone that has been through it ,What’s it like for you now having a client with anorexia nervosa?
“When I worked with clients with Anorexia in C.A.M.H.S. – Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service I probably found this harder than most as it naturally brought up my own experience.
“Family therapy is one of the best forms of treatment and I was privileged to be able to help vulnerable young people to enable their parents to understand their feelings of loneliness and distress.
“I wish I’d had that as a teenager.”
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Dr Malie for being so open and honest about her experiences. As a practicing professional speaking out about disorders etc it can carry stigma and today Dr Malie has smashed that stigma which takes true courage and strength. Thank you.