House debates

Wednesday, 1 September 2021


Eating Disorders

7:45 pm

Photo of Celia HammondCelia Hammond (Curtin, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This government has invested significant amounts of money into the treatment of and research into eating disorders, and I commend the Prime Minister, the Minister for Health and Aged Care and the Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention on the efforts they are taking to challenge this cluster of diseases. But I don't want to talk about the treatment or the research efforts tonight. I want to talk about the reality of the disease and the stigma which is, sadly, still attached to it. I can talk about the reality of eating disorders because I'm someone who suffered anorexia for more than a decade of my life, complete with several recoveries and several relapses. If truth be told, I suspect that, like others who have suffered this disease, I will always have an intermittent propensity to it.

I stress that, when I talk about the reality of this disease, I can in fact talk only about my reality of suffering from it. While there are, undoubtedly, common threads to the disease, everybody's experience will be different. I used to be able to tell you the calorie count of nearly every food and drink imaginable. I used to spend time endlessly tallying those calories. I would eat the same restricted calorie intake every day. I was obsessed by routine. I exercised obsessively. I weighed myself daily. I chewed so much gum to avoid eating that my dentist, an old friend of mine from uni days, could have retired 20 years ago if he had chosen to charge me the rates other dentists may have charged. I lost hair from my head but was covered in feathery, downy hair all over my body. I couldn't lie on my stomach because my hip bones would hurt. I couldn't sit on uncushioned couches because my tailbone would hurt. I was always cold. I hated going out with friends because I was always tired.

I put my family and my friends, particularly my darling parents, through years of hell. I remember thinking of my life as akin to simply marking off days on a calendar until the day I died. It was miserable and it was isolating. I was totally self-absorbed in this thing which had overtaken my life. But eating was something—in fact, it felt like it was the only thing—over which I had control. As much as I wanted to get better, and I did, I also didn't want to get better, because somehow this disease came to define me. Success at controlling my eating was how I was defining success for myself. I also remember that sometime after I started to first receive treatment I woke up one morning and looked out the window to see a beautiful blue sky and I knew I was getting better because I had not noticed something as simple as a blue sky for years.

I'm sharing all this not for pity nor for sympathy. I don't want either. I also don't want to be told that I'm brave for sharing this. I am sharing this because there is still so much stigma surrounding this disease—and, to a lesser extent, other mental illnesses—that many people do not seek help, in part because of fear of being silently judged by others and in part because, just as I did, they lose themselves to the disease and are scared to escape its clutches. I won't sugar-coat things: some people do judge you. Some people think that an eating disorder is a sign of weakness, that you need kid gloves, that you can't handle tough stuff. Some people think it's the ultimate narcissistic attention-seeking teenage girl affectation and dismiss it with a wave of the hand—just eat, grow up; you'll get over it.

The fact is that eating disorders are illnesses. They are diseases. One million Australians at any one time suffer from an eating disorder. It has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. Sixty-three per cent of sufferers are female, and it is estimated the 15 per cent of women will suffer an eating disorder at some time in their life. It is the third-most-common chronic illness in young women. Adolescents are most at risk, but it can happen at any age. There is no single cause, but it is said to be a complex interaction of psychological risk factors, sociocultural influences and biological and genetic dispositions. Some personality traits make you more susceptible: perfectionism, obsessive compulsiveness. The best-known environmental contributor is the sociocultural idealisation of thinness. Because of the stigma, because of the shame, less than a quarter of the people suffering this disease receive a diagnosis, and approximately 90 per cent don't receive treatment.

To all those who are suffering this disease, I say this: while it may consume you at times, if you get help you will find that it does not need to dictate your life; it does not need to impact your goals or impede your achievements. Moreover, your worth and your success is not dependent on how much control you have over what you put in your mouth. This does not define you.