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"Imogen died wanting to be thin"

ABC News ABC News 19/03/2016 Imogen Brennan

"My entire wardrobe fit in two suitcases." Imogen, before moving to London for work in 2011. © ABC News / Imogen Brennan "My entire wardrobe fit in two suitcases." Imogen, before moving to London for work in 2011. After years of suffering and starvation, Imogen Brennan realised anorexia would claim her life if she didn't get help. Here, she shares her story in the hope of changing misconceptions about eating disorders.

The Beginning

I remember the night clearly. It was after school on a hot Wednesday. I was in grade 10 in Brisbane, 15 years old. I'd changed out of my school uniform into a short denim skirt and singlet, and caught the bus into the city for my modelling class. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a model. I was a tall, skinny kid who loved playing netball, travelling, watching news religiously, and fashion shows, too. That night, my new model agent handed me a book and said, "Take this, the weight will fall off in no time."

Little did I know that book would change my life. It was a calorie counting book. I remember thumbing through the pages and having no idea what it all meant. I put it aside for a couple of months.

I didn't need to lose weight. I was skinnier than most kids, but never the skeletal frame the fashion industry demanded. And I was forever uncomfortable in my body. Always the tallest kid at school, even taller than the boys. I always felt too big. Eventually I rediscovered the book and made sense of it like this: Food = calories. Calories = weight. Calorie deficit = weight loss = goal. Initially, my anorexia started as it does for many people - with orthorexia. I stopped eating processed foods I deemed as "bad". I won't list them here; I don't want to be 'thinspiration' for anyone else. Thanks to that book, I could've told you the nutritional content in any food. All food. Still can, unfortunately.

Hunger Games

At 17, I began my first year of a journalism degree at university and was also working in radio.

I went through phases of eating a lot, then eating not so much. It never bothered me too much at that stage, I was just toying with the disorder. By the time I got my first job in television I was 18 and hyperaware of my body. But it took another couple of years for the discomfort and orthorexia to develop into anorexia. I was working crazy hours and hardly had time to eat or sleep. I was 21 now. I lost a few kilos. I was thrilled. People were noticing I'd lost weight, they were telling me I "looked great", asking me how I did it. It felt good. I restricted more. Weighed myself. Lost weight. Restricted. Weighed. Lost weight. Restricted. Addicted. My family had raised concerns about my weight loss and eating habits. I told them I was fine and went to see a nutritionist to put Mum's mind at ease. I knew what I was doing; I just wanted to see how much more weight I could lose. And at that stage, my mind wasn't in the darkness. Yet.

Imogen Brennan at work in 2015 © ABC News Imogen Brennan at work in 2015 Feeling Light and Dark

That came later, after I moved to London for work. I felt free. I didn't know anyone and no one knew me. I threw myself into work. I've always had big goals for my career and I knew that this was the time I needed to knuckle down and focus. I literally worked my butt off. Because I had no support network in London and no one knew how I had looked before, it was easy for me to lose more weight, hide it under layers of warm clothes and pretend that there was nothing unusual going on. But my body was starving and starting to show telltale signs. My hair was falling out in handfuls every time I washed it. I pinned it up every day to hide its thinness. I would wake at night with painful cramps in my legs and feet. I had a fine covering of downy hair over my body - it was trying to add an extra layer of warmth to my bones because I was forever freezing.

My mind started suffering, too. I was utterly obsessed with food, yet hardly eating it. I would have nightmares about eating an entire block of chocolate or a hamburger and wake up in tears, believing it had really happened. I'd feel my bones constantly, convinced they'd disappear under a layer of fat if I ate any more than a certain number of calories. I would body check in the mirror several times a day. Never thin enough. I avoided social outings that involved food. I worked every single day to distract myself from disordered thinking. My family was growing increasingly concerned. They would see an occasional photo of me looking skeletal on Facebook. I didn't like turning the camera on for Skype chats. (It was only a few years later that Mum told me she was terrified they would be bringing me home in a coffin. That was hard to hear.) On a family holiday one year, I remember sitting at breakfast one morning with Mum and Dad and demolishing a plate of mangoes. I looked up to find Dad crying. Dad never cries. Ever. Of course, I denied I had a problem. I didn't want to even think about getting better at that stage, I was still very much in the thick of the disorder. The thought of putting on weight was terrifying.

Mental Distractions

Just before moving to Doha for work, I started toying with the idea of recovery.

I realised that my career was probably suffering, because the reality was that I looked sick. I couldn't wear my hair out and I needed to if I was going to continue reporting on television. I couldn't have bloodshot eyes or grey skin. My bony arms couldn't be uncovered. My career was my life. I loved my family dearly, but potentially losing my job was, at that stage, far more confronting than seeing my father cry because I was so unwell. Around this time I read a book about an anorexia survivor which had a quote that made me frustrated and furious enough to want recover. I can't remember the name of the book or the exact quote, but it described how the author didn't want to end up as just a few words on a gravestone. It made me think: I do not want my gravestone to read, "Imogen died wanting to be thin." What would be the point in that? I had massive goals, I had things to achieve and so much more of a legacy to leave than a few sick bones in the ground. I felt angry I had wasted so much mental energy on food and calories, and potentially damaged my career just to look good in clothes and be "perfect".

The Scenic Route on Recovery Road

Now, we are here. I moved back to Australia in 2015 for a job with an international news channel. I'd been overseas for a long time. I was exhausted - mentally and physically - and I couldn't keep trying to recover on my own anymore. I listened to as many podcasts about psychology, cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness and eating disorders as I could. My days off were spent reading as much as I could about eating disorders, addiction and mental health issues. I learnt a lot. But I wasn't getting the psychological help I needed. I was trying to see food as nourishment, rather than calories. I would eat meals, but if I ate more than a particular number of calories in one day, I'd feel tremendous guilt, which led to some purging behaviour. I had to surrender; I needed help. There was no other option. I'd exhausted them all. The fact that I was asking for help this time, rather than it being forced upon me, made Mum feel relieved. She booked me in to see Dr Leanne Barron at the QUT Eating Disorder Clinic in Brisbane. I remember Dr Barron telling me that eating disorders have a high mortality rate compared to other mental illnesses. It's tragic because most people who develop eating disorders are actually brilliant people with great potential: they're often intelligent, ambitious, organised high-achievers. The problem is, they are so good at achieving their goals (i.e. weight loss) that sometimes they kill themselves in the process. 

Leaving a Legacy

Eating disorders are a misunderstood yet widespread, problem. They are not just a "teenage girl" problem. They affect men and women of all ages, and like any addiction, can destroy relationships, careers and lives. But I'm not sad that I had this thing; this epic mental battle has taught me so much about myself. What I find most interesting is that having an eating disorder has actually helped my career. I have a level of perspective on mental health issues and addiction that other journalists do not, and I connect with people because of it. Now, I've started focusing on health, rather than weight. I'm more interested in the nutrient content of food, rather than calories. And I exercise to keep my mind healthy, not to punish my body or lose weight.

Where To From Here?

There are a number of things we need to do to make recovery from eating disorders and addictions smoother than it has been.

1. We need better access to mental health care. It's too expensive, too difficult to get appointments. Almost everyone has a GP they see for physical ailments; we need to be able to see counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists for an unlimited number of appointments at a reasonable price.

2. We need to talk more. Seriously. One in five Australians has a diagnosed mental health problem. There are many more of us that live with undiagnosed illnesses. We need to be having conversations about mental health in the same manner we do as physical health. If you break your back, you would go to the doctor. Your employer would give you time off and work with you and your healthcare professional to get you back in to an appropriate role when you're ready. We need to be seeing mental health in the same light - without stigma.

3. We need to teach young people about mental hygiene. Just as we shower each day to stay clean and fresh, we need to be teaching our kids methods to keep our minds and souls calm.

This is just the beginning of a range of things we can start doing better. Each of us has a duty to pass on a more balanced mental health legacy to future generations - whether it is through our work, private lives or both. The future will be bright if we start having open, respectful and sensitive conversations about mental health, more often. I find that when I share my own mental health challenges, people are in turn more comfortable sharing their vulnerabilities with me. By creating this space for each other, we create an accepting, supportive and respectful community. I challenge you to try it.

Chances are, you or someone you know is living with a mental health challenge. Let me repeat myself: one in five Australians has a diagnosed mental health condition. If one in five of us had a broken leg, we'd be talking about it. It's time to normalise the conversation about these common mental health challenges.

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