If ever there was a woman who’s been there, done that and got the T-shirt, it’s the attractive blonde, sitting opposite me, clutching a cup of coffee.
“An alcoholic can stop drinking, a drug addict can stop taking drugs, but those who suffer from an eating disorder have to face their drug of choice every day,” she says. “It’s there on your plate. You need food to survive.”
Alison is not only fighting the fight herself, she is also helping others battle the demons that threaten to destroy them. She’s the director of Imani Addiction Services, a treatment centre specialising in eating disorders in Wynberg, Cape Town, where she encourages people to confront the root of their problems in order to find recovery from this life-threatening illness.
Clients at Imani are encouraged to face their fears and their deeply ingrained feelings of worthlessness.
Alison’s relationship with food has in the past been tumultuous to say the least. It has been a long journey of healing and building a healthy relationship with food. For many years she had to rely on a dietician for guidance in her meal planning, as she could not trust herself. This was part of handing over control and asking for help from people around her.
It all started around the age of eight. Food was her “secret friend”, and she would hide chocolate biscuits in her room, finding solace in the cookies whenever she had a fight with her mom. As she grew older, food was constantly on her mind.
“I was always planning and hiding, counting calories and checking food labels. I would also exercise obsessively,” Alison says.
Yet the emptiness persisted. She felt isolated and fearful, and the only thing that boosted her self-esteem was the illusion of control she felt over food.
As a teen she was slightly overweight until she discovered appetite suppressants and the weight dropped off. She felt validated and motivated when people started to notice her slimmer figure. Resisting food made her feel worthy – as if she was finally good at something. Small “accomplishments”, such as saying no to snacks and skipping meals, encouraged her to keep losing weight. After a while she stopped taking the diet pills but kept restricting her intake.
“It’s all about control,” she says again. “You don’t know this at the time; it feels like it’s all about food and weight and how you look.” Alison’s primary goal was to be perfect – nothing else would do.
Watching your weight go down becomes an addiction, she explains. “Your goal may be 60kg, then 55, then 40 and down you go. You’re never satisfied. You always feel bad, you still feel fat. I didn’t realise for a long time that it wasn’t about the weight but that I was feeling worthless no matter what size I was. What we try to teach people at Imani is you are projecting the internal problem externally.”
Anorexia is not about weight-loss, she stresses, but rather about trying to regain control in a world that seems to be crumbling around you.
Anorexia is a progressive illness, Alison says. For her it transitioned from diet pills, to not eating at all, to not being able to sleep and then taking an excessive amount of sleeping tablets. “I didn’t want to confront what I’d become, so I went overseas and started the drug phase.”
She soon realised Ecstasy was a great way to burn off calories as it enabled her to dance all night. Anorexia took a backseat when the drugs came along – food just wasn’t an issue anymore, and her mind was quieter. She felt like she finally had a handle on things.
But in 1999 things started getting seriously hazy and she checked herself into rehab for the first time. It was a tipping point for her – she felt left behind while friends her age were getting married and excelling in their careers.
Told she had an eating disorder, Alison aggressively denied it at first. She was willing to be treated for drug addiction but not anorexia – she couldn’t and wouldn’t surrender control of that.
“There was just so much dishonesty. The addiction takes over everything,” she says. “You don’t even know you are being dishonest. An addict is very clever. You are able to manipulate everyone around you.”
When she was released from rehab, she started bingeing “to absorb and numb my feelings”, she says. Whenever she felt overwhelmed, she’d drive to a corner shop, buy 10 or more chocolate bars and shovel them down. And to combat the weight gain she started taking laxatives daily – which wreaked more havoc with her life.
Things got so bad she begged her family to lock her in her flat over a weekend so she couldn’t binge.
Alcohol binges followed – and after two years she was forced to admit she was an alcoholic. “I went to a doctor who told me I had so little potassium in my body I’d be dead by the end of the year if I didn’t sort it out.”
Alison checked back into rehab but she soon relapsed into old behaviours – not eating all week, drinking all weekend, taking laxatives… “So another cycle of destruction,” she says. “One after the other.”
Finally she realised if she didn’t do something drastic her life would all have been a waste.
“I found a sponsor and a specialist dietician. Getting help and surrendering came with mixed emotions: relief, then fear, then hope, then desperation and so on. In a nutshell there wasn’t and still isn’t a magical solution.”
Alison went through a 12-step programme and emerged a healthier, happier person. “I found a new way of life,” she says. “But it required constant work.”
She decided to use her experiences to help others and worked at a conventional addiction treatment centre in Cape Town before deciding to start a facility specialising specifically in eating disorders. And this was how Imani was born. The 12-step programme gave Alison a new lease on life – and she wanted to pass on this message of hope by helping others.
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