A Girl Called Tim is a heartfelt chronicle of living with a mental illness, misunderstanding, abuse and rejection countered by love, hope and resilience. June developed anorexia in grade six, shortly after her 11th birthday, in 1962. A dairy farmer's daughter, her illness is unheard of in the rural region where she is growing up - near Bairnsdale in southeast Australia.
Nobody knows that, unchecked, the illness will destroy generations of family relationships. From the outset, unable to cope with or understand the changes in her daughter, whom she had nicknamed Tim, June's mother feels ashamed and repelled to the point where she burnt all photographs of the early traumatic years.
Life becomes an increasingly chaotic existence. Insecurity, instability and alienation evolve as June's anorexia transitions to bulimia nervosa, chronic anxiety and depression. Her illness is undiagnosed for 21 years.
At the same time, June's love of the written word leads to a successful career in journalism. Untouched by the illness, her writing passion is a vital tool in her survival and struggle for sanity.
Against the odds, over the next 25 years, June succeeds in breaking free of her illness and regaining her identity. This journey is more arduous, the reclaiming of self-worth more difficult, due to unfolding events on the family farm.
Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa can affect anyone, female or male.
June's memoir - drawn from diary entries - chronicles almost half a century of living with eating disorders: from the gradual disintegration of a mind, followed by the slow steps towards recovery, June acquired the skills and knowledge that provided her with the empowerment to pave her way to freedom. A Girl Called Tim offers a beacon of hope to anybody caught up in a struggle and sends a compelling message: NEVER GIVE UP.
"I found the courage to reach out... to people who believed not my illness, but in me." June Alexander
A Girl Called Tim
New Holland Press
Author: June Alexander
Question: How did you recall all of your childhood stories and memories for A Girl Called Tim?
June Alexander: I had my diaries that I had kept since age 12 and they were my major resource, forty five years later. Going through my diaries was like reliving those years, all over again.
When I first began writing my diary I was in the throws of anorexia and I didn't express much feeling in those days, I mostly noted perhaps what I had eaten for the day and how many calories which seems a little bit crazy way back then. I lived in the country were we didn't have television or even electricity at the time.
By the time I was 14, 15 and 16 years old I began expressing more of my thoughts in the diaries, words were my friends. I found great comfort in writing and when I was feeling misunderstood by my parents or I was starting to realise I wasn't as carefree as other girls- I couldn't eat lunch like my girlfriends at school could. In those days it was a salad roll and a cream bun for lunch and I couldn't eat lunch without feeling very guilty. I used to feel very confused because I transitioned from anorexia to bulimia because I didn't receive any healing help from the medical profession as very little was known in those days. It was very lucky that I did transition otherwise I might not be here to tell the story.
I was a restrictive bulimic and anorexic which means I would exercise to ease my anxiety for eating rather than purge, like some girls do. By the time I was 16, I found I was actually using the word 'depression' in my diaries, I would feel depressed. Unlike today, where I hope there is opportunities for teenage girls if they are feeling depressed, that they know that it is okay to reach out for help; I didn't know that it was okay.
I married young, I was 20 years old, which must seem very young, these days, but it was quite normal within the era when I was growing up. I had four children by the time I was 25 but I would hope within each pregnancy to control my eating but I never could manage it. My dream was by the time each baby was born I would have my eating under control and stay under control. I was always looking for something to help me gain control but it always failed because I had an illness and I needed help to get better.
By the time I was about 26 my diaries were becoming full of torment and periods where I was in a pit of darkness for three or four days at a time; I didn't know how to get out of the pit. The only ingrained behaviour that I had from the eating disorder was to count calories, it was never going to work, but that was all my brain knew. I became suicidal and finally it was my little children who gave me the courage to tell a GP about how I was feeling and I recorded that, in my diary. I was afraid that the GP would tell me I was 'crazy' and needed to be locked up and then he would take my children away. It took a lot of courage to tell someone "I don't think my mind is well". I also thought the GP might say I was 'weak' for not coping because that is what my sister would say. The doctor was understanding but didn't diagnose me properly and it was another four to six years before I was properly diagnosed, which was a long time.
I was in the illness, alone and I was trying to conform. My mother would say things like "why can't you be like other girls?" and I didn't know! I tried to be like other girls but there was something stopping me and of course it was this illness.
When I finally met a psychologist who finally diagnosed me and understood that I had an eating disorder, I was about 32 years old and my illness had, had quite a good start. You can sort of imagine a ball of wool that has lots of knots in it, that was probably what my brain was like; there were a lot of knots to be undone. I had to separate me from the eating disorder and that took a long time. When I was going through my diaries, when I was writing in my 30's and 40's, I really could see that most of that period was consumed by eating disorder behaviours and thoughts. I was straining to break free and of course when the illness becomes threatened it bucks up and makes life even more difficult for you.
It was difficult reading about my 30's and 40's because it made me quite sad when I could look back and see how much of my life the illness had actually consumed and it was like being in a prison within my own mind. It was my writing that was the only part that was not negotiable with my illness. I worked as a journalist with the 5% of me that I managed to retain and I did a lot with that 5%.
When I finally got over the line, it was like running a very long marathon, I was 55 years old. I had got 'me' back and I knew then I would never be less than 50% me, again; that was a wonderful feeling. From that moment on I began turning the tide on my eating disorder and the magnetic force that it had over my brain, for so long. I started to turn the illness outwards instead of inwards, which has enabled me to write three books in three years.
Question: Why do you believe it was important to write A Girl Called Tim?
June Alexander: Mostly girls develop eating disorders, although an increasing number of boys are now, with 1 in 10 being the statistic. I'd like them to know to never give up hope and to reach out, don't ever think you are weak or silly- you are not, you are being very courageous because this is an illness.
When I interviewed a 13 year old boy for my book 'My Kid is Back' and this boy described to me, how he felt when he developed anorexia at the age of 11 - the same age I was when I developed anorexia a whole fifty years earlier. The boy had the exact same thoughts which means the illness puts the same thoughts in your head and you realise that those thoughts belong to the illness and they're not the real you, which is very enlightening. People with eating disorders can often talk very easily to someone else who has an eating disorder because the illness has it's own language, of course it is the language that one must overcome to be ones true self otherwise the illness is dominating.
The eating disorder is a very debilitating illness, it sabotages so many young lives and we really need that early intervention. It is important to reach out for help as soon as you notice a friend or yourself starting to think more about food than anything else. You need to reach out for help because this illness doesn't only affect your physical and emotional health it affects your relationships. When trying to have a relationship with someone you love there are three of you in that relationship. It affects every area of your life, it is really important to reach out and get help.
One other factor I would like to emphasise is that a lot of young woman say to me is that they have been very emancipated with anorexia and they have regained weight to a healthy level and people think that you're well now but the girls feel very upset because while the physical self may have gained weight the brain takes much longer to heal. The girls know they look normal again but they're not because their minds are still healing and have thoughts and voices. The brain takes a lot longer to heal than the physical body which is why it is very important when girls are sent home from hospital after gaining weight that health care continues, it is a very long term process. With early intervention within the first 6 -12 months may contain the illness to 12 months recovery but otherwise it can take seven years or a lifetime.
Interview by Brooke Hunter