Smiling her way back
For nearly two decades Mandy-Lee has suffered with bulimia, an illness that is characterised by episodes of binge eating, followed by purging – by eating copious amounts of food and vomiting.
On first night Sukkot, she took a bite of a gherkin and her temporary front teeth fell out. In that moment of sheer terror, her whole life flashed before her and she knew deep down that this was the end of her torment and the beginning of an entirely new chapter in her life.
“I looked at myself in the mirror. There I was at 42 years old, unmarried, childless and with no front teeth and it hit me. I did not go through this journey for nothing.”
After cancelling her Yomtov and Shabbos plans, she spent the next few days soul-searching and contemplating her life going forward. She had been binge- and purge-free for almost two years. She had spent countless, agonising hours in the state-funded dentist’s chair, repairing her entire mouth which had succumbed to severe acid damage from years of throwing up.
After 15 root canal treatments and porcelain crowns, numerous implants and hours of excruciating gum surgery – the laboratory costs alone leaving her bankrupt – it was time to reveal her new recovering-self to the world and become a beacon of light to others experiencing similar hell.
So, with incredible courage and bravery she decided to let her secret out. On October 7 at 19:40 Mandy-Lee came out of hiding with a Facebook post on the Jewish Joburg Mommies page.
In it she said: “The aim is to be brave enough to expose my struggle with the hope that it will in some way help others.”
She pleaded with readers to “Please, please” inbox her privately if anyone they knew found themselves “in the web of using food to punish” because she exclaimed: “I can help, I want to help.”
She added: “There is a reason I lived through this and it’s not to sit behind a mask with shame, guilt or embarrassment.”
With a rawness of emotion, she exposed the heartache of living with bulimia for 17 years, describing how it left her virtually penniless, isolated and having to undergo unaffordable mouth surgery.
In just 24 hours following her heartfelt, brave post, the response has been “overwhelming” she says.
She has received a flood of messages, both of support and from people desperate to reach out for help.
“There are so many people out there needing help,” she said. “The response has changed my life! Girls have already reached out… some have… offered to try help contribute to massive dental bills.”
Mandy-Lee spoke to the SA Jewish Report and revealed how her journey into hell began.
She was separated from her mother from birth, being six weeks premature, literally able to fit inside a shoebox. For the first six months of her life she battled to feed. Mandy-Lee comes from a dysfunctional, broken family.
It was never easy on the home front. She did not experience a conventional upbringing and her parents were never truly present in her life growing up.
“I even had to waitress to get myself through matric,” she recalls.
But it was only in her twenties that her love-hate relationship with food began.
She remembers the day well. Suffering from a broken heart after a recent break-up with a man she thought she loved, she found herself eating a McDonald’s burger during a lunch break.
“I felt fat afterwards, so I went to the toilet and brought it up.” What she actually felt was “abandoned and rejected”, feelings that had accompanied her, her whole life, she said.
And so began the cycle of self-hate and before she knew it, bulimia had taken over her entire being.
In her post she describes bulimia as a brutal “private hell of self-loathing, isolation, self-punishment and torture on a daily basis” and a vicious addiction that “clutches you until you’re a shell”.
She says: “It starts off slowly and before you know it, you’re planning your next binge.”
Last week after two torturous years of mouth surgery to repair her rotten teeth, she finally received her last set of crowns.
Recalling her years as a bulimic she says: “You don’t have a thought process when you binge. You just eat and eat until you are numb. While you eat you don’t feel a thing; it’s like heroin; you eat… there is a complete emotional shutdown.”
However, the emotions leading up to a binge are intense. “These include being overwhelmed, anxious, full of fear, a kind of paralysis… stress and obsessive thinking. It is like your mind is on the spin cycle of a washing machine. Sometimes it’s just intense sadness.”
In her experience, a binge could last up to two hours. It would stop when her stomach literally felt as though it would explode.
“After a purge you feel opposing emotions. There is self-loathing, exhaustion and punishment, but in an obscure way bringing up is a release of pain.”
At the height of her eating disorder, Mandy-Lee could binge and purge as many as four times in a day, taking hours.
“Your throat gets so raw it feels like it is bleeding. Eventually you feel faint, emotionally and physically depleted, an empty shell where your only friend is food. It’s your best friend and your worst enemy.”
Her lowest moment was several years ago when she was living with a housemate. She would lock herself in her room and binge for hours, then purge in a bucket in her room and wake at 04:00 and flush it all down the toilet. Her fear being that the toilet would block.
Almost two years ago, there was a shift and she said: “Through this darkness I found myself. I found self-love, I didn’t have a choice or I would have died.”
She says she still has an instinct to eat when she is emotionally challenged, but she’s learnt how to be “more mindful”.
Her dream now is to open her own eating disorder centre to help change people’s lives for the better. “I went through this, so that I could one day share my journey and help others,” she said.
Mandy-Lee will be giving her first public talk entitled “Bringing it Up” on Wednesday November 1, at Ohr Somayach Savoy, 5 Aintree Avenue at 19:00. Booking through WIZO office essential (011) 645-2515.