Jennifer Hamer was just 12 years old when she developed anorexia.
Her condition deteriorated to the point that by the time she was 23, she had the bones of an 80-year-old that were so fragile, they’d break with one little fall.
The battle lasted 17 years – more than half her life – and she even gave the disease its own name ‘Anna’.
‘I was becoming weaker and weaker but Anna was thriving, gaining strength all the time. In a weird way, despite the pain she was causing me she became my best friend, my only friend,’ Jennifer, now aged 29, told Daily Mail Australia.
‘Anna slowly took complete control of me.’
The PhD student revealed her turning point came when she realised there were only two choices – either death or recovery – there was no half measures.
Jennifer Hamer (pictured left in 2021 and right in 2015 with her mum) has revealed how she found the strength to turn her life around after she fell into the grips of anorexia
The PhD student overcame the crippling illness that almost claimed her life after she realised she had to choose between death or recovery
The things you should never say to someone with an eating disorder
Why don’t you just eat?
You look so healthy now
Did you just not eat anything?
Did you think you were fat?
Why don’t you have some of this food?
Just stop having an eating disorder
How can eating healthy and being dedicated to exercise be unhealthy
You look so sick
I wish I had your will power and dedication
Jennifer remembers vividly the moment as an innocent 12-year-old when she was first exposed to what she calls the toxic ‘diet culture’ that drove her close to death’.
She says it’s a toxic set of beliefs that values thinness, appearance, calories and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food above all else.
She was 12, and eating a muesli bar at recess at school, when one of her friends scanned the ingredients on the back of the wrapper.
When a confused Jennifer asked her friend what she was doing, she explained she was counting how many calories were in the bar.
‘She responded with a full explanation for me: “They are like units of energy… If you eat too many you’ll gain weight. Healthy foods like fruits and vegetables have less calories while unhealthy foods like chocolate and sweets have more”.
‘It was at that moment my blindness to diet culture was shattered.’
When she was a kid, Jennifer said she ‘loved the body she lived in’ and never even knew such a toxic ‘diet culture’ existed.
‘I’d been a little girl who enjoyed all foods for what they were, who had a healthy relationship with food. But I was exposed to the toxic industry that is diet culture, a culture that values weight, shape and size over health and wellbeing,’ she said.
‘This was the precise point when something changed for me, it was as if my mind joined a few dots together: if I am no longer the best at math, or sport, or anything else for that matter, maybe I can become the best at this calorie intake thing.’
Jennifer said her eating disorder started ‘quite innocently’ after she decided to replace chocolates and sugary sweets with fruit.
Jennifer said she was consumed by the eating disorder that saw her develop an intense obsession with food, calorie counting and exercising (pictured now after she recovered)
The PhD student said she turned her life around after she ‘hit rock bottom’ (pictured left in 2021 and right with her father in 2015)
What are the warning signs of anorexia?
- Rapid weight loss or frequent weight changes
- Loss or disturbance of menstruation in girls and women and decreased libido in men
- Fainting or dizziness
- Feeling cold most of the time, even in warm weather (caused by poor circulation)
- Feeling bloated, constipated, or developing intolerances to food
- Feeling tired and not sleeping well
- Lethargy and low energy
- Facial changes (e.g. looking pale, sunken eyes)
- Fine hair appearing on face and body
Source: The Butterfly Foundation
But gradually, she became fixated with exercising, calorie counting and restricting herself of the foods she loved.
‘As time went on, my family became more and more concerned. But I was stubborn and determined to stick to my plans,’ she said.
Her condition worsened and she became weak – but she could never escape ‘Anna’.
‘Anna provided me with a sense of strength, satisfaction and empowerment. I was becoming the best at adhering to the rules she set. She understood me and I understood her,’ she said.
She changed from a happy, bright young grade-A student in high school to an ‘absolute nightmare’, she admits.
‘I was a spiteful, malicious and self-centered girl preoccupied by food and exercise – the opposite to the qualities I had growing up. I did all I had to do to adhere to Anna’s rules, to please her,’ she said.
‘I was horrible to be around when under dictatorship of Anna. But I couldn’t let Anna down, we were a team. I had devoted all of me to Anna, I trusted her. We did not need anyone else in the world, it was me and her in for this ride.
‘It was a constant battle in my head. I was physically and mentally exhausted. I did not want to die, but I did not want to live.’
Looking at old pictures of herself, Jennifer said she feels ‘horrified’ seeing a young girl who ‘looked like an old lady about to die’
The 29-year-old said she was able to overcome her eating disorder by ‘maintaining meticulous control over my food and exercise’
Despite he admission she was nightmare, her parents were not prepared to lose her, and took her to hospital for medical when she was 22 in 2015.
‘I hit rock bottom, which is unfortunately the only way people manage to start their journey of recovery,’ she said.
‘I was admitted to an inpatient unit, and for the first couple of weeks I refused to comply to treatment… Inpatient treatment was like living in a prison – always being watched, under strict orders, and forced to eat.’
She was diagnosed with severe osteoporosis at 23 from years of malnutrition – a condition in which bones become weak and brittle – and normally only affects women over 75.
Fighting treatment in hospital was an excruciating, exhausting battle.
And one night, Jennifer went to sleep feeling ‘lifeless’ – but had an epiphany when she woke up.
‘I managed to find the smallest glimmer of hope that I wanted to recover. Perhaps I could prepare myself to do whatever it took to get what I wanted and make sure my life was worth living,’ she said.
‘For the first time in as long as I could remember, I was able to begin to articulate a desire to recover.’
After a long battle, Jennifer said she found a ‘glimmer of hope’ that she wanted to recover
For anyone struggling with an eating disorder, Jennifer said you should ‘never feel ashamed’
And it was also the first time in her life she realised Anna was never her ‘friend’.
‘She was manipulating me, she was slowly destroying me, my life, the life of others around me. She made me believe that she was helping me, that I could not be without her, but she wasn’t,’ Jennifer said.
‘Anna had taken everything away from me, I was in hospital having lost out on so much from the age of 12. I should have been out in the world, creating my future – everything a 22-year-old should be able to do.’
Over the next two years she struggled with recovery until she met an eating disorder dietitian who helped her ‘break through the beliefs’ she had created.
‘It was never about food at the core, it was about the narrative and beliefs I held about myself like never feeling good enough, needing to be perfect, having such low self-worth,’ she said.
‘The only way to suppress and deal with these feelings and emotions was to maintain meticulous control over my food and exercise. Once we started working at the core, I started seeing dramatic improvements in my recovery.’
Fast forward six years, Jennifer has since made a remarkable recovery.
‘Choosing recovery was the only option and whilst it was the toughest journey, it was one I am so grateful for because it helped me on the path to reclaim the life I deserve,’ she said.
Fast forward six years, Jennifer has since made a remarkable recovery
Jennifer said she now eats a ‘healthy, balanced diet’ and she exercises to ‘feel good’
Looking back at old pictures of herself, Jennifer said she feels ‘horrified’.
‘I look like an old lady about to die. What do I see now. I see a woman growing from strength to strength every day getting her life back,’ she said.
‘I would be lying to say I am in a place of self love because I am not. I am still working on issues around body image and I am in those final stages of recovery. But I am getting ever closer every day.
‘I want to get to a place of complete freedom, where I am happy in whatever shape my body is, able to embrace and enjoy all foods and exercise to feel good without having any focus on my image.’
Jennifer – who’s currently studying a PhD at university in the field of eating disorders in female athletes – said she now eats a ‘healthy, balanced diet’ and she exercises to ‘feel good’.
‘I do still have some fear foods which I try to challenge to help me reach full recovery. I hope one day I can go to a café and enjoy a piece of cake without any anxiety. That would be amazing,’ she said.
For anyone struggling with an eating disorder, Jennifer said you should ‘never feel ashamed’ about your battle.
‘You are worthy of recovery, love, and a beautiful life ahead. Please speak up, do not suffer in silence, there is the support out there for you,’ she said.
‘Promise to not give up on regardless of how faint the light towards recovery may appear. I was a flame that almost went out, with no life at all. And now I am here saving lives. If I can do it from the darkest of places so can you.’
If you need help or support for an eating disorder or body image issue, please call Butterfly’s National Helpline on 1800 334 673 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Jen shares her words about her battle with anorexia
The day I decided to commit to recovery, I made a promise to myself to one day be brave enough and well enough to share my story with the world. I want the world to know that eating disorders are deadly, they are not a fad for teenage girls, and at their core, they have nothing to do with food. They are a coping mechanism, a way to make someone feel safe in a world that is full of uncertainty. Eating disorders allow someone to feel like they can manage deep emotional difficulties that may be too overwhelming to deal with.
Eating disorders flourish in those with low self-worth, someone who yearns to be accepted and is searching for external validation. I often wonder how a body-image-obsessed society fueled by diet culture is feeding into this. I do not blame society as the cause of eating disorders, but through my experience, I think diet culture contributes to their maintenance and the struggle entailed in recovery, and this needs to change.
Recovery is one of the most challenging journeys a person with an eating disorder can commit to. The struggle almost get harder when you get to the stage where you appear weight restored and ‘recovered’ yet still spend your days battling with the eating disorder voice in your head. A healthy-looking body does not always equal a healthy mind. This is something I have struggled with since working on recovery. People often commended me on my efforts and continually expressed ‘how well I look now’.
Yet inside, I was still hurting, both from the nightmares I had thinking about the years spent with anorexia, and also because I knew I still had a long way to go to achieve full recovery. The world must appreciate how complex these illnesses are, how they rob someone of their physical and mental health, stealing every ounce of happiness. I envisage a world where we can speak openly about eating disorders, without someone fearing saying the word ‘Anorexia’. A world where people are kinder and gentler with those who are struggling with this illness.
Eating disorders have one of the highest death rates among any mental illness, yet we are still living in a world that does not appreciate the severity of these illnesses. Eating disorders are deep rooted mental illnesses and deserve just as much attention as any other health condition regardless of whether a person appears sick on the outside or not. Those with eating disorders do not deserve to be stared at and receive looks of disgust. And equally, those who appear healthy do not need to be commended on their body shape – just because you cannot see an eating disorder doesn’t mean someone is not suffering.
Those of us with a voice need to speak up, step into the arena and let our voice be heard. Together we can raise our voice, together we can beat eating disorders.