Some weeks ago while scrolling through my Facebook wall I was stunned by a clip featuring a physical transformation of a girl – at one point she looked extremely thin and pale, while years later she is now looking fit and radiant. Her name is Joanne and she is Maltese.
I was truly dumbfounded… over the past 2 years Joanne managed to escape death through the power of fitness and healthy living, a wonderful and inspiring story, which I eagerly shared on the Mirror Friendly social media pages. A few minutes later I received a message from Joanne, thanking me for my support and expressing her wish to meet up for a chat as she had also found inspiration through my work on Mirror Friendly.
A few weeks later Joanne and I met over coffee. I was very interested to hear her story and Joanne did an exceptional job in keeping me listening attentively all along. Her story is touching indeed; in fact I believe we could all learn something valuable from it. To this effect I asked Joanne to kindly share her story with us via a Q&A which I have prepared for the purpose. So here goes:
Mirror Friendly: Hi Joanne 🙂 Could you take us through a brief background about yourself?
Joanne: My name is Joanne and I’m 29 years old. I’ve been working in a bank institution for the past 5 years although I have obtained a degree in German studies at the University of Malta. Well, my hobbies nowadays are primarily fitness related because I love lifting weights and cooking healthy meals. However, I also enjoy travelling, listening to some relaxing music, playing guitar, reading an interesting book and going for a walk by the sea.
Mirror Friendly: What kind of childhood did you have?
Joanne: My childhood was very normal, with the ups and downs that life can bring about. I was never a sports enthusiast and the only sport activities I participated in were school PE lessons. However, I never had body image issues and my weight was always within the healthy range even though I did not have any particular knowledge about health and nutrition.
Mirror Friendly: What led to the onset of your anorexia condition?
Joanne: A short relationship gone badly at the age of 18 years left me devastated and I turned my obsession towards food (or rather the lack of it). It is worth mentioning that the traits of a person suffering from an eating disorder are often hyper-sensitivity, perfectionism and a tendency to obsess about things.
I was not able to control my relationship, but I could control my food intake. It slowly turned into an obsession. I refused to get any professional help because I wanted to protect my eating disorder…I did not want my control to be taken away from me. I lied to my family everyday in order to avoid eating with them and declined any invitation revolving around food. I spent a very long time not eating anything at all…only a packet of crackers once a week—as a result my weight quickly dropped from a healthy weight of 55kg to 35kg.
Mirror Friendly: How did the condition develop?
Joanne: At the early stages of anorexia, my daily aim was to get at the end of the day without having consumed any food at all. I only drank flavoured water for weeks but then somehow added a packet of crackers which was religiously eaten on a Wednesday (on this day, I had to walk longer distances to make up for it).
As aforementioned, I constantly lied to family and friends in order to avoid any situation which might involve consumption of any food (made up all kinds of excuses- did not attend my parent’s 25th anniversary dinner, Christmas gatherings, birthday parties etc etc). This led me to a state of isolation because I could not socialize anymore…so I used to spend days on my own, walking long distances (from my hometown Hamrun to St Julians and back, every single day) which as a result made me lose more weight and become weaker and weaker. During these walks, I used to come across people enjoying themselves, eating food, chatting, laughing…and I felt I did not deserve such things. I did not deserve to eat food-because food gives a feel-good factor. This feeling also had an impact on other aspects of my life-I refused to watch TV, buy myself new clothes, take care of my hair-I felt I did not deserve any good thing.
At some point, something clicked in my mind and I felt I had to do something about this and that I had to start eating like everyone else. I started making a lot of research about good food and healthy nutrition because I wanted to make sure that whatever I was going to eat, it had to be 100% healthy, fresh, organic and without any form of contamination. I remember the first time I sat down at our kitchen table to eat my first meal which consisted of grilled salmon, lots of veggies and a baked potato. This is where my anorexia shifted into orthorexia (the obsession about eating solely pure, healthy, fresh food).
Although I was eating some food, my calorie intake was still very restricted and I was still deprived of several foods. I was still rigid and in control and my weight never shifted away from 35kg. I also developed an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), had my own set of rules around food and was afraid of any sort of fats/additives/artificial stuff contaminating my “safe” food. I felt terrified of any impurities entering my body.
Mirror Friendly: How did you manage to eventually free yourself of the condition?
Joanne: I resisted getting professional help for a long time. My first visit to a psychiatrist was unpleasant – he told my mother that she would soon be coming to my funeral. I rebelled because I felt this psychiatrist was trying to take away my control over things. After some time, however I felt psychologically exhausted of living with the obsession. I sought the help of a psychologist since unlike a psychiatrist, a psychologist would not prescribe medication (which I wanted to avoid at all costs) .However, my obsession was too strong and my psychologist felt I also needed medication. I felt trapped in my eating disorder. I was aware that I needed to eat a variety of foods to gain weight and be healthy again. Various professionals told me that my heart could stop beating any time and that I was on the verge of dying….
Since at the time of my eating disorder, no specific treatment was offered in Malta, I had to seek the help of several private professionals in order to be constantly monitored- endocrinologist, gastroenterologist, psychologist, psychiatrist, nutritionists… Nowadays, one can get help at the inpatient treatment centre Dar Kenn Ghal Sahhtek in Mtarfa where various professionals give a holistic approach towards the condition.
My psychologist encouraged me to start attending yoga classes so I started going to a local gym. At some point I was more attracted to the weights room. I started lifting light weights but I was too weak. I also did a lot of cardio (so I couldn’t gain any muscle).
In August 2015, just two years ago, I went to my coach Kevin Pisani and was determined to change things for real this time. We planned a meal and workout program and although at first I felt discouraged, I had to do it at all costs. It was my last attempt to recover completely. I feel that this was my biggest turning point. I was letting go of that control and I was not scared of the weight going up anymore. My calorie intake increased drastically and I kept eating healthily. I stopped doing cardio completely and my focus was on lifting weights and getting stronger…A year later, I entered my first powerlifting competition and managed to lift 2x my bodyweight. That was already a huge win for me.
Mirror Friendly: What is your approach to food nowadays?
Joanne: Nowadays, my mind is completely in control. I am totally aware that I need food to live and to carry out even the simplest of functions. My passion for weightlifting is not an obsession and I love to feel how my body is getting stronger. My weight does not define me and I’ve become a totally different person. Everyone goes through life struggles at some point in life, but food restriction should never be a coping mechanism. Whereas at the time of my eating disorder, I’ve lost my jolly nature and my passion for life, I’ve got my smiles back and I love living the life God has given me. Throughout this 11 year-long “journey”, I strengthened my faith in God because I’ve seen His wonders work in my life. I’ve seen how one thing led perfectly to another until He forged me into the person I’ve become today. He has given me this body – it’s His gift to me – and I want to treasure it.
Mirror Friendly: What kind of lifestyle do you lead nowadays?
Joanne: I believe I lead a healthy lifestyle. My mind is in control and I can be flexible around food. I enjoy eating a variety of food and love to experiment different flavours and textures. However, it’s ok for me to add occasional treats and “forbidden” food, although I believe that no food should be regarded as unhealthy. It may not be totally healthy for the body, but it can be a soul booster which is also essential for our happiness.
Mirror Friendly: Are you ever worried to revert back to the days when you had the condition?
Joanne: When I first started trying to recover, yes, I had fear of relapsing into the eating disorder. Every time I faced a new challenge or difficulty, food was always there and I could try to control life by restricting my food intake. However, as my weight increased (from 35kg back to 55kg), my brain chemicals also got back to healthy normal levels and I was able to reason things out the healthy way. I became much stronger in all aspects of life and I increased my self-worth. I’ve come a long way and do not intend to ever look back. I’ve got a new life to live…
Mirror Friendly: With hindsight, is there something you would have done differently in terms of solving the problems you were going through or avoiding entering the dark tunnel altogether?
Joanne: It’s very hard to be in control of the mind once an obsession starts to take over your life. You become unaware of the dangers and risks you are putting your life in. I thank God for giving me a caring family who always tried to push me to get professional help once I opened up about my condition, especially my mother with whom I developed a very close relationship. She listened to my inner turmoils as I revealed to her all the thoughts that were dominating my mind at the time. One should become aware of the obsession at the early stages and seek help as soon as possible if it starts to affect your daily living.
Mirror Friendly: What is your outlook at life nowadays? Do you have any particular dreams/plans going forward?
Joanne: I have a passion for living and although there are days on which I feel a sense of loneliness due to the long hours spent in isolation at the time of the condition, I still keep my spirits high. I’ve promised myself that I have to be happy. I’ve wasted enough time living for the eating disorder, neglecting myself completely. I want to love and be loved. I want to keep lifting because fitness and bodybuilding were essential to my recovery and I’m planning on entering a bodybuilding competition next year. It’s definitely something to look forward to and I’m just curious to see how my body will evolve throughout the process. One thing is for sure… I won’t give up 😉
Mirror Friendly: Thanks every so much for sharing this life-changing experience with us.. I am more than sure you will continue inspiring many people from different spheres of life. In the meantime, on behalf of all our followers I wish you the best of luck for your first bodybuilding competition – whatever the result, you are already a winner.
Joanne Ellul Lanfranco – a true champion.
To fitness with love,