• Tilly Rivers

Eating disorders and personality disorders

I've just finished a book by Nikki Grahame called ‘Fragile’ describing her life-long battle with anorexia which is a terrifying testament to the power of the subconscious mind.

It is a power that strangely goes unacknowledged by the author despite her many years of therapy. Reading it was all the more poignant knowing that she recently lost her battle to live at the age of 38.

I have no formal training in psychology, but I’m fascinated by how very early childhood experiences are absorbed by infants like ink into blotting paper and often remain unseen - like a permanent stain - throughout their lives.

Nikki only briefly describes her first years, saying that her older sister Natalie was jealous of her from the moment she was born. ‘The unspoken agreement in the house was that Natalie had Mum, and I had Dad.’ I believe this is what lies at the core of her future tormented life. Babies and toddlers need the unconditional love and validation of their primary caretaker which in this case was her mother.

Nikki tells us that as a small girl she ran around after her father who was mostly away at work, presumably seeking from him the love and approval she so desperately wanted from her mother. Deep in her inner psyche she felt abandoned by her Mum, and to me, that would explain her constant need as she grew older to earn her mother’s love by being the ‘best’. She often talks of achieving and winning as being the driving power in her life.

The tragic thing about children is that they ALWAYS blame themselves for their parents’ mistakes. If her Mum loved Natalie more, she had to prove she was worthy of her love. That started out as striving to be the best in her gymnastics club and ended up by striving to be the thinnest in the club in order to be the best.

Her mother isn’t to blame – she had a dysfunctional upbringing too – but the fact is that a child deprived of maternal love doesn’t develop an intrinsic sense of self-worth and that can quickly lead to self-loathing. This is evident throughout the book with poor, damaged Nikki insisting that she was a ‘brat’, a ‘loser’, ‘tricky’, ‘tantrummy’ and ‘mean’. She keeps reiterating how she tortured her parents with her anorexia.

Children soak up what they are told by their parents like sponges and deep down believe that they are always the ones at fault when adults are angry with them. Being at fault means trying to fix yourself...

Nikki talks about not eating as being her way of taking back control in a world that was falling apart as her parents’ marriage fell apart. But the sad fact is that she was already being controlled by her almighty subconscious programming that repeatedly told her she had to earn love by being perfect. By pleasing, by being skinny when her slim mother valued thinness and her father shamed her by calling her Fatso and Lump.

The early programming of her mind was simply a personality adaptation to ensure she got the nurture she needed to survive as a helpless infant. But ironically, it ended up almost killing her as a child of nine when it instructed her not to eat or drink for almost a week. As I say, the power of that programming is terrifying.

Eating disorders are now known to frequently be a symptom of a personality disorder. I only know what Nikki writes in her book, but it seems to me that she may well have had Borderline Personality Disorder, evidenced by her mood swings from euphoria to depression, her self-harming by biting, slapping and stabbing herself with a fork, her suicidal tendencies, her lack of self-worth, her difficulty controlling intense anger and her fear of abandonment. All classic signs of BPD.

I kept turning the pages of the book thinking that at some point, surely, she would mention how the doctors and psychiatrists, or even her parents, would attempt to address the root of the mental illness she was suffering from instead of simply force feeding her. But that never happened.

It’s so ironic that deep down all she wanted was her mother’s approval and yet that poor, long-suffering woman was deeply angered and saddened by watching her beloved daughter trying to starve herself to death.

When Nikki applied to be on the British TV show Big Brother (impulsivity being another sign of BPD) she believed her success had finally won her that approval. But celebrities fade and so the monster in her mind took over again, telling her to keep fighting for that elusive approval.

She was torn in two by her logical brain that told her she should get better, marry a nice man and adopt a child and the booming voice deep inside her head that tried to starve her to death - and drove her into the arms of a succession of abusive men.

Having read the book in almost one sitting I was incredibly impressed by her raw honesty but also saddened by her lack of awareness that she was unaware. But then that too is one of the hallmarks of harmful personal adaptations. I hope that her book will bring awareness to others suffering from similar internal demons and help them find a way to heal. Rest in Peace Nikki.

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