Petite woman who has the willpower of a giant
“I am free. I am living again. And I am enjoying every single minute of it,” says bubbly Joanne Ellul Lanfranco, smiling broadly across the room.
The past six months have been a turning point for the 24-year-old, who has been slowly shedding the shackles of anorexia and regaining weight.
It has not been easy but, thanks to her willpower and the unflinching support of her family, especially her mother, Joanne only needs to add a few more kilos to reach normal weight.
Problems for the always-slim Joanne began five-and-a-half years ago, after a short relationship ended.
“I have always been a very sensitive person and I took the split very badly. I became obsessed and badly wanted something that I could control. That is when it all started. I realised that I could control my food intake.
“During the first few days, I would have a small salad. Then, after a few days, I gave up eating completely. I would live on water and a packet of small crackers that I would eat possibly once a week,” she says.
She began lying to her family that she had eaten at the University or with friends while walking from her home in Ħamrun to Bay Street and back.
“It became my obsession. It takes over your brain completely. I isolated myself from my family and friends. In fact, I hardly have any friends any more.”
Joanne feels there is still lack of awareness and that many believe people become anorexic or bulimic to lose weight.
“That was not my case. I was only 55 kilos when my problem began. After two months, I had already lost 20 kilos.”
Joanne acknowledges that she had changed not only physically but also personally and psychologically.
“I felt I did not deserve good things. People visiting the house got on my nerves and I stopped laughing,” she says forlornly.
It is difficult to imagine how that was possible now that the graduate with a BA. Hons in German exudes life and happiness.
“It’s true. She changed completely. She was always sad and miserable, clutching her head in her thin hands as she watched us eat. I was seeing her drain away,” her mother, Anna, interjects, glancing lovingly at her daughter.
Joanne realised she needed to get rid of her anorexia. She tried to “help” herself, immersing herself in orthorexia, an unhealthy obsession with eating only healthy food.
“I would weigh all the pros and cons of what I would eat. I would analyse everything that went into my body.
“If I wanted something sweet, I would take honey not sugar. I would only eat wholemeal stuff, vegetables and fruit,” she says.
At the time, Joanne worked as a waitress and would look longingly at the food the patrons ate.
“I started searching online to see what was good to eat. Then, my mother insisted I go see a psychiatrist who had shocked her.
“He told her that if I did not change my eating habits she would be going to my funeral. He encouraged me to go out and eat pasta and rice. I only went once.”
Many do not realise that people with eating disorders may suffer from hormonal changes and, in the case of women, their periods might stop. They also suffer from osteoporosis, where the bones become weaker, and are at constant risk of heart and kidney failure.
“I used to go into her room to make sure she was still alive. Sometimes, she used to place her hand on her heart and say: ‘My heart’s hurting’, without realising that mine was hurting more from seeing her wither away,” says Anna.
Months later, Joanne had had enough and sought the professional help of a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a nutritionist and a endocrinologist.
That was six months ago. Since then there has been no turning back.
“I enjoy eating everything, even if it’s just broth. This year is the first in a number that I took pleasure in eating a figolla.
“It’s been such a sigh of relief. It’s as if a great weight has been lifted off my shoulders.
“I also feel a lot stronger, more happy, cheerful and mature. I have found my own self,” she says.
Joanne has decided to come forward to be an inspiration for others suffering from any kind of eating disorder, be it anorexia, bulimia or binge eating.
She is also the testimonial for the Malta Community Chest Fund, which has just embarked on its latest project – a residential home in Mtarfa offering a holistic approach to treating anorexia, bulimia and obesity.
She has not stopped there. With free time on her hands as she is looking for a job, she has set up a Facebook page – Eating Disorders Support Group Malta.
“There is no going back now. I want to live, make new friends and look positively towards the future,” she beams as I leave the family’s kitchen, full of admiration for this petite woman with the willpower of a giant.
Eating disorders in Malta
Research by the National Statistics Office and the Directorate for Health Information and Research among 2,008 respondents aged 15 to 50 found:
• 0.9 per cent suffered from an eating disorder when the survey was conducted in June.
• Only 8.7 per cent of sufferers have been receiving treatment. Of those who reported having eating disorders in the past, 38.5 per cent sought professional help.
• An additional 35.4 per cent of previous sufferers controlled their eating disorder through self-determination.
• 55.8 per cent of all sufferers resorted to binge eating; 34.3 per cent had anorexia and 13.3 per cent bulimia.
• 77.4 per cent were aware of eating disorders. Women were more aware than men, with 87.2 per cent compared with 68per cent.
• 45.7 per cent of people with no formal education or a pre-primary level of education did not know about eating disorders.
• Women are more likely to offer support (49.8 per cent) and 53 per cent believed they were able to distinguish persons suffering from an eating disorder.
• 46.8 per cent of respondents perform physical activity for at least five hours a week. Physical activity was more popular among people aged 15 to 19 (58.2 per cent) compared to 38.8 per cent for those aged 45 to 50.