The first thing that strikes you about Leanne Waters is her vibrancy. It's in her beautiful brown eyes, her warm smile, her mane of brown hair, her glowing skin and in her laughter too.
She appears as a woman who is happy in her own skin. And she is, now. But it wasn't always so.
Time was when she was very troubled and it showed. There were dark shadows beneath her eyes, her skin was flaky and her hair used to fall out in clumps. These were the results of her self-destructive behaviour.
For many years Leanne's life was blighted by bulimia, the eating disorder where a person binge eats and then forces themselves to vomit the food back up. She has written a memoir about her time as a bulimic -- My Secret Life.
Finally she is out the other side. When I met her on a wet, blustery afternoon in her home town of Bray, Co Wicklow, she was like sunshine on a rainy day. As I listened to her tale, it struck me that the 21-year-old sounded so calm and strong. She has examined her life, in therapy sessions and in solitude, and now she is the healthy end result of all that self-analysis. It's been a long journey to get to where she is today, with much misery and tears along the way. There was a time when the illness took over and she became a different person, one she didn't like.
Deception goes hand in hand with an eating disorder and Leanne became so secretive and furtive that she pushed her family and close friends away. But their love and concern for her was so strong that they insisted she confront her problem and get help.
This is the story of a girl who was saved by love -- the love of others and also of self. From suicidal feelings to self hate, Leanne has come out the other side and is now the delightful smiling young woman I meet. She tells me that these days her life is happy and hectic.
"I've only been out of therapy for a year," she says, "but I believe that therapy is the beginning. It provides you with tools. The more I could understand myself, the more I could understand my motives and why those motives were leading to particular actions. Therapy is only the beginning of recovery and, to a large extent, I still consider myself in recovery. It depends on how you define recovered. To me, really recovered is having the luxury of not thinking about food and eating and resisting the temptation to purge."
She admits that she is not fully there yet. She can have a biscuit with a cup of coffee but eating is still a bit of an issue for her and she knows that it may always be that way. But she accepts this. These days her attitude is so much healthier than it had been and she is even honest enough to admit that some issues still linger. It's not all plain sailing but then again, neither is life.
"I'm not perfect but I'm getting there," she says. Minutes later, she laughs at her own line and corrects it. It's better not having impossibly high standards. She tells me that her perfectionism was a huge part of the problem.
When we meet, we both have coffee and water. I ask if she would like something to eat. Perhaps she isn't hungry, has already eaten or isn't comfortable talking and eating at the same time. But still, as I offer her something to eat, I feel a little awkward.
Before she became a bulimic, Leanne used to fast for days on end. Sometimes she would drink diet shakes and even that behaviour called for some subterfuge. She would go from chemist to chemist to buy them, as one chemist shop recognised that she was buying an inordinate amount of them. The over-the-counter drinks were supposed to be taken for a week but Leanne would live on them for months at a time. Sometimes, she wouldn't eat at all. Instead she would live on coffee and cigarettes. When mealtimes came, she would make sure that she wouldn't be at home and later she would tell her mother that she had already eaten in a friend's house. If friends offered her food, she would say that she had already eaten. Modern life is hectic with everyone on different work schedules and, like in so many homes, Leanne's family would often eat at different times. There were some sit-down dinners to dodge but modern life made it easier.
For Leanne, fasting wasn't about becoming skinny. Usually, it was the end result of some event which had triggered it. As a young child at school, she was bullied. There were no physical beatings but she was often ostracised in the school yard and these were the seeds for the early days of her eating disorder. Her mother would talk to the teachers at school and they would try to deal with the situation but already Leanne was looking for her own way out.
Before she was even 10, she remembers looking at the slimming drinks on the shelves in the supermarket and contemplating stealing them. (She knew her mother wouldn't buy them for her.) A few years later, she would be living on slimming drinks. Gradually, it spiralled to not eating at all and feeling great pleasure in taking control of that. Unlike her unhappy school situation or her general dissatisfaction with herself, this was something that she could control. Fasting was her private warped pleasure.
When her friends noticed these severe starvation sessions and her changed personality, Leanne knew she would have to change her eating patterns. Her bones began to protrude and even on her feet she noticed the bones and veins were more prominent. She went down to eight and a
half stone for her 5ft 5in frame. The physical signs of fasting were showing, so she had to do something. Everyone was insisting that she had to eat. The logical thing would have been to get healthy and start eating again, but with a mental disorder like this, logic doesn't come into it.
Instead, she switched to another eating disorder, one where she would eat and often ate plenty of food.
"I'd make sure that friends and family would see me eating, often I would eat healthily in front of them. I was proving a point."
When she was alone, she would start on the serious eating sessions. Sometimes it was normal eating, other times, out-of-control binge eating sessions, where she would gorge on food. Either way, it was all timed with great care. It would have to be. Otherwise she wouldn't be able to vomit it back up, or to use her phrase 'purge'.
I tell her I find purge a strange word as it doesn't sound as nasty as vomit. Also, it's hard to understand how anyone would want to make themselves vomit. I tell her that I still regard it as one of the most horrible feelings ever, where you have no control over it. But then she corrects me.
"But I did have control. I controlled the purging. I timed it and made sure I ate enough food to make myself sick and also I had to make sure that I was at home alone, so that nobody would see me do this."
Why does she use the word purge?
"Food was my enemy and so, after binge eating, I would fix it by purging myself. It felt in a way that it cleaned you and that it took the enemy out of you. Whether it was a binge or just eating, I would feel dirty and tainted with food inside. I would feel ashamed that I'd let myself down. There were times when I said I want to be healthy and I'd have Weetabix and a bit of fruit for breakfast. Then I'd think, now I can't eat for the rest of the day because it's in me, but if I can get rid of it, I can eat later on. So I'd get rid of it and convince myself that this was what my body wanted. If I binged an awful lot, my stomach would expand and you would feel physically so sick, not to mention the horrible emotions that would go with it and how horrific you feel in those moments. Sometimes, at the end of a binge, if I was ever going to commit suicide, those were the times. By the time I was finished a binge, my body would start retching. I was full of food and I had to fix it. The sooner I could purge the better. It was so controlled."
Bingeing and purging went hand in hand.
"One day, I had the house to myself. It was all pre-meditated. I had three bowls of cereal, six packets of crisps. I made a pizza, cooked noodles and as I was waiting for them to cook I'd be eating something else. I'd be eating four large pots of yoghurt. Then I'd have ice cream with maple syrup. Then I'd knock back milk and water to make myself get sick faster."
Did she ever enjoy eating all this food?
"Sometimes I did. You can't deny that if you're starving and you bite into something, the first couple of seconds are the best moments ever. It didn't matter if I ate for 20 minutes or two hours. That feeling at the end was the same -- why did you do it? Look what you've done to yourself. Then I'd purge.
"When I think of the destruction I was causing around me. I could hear my mum crying herself to sleep. My father had a lot of health issues -- he'd had a quadruple by-pass -- and I knew that I was adding to his stress issues. But I didn't care. I didn't want to see it. I was too busy with bulimia.
"The deceptive part is that sometimes I went through phases of being a real socialite and I'd be all smiles, but then I'd hit a complete low and stop socialising. I pushed my family and friends away. I put them through hell. I just wanted them to leave me alone but they wouldn't. They were relentless and thank God for that."
A bunch of her girlfriends staged an intervention and confronted her with some harsh but necessary truths. They told her that she had a major problem with eating. No matter how many times she tried to deny it, shouting them down, the evidence was there.
"My skin changed. I started losing my hair. My nails stopped growing and my teeth were yellow. There are holes in some of the back ones that are so big that I can put my tongue in them. But while I was shouting my friends down, denying everything, I knew I had an eating disorder. By that stage, I was on eating disorder websites. It was as if I'd almost chosen the lifestyle."
The turning point came when Leanne stopped menstruating for a few months. She told her mother and she brought her to the doctor. The GP asked about diet and if she had a problem with eating.
"I told her that my diet wasn't the best and that I was a bit stressed. When she asked me if I had a problem with eating, I told her that my friends thought it was a problem but I knew it wasn't."
The GP coaxed Leanne to talk to a counsellor and from there she slowly but surely turned her life around.
"I think there's always a resistance to therapy but I kept going back. The funny thing about therapy was that we talked very little about eating. It was about bullying, family relationships and triggers. A trigger was anything that took control away from me. I was still bingeing and purging through the therapy. We talked about control an awful lot and positive thinking -- how you can change negative thoughts. I had no motivation, no ambition and no belief in anything except bulimia. It was about laying the foundations to start to rebuild. Bulimia changed me. I'm a completely different person than I was before because I had to start all over."
She got in touch with her passions in life -- reading literature, painting and she even began to write. Doing the memoir was a cathartic experience for her.
"I had to heal and I had to take responsibility. I had to own the responsibility for my life, just like I had once owned bulimia."
Leanne started studying English in UCD but right now she is taking time out to take stock of her life, and also, she is working on a novel. These days, she enjoys walking her dogs around Bray, has a nice South African boyfriend and a great core group of loving family and friends.
"I don't want to be the face of bulimia," she says. "I still have it in my head that I never looked the part. And that's the thing -- bulimics like myself are of average weight. I lost and regained the same 50lb in months. I think there tends to be a stereotype. There are a lot of girls who don't look the part and yet they're going around doing horrific things to their body. They think there's nothing wrong with them because they don't look the part.
"I hope my book can create some understanding."
It will. Her honesty is courageous and crucial in this world where obsession with physical perfection has spiralled out of control.
Leanne Waters is in control of her life again, but this time in a good way. Her future is bright and full of wonderful possibilities.
'My Secret Life -- A Memoir of Bulimia' by Leanne Waters is published by Maverick House 14.99