Pictured: Serena Riley, 29
A woman who says she vomited about 8,000 times during her secret nine-year battle with bulimia has fulfilled her dream of becoming a managing nurse in Australia’s first ever residential eating disorder clinic.
Serena Riley was ten years’ old and going to primary school in Armidale, in northern New South Wales, when she first joined a weight loss program.
During the program, which was targeted at middle-aged women, the young girl learned all about body shape, measurements, food restriction and what she described as a ‘fixation’ with numbers on the scale.
What began as undiagnosed anorexia turned into bulimia by the age of 13, which is a debilitating and potentially deadly mental health condition that meant the young girl threw up everything she ate.
The 29-year-old told Daily Mail Australia on Tuesday that she kept the reality of her dwindling health hidden to the point where, when she finally divulged her big secret at 19, her mother said she had no idea.
‘Mum was shocked. During that whole time, she only thought there was something wrong once but didn’t realise what it was,’ Ms Riley said.
Pictured: Serena Riley with her mum. She finally told her mother she had bulimia when she was 19
Pictured: Serena Riley as a teenager. She kept her illness hidden from friends and loved ones
She explained that people with bulimia often don’t appear to be rake-thin, and can often look average weight or slightly overweight – meaning loved ones can’t see any physical evidence to suggest there is something wrong.
At 19, she thought opening up about her struggles would open the doors to recovery, but what the teenager didn’t know what that Australia didn’t have the help facilities she was looking for.
A month of searching online for treatment centres revealed a range of ‘beautiful’ ranches and properties in the US and Europe where people with eating disorders would live while they recovered, but there was nothing like that at home.
‘I thought I was being brave and courageous when I said I had bulimia out loud – that admitting it was the hardest part – but I was wrong,’ she said.
Serena Riley said restricting her food intake gave her a sense of control and structure
Serena Riley (pictured left as a teenager, and right as a child) began restricting her food intake when she was ten
Serena Riley (pictured left) didn’t think she could ever recover from bulimia, or live without the illness
With no help or end to her condition in sight, Ms Riley overdosed on medication.
She spent three nights in intensive care before being transferred to the mental health ward and, eventually, into an eating disorder ward – where she spent the next year and a half going in and out of hospital while receiving treatment.
‘I needed to push past all the fears I had developed about food and realise the world wouldn’t explode if I ate something – the disorder makes you believe things that don’t make sense,’ she said.
When asked what triggered her disorder, Ms Riley said she wasn’t entirely sure, but explained she did competitive gymnastics as a child, she was a talented dancer, and she witnessed domestic violence as a child.
Even though her family managed to escape the violent situation, she believes she was trying to process the situation in her early teenage years.
Pictured: Serena Riley as a child. She witnessed domestic violence when she was younger
Ms Riley (pictured as a teenager) finally realised recovery was possible and became inspired to help others in her position
At 20, she desperately wanted to open a residential treatment facility for people with eating disorders (pictured: Serena Riley with her son)
‘Regimenting my food intake gave me a lot of structure and control and I wanted in my life at the time,’ she said.
When she finally left the hospital, Ms Riley realised recovery was possible and became inspired to help others in her position.
At 20, she desperately wanted to open a residential treatment facility for people with eating disorders, but she didn’t have the resources and decided to start by becoming a registered nurse.
She began to specialise and eventually landed in wards with people suffering from the debilitating condition that consumed her teenage years, until she heard that the Butterfly Foundation – an eating disorder support group – were creating a facility.
Serena Riley (pictured with her son) began to specialise and eventually landed in wards with people suffering from the debilitating condition that consumed her teenage years
Determined to help others like herself, Ms Riley applied for a position and was given the job as nurse unit manager at Australia’s first-ever residential eating disorder clinic, Wandi Nerida.
The centre sits on a 25-acre block on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, and is a 13-bed residential treatment facility that will operate under the Butterfly Foundation Residential Eating Disorders Treatment Model of Care.
It also collects data from patients so that other centres can be opened all over Australia, and has already received over 680 enquiries and 101 people have been referred for treatment.
Ms Riley says she is completely recovered from bulimia, and wants sufferers to know that recovery is possible.
‘When you have an eating disorder, it’s hard to imagine that you’ll ever recover,’ she said.
Wandi Nerida (pictured) sits on a 25-acre block on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast
Wandi Nerida (pictured) 13-bed residential treatment facility that will operate under the Butterfly Foundation Residential Eating Disorders Treatment Model of Care
‘But I’m living proof that it’s possible.’
Medicare has provided rebates for eating disorder sufferers since 2019, allowing people with anorexia, bulimia and other food-related conditions to access up to 40 psychological and 20 dietetic services a year.
More than one million Australians suffer from eating disorders, but only one in four will seek treatment.
Anyone looking for support with eating disorders or body image issues is encouraged to contact:
Butterfly National Helpline on 1800 33 4673 (1800 ED HOPE) or [email protected]
For urgent support call Lifeline 13 11 14
WHAT IS BULIMIA?
Bulimia nervosa is a serious psychiatric illness characterised by recurrent binge-eating episodes (the consumption of abnormally large amounts of food in a short period of time), immediately followed by self-induced vomiting, fasting, over-exercising and/or the misuse of laxatives, enemas or diuretics.
Bulimia nervosa differs from binge eating disorder as the binge episodes are associated with a sense of loss of control and are immediately followed by feelings of guilt and shame, which then leads the person to compensatory behaviours, to immediately purge themselves of the food they just ate.
A person with bulimia nervosa usually maintains an average weight, or may be slightly above or below average weight for their height, which often makes it less recognisable than serious cases of anorexia nervosa.
Many people, including some health professionals, incorrectly assume that a person must be underweight and thin if they have an eating disorder. Because of this, bulimia nervosa is often missed and can go undetected for a long period of time.
Some of the more common signs and symptoms of bulimia nervosa are:
– Difficulties with activities that involve food.
– Loneliness due to self-imposed isolation and a reluctance to develop personal relationships.
– Deceptive behaviours relating to food Fear of the disapproval of others if the illness becomes known.
– Mood swings, changes in personality, emotional outbursts or depression Self-harm, substance abuse or suicide attempts.
– Sensitivity to references about weight or appearance.
– Guilt, self-disgust, self-loathing.
– Anxiety or depression.
– Frequent trips to the bathroom, especially after eating.
– Food avoidance, dieting behaviour (this may be due to a fear of gaining weight and it may also be to avoid the unpleasant ritual of purging afterwards).
– Fluctuations in weight.
Source: Eating Disorders Victoria