Hugh van Cuylenburg is the founder of The Resilience Project, a program for schools, workplaces and sporting clubs that teaches people about mental health strategies. He has just released his first book, ‘The Resilience Project’, which explores finding happiness through gratitude, empathy and mindfulness through the lens of his life. Here is a part of his story…
Warning: This article deals with accounts of eating disorders and child sexual abuse that could be triggering for some readers.
Whenever things went wrong in our little corner of the world, Mum would always get busy in the kitchen.
Dinnertime at the van Cuylenburgs’ was the best. Whether we had issues to sort through or not, when I sat down each night with Mum and Dad, my sister Georgia and our little brother Josh, the meals were seasoned with hilarious stories and garnished with joy. For the first 16 years of my life, dinnertime was without doubt the highlight of my day.
Then, in 1996, it suddenly wasn’t anymore. Georgia was 14 when she stopped eating regular meals. Almost overnight the laughing and the stories ceased. Dinnertime became the worst part of the day. For all of us.
I was only a teenager, and I reacted by getting frustrated with Georgia and how upset she was making Mum and Dad by refusing to eat. Georgia seemed to have a million excuses about why she couldn’t eat this or that type of food. To me, it was infuriating.
Mum would be reduced to tears and soon Dad would start crying, too. I’d sit there at the table in silent disbelief, thinking, ‘What is going on here? Georgia – just eat your food, and Mum and Dad will stop crying! Can’t you see you’re breaking their hearts?’
I’d look helplessly at Josh, who was just 11 – a pretty vulnerable age to see the safety net of your family unravel before your eyes. But then things got even worse. There were arguments about what Georgia ate at school, fights about what was left in her lunchbox when she got home and daily clashes about breakfast. Things got weird; I’d hear arguments erupt at two o’clock in the morning because my parents had found Georgia standing in the pantry, picking the sultanas out of a box of Just Right.
One day Mum and Dad came home from a visit to a doctor and explained anorexia nervosa to me. Or at least, they tried to. ‘Your sister is not well, Hugh,’ they said. ‘She can’t help that she doesn’t want to eat. You have to understand that it’s a mental illness, OK?’
I nodded and mumbled something affirmative, but the truth was I didn’t understand it at all. ‘It’s an illness? Don’t be ridiculous,’ I thought to myself. ‘If she eats food she’ll get better and our family will be happy again and Mum and Dad won’t be crying, so why won’t she just fucking eat?’
As I stuffed my head deeper into the sand, anorexia started to show physically on Georgia. She ceased to resemble my little sister; she became a gaunt, pallid stick figure in a nightie, thinning hair matted across her face as she fluttered weakly to the pantry in the middle of the night, like an emaciated moth to a barely flickering flame.
‘Georgia!’ I said, when I interrupted one of her 2 am missions. ‘Get back to bed!’ But she just looked at me as if I wasn’t there, and slowly returned to the box of Just Right and her micro-feast of hardened sultana fragments.
I thought things couldn’t get any more distressing, but they did. Georgia’s efforts in the kitchen went from bizarre to near toxic. She would slather Brussels sprouts in balsamic vinegar and microwave them on high for three minutes. She’d read somewhere that if you nuke sprouts and balsamic vinegar for long enough there’ll be no calories left, rendering the meal acceptable for her consumption. The house stank of burnt sprouts for a year.
It wasn’t only Georgia’s diet and appearance that became scary. When I returned from school one afternoon I had to pick my way through shards of glass to get inside.
Georgia had made a border for her bedroom mirror using pictures of girls in bikinis she’d cut out from magazines. She’d then wrapped the mirror up in a blanket, carried it outside and stomped all over it. The glass went everywhere but Georgia tried to explain to us that it was a way of smashing her bad thoughts. ‘So they won’t beat me this time,’ she said.
Every Tuesday we’d go to family counselling sessions to try to navigate a way through our living hell. I couldn’t help but take the piss out of these sessions in the lift down from the office afterwards.
Deep down, however, I was resentful because the counsellor would say things like, ‘Hugh, do you understand the role you play in your sister’s recovery?’ I’d sit there and think, ‘You’re kidding, aren’t you? If my sister eats, she gets better. Don’t talk about my role in this because there’s a very simple solution.’
Georgia was 17 when she was admitted to hospital in the school holidays before she started Year 12. She’d fronted up to her weekly weigh-in and registered below her crisis weight of 34 kilograms. Into an eating disorders unit at Austin Hospital she went.
When I saw the full spectrum of medical science deployed to keep my little sister from starving to death, it finally registered: ‘She’s sick. She needs help.’ Georgia was ringed by doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and orderlies, and a gutted family who tried not to weep too much at her bedside. She was so weak she could barely move.
When we left the hospital on the first day, Mum, Dad, Josh and I moped back across a footbridge to where the car was parked. I couldn’t bring myself to walk alongside them though; I was ashamed. I strode ten metres ahead, bawling my eyes out because I realised I hadn’t been supportive to them, I hadn’t been there enough and – worst of all – I hadn’t recognised the legitimacy of Georgia’s suffering.
But I sure understood it now. ‘She can’t help this,’ I cried to myself. ‘She doesn’t want to be in hospital. She doesn’t want us to be upset. Georgia doesn’t want to die!’
The doctor had been pretty blunt with me. ‘It’s serious,’ he’d said on that first afternoon. ‘This could be it for your sister. That’s why she’s in here.’ If it had simply been a matter of Georgia eating a sandwich and – boom! – we’d be a happy family again, then she would have done it years ago. Instead she was now sentenced to suffer without us.
Ever since she was a little girl Georgia had been larger than life. She was bright, funny, energetic and she was always performing. Her presence alone demanded attention.
I was a pretty shy kid who tried to fly under the radar – a tall order when I had Georgia as my trusty sidekick. Whenever we’d go to the park she would walk straight up to any other kids who happened to be there and lay down the law: ‘OK, everyone, just so you know my brother is here and he’s got superpowers. So don’t mess with us, alright?’
Naturally the kids would demand I demonstrate these supernatural abilities on the spot, so I’d have to explain that I didn’t have any; I was a mere mortal who just wanted to play on the swings. But Georgia would have none of it. ‘Just show them, Hugh!’ she’d say. ‘Show them what you can do!’
At primary school Georgia was better friends with many more people than I was. It was the same deal when she joined me in high school. Georgia exploded onto the scene in Year 7. She knew just about everyone and even dated guys from the grades above mine – boys in the senior school, which I found odd and a bit embarrassing. Georgia was everywhere.
Then, seemingly overnight, she’d got sick and everything had changed. I can’t imagine how bad it must have been for her. But gradually, Georgia fought her way back to us by putting on enough weight to be deemed “well” enough to go home.
Despite missing nearly the first month of Year 12 and although she’d struggle to free herself from anorexia’s grip for years after, Georgia managed to graduate from high school with an ENTER score (the equivalent of the current-day ATAR) of 96.40. It was streets ahead of what I’d managed three years earlier. That achievement was testimony not only to Georgia’s intelligence but also to her fierce, unstoppable drive.
At university she went even harder. Georgia studied public relations at RMIT University and graduated with ridiculously high marks. She was so focused that she used to sticky-tape her research notes on the steering wheel, rearvision mirror and the dash of her car, so whenever she was stopped at the lights or stuck in traffic she could cram in more study.
In 2004, Georgia moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an actor, and has lived there ever since. Nowadays she’s an American citizen and to say that she is flourishing is an understatement.
About five years ago, however, Mum and Dad phoned Josh and me out of the blue. “Georgia’s coming home,” they said. “She needs to talk to us all about something that’s pretty urgent, so you need to be here tomorrow night.”
The following evening we all assembled at Mum and Dad’s house, unsure of what to expect. “So, I’ve been getting therapy and counselling for the anorexia,” Georgia began. “My counsellors are always saying to me, ‘Has something happened to you in your past? Has something traumatic happened that has caused all this?’ And I always tell them, ‘No. I had a great childhood.’”
The counsellors were also curious about Georgia’s choice of men. Ever since she was young, she had a pattern of dating guys a lot older than her. There were the boys in the senior grades she’d dated while she was in Year 7 and 8, and in her mid-twenties she was with men in their fifties.
“So the counsellors have asked, ‘Has your father done something to you?’ And of course I say, ‘No, definitely not.’”Georgia smiled reassuringly at Dad.
“But they press on: ‘What about uncles? Grandparents? Old family friends?’”
But Georgia said she was always adamant: “No. All the men in my family are wonderful, caring and gentle people who have never harmed me.”
As Georgia explained this to us, I wondered where it was all heading. Finally she came to the point. “The thing is,’ she said, ‘I had a nightmare the other night and it was about what happened to me when we were in Sydney.”
Georgia took a deep breath and continued. “I would have been about three years old, and we were in the front garden at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Mum and Dad had a rule that if we played in the front garden we had to play in front of the window where they could see us…”
My blood ran ice cold. As soon as she said those words I felt like I was suddenly a child again, and I had a strong idea of what might be coming.
I remembered those instructions about playing in front of the window at Mum’s parents’ place on Sydney’s North Shore. Being the firstborn and a somewhat responsible six-year-old, I obeyed the rules, but being a spirited three-year-old, Georgia had absent-mindedly drifted out of Mum and Dad’s designated field of vision.
“While we were playing, a man who would have been in his fifties or sixties walked into the yard. I can’t remember his exact words but he spoke to me first and said something like, ‘I’m friends with your dad. Come over here, I want to show you something.'”
I declined to go to him so he walked over to where Georgia was playing, picked her up in a very familiar way and said something like, ‘I’ve got something to show you. Do you want to see it?’
His manner was so relaxed and so familiar that I didn’t think anything of it. My six-year-old mind figured that he must have been one of Dad’s friends, just like he’d said he was. But here was Georgia, a quarter of a century later, about to tell us what happened next.
“A man came into the yard, picked me up and took me around the side of the house, where he sexually assaulted me,” Georgia said.
This hurt had been buried so deep down in Georgia’s psyche that it only came to the surface in a nightmare half a lifetime later. “I woke up crying and I knew it wasn’t a dream,” Georgia continued. “I knew straight away that it actually happened to me. All this time counsellors and psychologists have been trying to find out what happened to me, and that was it.”
After that traumatic experience, Georgia had become the biggest stickler for the rules, and had tied herself in knots trying to be the very best she could. She strived to be perfect for Mum and Dad because she didn’t dare make another mistake. It was as if she had spent the rest of her life being careful to never stray outside the view from Grandma and Grandpa’s window. That mindset helps to explain why the obsessive rules she gave herself about eating – or not eating – were so rigid.
Just as sinister and insidious were the words Georgia says her attacker spoke before he left: “If you tell anyone about this, your parents won’t love you or want you anymore.”
What an evil, despicable thing to say, and what a horrible thought to make a child carry for the rest of her life. Though I try not to dwell on it too much, I look back on this memory with immense sadness, and I mourn the loss of potential in my relationship with Georgia.
In hindsight, what I came to see as her increased need for competition with me, aiming to look as perfect as possible in Mum and Dad’s eyes, was a response to the events of that horrific day. Georgia is such an amazing person but I can’t help wondering how our relationship would have turned out if that hadn’t happened to her.
It’s depressing and heartbreaking to think a human being can wander into a sunny garden, defile a child and walk away, oblivious and unburdened by the human wreckage he has left behind.
I now understand why my sister had wished I had superpowers when we were kids.
Our family suffered, like countless others who have been scarred by heinous crimes and struggled under the pressure of mental illnesses.
With the clarity of hindsight, I now realise that just as Georgia’s torment became a part of my family’s story, it has also been woven into a new story, not just for her and for the van Cuylenburgs but for families throughout the country – one of vulnerability, hope and resilience.
For help and support for eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation’s National Support line and online service on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or email [email protected]. You can also visit their website, here.
If you are concerned about the welfare of a child you can get advice from the Child Abuse Protection Hotline by calling 1800 688 009, or visiting their website. You can also call the 24-hour Child Abuse Report Line (131 478).
This piece is an extract from The Resilience Project, by Hugh van Cuylenburg, published by Ebury Press.