‘My eating disorder was my best friend’
Cathy Gaillard: ‘One day, Dr Dunne asked my aunt if she ever told me she loved me’
Cathy Gaillard who lives with an eating disorder (anorexia and bulimia) pictured in Cork city. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Cathy Gaillard, a 50-year old French woman living in Cork says that her eating disorder (ED) was her “best friend” and was primarily a result of “love starvation”. Currently being treated for anorexia nervosa and bulimia at the Eating Disorder Centre Cork, she says the reasons for eating disorders are complex.
“It could be that someone is afraid of growing up or doesn’t want to have curves which usually keeps the boys away. It could come from being abused or not having love from parents or it could come from tragedy. For me, ED was my best friend. I didn’t have any friends. I couldn’t talk. Every time I was sad, people thought I was sulking.”
Gaillard, who was born on the Ivory Coast to French parents before the family moved to Bergerac, a village in southwest France, experienced a family tragedy when she was eight years old. Her father, an alcoholic, shot her mother. Cathy and her 10-year-old brother found the body. He was sentenced to 20 years in jail and served 16. Gaillard reconnected with her father before he died four years ago. She has no bitterness towards him, saying that he was narcissistic and even after prison, lived in a fantasy world that was all about him. “He made a mistake and paid for it. I think he loved us in his own way.”
Gaillard, whose brother – a father of three – subsequently died in a fire, says that as a child, there were a lot of domestic rows . “There were no boundaries or rules and I still find rules difficult.” None of the adults in Gaillard’s life would talk about her mother’s death. She and her brother were sent to live with an uncle and an aunt for five years.
“My uncle’s wife was depressed. She had three children and had had three miscarriages and then there was the two of us. Nobody asked her if she’d agree to take us. She was very angry which I can understand, although I couldn’t at the time.”
After a particularly vicious row she ran away. “My uncle called my aunt in Cork (who used to run a translation service in the city before retiring in France) and that’s how I ended up here. My brother stayed with my uncle and aunt but got kicked out a few years later.”
While in France, at the age of 12, Gaillard had developed anorexia nervosa. She found ways to avoid eating in her boarding school and at home at the weekend. In Cork, her aunt realised that Gaillard wasn’t eating and eventually, “found a doctor who was the first person to actually diagnose me as having an eating disorder. I was 14.”
Gaillard attended James Barry’s practice on Wellington Road in Cork.
In 2007, Barry was found guilty by the High Court of a “gross breach of ethics” and had subjected numerous women to unnecessary “digital penetration”. He was struck off the medical register. It was Gaillard who made the first official complaint about Barry, years after being abused by him.
Gaillard passed her Intermediate Certificate (now Junior Certificate) and spent time at Sarsfield Court in Cork under a new doctor, the late Dr David Dunne, who understood her problems.
“One day, Dr Dunne asked my aunt if she ever told me she loved me. My aunt said why should she, that I must have known she loved me. In my head, I thought that Dr Dunne’s question was a good one. How was I supposed to know if I wasn’t told?”
Gaillard was angry and in and out of hospitals. She made seven suicide attempts, one resulting in her being in a coma for 20 days. She used to take out her frustration by verbally abusing Dr Dunne. In later years, she apologised to him.
As well as anorexia, Gaillard became bulimic. “I was throwing up food and using laxatives. I didn’t taste the food. I just swallowed it. I could eat for two hours, throw it all up and then eat again.”
Gaillard worked as a cook in a Chinese restaurant in Cork. Did she find it hard to work with food? “People don’t understand. The person in a family that has an eating disorder will be the one to cook for the whole family. They love doing it. What I used to do and what a lot of people with eating disorders do is look at cookery books, watch cookery shows on TV. It’s how you feed yourself. It takes away the hunger.”
Eventually, Gaillard’s doctor ordered her to stop working as she was tired and her weight was dropping.
Gaillard decided to start undergoing therapy. “There’s something in me that’s keeping me alive. I don’t know what it is. When I first started doing therapy at the Eating Disorder Centre, I was sitting on the edge of a chair waiting to head off. But bit by bit, I started trusting the therapist. I still don’t know what the definition of living is but you know what, I have nothing to lose. I’m fearless because I don’t really care one way or another.”
At her lowest weight, Gaillard was just 26kgs. She doesn’t want to know what her weight is now. She doesn’t believe in obsessing at the weighing scales. She can only eat small portions of food, liquidised, and will add rice to soup because her digestive system has been affected by her eating disorder. Two months ago, her bulimia stopped.
Gaillard went to France recently to organise setting up a memorial to her mother in the village where she lost her life. She hopes to write a book about her life. She has her own home in Cork where she has made friends. Before, “people only saw the eating disorder. Now, they are starting to see me.”
According to Bodywhys, the eating disorder association of Ireland, it is not always possible to find reliable statistics about eating disorders.
The department of health and children estimates that up to 200,000 people in Ireland may be affected by eating disorders.
An estimated 400 new cases emerge each year, representing 80 deaths annually.
According to the Health Research Board, in 2015 almost 12 per cent of all admissions for under 18s to Irish psychiatric units and hospitals had a primary diagnosis of eating disorders.
Females accounted for 87 per cent of all admissions of those affected by eating disorders in 2015.
A 2014 study carried out by the Irish Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) found that for children aged 12-17, the media and self perception are the most frequently cited influencing factors on body image.
Bodywhys helpline: 1890 200 444.