Although Christie Begnell suffered from anxiety and depression throughout adolescence, it wasn’t until age 20 that she found herself in the throes of a full-blowneating disorder.
“My breaking point was after a breakup with a long-term boyfriend. I had reached an emotional crisis,” the Australian occupational therapist, 24, tells PEOPLE. “Everything that had been bothering me through my adolescence — the bullying, the family breakdown, the neglect and invalidation — all boiled over and I had become severely unwell.”
Begnell began isolating herself from her friends, experienced suicidal thoughts and started cutting herself.
“I gained a little bit of weight during this time and decided to start dieting. It very quickly became an obsession,” she says.
Counting calories and restricting her food gave Begnell a sense of control and numbed her emotional pain.
“Apart from the ‘good’ things my eating disorder gave me, it was the worst experience I have ever gone through,” she says. “It was lonely, it was dark. It was walking around with a smile on my face and an abusive demon in my mind. I was ashamed of my illness.”
Begnell named her eating disorder “Ana,” and began drawing her as a way to gain power back from her disease.
“To draw Ana was so powerful for me because it gave the voice a face, a name and a being that I could stand up to,” she explains. “I’m a visual person, so this was so beneficial for me.”
When Begnell was admitted to a psychiatric unit last year to get treatment, she turned her drawings into detailed cartoons.
“I had a lot of time to kill on the unit so I started drawing what I was going through,” she says. “I had a lot of pent up anger and frustration at the staff in that unit, and drawing was an outlet for all that energy.”
Illustrating her disorder has been an integral part of Begnell’s recovery process.
“It has been a way of communicating with my friends and family what it’s like to live with an eating disorder,” she says. “It’s been a way of connecting with my treating team and try to make sense of the mess in my mind. It’s been a distraction when my thoughts were really strong.”
“It became a way of living a values-based life,” she continues. “Creativity and expression are highly important values, so drawing allows me to meet these. I also value helping others, and seeing the impact my art is having on other people gives me a sense of purpose right now.”
“I want people to be able to see my drawings and have ‘aha’ moments,” she says. “I want people to use my book as a way of showing their loved ones what they’re going through. I also want people to feel less alone. This illness is great at isolating us from the world around us and convincing us that we are worthless. With something that they can pick up, read and identify with, I hope that this book makes that person feel like somebody understands and knows what they’re going through.”