The Big Branding Brain

Design. Style. Huge Imagination. Great eye. These are the words often associated with Helen, Director of her own design and branding agency in Wellington. But then anyone that knows her would also add: striking, warm, wise, gentle, fiercely strong. Helen is an award-winning influencer in her advertising world and has an energy about her that generates equal amounts of respect and adoration.

She also runs by the ocean when she’s in the mood, sinks her hands deep into the soil of her green green garden, and cooks up plates of deliciousness.

You would never imagine she used to be hooked on laxatives.

I first met Helen at the gym in the 90s. Well, we didn’t really meet then, we just clocked each other, noticing the other was there QUITE A LOT. I had no idea she had suffered from body issues similar to mine until FABIK launched itself on the world.

Recently Helen and I met for sushi and we talked and talked and talked and talked until she had to sprint to her next meeting. Here is our chat:
BB: Shall we start at the start?

HM: I was at St Cuthberts boarding school in 1981 and we had our first ball – so to prepare, virtually all the boarders in my year stopped eating. It wasn’t hard because the food was so awful! It wasn’t as if we were depriving ourselves of anything. However everyone else gave it up after the ball and I kept going.

Now I think about it, I probably wasn’t very confident with myself and being surrounded by amazing, talented, brainy people, I realized (in the back of my head somewhere) I was actually really good at not eating. I was the best at it.

Coming from the UK, I was not sporty – I got marched off the tennis court because I was so hopeless, and I was dyslexic so not good at reading, so I felt like I was pretty average and there was one thing where I was better than anybody else: not eating.

My Mum always thought she did something terrible but it was as simple as that. I was good at it.

BB: Were you rewarded for it?

I felt good and proud of myself, and convinced I was more attractive because I was skinny, but then I got too thin. I had very patient friends and they tried everything to get me to eat but when I didn’t eat, they gave up. So the support fell away.

BB: And after boarding school?

That was six form, then in the 7th form, my sister, who is two years younger than me came back to school and unbeknownst to me (we weren’t close then) she’d stopped eating for three weeks. Her knees were huge she was that thin. She got anorexia and was taken out of school. I stayed.

My mother at this stage was blaming herself for everything; she had two of ‘them’ – which was totally not her fault.

The sick bay nurse pulled me aside after my sister was taken home and said, “If your sister dies you can consider yourself a murderer!”, I think out of desperation to jolt me out of myself. It didn’t work but I have never forgotten her words.

I remember, poignantly, there was a matron who put me on her table in the dining room. She was tenacious, and she made sure I ate. She saved my life. At the beginning of the year I was getting terrible grades for everything, like high 20s, and at the end of the year I got an A bursary. She terrified us boarders but for me she was a guardian angel.

BB. At the time were you aware you had an eating disorder?

HM: I was in total denial. But the worst thing I could do was to eat (for fear of putting on weight). I think I got addicted to that. I couldn’t physically do it, [vomit] so I stopped eating. But I drank gallons of milk. Deep down I probably knew but I never went to counseling or did any of those things.

This was 1982 – there was nobody in front of us, it was our year that started it all off.

At university in my first year in the halls it was so easy to not eat. I never ate. Out partying with friends we skipped meals. But in my second year I started working at Pizza Hut, so after work we ate pizza, and because I hadn’t eaten for such a long time I exploded. By the end of the year I was so depressed because my body had grabbed hold of all that food and stored it. I ballooned.

BB. That’s when my bulimia started – at university. Drunk on brandy and scoffing pies at 2am. I felt so out of control.

HM: Yes, no control. The fact that I had been good at it – I could measure what I put in my mouth – then I wasn’t. But I did grow out of it. All the way through my twenties I was so super conscious, like all my friends in design and advertising and we were all at the gym, doing two classes a day. Because we could, obsessing about exercise and food. We were at war with one another, with ourselves! It didn’t feel uncommon, every girl I knew was saying “oh my legs are fat” bla bla. I wasn’t alone with those feelings; it wasn’t an eating disorder then.

BB. What happened when you went to the UK?

I was 27 and had just started going out with Grant, literally a month before I was leaving. I headed to the States, went to New Orleans Jazz festival, did Route 66, and I was going to South America but my Grandfather fell ill with leukemia and was dying. My Mum told me I was going to miss him if I went south.

So I went to Wales – lived in the family home I had lived in until I was 10 – and looked after him. And I started being really careful with what I ate. In the back of my head I was worried about that thing, that stupid thing, that people get fat when they go to London – but the biggest thing of all was I hated the fact that I couldn’t stop Granddad from dying.

He couldn’t deal with the drugs he was on. He was a criminal lawyer so he couldn’t stand it that his brain was playing games with him; he’d see things. He knew he was losing the plot and that he was not really seeing giant spiders on the bed. He was meant to be on four-hourly oral opiates that I would have to give him but he wouldn’t take them unless the pain came back; it was his form of control. I would stay up, saying, “Come on Granddad it’s time to have it” and he would refuse, but then at 2am he would be in so much pain he would have to take it.

I couldn’t control my situation, Grant was in NZ, Granddad was dying so I guess what I could control was what I put in my mouth. I went running and cut down on what I ate. And when I did eat normally, not bingeing, then I went out and got laxatives. So I suppose I did have bulimia but just at the other end.

When I came home to New Zealand I really analyzed it. I was thinking ‘why am I here again’ and I knew it was about control. I wasn’t bad, like dangerously thin, but for me I was looking gaunt in the face. And Grant asked what I was wrong and I told him, “Look buddy, this is what I’ve been doing and I’m going to have to stop and you’re going to have to help me.” I also told two of my best friends and brother and sister in law.

BB: That was brave of you. How was Grant when you told him?

HM: He was really good. I said to everyone, “I know I need to eat better and work my way out of this and you can pull me up on this, OK?” However even though I rationalized it, the hardest thing was putting on weight.

I had to drop the laxatives. I did stop but then I got stressed about something and started taking them again and it was so obvious until Grant finally said one day, “I’m going to have to call the wedding off unless you stop.” It was tough love.

BB: How did he know?

HM: I don’t know if you’ve used laxatives but it’s like having diarrhea. I was taking ten at a time. It was terrible, I can’t believe I put myself, and body through it.

BB. I feel the same way about vomiting. So violent. And gross. My binges and purges lasted hours.

HM. How did you hide it?

BB. At work, after everyone went home. The diligent worker there at 9pm.

HM. Why do you think you did it?

BB. Mine started off as a fear of fat and I wasn’t a very good dieter.

HM. Nobody is darlin.

BB. How are you with food now, do you cook?

HM: I love cooking! I’m a really healthy cook. It’s one of those things, I’m not a baker but I absolutely love creating flavours. Grant would say we eat really well. It’s not always his style, he does have to go out and buy the odd pie but really it’s more about the idea of having one I think.

BB. How are you with your body?

HM. Alright but I have days where you just feel bad. I presume everyone feels like that sometimes. I don’t go on about it and I don’t not eat. If it’s somebody’s birthday I have some cake and I don’t really think about it. It’s just a day. And I look forward to going out to dinner when I used to seriously worry about it.

I think back to when I was at school and I lost my period. At the time I thought ‘who cares’, it was great, but Grant and I were never very careful about what we were doing, I wasn’t on contraception for fifteen years and we were never sure about having children but we never did. He thinks it’s him and I always thought it was me. We decided not to find out who couldn’t – it wasn’t going to make a difference.

Perhaps in a past life I had 26 children! But in this life it’s not to be. It’s not a guilt niggle but it’s a wonder. I wonder if I never conceived because of what I did to my insides.

I don’t know. My sister, who was on the edge of hospitalization, has had two beautiful children.

BB. Did you feel like you had to forgive yourself?

HM. No. The most important thing for me was understanding why I did it. Like I was another person, analyzing it as I was doing it.

I didn’t feel like I was worthy or good at anything – my parents didn’t tell me I had dyslexia until I was 33, so I thought I was stupid. I thought I was slow. And thankfully Mum and Dad got me through it, but I said to Mum, “Why didn’t you ever tell me?” Suddenly the light went on and I could understand it – it meant I could work around it. Now, before meetings, I ask whether there’s anything they can send me first, rather than feel stupid reading in front of clients. That was a big thing. I always wanted to be the best at something.

BB. And look at what you’ve achieved in your life. Analysis is an important part of healing.

HM. I have a friend who has a child who has suddenly, out of the blue, stopped eating – at 21. I told her it’s got nothing to do with the food. Something somewhere else in her life has gone wrong and she has to find out what that something is. She’s then going to have to distract her and get her to focus on something else so she forgets obsessing about food. It’s not going to be easy.

I look at all my girlfriend’s daughters and they are all gorgeous and you know we were probably like that too but we didn’t know. I remember thinking I wanted to try and be pretty. And had no idea I probably was.

BB: I think about this too. If only we could have enjoyed our youthfulness. It’s so beautiful. But we criticized it and judged it. Couldn’t see it. Can you tell me three things you love about your body now?

HM: What a tricky question to finish with Ange. I love the fact that it all works! I’m blessed with good health, my legs take me where I want to go; my arms let me hug the ones I love and my eyes show me a unique and beautiful world – mushy I know – but how lucky am I!

BB: Thank you Helen. Mushy & beautiful.
Want more? Speaking of advertising, here is an old favourite clip of the week (it looks like an ad for sunscreen but it’s so much more and originally written by a woman…):

OR: Feast your eyes on these gorgeously disturbing photos about secret eating by Lee Price.

And finally, RIP Joan Rivers. She was a fucking awesome bulimic (among other more impressive things). Humour, she taught us, is the best way through life. Here’s one of her classics on her body: “I was so flat, I used to put Xs on my chest and write, ‘You are here.’