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ANXIOUS? IT DOESN’T DEFINE YOU: TAMMY’S STORY

At 15, TAMLYN TREFZ entered a dark world of mental health issues that have taken a number of years to play out. But she’s overcome hurdles and turned her life around to focus outwards, providing encouragement for numerous women and a home for a little girl who didn’t have one. What’s her story and how did she get there? She spoke to Katy Macdonald
Tamlyn Trefz grew up in Cape Town’s Constantia Hills, the daughter of a nursing sister and a property specialist. She attended Bergvliet Primary School and Springfield Convent, and is married to Darryn, an IT executive. They have three children and live in Meadowridge
blonde in flowery jacket

I HAD AN AMAZING, GROUNDED CHILDHOOD. I’m an A-type personality so I do remember feeling anxious at times, but not because of my home. My family was loving and stable.

At 15, on a Christmas holiday staying with my cousins in Durban, I entered a dark world. After a day of mouth-watering food and dessert, someone took a photo of my cousins and me.

Happy childhood: ‘My family was loving and stable,’ says Tammy

My body was developing from that of a young girl to one of a young woman and I had a bit of puppy fat. Now when I look at that photo, I see a gorgeous, full-of-life young lady. But I remember going into the bathroom that evening and as I stood in front of the mirror, a voice popped into my mind. It told me I was fat, not slim like the other girls I knew.

I wish I’d never listened to that voice. The lies that entered my mind that evening. Oooh, the lies, the words, the chains.

My figure consumed me

I felt unacceptable. I started ‘eating healthier’, which really meant cutting down on food. And over-exercising: kickboxing and dancing in addition to school sports. My figure consumed me, literally every thought and every action. I tried vomiting a few times but it set my throat into spasm so I gave that up. Nonetheless, slowly, the weight started to fall off me and over a period of a year I became skeletal. The more people said to me that I was looking skinny, the more this ‘fed’ me.

My weight was incredibly low, it sends chills down my spine to think just how low. I stopped menstruating, my hair grew thinner, and one day my friend grabbed my hand and pointed out the fine hairs growing on my arm, a protective measure the body uses when it is too thin. The fat I saw was invisible to everyone else, every bone protruded through my skin, but I simply saw fat. I just couldn’t get out of this headspace.

Tammy: ‘I simply saw fat. I just couldn’t get out of this headspace.’

I used to tell my mother how fat I felt and she used to say, ‘We need to get you right and happy about yourself, you can’t go through life not being happy with your body.’ But while my family was the kind of family you dream about having, we had another family member going through their very own dark valley and I think this obscured the extent of my problem.

One morning, after a tummy bug, I got up early feeling shaky and craving food. I made some toast and honey and on the way back to my bedroom, passed out in the passageway, hitting a vase as I fell. My family found me out cold in the passageway with huge blades of glass around me. That really scared me.  After watching a movie one Saturday morning about a girl who had an eating disorder, I suddenly realised that I could see myself in her. I started eating again but put on weight fast because my body had been so starved. I still had days of feeling not comfortable in my own skin and kept trying to push through, hard as it was.

parents and woman
Tammy with parents, Barry and Karen Brooks: ‘I felt a whisper in my heart saying, You need to tell your mother the whole truth,’ she says

One day on the treadmill at the gym, I felt a whisper in my heart saying, ‘You need to tell your mother the whole truth’. This was a pivotal moment. There’s a saying in the Bible, ‘The truth will set you free’ and it’s quite amazing. I believe this is when my healing started. I shared with my mother what I had been going through for the past couple of months and it brought such freedom. I started being able to leave my eating disorder behind me. I’m so grateful.

I encourage anyone reading this who’s struggling with an eating disorder to tell the truth to someone. Whether you’re overeating or undereating, it’s such a secretive thing. You know what you’re doing isn’t right, but you don’t know how to break it. I would say, don’t stop talking, find someone you can trust. Coronavirus has opened up the focus on mental health and I hope there’ll be sustained awareness that anxiety, depression, eating disorders… none of these define who you are, and one mustn’t let them do so. If people can open up about what they’re going through, they’ll save themselves a lot of wasted years.

Six coffee dates and a kiss

I met Darryn at church. I fell so in love with him the moment I saw him and asked my friend to introduce us. We went on six coffee dates and then he kissed me! We were together for three years and got married when I was 21.

I did a business diploma, set up a recruitment company which I ran for 12 years, and had Josh when I’d just turned 24. It was a bit overwhelming and isolating to have a baby that young because most of my friends were only just starting their first jobs after leaving university. But I got through.

young married couple
Tammy with husband Darryn: ‘I fell so in love when I first saw him,’ she says

However, when Josh was two, I became pregnant with Noah and things were very different. Until he was eight weeks I felt completely fine, and wondered why people say two kids can be hard. Then it hit me. I would have panic attacks, overthink everything, be unable to breathe, feel my skin crawling. I tidied the house early in the morning and couldn’t stand to be in it. I felt I was being swallowed. My GP gave me anti-depressants, but unfortunately I was in the small percentage of people for whom they make things worse, and started having panic attacks in my sleep.

I loved God but I felt so far from Him, that He’d forgotten me. The GP sent me to a psychiatrist who looked me in the eye and said, ‘Tam, I need to tell you that you couldn’t have done anything to prevent this. It happens to some people.’ I will never forget that moment, I felt the load of struggling by myself in this nightmare was now shared. Others had already told me it wasn’t my fault, but coming from him brought me a moment where I felt I could breathe again.

happy family
Putting a brave face on it. Everything looked good from the outside, but postnatal depression hit Tammy out of the blue when her second son, Noah, was eight weeks old. ‘It opened my eyes to a world where a number of women are slowly dying inside,’ she says

The doctor put me on a different medication, which helped tremendously. We women don’t talk about these things because a tablet means we’re not coping in life. But if you have a certain heart condition, you take blood pressure tablets. If you suffer from anxiety that won’t go away, you may need a tablet and that’s okay. There’s such a stigma but I now realise it’s okay to say, ‘My wellbeing isn’t well today’! Because of the meds, I had to stop breastfeeding Noah, which was never in my plan, but I learnt it’s okay to bottle feed your baby if necessary.

My postnatal depression opened my eyes to a world where I saw people in a different light. I realised that a number of women are slowly dying inside, craving and longing to get out of their nightmare.

mom and boys
Finding the right medication and a handful of loyal friends she could talk to helped Tammy find her mojo. She adds: ‘I prayed constantly to God, read His life-giving words in the Bible and believe He too helped me get to grips with things.’

My mom used to say, talk to someone. Choose who you trust to walk the journey with you, who you take in your ‘boat’. It will sink if you have too many people in it: not everyone has your best interests at heart because they attach their own issues to you, but it’s great to have a handful of people to enjoy the sunshine with, who can also be there when the clouds come.

I’ve built up a wonderful group of friends whom I trust. Later on, I was able to be there for a friend who went through something similar. She told me it meant to much to know that someone understood how she was feeling. If I had to go through those dark days to be able to help a friend, it makes it so worthwhile.

‘Will I ever be me again?’

As my boys grew, I kept wondering, ‘Who am I now? Will I ever be me again?’ I struggled with these questions because my goal was to get back to how I used to be. But then, I started thinking, did I really want to get back to that? What about the insecurities I’d had in the past? I prayed constantly to God and read his life-giving words in the Bible, and I believe He stripped me of those layers, helped me get to grips with things and set me on the right path.

I was terrified to have another baby, in case it sparked off postnatal depression again. I had my tubes tied, and ultimately a hysterectomy at 32, because I had difficult physical symptoms, which was life-changing in a positive sense.

PERFECTIONISM GETS YOU NOWHERE, TAMMY HAS DISCOVERED, WHICH IS WHY WE’RE SHOWING YOU ONE OF OUR OUT-TAKES! 

A couple of years ago I went to a shop in Muizenberg which was run by an NPO called the Sparrow Society. There I met Kate Brim-Senekal, a woman who was uplifting young Zambian girls with skills training. I’d lived in a Cape Town suburban bubble my whole life, but felt the desire rise in my heart to go with her on her next trip to Zambia.

We flew there, then drove out into villages, bumping over giant potholes, staying in a home with an open bathroom. It was extraordinary, opening my eyes to the situations of other children. When I came home I struggled with my boys fighting over the PlayStation, while I now knew that young girls in Zambia were trying to get potato patches growing so they didn’t have to be brides at 14. On the positive side, my intermittent anxiety finally lifted after the trip. To date, I haven’t had any incidents since then.

‘Are you open to adoption?’

Having had a hysterectomy, I never thought of another baby, but Noah started saying, ‘When are we going to fetch my sister? I don’t understand why we haven’t fetched my sister!’ He kept saying it, and eventually something made me say to Darryn, ‘Are you open to adoption?’ I absolutely couldn’t believe it when he said, ‘Ja, I’m open.’

I was completely shocked! The boys were 8 and 10, and life had become pretty easy. We were getting to the stage when we would be able to travel a bit. But I was feeling this could be part of the purpose for our lives and I didn’t want to miss out on that just so we could do the convenient thing.

adopted child
‘I can’t imagine life without her,’ Tammy says about Mila, the little girl she is in the process of adopting
father and daughter
Darryn and Mila: Tammy was initially shocked when Darryn said he was open to adoption

I didn’t want anything to come about from me pushing Darryn, but Noah kept on sharing his heart with us all the time. In the end, when our hearts started feeling the same conviction, we went to an agency in Somerset West to discover what would be involved.

To cut a long story short, two years later, we’re now in the process of adopting Mila, a little girl who’d been living in a ‘Forever Safe’ children’s home, and today I can’t imagine life without her. I feel God has restored what I was robbed of by postnatal depression. I’ve been able to enjoy my baby, be a mum who isn’t anxious. I’m so excited to see what life holds for her: every child deserves a loving family.

Tammy’s elder son, Joshua, with his new sister

I now have a growing passion for women’s freedom. I get excited to think of girls and women of all ages finding the desire and freedom to love themselves from the inside out.

I was invited to a couple of local schools to talk about my eating disorder (me, who wouldn’t even deliver an oral at school without feeling nauseous) because they want real-life experiences, not just facts, so that other girls know how to support their friends. It’s amazing to think I might be able to help stop some young girls making the same mistakes.

Find your purpose

In 2019, I felt a calling to set up a conference to encourage women. The idea and the team grew and grew into a conference called Women of the Valley: Awakening, which took place at Bergvliet High School and 470 women attended, which blew me away.

In 2020 thanks to a brilliant team, we ran a free one online (thanks to Covid), aimed at getting women to use their gifts and find their purpose. We had great speakers from many different churches telling their raw and real stories of alcoholism and abuse, of being a refugee.

mother and daughter
Tammy with Mila: ‘I get excited to think of girls and women of all ages finding the freedom to love themselves from the inside out,’ she says

I think it’s good to ask yourself, what are you holding onto from the past that limits your freedom today? Do you carry your wounds with you as a victim, or do you use them to help people? I believe it’s time to rise out of insecurities that have played a negative role in our lives and turn them into things that are good, instead of allowing them to be a constant burden or reminder of failure.

I still get moments of insecurity about my body but I have learnt to put up a shield when I start to feel this. I find scriptures and say them out loud to push away the lies. A friend also recently pointed out that I keep saying ‘sorry’ and that I don’t need to feel inadequate so I’m working on that!

I don’t believe God gave me the trials that I went through, it was I who chose to believe the lies. Yet He has used everything that knocked me down to help women, to relate to them.

I see how young girls put super-thin photos of themselves on Instagram, hunching in a certain way to emphasise their shoulder bones. We need to ask ourselves, would God be saying that I’m not beautiful? My depression made me realise how powerful our minds are – for good, or for bad.

‘Where’s my sister?’ Sandwiched here between Tammy’s father Barry and her husband Darryn is her younger son Noah, who constantly asked his parents when they’d be picking up his sister before adoption was even a consideration!

I’ve come to believe that if I find my self-worth and contentment through humans or friends, I’ll always be disappointed, there will be a let-down at some stage, it’s human nature. When I define myself by how the Bible tells me God sees me, I’m never disappointed. God loves us as a father loves his children, and only wants the best for us. Fear rages all around us in different forms, but we don’t need to accept it.

Putting together the pieces of my life like this is extraordinary. When the clouds are covering the light and it’s hard, we have to remember that the sun never stops shining and doing its work. It’s just being covered by the clouds for a small part of the time.

Today I don’t have to prove anything to the world to be seen or heard. I feel God in the form of Jesus has made me confident about who I am. I’m no longer defined by what I thought or felt about myself.

You’re not meant to carry the nightmare of anxiety by yourself

I want to get to 60, 70, 80 or even 90 and for God to still be using me. I don’t want any woman to be put off by her past or be scared of her future. The great author of life is still busy writing our stories as long as we’ll let Him! I want women to open up their hearts and walk journeys with each other, knowing that they have a place where their insecurities can be wiped away, where they can be loved and accepted just the way they are, that God has a destiny for each one of us.

My simple story is not yet finished but I hope it will encourage people to seek God, who I believe is always waiting for each one of us to turn to Him. I also hope it will encourage people to push through the tough times to find freedom.

None of us know how and when anxiety might creep into our lives in different seasons. You’re not alone and you’re not meant to carry the silent nightmare of anxiety by yourself.  There are so many people in the same boat. Talk, trust someone, talk more.’

DO YOU (OR SOMEONE YOU CARE ABOUT) NEED SUPPORT?

DISORDERED EATING

POSTNATAL DEPRESSION

  • Visit the Pre-/Postnatal Depression Anxiety South Africa website for information on support or chat groups
  • Call the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) hotline on
    082 882 0072 and ask for the Liz Mills Pre-/Postnatal Depression (PND) Helpline
  • Talk to someone! Consider Hope House, where all services are provided in return for a donation of whatever you can afford. It has branches in Bergvliet, Blaauwberg, Kuilsriver and at various schools. Call 084 577 7525 or send an email to info@hopehouse.org.za
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