In honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week I asked Sarah if she would do a Q&A session with me for the blog. She happily agreed. I hope the questions and responses will give you just a little more insight into the life/mind of one who is struggling with an eating disorder.
(Disclaimer: I was contacted a few weeks ago by a Missouri high school junior who was working on an ED focused research paper. She asked is she could interview me and I agreed. I thought many of her questions were well stated and highlighted important issues as it relates to various ED's, therefore I used many of her original questions for Sarah, while some were altered slightly.)
How old were you when you began dealing with “disorderly eating”, anorexia, or bulimia? How old were you when you began recovery?
I experienced my first bout of anorexia at 14. As a child, I was slightly overweight and generally miserable about my appearance. The summer before my freshman year of high school I decided to lose some weight. I started out by cutting calories and exercising and, like so many girls who start to struggle with disorderly eating, I spiraled out of control. I lost about 60 pounds in two months by drastically eliminating most food (and calories) from my diet. My mom was obviously worried about my weight loss and took me to a nutritionist who helped me get back on track.
I did extremely well with recovery until my sophomore year of college. A close guy friend (who my best friend and I ate most of our meals with) started making comments about girl’s bodies at the dining hall. He called several girls my size overweight, and it triggered my relapse. Thus began a seven-year battle for my life. I was definitely more reluctant to get help and to get better at an older age. I also dropped down to the lowest weight of my life- at one point I weighed 89 pounds, and I’m 5’8.”
In retrospect, I wish that I would have separated myself from my friend’s negative body talk right away, but I honestly don’t think I realized what was happening at the time. I almost think a relapse was inevitable for me because I didn’t deal with many of the psychological issues related to my disorder at a young age. Also my mother spurred my recovery at age 14 whereas my most recent recovery was brought on by myself and my desire to live. That variance is definitely important. I have done a tremendous amount of work and introspection to get better.Take me through a typical day for you while dealing with the disorder: your thoughts, how you ate, your interactions with others, etc.
My life was so sad while dealing with anorexia. I had to weigh myself immediately after I woke up. I would pee (to make sure that I didn’t have any extra weight on me) and then step on the cold, metal scale. If I weighed less than my norm for that day (and this norm varied as my weight dropped lower and lower), I was in a fantastic mood. If it was higher, even by a pound, I was a miserable grump. After weighing myself I’d get ready for work, stare at the bony ribs protruding through my skin a few times in the mirror to make sure I looked skinny, and then eat an apple for breakfast. Since I didn’t fuel myself properly, I found it difficult to concentrate at work. My mind was foggy, and my stomach was empty. Eventually I’d go home for lunch and eat 10 wheat crackers, 3 slices of turkey, and a few carrots and celery sticks. (I was still understandably hungry after this measly lunch.) After work, I’d rush home and take an hour and a half long walk to take my mind off of my hunger. I rarely joined my friends for dinner plans or drinking dates. And if I did, I would stick to a glass of water and be subjected to many stares. Eventually I’d eat dinner by myself. It was usually a large salad of romaine, carrots, and tomatoes with some chicken and no dressing.
During a particularly dark part of my disorder, I did start to struggle with episodes of binging and purging. I’ve heard this behavior is quite typical for girls and women battling anorexia. You’re just so hungry that it becomes hard to resist food. So you eat too much, feel guilty and sick, and then throw up. Contrary to popular misconception about purging, I didn’t stick my finger down my throat. The purging was actually my body’s response to eating too much food at one time because my stomach shrunk significantly.
Sometimes, girls who struggle with eating disorders who have lost an immense amount of weight still think they are “overweight” or “fat.” Did you feel like no matter how much weight you lost, you were still never “skinny enough?” Please explain.
I find this question to be very interesting and important. As I started to lose weight, I knew that I was skinny. At several points I even knew I was too skinny. But it was the fear of gaining more weight that caused my weight to plummet and my disease to get worse. I could never imagine myself being a normal weight. I had to be skinny. And I had to stay skinny despite how sick I got.Were you open with your peers, family members, etc, about your struggle? If not immediately, at what point were you able to honestly discuss your struggle?
By nature, I’m actually a very private person. (I speak openly about my struggles on my blog because I want to help people and truly believe it’s necessary to erase the stigma associated with eds.) I was honest with my mom primarily because she knew that something was wrong. Eventually two of my close friends from high school called me out about my weight, but I remember feeling sort of angry about it. Not because I didn’t know something was wrong. I did. But because they didn’t understand what I was going through. A lot of people talk to women with eating disorders like they’re dumb. I can’t tell you how many times people told me to “just eat.” If it were that easy, I would have done just that. As I started to take steps toward my own recovery, I did open up to my one best friend and Dennis, my current boyfriend of four years (who I started dating at the beginning of my recovery). To this day, I haven’t discussed my battles with many of my close friends, although I’m sure they knew what was going on by my extreme thinness and behavior.
Did the media have any effect on your development of the eating disorder? If so, how?
No, I really don’t think the media had much of an effect on my disorder. Although I was told several times when I was super skinny that I would make an excellent model. I still find it quite disturbing that emaciated frames are so frequently featured on the runway and in high fashion magazines.
At what point did you realize you needed to recover? Or decide you wanted to recover?
My turning point came after a very scary incident when I ended up in the ER. I honestly thought I was having a heart attack because my chest had stabbing pains, and my left arm became numb. It turned out that I was severely dehydrated, and my electrolytes were dangerously out of balance. I talked the hospital into letting me go home instead of admitting me, but I did have to have a follow-up appointment with my general practitioner. He was the best doctor that I’ve ever had. He was the only one who addressed my ed and told me that he knew something was wrong. (Two other doctors before him acted like my weight was normal.) He assured me that he could help me find treatment and that things could and needed to get better quickly. His words and foresight sparked my efforts to actually recover.
Best/worst thing your family/friends did for you during your struggle?
As I mentioned, my mother was very supportive. It was very important that she let me talk and call her whenever I needed her. People telling me that I was gaining weight, although they meant to be complimentary, was destructive to my recovery. It became very triggering for me.What got you through the hardest recovery days?
I have always been very ambitious and hard working. And I have big dreams. Knowing that I could get my life back, that I could return to my true self, got me through my worst days. I wanted to live my life. I didn’t want to be stuck in a world where everything revolved around food and my rigid behavior. It’s only now that I finally feel like myself again. I have passions- like writing, singing, dancing, and acting- that make me so happy. I’m only glad that I can now do these things without feeling stifled by my disorder.If you had to give someone struggling with an eating disorder just one piece of recovery advice what would it be? If you had to give one piece of advice to the family of someone with an eating disorder what would it be?
My greatest piece of advice is simply that life without an ed is far better than a life with one. Even on my worst, most trying days. I’d rather be where I am today than trapped by anorexia.
For families and friends, it’s so important to be supportive. Most likely you don’t understand what your loved one is going through, so you need to be loving and non-judgmental. There are points when a person with an ed needs extra help whether that is a nutritionist, psychologist or a stay at an in-treatment center. Anorexia and bulimia are deadly diseases, so family and friends do need to be aware of situations when their loved one’s life is in severe jeopardy. NEDA is a great resource for those times.Was recovery worth it? Please explain.
Oh, my goodness. Recovery was definitely worth it. I am so much happier now than I’ve been in years. I really do find so much pleasure in things that scared me to death when I struggled. I love cooking delicious meals for Dennis and me and actually eating the food I cook. I like going out to dinner with friends. I don’t have to eat the same thing every single day. I have energy to do the things that I love. And I have the hope that I can make a difference in the world. I never felt that way when I was sick.
Anything else you would like to add?
Even though I am in recovery and have been better for several years, I don’t know if an eating disorder ever goes away completely. I constantly need to question my behavior and make sure that I don’t fall into many of the traps of my past (like allowing negative body comments to affect me or to restrict my caloric intake). I try to live a balanced life, which includes healthy eating (and treats!), exercise, and a great deal of introspection.
A big thanks to Sarah for her willingness to participate and share part of her story!! Don't forget to check out her blog. Check out more of her specific posts on recovery & body image by clicking here.
I hope and pray that you are taking some time this week to reflect on these topics and issues. Please. . . if you suspect that you or someone you know is struggling with any type of eating disorder please do not hesitate to reach out for help. It is not too late to reclaim your life. Recovery is worth it. I promise.