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Panelists discuss how eating disorders changed their lives

Recovering - Five panelists discussed how eating disorders impacted their lives at the 15th annual Faces of Recovery event, sponsored by the Waterloo Wellington Eating Disorders Coalition. The event took place at the Guelph Youth Music Centre on Feb. 8. From left, Sarah, Doreen, Leanne, Andrew and Therese.  Photo by Jaime Myslik

Panelists discuss how eating disorders changed their lives

by Jaime Myslik

GUELPH - Three people in recovery from an eating disorder and two parents of daughters in recovery shared their experiences with the wider public.

On Feb. 8 the 15th annual Faces of Recovery panel, sponsored by the Waterloo Wellington Eating Disorders Coalition, took place at the Guelph Youth Music Centre.

There was a large audience, despite poor weather conditions, which heard from five panelists whose lives have changed because of an eating disorder.

Sarah

First to speak was Sarah, now one year into recovery.

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Would you climb the tallest, rockiest mountain? Would you jump out of a plane with blind faith hoping your parachute opens?” she asked.

“What if I told you that’s what recovery is like? Climbing and sometimes stumbling up a mountain; jumping out of the safe, familiar environment, not knowing if you’ll survive on your own; learning how to safely stand on your own two feet instead of falling off back into dangerous territory that can kill you.”

Sarah was diagnosed in 2003 and spent more than half her life with an eating disorder.

“My eating disorder influenced and ruined every aspect of my life,” she said.

“The smart, kind, funny, creative and loving girl I used to be spiralled into a manipulative, self-centred and controlling liar.

“Every relationship in my life had been damaged.”

She also abused drugs and alcohol, but on Feb. 8 Sarah was 421 days sober.

When she began her recovery journey for her eating disorder, Sarah said she knew that also meant dealing with the drug and alcohol addictions.

“I wanted nothing more than this illness to kill me and by all means when I look back at everything that has happened it should have,” she said.

But she believes everything happens for a reason and that she is meant to be alive.

Sarah refocused her energy from dying to living and sought out a recovery centre.

“Nothing I ever did was truly for me as I was always seeking the acceptance and love of others,” she said.  

“This time somewhere deep down inside, by acknowledging the changes that needed to happen, I knew that I was doing it for myself and if I was going to be doing it alone then so be it.”

During her recovery Sarah said it was difficult to find motivation to keep going and there are times when it’s still difficult to get out of bed in the morning and follow her meal plan.

“I didn’t get sick overnight and I’m not going to get better overnight,” she said. “Recovery is a process and it takes time.

“I’m not perfect and slips are going to happen and I’m learning that’s okay too. What makes this time around different is that I don’t let my slips define me.”

Sarah said even the worst days of her recovery are better than the best days with her eating disorder.

Leanne

Leanne has been in recovery for 11 years but continues to struggle with thoughts leftover from her eating disorder.

“Recovery means being honest and open with who I am and accepting myself for that,” she said.

While the thoughts are not gone, Leanne said she is now able to change her reactions and ignore them.

“I truly do believe that people without eating disorders can share some of the same thoughts and not react to them,” she said.

“I believe that this is what differentiates healthy people from someone having an eating disorder.”

Before her recovery, Leanne said she would make lunch plans with her friends and then stand them up. Her anxiety eventually took over and she wouldn’t call to cancel and then not answer her phone so she wouldn’t have to explain herself.

“Man, am I surprised that I had my friends for as long as I did before I decided to completely abandon them to get peace with my eating disorder,” she said.  

Right now, Leanne said one of her biggest challenges is comparing her recovery journey to other people’s journeys.

“My best friend’s obviously way further in recovery than me and struggles way less than me,” Leanne said.

“My head doesn’t care that she has far less mental health diagnosis to go along with her eating disorder and that she has a supportive family and I don’t.

“It just tries to tell me that I’m a failure.”

Her advice is to always say what bothers you out loud because it helps to keep away any unhelpful thoughts that lead to a negative path.

Therese

Therese has been in treatment for an eating disorder for four years. She was diagnosed while going to school in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Her marks were perfect and she didn’t think that anything was wrong. However, she was pushing her friends away.

“I was very disconnected but didn’t really care as long as I could control my food and my marks,” Therese said. “I completed a couple of months of outpatient before I finally acknowledged how bad things had become.”

The turning point, Therese said, is when her team asked her to come to the hospital and after taking her vitals, her physician asked if she could admit Therese to the hospital.

“The next 24 hours were filled with anxiety and fears but ultimately saying ‘yes’ to the hospital was the most influential moment in my life,” Therese said. “Since that day I’ve been committed to my recovery and making continuous, albeit at times small, steps forward.”

To this day Therese said she’s still in and out of therapy.

“I ... have been seeing a psychologist since May for residual eating disorder symptoms and body image concerns,” she told the audience.

To Therese, recovery means being alive and experiencing life in a more vibrant way.

“When I was in the depths of my eating disorder I felt like a shell,” she said. “The world around me was zoned out because I was constantly and solely focused on food.”

She also said she has learned to let her loved ones help her.

“Being open is not always easy and there are still days when I would rather hide away with my eating disorder thoughts, not even think about reaching out, but through my recovery process I’ve learned that my loved ones want to help me,” she said.

“They don’t want to see me in pain.”

One of the things Therese finds useful is collecting what she calls moments.

She remembers moments that align with her values and make her feel happy, content or fulfilled and either commits them to memory or writes them down.

When she’s having a difficult day she searches her memory inventory and holds on to one of them.

“Before I felt like recovery was the good days, the days where it’s easier and you feel somewhat normal,” Therese said.

“I’m increasingly starting to see, however, that for me the good days are the moments, the reasons for recovery.

“The recovery itself happens on the bad days. Recovery for me is choosing to do that hard thing when I do not want to.”

Doreen

In addition to speakers who shared their experience of recovery, two parents shared their experience supporting daughters who had eating disorders.

Doreen spoke about her daughter, who had not only  an eating disorder but also juvenile diabetes.

“As a caregiver I have lived the roller coast life that one leads when they are caring for someone with an eating disorder because we go through all sorts of different emotions, from sadness, anger, and really fear for my daughter’s life all the time,” Doreen said.

Because of her daughter’s juvenile diabetes, Doreen said food always came first and foremost.

“Her whole life had an emphasis on food and carbohydrate counting because it was a necessity for ... diabetes,” Doreen said.

However, once her daughter got older she started to take control of her own food, and what originally seemed like independence, turned into her eating disorder.

“I was so focused on her diabetes when she was young and so focused on getting her to learn how to take care of herself and her body, food, anything, that I missed the opportunity to teach her how to deal with living with a chronic illness for her whole life,” Doreen said, a realization she had after years of navigating her daughter’s eating disorder.

Doreen said a big turning point for her was realizing she couldn’t take away her daughter’s pain.

“I think the other thing is that no matter what Emily was going through, I always let her know that I was there for her and I think that was key,” she said.

Andrew

The other parent on the panel, Andrew, agreed support was the key word when it came to helping his daughter, who was diagnosed in 2017 and attended in-patient treatment.

“It took me those four-plus months to come to grips with this, that I don’t have the skills and I was devastated,” he said.

He also had advice for other fathers.

“Dads, be positive; your loved one is battling this eating disorder much harder than you can ever imagine,” he said.

“Have and learn empathy, compassion; don’t be judgemental, keep every day fun.

“Honestly this is very exhausting but don’t give up.”

He also said trust your loved one.

“I will say that I am not the same person that I was two years ago ... and I will stay on top of this.”

February 22, 2019

 
 

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