Sarah’s Story – Extended Version

Sarah-Louise McKenzieTurns out, recovery IS possible! After 19 years of battling with eating disorders, I held very little hope that recovery was possible…I was convinced that death or completely surrendering to the ED (eating disorder) were my only options. Although I had some amazing people surrounding me who held fiercely to the hope that I would recover, I am sure they too often wavered in their belief and confidence. Here is a snippet of my journey…I pray that it will encourage you and stir within you the sense of possibility and hope.

I survived a rather traumatic and tumultuous childhood where I had little control over my environment, circumstances, and body. At around 11 years of age, I began to create food rules and rigidly control my intake. This served multiple purposes…not only did it give me a sense of stability, security, and control, but it gave me a distraction. Rather than think about all that was going on in my home, I fixated on numbers, calories, charts and tables, and exercise. The more it consumed me, the more I realised that it not only served to distract my thoughts (as it was literally all I thought about and planned), but one of the effects of starvation was that my emotions seemed to shut down and I no longer felt the intense feelings that previously overwhelmed me. I felt completely numb. A shell. The only thing I really felt, was the pain and sickness that my body experienced from the starvation, overexercise and abuse of laxatives. Initially, my ED had very little to do with weight, shape and size, however, as my ED progressed, it needed evidence and fuel, and so these things began to factor into my thinking, behaviours and motivations. Much of society focuses on the cultural pressures to emulate unrealistic images of emaciated celebrities as the precursors to EDs, so it became easier for me to fixate on these superficial things and avoid the true underlying issues.

I would swing between wanting to get better but believing it impossible, to not even wanting to get better and wanting to be consumed by the ED, afraid, terrified of letting it go, desperately hanging on to it like a child’s security blanket…it was my security, my identity, my comfort…albeit a false sense of security and comfort with incredibly detrimental repercussions. It was literally killing me. But even this knowledge was not enough to change my behaviours or transform my thinking. In fact, death often seemed like a pleasant alternative to the hell I was experiencing daily with my ED. I spent years on Involuntary Treatment Orders (ITOs), forcing me to undergo treatment as an inpatient at various hospitals. Although a necessary life-saving program, my non-compliance and consequential enforcement of treatment compounded the trauma I experienced, along with the trauma experienced by those treating me.

The sense of control and power I believed my ED endowed me with was really a mirage, for it was actually the ED controlling me, leading to extreme physical weakness, severe cognitive impairment, inhibited emotional capacity, and social isolation. I had actually LOST control and power. Taking back responsibility and power in my own recovery and treatment was far more empowering. The numbness I pursued through starvation also blocked the capacity to experience ‘positive’ emotions. It hindered me from facing reality and dealing with the underlying issues, thereby keeping me trapped and decreasing my capacity for empathy, authenticity and relationship. I am now developing and utilising healthier coping strategies and experiencing a broad range of emotions. My identity which was once found in my ED was warped, twisted, and sought to kill and destroy me. It is now being found in my beliefs and values, in who I am as a person and as a precious child of God, in the communities and relationships to which I belong, and in my projects and advocacy. This is far more fulfilling and freeing and I no longer yearn for that which constrained me. The detrimental sense of community and belonging I once found in belonging to the ED world, I now have in belonging to the sisterhood of recovery, my netball teams, the Deaf community, my husband and family, my church, and friends. Belonging to these latter communities is immeasurably more rewarding and positive than the former.

Was there a specific turning point for me though?  Yes…many of them…but I don’t think there was one single moment where I turned around and never looked back.  In my experience, recovery isn’t that linear.  As my recovery mentor once said to me, it’s more like a dance…a few steps forward, a few back, like learning to dance the cha-cha.  I can recall numerous ‘moments’ but even after those moments, I had lapses, challenges, moments of hopelessness and discouragement, ambivalence, and anxiety.  It isn’t easy.  It is damn hard work.  But the more I choose recovery over the ED and the more I connect with life, the easier it becomes to let go of that which holds me back (not easy…still hard…but easIER).  That which I have fought hard to gain, seems to be won more surely and permanently…and it is in the battle that I grow and am strengthened.  My past and battles do not define me, but they certainly shape me…hopefully for the better.  My battle scars give me texture.  I am perfectly imperfect 😉 .

Life isn’t all rainbows and roses…I have tough days and moments (as everyone does), but I now know that they won’t last and am not terrified of them overwhelming and consuming me anymore.  I can acknowledge and accept the rough patches, I don’t like them, but they don’t take me out the way they used to, and I seem to be navigating them much better. I am learning to love and accept myself and am beginning to feel worthy of love.

Throughout my illness and recovery journey, I was told time and again, that the programs, supports, and resources I needed, just didn’t exist. Over time, with my case manager and treating teams, I began to develop the tools and resources I needed to support my recovery. Positive feedback and effective integration of the tools prompted the thought that perhaps the documents I was creating could be beneficial in supporting others in their recovery journeys also. I began to modify the documents, removing some of the personal applications, to ensure they were more generic and applicable across the continuum of disordered eating behaviours and thoughts. This website and the Recovery Resources Package are a product of this work, and will no doubt continue to be added to and modified as I walk the path of recovery.

Recovery IS possible and IS worth it. I wish you all the best in your journey and really hope that some of the resources I have developed throughout my journey will support you in yours.

                                                                                                                               xx Sarah-Louise