This year Eating Disorder Awareness Week starts February 27th. That is why we wanted to share the story of Sarah Alexander, a 24 year old woman who is 8 years into recovery from anorexia with bulimic tendencies. Her story is one that shows us the resiliency of a young woman and how with the love and unwavering support of her parents she was able to overcome her eating disorder and live the full and happy life that she always deserved. Sarah and her parents have learned some hard lessons along the way and she has some excellent insight to share with families who may be facing similar challenges.
“It was my freshman year of high school and it started like a typical eating disorder starts. Ya know, I was just wanted to lose weight and get a little healthier. I was an overweight child and I think genetics had a lot to do with that. I am a very tall person and my body just never felt up to par with society. Now I was going to a new school and I was starting to get interested in boys but my body just didn’t look like my classmates next to me. So I thought; ‘What can I do about that?’ Very quickly and without even realizing it it turned into an obsession. Obsession over the numbers, obsession with exercise. By the end of my freshman year I was fixated on it,” said Alexander.
“The summer in between my freshman and sophomore years I lost a considerable amount of weight but my family wasn’t really picking up on it. I had gotten really good at making sure that I was eating enough at breakfast to trick them,” explained Alexander. “When school was in session, my sweet dad packed me a lunch every single day and the second I got to school I would throw it in the trash. All of my suffering was happening behind closed doors at that point.”
It was September of my sophomore year when I went on a family vacation and I think that’s when my mental health really started to unravel because of my eating disorder. I was putting so much stress on my body and all of that mental torture. I exploded on this family vacation. That’s when my parents realized something was going on. I had always struggled with anxiety but this is the first time that I struggled with depression. I had an emergency therapy appointment with an LCSW that my parents knew. After our talk, he told me what he thought was going on and helped get me started on a healing process.”
“Soon after that, I started seeing a therapist who was the 1st person that I started to trust and be completely transparent with. At that point, I had found pro-eating disorder content on Tumblr and Twitter and that was a real turning point for me in a bad way. It had helped validate my actions and it fueled me to keep moving forward with it. Then I started seeing a psychiatrist and they got me on medication. At that point we weren’t really doing a lot of eating disorder treatment; they were just trying to get me stabilized. Then, out of nowhere, my therapist passed away. That was what really sent me into a spiral. My self-harm was at an all-time high, my hair was falling out, and I had lost my period. I went from a size 16 to a size 6 in less than a year. It was a very fast and drastic change.”
“Pretty soon I ended up in my first hospitalization at a local psychiatric facility. I went there voluntarily. At that time I thought that I had had enough. When I got there I was in the adolescent unit but the staff sat me down and said they wanted me to go to the eating disorder unit. They were telling me that it was my ‘best bet’ but all I heard was ‘1-month minimum.’ I was out. They were presenting me with this plan and awesome resource but in that moment I realized that I didn’t want the help that I thought I did. I ended up signing this 72-hour release form and I got out and for a few months I was really spiraling.”
“I began taking my mom’s prescription medications. Anything that would just numb me. I was so consumed by it all that I just didn’t want to feel anything and I had developed a dangerous relationship with sleeping meds, benzos, and alcohol until May of 2014 when there was a very serious intentional overdose. That landed me in a psych facility for the second time. It really opened my eyes to see how much I was impacting my parents. There was a good bit of time when I was not allowed to see them but when they did visit; I’ll never forget the looks on their faces. It was the first time that I realized that my actions were impacting other people. You see, at that time I didn’t love myself at all so it was a very big ask for me to love and care for someone else. That is just the reality of eating disorders that people don’t really understand. I hated every ounce of myself. So I was fighting that fight but I was totally ignorant to the people around me trying to fight that fight with me. I feel like the clouds kind of moved the first time that day when I got to see my parents.”
Alexander reflected back on how her eating disorder impacted all members of her immediate family and said; “I live in a household with my parents and my brother who is 18 months younger than me. We are all really close and looking back on those years it is really hard for me to think about how I was the root cause for so much of their pain. I had lost all sense of emotional regulation so anything and everything would set me off. My parents were terrified because they were worried they would lose their daughter and my brother was so over the stress and the tension in the house that he was looking for boarding schools to go to. I was not Sarah for a really long time, I was my eating disorder. Teenagers, in general, aren’t easy to parent but add in the complexities of a mental health challenge and it causes so much disconnection.”
“I was released on May 12th, 2014 and that’s what I consider to be my recovery anniversary. Solely because even though the first year of recovery was very bumpy I was seeing new doctors and was really trying my best to keep with it but I was still very unsure of it all. Recovery is very scary,” said Alexander. When we asked how a parent (or anybody for that matter) can support a child who is struggling with disordered eating or very new to recovery, Alexander took a long pause and then explained;
“Think of the phrase ‘The grass is greener on the other side' I am recovered now and I can see how much greener the grass is over here and I can feel how great the sun feels on my skin. But if on the other side of that same fence is someone who is in the trenches of an eating disorder, I can yell to them about how beautiful and great it is over here. I could scream it at the top of my lungs and tell them to just trust me and take the leap of faith. But it is not that easy for them, even for someone who really truly wants to get better. It is so scary. There is just so much unknown that comes with recovery and that is terrifying. So much of disordered eating is about control so the idea of losing that is not something that is appealing. Just be patient and do what you can to support them.”
“Also, have firm boundaries, it will benefit you as a loved one and your child greatly. There was one instance where I self-harmed and needed medical treatment. They wanted to PEC me saying they could hold me for 72 hours to make sure I wasn’t a danger to myself or others. Now as a future social worker that is a no-brainer to me. At that time my mom, who has no malicious bones in her body, signed a paper so I could leave against medical advice and go home. I think she thought she could love me back to good health. She thought; ‘I love my daughter so much, she has a roof over her head, and we make sure she has access to any resource that she needs. Why isn’t she getting better?’ She just didn’t understand the eating disorder and the fact that love was not enough to get me to recovery.”
"Have firm boundaries."
Another thing that Alexander thinks could be very helpful is to try your hardest not to be in denial about what is going on. “I was sitting in the emergency room of my local children’s hospital once and the doctor was asking me all of these questions about my eating disorder. I was being honest and explaining what was going on behind closed doors and my dad blurted out; ‘That is not true! You do eat, I see you eat!’ That is such a core memory for me and really helps to show how in denial he and we all were. They never once left my side but I think we were all in denial for such a large portion of it. I think maybe things could have gotten better a little sooner if we all weren’t in denial at the same time.”
Now 8 years later Alexander is still in recovery and has begun to enter the field of social work and is working toward her master's degree. “I just completed an internship at an inpatient facility and it was a very full-circle moment for me. There were quite a few times where I talked to parents and it was the first time that I truly got insight on how my parents must have felt.” Alexander noted that she couldn’t be more grateful for her parents and the fact that they never ever gave up on her. “We are a pretty middle-class family and without hesitation, they went above and beyond to make sure that whatever resources were presented to me were an option. I was treating them so horribly throughout a lot of it and they never once faltered. I am so grateful for them and everything that they did for me," said Alexander.