Sarah Thomson was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa when she was 16 years old. Her Eating Disorder developed quite quickly, and she soon found herself lost in a world of weight loss and restriction that seemed impossible to escape. “At first I was protective and got some thrill out of ED,” she remembers. “I knew using it wasn’t an effective coping strategy, but I didn’t know how else to cope.”
Despite numerous treatment attempts, Sarah couldn’t seem to kick the Eating Disorder mindset. It seemed unlikely to her that she would ever be able to live her life in a way that didn’t revolve around calories, food and her body. “It was like an abusive relationship that I couldn’t seem to cut ties with,” she says.
In March 2010 she was admitted to Homewood Health Centre for the last time. This was her second time at Homewood, and she was desperate to make it work. “My heart was like if this doesn’t work this is the end,” she says.
Sarah made it through the program at Homewood and was discharged in the summer of 2010. She says she did well in the artificial setting of treatment; but once she was back in the real world she started to struggle. “I went back to university and I didn’t relapse per se in my head, but I lost a lot of weight again,” she says. “But I think what kept me going is I still really wanted recovery.”
Sarah remembers trying to be as engaged in life as much as she could, while still in a place of quasi-recovery. She kept herself afloat by using all her supports, like seeing a doctor, dietitian and counsellor regularly, to remind herself of what she wanted.
In the summer of 2011, she decided to take a huge leap out of her comfort zone and take a job teaching English at a camp in Spain. At first Sarah says it was terrible. Her Eating Disorder was raging, and her other mental illnesses rose to the surface. “I was not in a good place at all,” she remembers.
She saw a doctor, talked to her boss and her father was even ready to get on a plane and take her home. But Sarah knew that wasn’t what she wanted. “It was sink or swim,” she says. “I knew I could continue down this path or I could choose something different because I knew if I came back to Canada it would be just terrible. I knew I would be so disappointed my myself and it would further reinforce the Eating Disorder place in my head that I’m not worthy and I can’t do things and I’m going to be sick my whole life.”
So Sarah swam. She leaned into the structure of the camp and ate the food that was placed in front of her at every meal. “I had a hard time but then I got into a stride of just not even focusing on the food kind of thing, focusing on the other stuff and that just kind of flew by,” she says.
The momentum that she picked up in Spain didn’t waiver when she got back to Canada. She had a renewed sense of confidence and the feeling that she could rely on herself to make the right decisions when things got tough. “That was really important for me. Even though it was so uncomfortable to rely on myself and my own choices I realized I can get through things without anybody,” she says. “It gave me a good sense of myself.”
Sarah continued on with recovery while finishing a degree in microbiology at Guelph University. She also started speaking publicly about her experience with an Eating Disorder which helped her make peace with her past while also giving her motivation to continue on with recovery.
Sarah says she attributes her recovery to the small choices she made every day that pushed her towards the freedom she now has around food. Meeting her husband was another turning point for her as she was able to make the decision to prioritize her relationship with him over the Eating Disorder. “I was taking ownership of my recovery but asking for support when I needed it,” she says. “Life had already really opened up and so life essentially become more important than the restriction and the rules and the body image.”
Sarah now lives in Guelph with her husband and two children. While she sometimes still hears the Eating Disorder voice in the background, it is largely drowned out by the “Sarah” voice that she has worked extremely hard to strengthen. “I’ve learned to listen to my body about what my body wants,” she says. “That’s such a better relationship than following all the rules and everything.”
If she could give advice to someone who is in quasi-recovery, it’s not to stop half-way. “[Full recovery] is possible, but you have to take steps,” she says. “When you’re given opportunities to step outside your comfort zone, take them and try and take steps every day to make your life worth living because if you do that then eventually your life might be just more important than your Eating Disorder.”