Hope and Inspiration: Sarah's Story
By: Sarah McCutcheon
This is the story of my recovery that I shared through MEDA’s (Multi-service Eating Disorder Association located in Newton, MA) Hope and Inspiration program. This program brings in people who have recovered from an eating disorder to share their stories with others who are struggling. I believe this program is important because it shows that there is hope, that we are struggling or have struggled through recovery for reasons and one day we will reach the light at the end of the tunnel.
For as far back as I can remember I have disliked myself. During parts of my life this dislike has been softer, but it has always been there. I never felt good enough, pretty enough or outgoing or friendly, never felt I was a good enough student or smart enough, never a great athlete or artist or anything. I believed there was nothing special about me, I was 100% normal and I felt 100% invisible. I remember craving something to make me stand out, to make me unique. Something that would make people notice and remember me. Something that I could be proud of. I would daydream of ideas of what that special something could be. I could be a writer but I was never great with words. Then I tried to be a singer but I just was not that good. I could be a musician but I never had passion for it. I could be in student government but I was too shy. Nothing seemed to fit or to work and I felt lost. I compared myself to everyone else and saw how they acted and were accepted and I remember beating myself up thinking “why can’t that be me?”.
I did not only dislike the inside of me but I also hated my body. I remember as a kindergartener wanting a boy to be my friend (I still remember his name actually) but telling me that he would never be, that I should not try because I thought I was not pretty. I grew up doing poses in the mirror for hours trying to get the right one that would make me feel pretty, but I never found the one. I hated how I looked. Again I believed there was nothing special about me, nothing pretty or unique. And being the perfectionist I am, I wanted to be the best daughter, the best student, the best athlete. And I felt like I had to. I have always set impossible expectations for myself and how I should be and how I should look. So growing up I put so much pressure onto myself and developed into my own worst enemy.
During this time I lived in silence about how I felt about myself. I thought that it was normal to feel this way about myself. Most of the adults in my life were dieting, trying this fad or the next, and trying to fix themselves. Of course for them this was innocent and even physically healthy for some. But I learned that it was normal to hate your body and to dislike how it looked. That the body was something that needed to be fixed not appreciated. This thinking was reinforced by TV and the trashy magazines that I would buy all the time and movies and even books. I love to read and love to be taken away into a magical place and time. I find it relaxing and peaceful. But all the books I read were full of tiny, beautiful, unique girls that I could never measure up to. It is easy to blame the media and this probably because the media has a lot to be blamed for. I remember one specific article about an actress who the writers claimed was overweight. But when I read how much she apparently weighed, she weighed as much as me! To my already low self-esteem, this was a confirmation that I was unattractive and huge. Today we are bombarded with images of women with unattainable bodies bending in alien-like shapes. I have seen the YouTube videos of how they retouch women and can see how these women are unhealthy or false. But it still affected me and filtered through my brain as proof that I was not good enough and never could be.
My friends were not much better. Due to my shyness and quiet awkwardness, I had only a few but they were nice, ordinary girls. But as we grew into adolescents, the “locker room talk” started and all of a sudden we were talking about our stomachs and thighs and breasts and butts instead of stupid televisions shows and music. Again, totally innocent, but we learned that being dissatisfied with our bodies was normal and that feeling confident in yourself was being cocky or stuck up.
During all of my childhood and into young adulthood, I also competitively figure skated. I belonged to a synchronized skating group of 20 girls who perform on the ice together. I loved to skate. I loved to go fast around corners and jumping in air, twisting and seeing how far I could go. Skating made me feel good and like I had an identity. I had friends and felt like I had a second family. This sport kept me sane for a long time and gave me a focus and structure. But even in this became part of my disordered thinking with the day we were measured for our new dresses being insanely scary, terrified I would go up a size. Skating was my release but my disordered thinking would not let me fully have that.
My disorder thoughts turned into disordered eating when I was 15. There were many triggers affecting this transition that supported my depression to morph into an eating disorder. First, my figure skating team disbanded due to a coach leaving for another program. I did not have my outlet anymore or my structure and I was left with a lot of free time on my hands. Then I met my first boyfriend who was so naturally thin and I became plagued with thoughts of how others would perceive us, a thin boyfriend and a fat girlfriend. I also was told by a doctor that I needed to start eating healthier. All of these came around the same time and I decided to start eating healthier.
Of course this innocent plan spiraled into a horrible disorder without much awareness or understanding on my part. My mind kept telling me “a little bit less…. A little bit less” and I would obey without a second thought. Being thin became the answer to everything; I would make more friends if I was smaller, I would be more noticed, I would be liked, I would be pretty, I would be more successful, I would be smarter (no idea how being thin would do this but that is what my mind said). Truly, being thin gave me the opposite of all of these things. I began to isolate from my friends and especially my family who I have always been close with. I was unable to make more friends since I was always thinking about my next meal, so holding a conversation or paying attention to those around me was impossible. I was not smarter since my head was always in a fog and I could not concentrate or learn. I missed out on hanging out, dinner parties, dances, study groups and any activity that was not focused on the destruction of my body. The only promise that my eating disorder did follow through on was being more successful and I was only successful at killing myself each day.
By the time I was 16, I was a shell of a person. I was sad and angry all the time. I had few friends and even lower self-esteem (another promise that ED failed to follow through on). My nights were consumed by exercise until I would physically pass out. My days were consumed by hiding and lies. I was so very caught up in my own head. The weirdest part was that I really had no understanding that what I was doing what unhealthy. I gotten to the point in my relationship with my body that I thought it was normal to treat it this way. I had flashes here and there that maybe what I was doing was not ok but for the most part I believed that this was the way my body needed to be treated. I would avoid conversations with others and shot down their concern. My body was different, my body was broken and I was trying to fix it.
This all came crashing down on my head when my mother brought me to the doctor (under false pretenses) and the doctor told me they could not hear my heart beat. I sat stunned as she asked my questions about my eating and exercise habits and I heard myself lie to her. When I was sent to the hospital and then the inpatient unit, I finally was forced to face the fact that I had a problem. The first time I heard my diagnoses was like a slap in the face, that I was sick and that I was killing my body. I had to take a step back and take some responsibility that I could not survive like this. I made promises to try and swore to myself that I would get better.
I think it took me about 1.5 days before I realized how hard recovery was going to be. Once the shock wore off and I was alone in my hospital bed, the ED thoughts came marching back in, yelling at me for being lazy, telling me that the doctors were big, fat lying idiots and how dare they tell me what to do. Of course being the shy and non-confrontational person I am, I smiled at the doctors and said thank you to the nurses. But inside was a battle and looking back I am glad I was in the hospital because in those early days, ED was winning. I was compliant on the outside but ED was supreme ruler of the inside.
Once I was stabilized I transitioned to the pediatric partial program, spending my days with professionals and my nights with my parents. Can I just take a moment to talk about how scared shitless my parents were? I was never a trouble child, not one spark of rebellion within me. They had no idea what I was going through or what to do. My parents are incredibly supportive and without them I would never, ever had survived.
At the partial program is where I really started to understand what was happening inside my head. I felt 1,000 emotions while having a million thoughts all at once, pulling and pushing me around, fighting for my attention and really for me to obey. My first therapist called the eating disorder a Gremlin, which I still do not really get. But my understanding is that at first I believed that ED was on my side, he was helpful and nice and made me feel a little better. But as I continued to give in and pay attention, he became more demanding and then vicious, tearing me down. And now starting in recovery he was in full beast mode.
And when people say they are fighting and battling an eating disorder, they are 100 million percent right. Recovery is a fight, most of the time the battles coming every moment and every which direction. Ed throws thought daggers at us from every which way,and at first it is like we have a tiny wooden shield that we are trying to defend ourselves with. And this means that some daggers get through and sometimes we drop the shield and fall down. I know I fell down quite a lot in that first year and have continued to fall every once and a while since then. But it takes each time remembering why the shield and this battle are important in the first place. At the partial program I am glad I found professionals that were able to hold up the shield with me, to show me how to hold it correctly and push me to try again when I wanted to sit down and cry.
Once I left the partial program, I was a bit on my own. My parents were there and so was a nice, new therapist but again I am a very private person and I struggled to continue to be open. My house was like a minefield with my parents feeling like they had to tiptoe around me to make sure I didn’t get upset or angry. My eating disorder made my home in a confusing house of horrors that no one could really talk about. My parents fought for me and would do anything for me but I was not willing to do the same for myself. I fell into a depression, filled with this constant battle in my head that I did not know I could win. ED would scream at me all day and night, telling me horrible things about myself and my life. I fell into self-harm and suicidal thoughts, not thinking I was worth enough to keep fighting for. And that is what ED can do. He tries to break us, our spirit, and our will to live. He stops us from being able to connect with those around us, he stops us from taking steps in our lives and become the people we were meant to be. It was like I was on pause, an internal pause, so stuck in my head that I could not live in the world around me.
However I kept holding on to recovery. Sometimes it felt like I was only touching it with the tips of my toes or that I wanted to run in the other direction or give up. But I held on. I battled in my head all day and cried in therapy and tried to function in the world around me.
I was able to graduate and go to college and I was able to set up a treatment team there. I was set up with the most amazing therapist who I completely owe my life to. She was nurturing, kind and caring but yet also would push me and challenge me. I can say with no hesitation that finding the right therapist is absolutely key. Having that someone you trust to hold you up without judgment is essential. However even with her the first year of college was probably the lowest I have ever been. I broke up with my boyfriend (well, this was a good thing) and threw myself into the college scene. I had wonderful friends and a great therapist but I was always depressed, did not follow my meal plan and continued to self-harm. My problem was that I still was not fully committed to recovery, I was still holding back. My first semester was scary and rough and I would not wish to ever go back to that time.
My true turning point (the point where I decided I wanted recovery instead of being told I should want recovery and told I need to be in recovery) was when I joined a peer education group. In the group, we were in charge of doing awareness campaigns on campus and my subsection focused on mental health and eating disorders. I found purpose in doing these programs, spreading awareness about the difficulties of struggling an eating disorder & body image and showing people that they are not alone. I liked to push the envelope and talk about the tough things that others may be uncomfortable talking about. I felt passion and worthwhile again. I loved having others come up to me and tell me how the programs touched them. It seemed like through stopping and facing my disorder and hearing how others were fighting pushed me to fight harder and longer.
Through my experience in the group, finding my passion in supporting others and learning I was not alone, I grabbed onto recovery with both hands. I started to push myself with meals and, with the support of my therapist and friends; I started to make small steps of progress. I started treating my body better, stopping my self-harming behaviors (I have been 4.5 years “clean” meaning I have not cut myself in 4.5 years. I use the word clean because for me, self-harm became an escape and morphed into an addiction, similar to drugs and alcohol. So in order to stop, it was like detoxing in that it was slow and painful and I had urges almost every day. But like a drug and alcohol addiction, those urges have faded ) and slowing down my exercise. I started understand the need my body had for fuel and how I felt better after I complied with my body’s wishes. I started to recognize the difference between my voice and ED’s which at first was so hard but I began to think about my long term goals and what I wanted out of life. And when a thought was not in support of that or what I would need to do to get there, I would know it was ED’s and I would do the opposite. After time the voice does get quieter and quieter and then one day you will not hear it at all. Recovery feels like freedom and like a weight has been lifted off of your back. Recovery is like breathing in fresh air after years of pollution.
Now I wish that I could say that my struggle ended the day I joined the group and I was able to live happily ever after. I continued to struggle throughout college and continue to struggle with body image every so often. And yes, some days just really suck and I want to stay in bed. But what has kept me going and what keeps me going in recovery is wanting to live my own life. When the eating disorder was in my life, it ruled me. It made my decisions for me, stopped my social life, made me feel weak (and actually physically weak) so I would not do certain things. The Sarah back then was not living, she was on auto-pilot with the eating disorder in the driver’s seat. But I have dreams and goals. I want to on my 80th birthday be proud of the life I lived, my accomplishments, my relationships. And even though I know that there have been tough parts and will most likely have tough moments in the future, I want to know that I did everything I could to be the person I want to be.
And that keeps me eating and trying each day. This year I graduated with my masters in psychology and I finally achieved my dream job of being a therapist in a hospital. I have also joined an eating disorder awareness group in Rhode Island called Project HEAL and I am a co-facilitator of a group at MEDA. I know that if I don’t eat I won’t be able to connect with my patients and empathize with them. I know if I do not take care of my body, I won’t be able to run groups and be fully focused. I know that if I slip back into the eating disorder I will not be able to keep taking steps in my career and in my personal life. These are the things I remind myself of when I am having a bad day. I know that my life is worth the fight, that I am worth the fight. And I have too much left to do in my life to let the eating disorder come back into the driver’s seat, or even in the car at all.
From my struggle with an eating disorder, I have learned that I do have unique things about me. I am able to sit with someone and hear their stories or struggles, no matter how sad they are. I am able to support people even with they feel like they have no one else. I also learned that I am stronger than I ever gave myself credit for. Recovery is not simple and all smoothing sailing and it takes strength to fight through. In some ways I am grateful for my eating disorder because through my experiences with it I found my passion in helping others and raising awareness. And now whenever I have a tough moment, I remind myself of my fight for recovery and whatever was tough does not seem so hard anymore.