I struggled with anorexia for 10 years -- here's the realisation that finally saved me

Business Insider / Sarah SchmalbruchMe enjoying a cookie from the popular Levain Bakery in NYC.

During the first session of art therapy that I attended for my eating disorder, my therapist asked me to draw what I thought life would look like without anorexia.

My drawing was simple: birds flying in a sun-filled sky above a field of flowers.

A similar bird to the ones I drew then is now tattooed onto the back of my neck.

I’ve been out of therapy for several months now, but that bird serves as a reminder of the freedom I’m still striving to attain: a freedom I had lost during my 10-year battle with anorexia.

Sarah Schmalbruch / INSIDERThis bird represents my freedom from anorexia.

I decided to share my story so that others struggling with an eating disorder know that they’re not alone. I hope it teaches them to understand that an eating disorder isn’t a personality trait to live with, but a mental illness that can be overcome.

If I can do it, so can you.

It’s hard to pinpoint one single cause of an eating disorder, but for me it began with a transatlantic move.

When I was 10 years old, my family moved from a small suburb of Chicago, Illinois, to a small suburb of Zurich, Switzerland. To say that the move was a culture shock for my 10-year-old self would be an understatement. All I remember about our arrival in Zurich was how glaringly foreign everything was, from the language to the cars to the food.

Zurich, SwitzerlandShutterstock / Andreas ZerndlMy family called Zurich home for five years.

It’s hard to pinpoint one single cause of an eating disorder, but it’s safe to say that my family’s move to Zurich, and the fact that I had a hard time adjusting to our new home, hit me pretty hard.

My eating disorder served as a coping mechanism that helped me regain a sense of control in my life.

What many people don’t realise about eating disorders is that they’re a way to deal with some sort of stress or change in life. The move had essentially turned my world upside down, causing me to feel like I had lost control of my life. To regain some sense of order, I turned to something I knew I could control: my eating. Of course, I didn’t understand that at the time — this realisation came after years of therapy.

I became very strict about how much I ate. Naturally, my parents noticed my shrinking portions as well as my shrinking self immediately. One night after dinner my mum sat me down with the remnants of my barely touched meal. She grabbed my hand, looked me in the eye, and asked, “Sarah, why aren’t you eating anymore?” I can’t remember my answer, but I can remember being at a loss for words.

Mum and Sarah MichiganLauren SchmalbruchMy mum and me during a trip to Michigan.

I developed a critical eye of my body at a young age, which helped fuel my eating disorder.

Once I started restricting what I ate, I began noticing a difference in my appearance — a difference I really liked. I’ve always been concerned with the way I look, and this shrinking frame came at an age at which I started reading magazines and comparing my body to those of the women gracing their pages. “My stomach isn’t as flat as hers,” I remember thinking.

My family realised they couldn’t help me — I needed to want to help myself.

It didn’t take my parents long to realise that I was struggling with anorexia. After trying — and failing — to force feed me, they set me up with therapists who specialised in treating families.

I hated therapy. I hated sitting in a circle with my mum, dad, and sister while they tried to make me talk about something that I was convinced wasn’t even an issue, let alone one that warranted therapy.

We only went to a few sessions before my parents realised that unless I wanted to help myself, I couldn’t be helped.

Sarah Cubs game picSarah Schmalbruch / INSIDERMy mum, sister, and me at a Cubs game.

Just like with alcohol or drug addiction, a person who is struggling with an eating disorder needs to be the one who seeks help for any progress to be made. I refused to acknowledge that I had a problem, and instead chalked it up to something that was just part of my personality. “This is who I am,” I told myself and my family.

Anorexia took a strong toll on me and my family, both physically and emotionally.

I continued to restrict my eating and started exercising heavily during the rest of the five years we lived in Zurich. I didn’t stop when we moved to Chicago, and I continued throughout college. Whenever something was wrong in my life, small or large, I would take comfort in the fact that the girl staring back at me in the mirror was skinny. In my mind, everything was alright because I wore size double zero jeans.

What I didn’t realise at the time — or ignored — was the toll anorexia was taking on my body. I loved that I could go hours without eating and not feel anything, but now I understand that this happened because I had effectively killed the hunger cues my body was born with.

Sarah Schmalbruch / INSIDERMy dad, sister, and me during a recent ski trip.

Eating disorders take emotional tolls on your loved ones too. Looking back, I can’t imagine what it must have been like for my family, who had to watch their daughter and sister starve herself for 10 years. I remember my dad giving me a hug before bed one night, only to pull away from me in tears. “I’m worried about you. There’s just nothing there when I hug you,” he said.

I had several wake up calls throughout my disorder, but I ignored them.

My hip popped out during my sophomore year of college after a girl jumped on me at a party. I looked at it as a freak accident, but it happened because my bones were incredibly weak from undernourishment. I later found out that I had osteopenia, the beginnings of osteoperosis.

It was a wakeup call, but I still wasn’t emotionally ready to seek help.

Sarah and Sarah Syracuse DomeSarah Schmalbruch / INSIDERA college friend and me at a football game.

My body eventually hit a turning point where it could no longer take the starvation.

Eating disorders attack one of humans’ most basic instincts: to nourish itself. But after 10 years of depriving it, my body fought back, making it so that I could no longer resist food. My body essentially hit a point where it could no longer take the starvation, which is when I switched from simply restricting my caloric intake to restricting and purging.

This happened during my junior year of college. I would mindlessly eat what I thought was a large amount of food, only to run to the bathroom and throw it up minutes later, overcome with guilt.

I no longer had the discipline to resist food, and spent most of my semester abroad in a bathroom, sticking either my finger or a toothbrush down my throat.

I kept my purging from everyone in my life.

Sarah and Horse Abroad SemesterJessica GunzelMe studying abroad junior year.

After a friend confronted me, I finally understood I needed professional help.

One night a sorority sister of mine, who was a nutrition major, asked if we could talk. She sat me down and said, “I notice you spend a lot of time in the bathroom, and I’m worried about you.” I broke down in tears and told her everything. Within days I had set up an appointment with a counselor on campus.

Eating disorders are an isolating illness. I knew purging was a whole new level of an eating disorder that was already severe, but I told myself that my purging was harming no one but myself. I kept that behaviour up for close to a year. But I think there was also a tiny part of me that wanted someone to find out, so that I could stop. That confrontation lifted a huge weight off my shoulders.

Sarah Schmalbruch / INSIDERA college friend and me (not the one who confronted me about my eating disorder).

In order to get out of an abusive relationship with food, I needed to fully commit myself to therapy.

Now came the hard part: fully committing myself to therapy. I had spent the past 10 years training my body to accept starvation. That was how I lived. Therapy was going to have to change not only my mindset, but my lifestyle.

Many therapists personify eating disorders as an abusive boyfriend named Ed. I had been wrapped up in Ed for a long time, and building a new, healthy relationship with food was going to take time. I was going to have to learn to feed myself again, but I would also have to learn how to cope with the stresses of life in ways that didn’t harm my body.

Sarah Schmalbruch / INSIDERMy sister and me at Christmas.

I finally told my family about my purging, and for the first time in my life I admitted that I needed professional help. When I called my parents sobbing, telling them I was willing to go through an in-patient program, where days consist of eating and therapy, they told me they didn’t think that was the right kind of treatment for me.

Instead, when I came home for Thanksgiving break of my senior year, they had assembled a team of counselors: a general therapist, an art therapist, and a nutritionist. I would be doing six sessions per week — two per counselor. When I went back to school I would continue that schedule, but via phone and Skype.

I quit purging cold turkey, but recovery was one of the toughest things I have ever done.

After starting therapy, I quit purging cold turkey. While my regular therapy and art therapy sessions were tough, they were comforting. I finally began to see my eating disorder as an illness, as opposed to a personality trait that I would just have to live with.

My nutrition sessions, however, were torture. I saw my nutritionist as an enemy — someone who was trying to undo 10 years of “hard work” that had gotten my body to where I wanted it to be. She took away every coping mechanism I had. I could no longer purge or restrict my eating, and I wasn’t allowed to exercise. I now know she was doing what she needed to in order to help me reach a healthy weight, but at the time I couldn’t see it that way.

Shake ShackSarah Schmalbruch / INSIDERMe enjoying a burger.

I was put on strict diet meant to increase my weight quickly, and I had to keep logs of everything I ate every day, along with my feelings before, during, and after eating. My nutritionist would weigh me every single session, and although I never knew the number on the scale, she would tell me if I had gone up or down from the previous weigh- in. I would leave most sessions in tears.

A few months into treatment I learned how fast my metabolism was when I provided my body with the nourishment it needed. Metabolisms need food to work, and because I had been depriving my body for so long, my metabolism had essentially become dormant. It kicked in again once I started gaining weight, and while that meant I was getting healthy, it made it hard to continue to gain weight.

During the thick of treatment, I was eating three full meals a day, plus three snacks, as well as three nutritional shakes. It was incredibly frustrating considering that feelings of hunger used to give me a strong sense of accomplishment and happiness. Now I never felt hungry, but was always eating.

Sarah Schmalbruch / INSIDERMy dad and me when he visited NYC.

For a long time I approached treatment with the wrong attitude. I told myself that I would just power through it, and then things would eventually go back to “normal.” I didn’t realise what I was doing wrong until my dad told me that in order to leave my eating disorder behind, treatment was going to have to become my new “normal.” Sure, things wouldn’t be as intense or regimented as when I was in counseling, but what I was learning was going to become the foundation for my life in recovery. It was a hard revelation to accept, but I knew he was right.

After almost a year of therapy, I realised I was ready to let go of the help I was getting — a little bit.

Eventually, after a little under a year of therapy, and as I neared the last couple pounds of my target weight, I started to look for internships, as it was getting harder and harder to live at home post-graduation. I was seeing my therapists and my nutritionist less frequently, and I figured I could always continue therapy by phone if I moved. My nutritionist told me I wasn’t ready; my therapists said I was. I listened to my therapists, and moved to NYC after accepting an internship. I found a new nutritionist, and continued speaking with my therapists back in Chicago.

Sarah Schmalbruch / INSIDERMe at my college graduation.

For the past few months now I haven’t been speaking to or seeing a therapist or a nutritionist. I know they’re always there if I need them, and I realise that recovery isn’t a linear process; it’s a work in progress. There can be setbacks, and I might need help again sometime in the future. But for now, I’m doing it on my own. I check my weight at the gym every week or so, and when my weight is down, I know what I need to do to fix it. There are days when I know I eat enough, and there are days when I know I don’t. I’m not perfect, but neither is recovery.

Food no longer dominates my life though, and I know that having a bite of cookie isn’t going to change the way my body looks overnight. I’ve learned how to know when I’m hungry and what to do about it (eat). I’ve also learned to turn to friends and family when something is bothering me, instead of dealing with it through harmful behaviour.

I’m still learning to accept and love my body for more than just its physical appearance.

It’s always been hard for me to look at my body as something functional, something that lets me live, as opposed to something that holds no relevance outside of its physical appearance. My therapists and nutritionists told me that learning to love and accept my body at its healthy weight takes the longest, and I still don’t always see my body the way others do. Most days I look in the mirror and like what I see, but when I look back at photos of myself when I was struggling with anorexia, I still think I looked good. I was sick then, I have to tell myself.

Sarah and AdamSarah Schmalbruch / INSIDERMy boyfriend and me.

It was a hard journey to get to where I am now, but it was worth it
So much of my current life would have been unbelievable to my former, anorexic self. I’m a food reporter who’s making it on her own in New York City, and for the first time in my life I’m in a relationship with a person, and not with my eating disorder. I’m learning to accept myself and my body for what they are, and I’m proud of how far I’ve come in that journey.

It took me 10 years to acknowledge that anorexia was reducing me to a shell of the person I could be both physically and emotionally. I’m stronger and happier because I asked for help, and I hope others who are struggling with an eating disorder can reach this point too.

Because if I can do it, so can you.

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