‘She’s a size 5 now.’ Those words were spoken with delicacy, and met with silence. They’d call me ‘the big one’ of our friend group.’: Woman beats anorexia after almost ‘wasting away, dying,’ now inspires others to recover, ‘I’m not alone’

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“I have an eating disorder. I’m in recovery. I have been for 7 years now, but the disorder is still there.

Some days in recovery are easy. You eat every meal and snack and you feel like you can conquer the world. Other days, every bite is filled with fear and anxiety. That’s just how it goes when your mind has convinced you food is the enemy.

Looking back, I can see the signs. I was always preoccupied with my size. As a teenager, my relationship with food became very toxic. I was always a ‘skinny girl,’ but I either ate a lot or not at all depending on how I was feeling that day. Also, teenagers aren’t always nice. I got teased for how much I ate. They’d call me ‘the big one’ of our friend group even though we were all about the same size. It hurt.

Courtesy of Sarah Valandra

The entire summer before college I just didn’t eat. My mom was scared but I didn’t care because honestly, I didn’t even realize I had a problem. When I went away to college, I gained the weight back and then some. The freshman fifteen was real, and it got me up to a healthy weight. I didn’t notice it at the time. New experiences kept me busy until I went home for break. I remember sitting at the dinner table with my family during spring break that year. ‘She’s a size five now.’ Those words were spoken with such delicacy…and met with silence. I’m sure they were more meant to comfort but it just confused me. Why did it matter? By the time I moved back home that next summer I was back to my ‘normal’ size, I was underweight again without even realizing. I even got congratulated on my weight loss.

Several months later, during Thanksgiving break in my sophomore year of college, something specific happened. I blocked out almost the entire memory of what was said to me, but to this day I can remember the horrible pain I felt that night. I went back to school and fell DEEP into my mental illnesses. I don’t know if it was the pain of trying to deal with what had been said or just a reaction to try to numb myself. I began restricting harder. I was using diet pills, I was purging, I was self harming…basically, I was a mess. I felt like I had lost control but at the same time I never wanted to stop. I told myself, ‘This is what you deserve.’

The few months following that night were some of the darkest in my life. My weight went up and down for a little while and as summer approached I started to reach a healthier mental state. With the support of my best friend, I started eating more and stopped self harming for a while. She was the only person who knew EVERYTHING and she still never left. My best friend was the one who told me, ‘You don’t actually deserve this pain. And not only that, you don’t deserve anything that had been said or done to you to cause this pain.’ I believed her.

Courtesy of Sarah Valandra

Sadly, it only lasted a couple months before I started falling back into old habits. This time, it was the beginning of the end. I fell apart COMPLETELY. I dropped to my lowest weight and my mind felt empty. I was surviving on less than 500 calories a day. I was numb, I was wasting away and I was dying. My friends and family intervened a few times trying to see if just asking me to get help would work. It didn’t and eventually I was given an ultimatum. ‘Move home and go to treatment, or you’re on your own.’

Frightened by the idea of having to give up my freedom for good, I moved home. Living at home with my parents wasn’t ideal but it was the only option I had since I couldn’t support myself at the time. So I did it. I moved home. I started treatment. Things stayed bad for a little while as I had a hard time with the meal plan. After suffering alone for so long, I didn’t even know how to begin talking about it to anyone. Group therapy was especially hard for me.

I was placed on supplements to help move the needle on the scale and it was a wake up call. I went home that night and sobbed to my mother. I didn’t want to be one of those sick people you see on TV specials about anorexia. That’s when it truly hit me; recovery was my ONLY choice. I had to make it for all those who lost the battle and all those still fighting, so they would have someone to look at and say, ‘I’m not alone.’

Courtesy of Sarah Valandra

I jumped into recovery 100% after that moment. I opened up more to my therapist who became the man who literally saved my life. He was one of the first people to actually listen to me. He didn’t try to speak over me, he heard my thoughts, opinions and traumas and didn’t treat me like a crazy person. I know it’s his job but nobody had ever done that before. Even my previous therapists made snide comments. One of them even told me upon hearing that I was starving myself and self harming, ‘Obviously what you’re doing isn’t working, you look fine.’ Which probably isn’t the best thing to say to your patient.

I started following my meal plan and drinking my supplements. I smashed my scale. I found an online community and that support helped me immensely. That’s why it is so important to me to share my experiences and be honest about my recovery journey, no matter what. You just never know who needs to hear what you have to share or see what you have to post. There are many people fighting this battle and I never want them to feel alone. We’re all here for each other.

‘The average time for full recovery is about 10 years.’ I can still hear my therapist to this day. Eating disorders are tricky. It will always be lying in wait, hoping you get stressed and forget to eat or have a bad day and engage in negative behaviors. When this happens, the voice gets louder and fighting gets harder. It’s so hard to break free of those coping mechanisms. Relapse is a part of recovery, it doesn’t mean you’re failing.

Courtesy of Sarah Valandra

I’ve experienced freedom from engaging in negative behaviors, I’m free from my disorder and at a very healthy body weight. I know how it feels to just LIVE. Having a taste of life makes it easier and easier to fight the urges when they pop back up. When I find myself thinking about falling back into old habits, I try to think of all the strength I’ve gained in recovery and all the people I’ve been able to help. I tell myself,  ‘You can’t be a good example that recovery is possible if YOU aren’t recovering.’ And that is important to me. That’s why I try so hard. Yes of course I want a better quality of life for myself but in the end, I just don’t want other people to have to go through what I did without having support.

It’s a long journey but it is worth every minute. It’s worth every tear and every mistake. There is a massive online community of people who are going through, or have gone through, the same struggle, and I think that’s the most amazing part of being in recovery. The bond you have with those who share your mental illness is nearly instant and lasts forever. We are all warriors together. I will continue to share my story and try to break the stigma around eating disorders. Nobody deserves to feel like they’re alone. Recovery is possible and it is beautiful.”

Courtesy of Sarah Valandra

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Sarah Valandra of Utah. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more inspiring stories about eating disorder recovery:

‘Our beautiful, once vibrant Sarah is now a shell of a human.’ I was spiraling out of control. A monster was being born.’: Young woman overcomes eating disorder, ‘struggling is not a character flaw. You are worthy of help.’

‘Do you ever worry about dying? You’re killing yourself.’ She was right.’: ‘Misguided teenager’ credits her unexpected pregnancy for saving her life after ‘horrible’ eating disorder

‘I lost 100 pounds in less 8 months. I was sick. I had gotten down to eating only one orange a day. Then I gained it all back. I got the phone call that changed my life. My mother had died.’

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