Struggling with mental health and addiction is not a choice, but recovery is.
At least, that’s how Sarah sees it.
Recovering from addiction is probably one of the most difficult things a person can do. On that, I think, we are all agreed.
But what if there were more to it than that?
Sarah struggled with an eating disorder for fifteen years. As this struggle became more entrenched, she turned to drugs and alcohol to “help quieten the voice” inside her head.
Today we meet her.
She talks frankly about her life, her mental & physical health, bound up by an eating disorder and addictions that ultimately threatened to take her from us.
Throughout my own recovery so far I have often turned to Sarah for strength, resilience and belief. It is testimony to her that these three characteristics burn so brightly within her, and, I hope, will shine out from our interview with her, published here.
In addition, she has allowed us to re-publish her thoughts on her first summer in recovery, for which I’m extremely grateful.
Sarah – ice cream, or no ice cream, you truly are a special, special person. Thank you for sharing.
Let’s start with finding out a little bit about you, Sarah… where are you? what do you do?
I’m 27 years old and originally from Sarnia, a small town in Ontario on the border of Canada and America. However my recovery journey has brought me to a new city where I now live, in Guelph, Ontario.
For 10 years I worked as a server/bartender, clearly that is not a good position for me anymore. Right now, my full time job and main focus is ultimately, recovery. Without being healthy physically, mentally and emotionally I would not be able to move forward into a stable career. Due to the nature of my illness and addictions, I receive disability benefits until I am able to return to work full time.
I’m an animal lover and walk dogs on the side in between appointments, meetings and groups.
What brought you here? I mean, you must have some kind of mental health or addiction story, care to elaborate?
I have struggled with an eating disorder for 15 years, with my diagnosis switching between anorexia, bulimia and back again over the years. I was in and out of hospital throughout my school years. As I came into adulthood my eating disorder grew stronger and I turned to drugs and alcohol to help quiet the voice inside my head, which then took on a life of its own as well.
What was your life like at the point you decided to seek help?
I guess you could say I initially began to seek help in 2013, after a very serious suicide attempt that left me in a cardiac care unit.
Soon after I found myself at a residential treatment centre for lengthy stays in the spring 2014 and 2015 where I sought help for my eating disorder each time. At this point I had been in denial about my addictions, which ultimately aided in yet another relapse of my eating disorder, because in my case and many others, they are extremely intertwined.
The final straw, for you, was what, exactly?
In the fall of 2017 I found myself at rock bottom.
I had no will to live and no courage to kill myself.
All I could do was hope my fragile body would fail me from complications of my eating disorder or I would pollute my body with drugs and alcohol praying for an overdose.
I had lost all sense of myself, no values, no morals, no goals and no hope left. I had lost everything and everyone that was important to me in one way or another. I couldn’t go on living the way I was, death was just around the corner.
Despite wanting to leave this world so imminently, there was always a small grain of hope deep inside me that knew I was meant for more, that my story was important. All those around me had given up on me and stood watching as I slowly crumbled.
A fire inside me lit and burned so brightly. I wanted to prove them all wrong and prove to myself that I could come back to life and this wasn’t how my story was gong to end.
Do you see yourself as being in recovery… If so, how? What do these words mean to you? If not… how so?
I have mixed feelings about the word recovery, even though I use it so often.
But maybe I do that for the sake of others. For me, recovery is a journey, I will never be recovered, but I will always be recovering. I will always be an alcoholic and addict and I will always be living with an eating disorder. The only difference is I am no longer engaging in behaviours of those diagnoses. If we are talking about eating disorder symptoms, using and drinking, then yes, I am in remission and always recovering.
Other than the obvious ways that I am “in recovery” I see myself recovering in so many other wonderful ways.
I am reconnecting with friends and family, and building so many more new relationships in my life. I am rediscovering old passions and finding new ones. I know my limits and am able to form healthy boundaries. I am open and honest with my treatment team and more importantly, myself.
I have energy, I have humour, I have acceptance, I have goals and above all, I have self-respect.
So, you changed your lifestyle (congratulations!)… How did you do that? How did you manage after you stopped? What did you do to motivate and maintain your recovery and abstinence? Any hints or tips, sources of inspiration for people seeking to do the same?
I was fortunate enough to be a patient of one of Canada’s top treatment facilities, Homewood Health Centre for 5.5 months, which helped get the ball rolling for normalisation of meals, weight restoration and my sobriety journey. That by no means made it easier. In fact, going through detox while having to eat three meals and three snacks a day was incredibly rough.
While I was in treatment I attended DBT, CBT, trauma and addiction groups. As well as meetings with psychiatry, dieticians, social workers and psychologists.
In the beginning, it was very difficult to wrap my head around the possibility of a different tomorrow.
Of having to eat every meal and every snack, and not purge for the rest of my life. Of never having another drink, not even at my wedding – if/when I find the one! I often struggled with the idea of even wanting a future without my disorder and addictions. They were who I was, and all I knew.
I mentioned earlier about a small grain of hope within me, and that is truly what kept me going to start with. The further I travelled down this new road, the less I wanted to look back and the more that grain of hope grew. Sometimes I had to remind myself of why I started and kept little cope cards near me when I couldn’t remember on my own.
I had (and still have) to remind myself of how far I had come with each victory and milestone. Another key part of my recovery has been finding my independence away from people and places, keeping up with my therapy appointments, going to meetings and being unapologetically honest with myself and others.
That little grain of hope is looking more and more like a shiny pearl.
Weight/shape changes and not drinking/drugging can be a very stigmatising thing… were you prepared for that? How did you deal with it? How did others around you deal with it?
Actually, I was prepared for the weight/shape comments.
I knew people would make comments on my new, healthy body, yet that still didn’t make it any easier to hear them. My brain would translate “you look so healthy/happy” into “you are fat” automatically. I knew it was coming, I knew how my brain would hear it and had a few responses in my back pocket I could use in those situations.
As for my sobriety, it really depends on who I am around. Those close to me, and who have been involved in my journey do not even question or comment on my lifestyle now. However there are those who think my sobriety is a “phase” and make very invalidating and degrading comments, and to that I just have to breathe and accept that that’s their opinion.
Were you successful from day one? Any relapses/slips? How did you cope, emotionally with all this?
From the day I entered treatment and on, I have remained drug and alcohol free – I even quit smoking that same day. I am extremely proud of my sobriety, but it hasn’t come easy. I have done abstinence-based outpatient groups as well as harm reduction programmes for preventative measures also. I meet with my sponsor regularly and aim to get to 3 meetings a week.
As for recovery from my eating disorder, it’s not as black and white as my recovery from addiction.
There has been slips along the way, when I was in treatment, and beyond discharge as well. Initially, I felt extreme shame about my symptoms and would beat myself up about each one. However I always remained honest with myself and my team – something I had not done in previous attempts at recovery. Being compassionate towards myself and prioritising self care in these times was crucial to learning from slips and moving forward in my journey.
You’ve been sober and in recovery for 10 months… are there any manifest benefits that your new life has afforded? What are they? Any advice for people reading this, can we learn from any of your mistakes?
There are endless benefits recovery has given me!
My body is strong and healthy. My legs can take me on new adventures, my arms can hold my loved ones tight, my heart beat is steady and breathing is easier now. I have energy to volunteer, walk dogs and write – things I would have never considered doing when I was sick.
Relationships I had lost or tarnished are being repaired and polished. The quality of relationships I have with both my family and friends is something I never dreamed was possible in the past – and bonus, now they trust me! My values and personality are shining though again, I have self-respect.
My humour and creativity have returned, I am also more compassionate, honest and authentic.
I have found independence away from my illness, and I’m confident in who I am. The most precious benefit my new life has given me is hope, time and opportunity. I am no longer chained down and locked in the prison of my eating disorder and addiction.
As for advice, never stop fighting. Recovery is the hardest thing I have ever done. It is a daily battle, but the more you battle the easier it becomes. Struggling with mental health and addiction is not a choice, but recovery is. Each day, every minute, every hour, we have a choice. For me, it’s all about just doing the next right thing in that moment, and then continuing to make the right choice after that. Take it one day at a time. You are worthy and deserving of recovery. So if you’re looking for a sign to choose and work towards recovery, this is it. You are enough, and I believe in you.
So, what’s next for Sarah?
Well, I’m alive and living so anything is possible!
But in reality, I’m honestly just taking it one day at a time.
What I’m doing right now seems to working, and it’s all about baby steps. However, I’m still coming to terms with my Bipolar Disorder 2 diagnosis, and how it is in fact separate from my eating disorder and addiction.
The next steps for me will be outpatient treatment and learning to manage those symptoms as well, rather than playing whack-a-mole with behaviours from each diagnosis!
Recovery is a process, everybody’s journey is different, and they are all indescribably beautiful.
About our subject, Sarah:
Sarah describes herself as a perfectionistic, animal loving, sports fanatic. She is a coffee fiend with an enthusiasm for recovery and a wicked sense of humour. Sarah is fiercely honest, resilient and driven, embracing life one day at a time.