Beneath the Skin

Jaye Bowden interviews Sarah Harris

This year I spoke to a wonderful young lady, Sarah Harris (21), who suffered from Anorexia for many of her teenage years, and against all odds overcame that dark period of her life. I learnt about her own personal journey, her struggles, her damaging past and her final triumph in breaking free from the clutches of this consuming disease. She expressed her thoughts on the potential dangers of social media to this generation, the effects of society on body image, and shared her insightful advice for people out there going through similar experiences to her own.

J: When did you first begin controlling your intake of food and paying particularly close attention to your weight? What influenced you to make this destructive change to your lifestyle?

S: I was 15 when I first started limiting what I ate, and even being aware of what I was eating at all. I used to eat anything without putting much thought into it. My biggest influences in changing my diet were my friends at school. They were starting to go to the gym, eat less sugary sweets from the canteen, and eating healthier foods instead. These were all good things my friends were doing for their health, but as I started engaging in what they were doing it very quickly became an obsession and a bit of a competition for me. I was always critical about myself as a person before, so food and body image became another way to be critical of myself.

J: Did it take a while for you to open up to your family and friends about this part of your life and for them to realise that something was wrong?

S: I never opened up to them and I never planned to because I knew they would try to stop me. In the first few months of 2012 my parents began really noticing how little I was taking to school for lunches and that I had stopped going back for seconds at dinner time. After roughly a year of consciously monitoring my food intake, I was taken to my doctor. I lied for every question my doctor asked about food and body image, but I was diagnosed with anorexia after a physical examination.

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J: How many years did you battle with anorexia?

S: I started treatment in late 2012 when I was 16 after suffering for a year and I was only discharged in mid-2017. However, I would have considered myself recovered during 2016. I was sick for roughly 5 years. My disorder got 10 times worse when I was forced into treatment. The anorexia had to work twice as hard to fight the doctors. I was originally treated as an outpatient, but after a few months of this I was getting more medically and psychologically unstable and was admitted to the hospital for 7 weeks.

J: Did using Instagram as a platform to share your story and your feelings help to keep you reaching out to people and relating to other people going through similar journeys to you?

S: Originally I used a blog on Tumblr to document everything which had a large following of around 5000 if I remember correctly. Because this was such a public space and anyone could view my deepest personal thoughts, my treatment team and family deleted my blog while I was unaware in hospital. I did move to Instagram later to post about my illness and recovery. This is not something I would 100% recommend. Eating disorders are a competitive illness and it is counter-productive to read about other people’s struggles while they and you are still deeply struggling. It’s great to feel less alone in the world but it is best to open up to the people actually around you instead.

J: If you had to explain what having anorexia feels like to someone, how would you describe the thought processes and the way you reacted to certain situations and the world around you?

S: I would describe it as having a filter over your eyes. Every single thing you see is altered by having an eating disorder or a mental illness in general. My doctors would often joke about “having my anorexia goggles on”, but it’s actually true. I saw everything differently, and everything I thought about for those 5 years was distorted from reality. I became very negative.

J: What was the hardest part about going through this time in your life?

S: I felt so far behind everyone else around me when I was sick. All my friends were progressing with their life and doing really amazing things and I was stuck in the school bathrooms to avoid eating with them. It was hard and very lonely to feel like such an outsider and such a failure. Having an eating disorder also crippled my family emotionally and to this day things still aren’t the same. My family became my enemy just because they were trying to help me.

J: Was there a defining moment where you pushed yourself too far and you realised you had to rid yourself of anorexia completely and fight it with everything you had?

S: Most of my memories from those years are blurry, but there was one point that I remember very clearly during 2014 and 2015 when my illness was at its worst. I had come home from an appointment where I was told I could have a sudden heart attack if I kept on going and while looking in the mirror my whole perspective of myself changed. My focus switched from examining any fat I had on my body to examining my face, and I saw how dead my eyes were and how sunken my cheeks were. It felt like I suddenly saw the way everyone else was seeing me and I was horrified and disgusted with what I saw! The whole point of my anorexia was to be ‘beautiful’, ‘perfect’, and happy. I didn’t see any of those things I wanted when I really truly looked at myself with a more rational lens. I think this moment triggered more of an acceptance with my treatment team.

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J: What help, support or creative outlet did you find crucial in your battle with this?

S: Despite hating them for it at the time, my family were a huge help in pushing me towards recovery. I screamed and cried and said some nasty things to them, but they always kept trying. I also wrote a lot of creative pieces and diary entries. The most helpful emotional outlet for me wasn’t bluntly sharing what I felt online, but actually creating my own art from it through poetry and music. Finding a therapist that I liked and could see frequently helped shift things in my head too.

J: Which steps did you take to recover from this illness once and for all?

S: After a few years I started to actually engage in my treatment with my doctors and therapists. Instead of hating them, I made friends with them and I let them help me. I probably didn’t 100% want their help, but I let them because I realised they actually cared about me. I took my medication and I got myself up in the morning to go to my appointments and after a long time it actually started to work! It took a lot of courage, but I was getting sick of feeling empty and unhappy. My disorder had taken so much from me and I think getting angry about that fact helped me to do something about it.

J: How did it feel to no longer be controlled by anorexia, to be free from this overwhelming pressure to control your weight? You must have been so happy and proud of how far you had journeyed!

S: I felt so free and pretty unstoppable! If I could beat that illness I could do anything. For a while I didn’t even feel afraid of anything! I felt okay to actually exist and take up space in the world and consume things I liked and wanted. I felt very emotionally and physically energised and content. There was so much space in my brain for me to think about and do other things.

J: Where do you find inspiration to lead a healthier and more positive life?

S: The greatest thing about being recovered and continuing to maintain my health is having a rational mind that I can use to share insight and help other people. It’s the most rewarding thing and that’s what inspires me. I’m also very afraid of somehow getting sick again, so I always make sure I’m taking care of myself. Looking after myself doesn’t just mean eating a healthy amount of food but also letting myself rest and be human and make mistakes and enjoy myself.

J: What is the future looking like for you? Are you thinking of pursuing song writing, or doing some travelling and exploring for a while? Settling down?

S: Song writing has been difficult for me now that I’m happy. I haven’t written much from a happy mindset before but it is something I’d like to try and learn how to do. I’ve now got a job that keeps me busy every day and I’m travelling overseas for the first time very soon, which is something I could have never experienced when I was sick. I’m very focused on doing the things I never could while I was sick, working, travelling, having a healthy relationship. Just being happy.

J: Do you think there is more pressure on young women to be in shape and slim in todays’ society? How strongly do you feel this affects women mentally and the way girls view themselves?

S: Of course. Often without realising it women are socialized to look pretty and to not be anything else. Beauty is the thing that women are praised the most highly for and the most often for. People love feeling good and being praised, and being beautiful is a way to receive that praise easily. Diet culture is huge and must be stopped. It’s very harmful and people don’t always like to admit that society is influential in negative ways to vulnerable minds. Being who you are, as you are, is the most powerful thing you can do!

J: Finally do you have any advice for young girls or women struggling with eating disorders?

S: When your mind is consumed with an eating disorder your perception of yourself is distorted. I was always afraid to recover because I didn’t want to gain weight. But as I started gaining weight and gaining brain mass and energy, my perceptions of myself changed. I was a healthy weight and saw myself as a slender but healthy person. My mind shifted from my body and focused on what was making me happy. The key to recovery is changing the way you see yourself, and the unhealthier you are mentally or physically, the worse your perceptions are. Getting help is very important and I credit my happiness to my participation in treatment and never giving up on myself.

If you or someone you need needs support, please contact Tasmanians support organisation TRED, or call the Butterfly Foundation’s national helpline on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) between 8am and 9pm Mon-Fri.  

Additionally, the Tasmania Mental Health Services (TMHS) helpline may be able to provide information on services in your region. Please contact them at 1800 332 388

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