Trigger Warning: This story shares a detailed account of the years Sarah struggled with Anorexia Nervosa. Please proceed with attention to your own health. If you wish to avoid potentially triggering content, but still read a part of Sarah’s story, scroll until you see the largest text: “Despite the misfortune I had befallen…”. Thank you, and be well.
My name is Sarah Legg, and I am 21 years old. Today I am healthy, happy and looking forward to a bright future. But things weren’t always this way. Two years ago I entered inpatient treatment for anorexia after a near decade-long struggle with the disease. Before I finally entered recovery I was depressed, drug addicted and suicidal. This is my story.
When I began restricting at 10 years old, it was out of a desire to be “perfect,” or at least what I perceived “perfect” to be. But shortly before the time I agreed to get help, I was actively trying to starve myself to death. I was reckless and desperate, and the only thing I cared about was watching that number on the scale drop lower and lower. I had no “ideal weight” in mind, I only wanted to see how low I could go before I died.
But now, standing on the other side, I’m here to tell you that recovery is possible. And it is worth it. It is by far the hardest thing I have ever done, but it is also the best thing I have ever done, and I am incredibly proud of how far I have come.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, so I’ll skip back to the beginning.
As a child, under the age of 10, I was always hyper-aware of other people’s bodies. Some of my earliest memories are of looking at girls who fit my image of the “ideal body,” and feeling desperate to grow up to look like them. I became obsessed, and by age 10 I had begun to restrict how much I ate. If I had a playdate with a friend, I would tell my mom that I was going to eat at my friend’s house, and then tell my friend that I had already eaten.
Though I was only a child, I was already entrenched in my years-long war with my body-image.
At about the same time, I began rock-climbing competitively, which I would later use as a vehicle to further weight loss. I thrived at climbing due to how light I was, and began to train multiple days a week. I relished the praise from my coaches, and interpreted it as encouragement to continue restricting. But despite my success climbing, I hated it. That didn’t matter to me though — I was more than willing to suffer in order to reach the idea of “perfect” I held in my mind at all times.
When I entered middle school, things started to get worse. I was terrified of going through puberty and allowing my body to change for, as I perceived it, the worse. This was compounded by the rock climbing world, where every year I saw girls who had been the best of the best as children start to undergo physical changes, while simultaneously their climbing abilities dwindled. I swore I would never let it happen to me.
Soon I began lying to the people I loved, and I regularly threw food away so that my mom would think I had eaten. Starving myself became a vice, and whenever I was upset I would calm myself down by going longer and longer without food. Looking back, it was a control thing — I only felt strong and capable when I successfully restricted. But instead of seeing my eating disorder as a vice, I interpreted it as strong willpower. I believed it made me superior to others. While others struggled with their weights, I thought, I could control mine without lifting a finger. Except that I couldn’t.
The anorexia controlled my weight, and I only empowered it by using it as a coping mechanism.
One day, when I was about 13 years old, I went to climbing practice to find my coach waiting to weigh all of the climbers on my team. And thus began my obsession with the scale. Even though I weighed in rather low, I became transfixed with the idea to losing X number of pounds, and X more, and so on. It was this moment on the scale when a switch inside me flipped and I fell hopelessly into anorexia.
Over the next year I cut my diet back even more strictly, and worked out far beyond what was healthy. Exercise became an obsession, and proved to be one of the most difficult aspects of my eating disorder to overcome.
I was miserable — my skin was grey and sallow; my hair was breaking off at my shoulders. But all I cared about was the number on the scale. I had little interest in social activities and largely retreated into myself. It was all about being “perfect”: having a tiny, porcelain body and impeccable grades.
It didn’t matter how depressed I was, since I was fulfilling the expectations I had set for myself.
As the months went by, people at the climbing gym began to notice my changing appearance and expressed their concerns to my mom. It took some time before she, too, fully realized what was going on with me, since I lied nonchalantly to ease her suspicions. And besides, I was climbing harder than I ever had and was doing great in school, so how sick could I be? But nevertheless, after a few months of this she finally confronted me and pleaded with me to get help. It came as a shock to me, because through everything, I had never actually considered myself “anorexic.” I agreed to get help, while internally I vowed to play along just until people lost interest, and then lose the weight once again.
At the time my mom confronted me, indoor rock climbing nationals were approaching, and I was set to compete. Before the competition my mom took me to see a doctor, who told me that if I competed I had about a 50% chance of having a heart attack on the wall. My mom didn’t want to let me compete, but my coach saw me as his best female competitor and wanted me to climb. And so I climbed, and did well. Even though I didn’t have a heart attack, my body underwent tremendous stress and I quickly fell sick afterwards, but I saw it as a sign that I was fine and didn’t really need help. However, I entered outpatient treatment anyway to appease my mom.
The outpatient treatment did not go well. I was mean-spirited, stubborn and excessively moody. I had no intention of getting better, and only allowed myself to gain the bare minimum amount weight that would keep people from constantly nagging me about it.
For the next five years I ate a select few foods every single day, which I would measure, on a scale, to ensure I didn’t eat what I considered to be too much. After that day at nationals, I continued to train daily, and delayed puberty as much as possible. I was lauded for my low weight in the climbing world, as it allowed me to surpass the abilities of girls who began to undergo puberty. I’m ashamed to admit I did not treat others well during this time. I avoided close friendships, yelled at my mom, and in terms of dating, I wasn’t exactly using boys in a way that could lead to a meaningful relationship. People were disposable to me, as they just posed a threat to my restricted, regimented lifestyle.
During this time, it became apparent that I had a significant curve in my spine, which continued to progress, though I had stopped growing. The idea of having a curved spine did not jibe well with my idea of the “perfect” girl, and I hated myself for it. So, when I was 17 years old, I underwent surgery to have my spine fused. I used the surgery as an excuse to quit climbing, as I determined I could workout in other ways that I enjoyed more, with less eyes on me (lest I allow my weight to fall too low). The surgery marked another important development in my life: the beginning of my drug addiction.
Before I had the surgery I was no stranger to prescription narcotics, as I had taken them on and off to deal with the back pain. But never with as high of doses as I was granted post-operation. I relished the narcotics sweeping through my veins in the hospital, and long sought to replicate that feeling after I had returned home. I had access to my mom’s stash of pain pills, and would proceed to take them daily until I entered inpatient care two years later.
I graduated from high school with straight As, and on the surface I had reached the ideal image for which I strove: I was smart, successful and tiny. I was ready to head to college and take on the world — or so I pretended to be. But underneath I was horribly depressed and alone, and only cared about the drugs and starvation.
I headed to college, where I quickly overloaded myself with work and school. I convinced myself, and tried to convince others, that I simply did not “have time” to eat. The independence of college life allowed me to become more belligerent and reckless in my anorexia and addiction. I began to drink with the pills, which resulted in some nights I would rather forget. After a year had passed, I was despondent, angry and exhausted. I made little effort to hide my anorexia, drug abuse or depression. I simply didn’t care anymore.
By the end of the next semester, little remained of the girl I had once been. I was a shell — dark-eyed, pale skinned, skeletal. I knew I was dying, and I became increasingly careless with mixing drugs and alcohol. Soon, I wanted to die. After spending Christmas in an empty house, drunk, lying on the floor full of despair and self-loathing, I had had enough of this world. A few days later, on New Year’s Eve, I made the resolution to not live to see another New Year’s Day. I resolved to starve myself to death before 12 months had passed. Little did I know, those 12 months would be both the best and worst of my life.
School started up again and I went through the motions, but devoid of the drive and ambition that had once defined me. I no longer cared about being “perfect;” I only wanted to die. At night I prayed to God to never let me reawaken, and in the morning to let me go before I saw the sunset one more time. I was no longer a girl with an eating disorder; I had become the eating disorder. Anorexia was the only thing that described me.
On January 21, 2016, I got in a car crash on my way to school. I was not seriously injured, but walked away with a concussion, which caused me to spiral completely out of control. I ranted about needing to escape; I tried to leave and go stay in various other places, just to separate myself from everyone in my life. This prompted my mom to stage an intervention for my anorexia, during which I played along and agreed to make a change. But in my heart, it was all a lie. As soon as the people had left, I refused to talk to my mom for days. And as an act of revenge, I restricted even more fiercely.
The next two months proved to be my lowest days yet. I barely ate, barely slept, popped pills constantly and topped it off with alcohol carelessly. I needed the pills to get through everything, and I came to regard them as my primary source of nutrition, since the high was enough for me to run on for a short while. I took them all throughout the school day, and again at work. Anytime I felt especially exhausted or upset I would pop some pills, and just like that I was able to function for a little while longer.
When I thought I couldn’t get much lower, on March 20, 2016, I was t-boned by two other cars on my way to work. Luckily no one was seriously injured, but I was pretty banged up. But of course, before the police could arrive narcotics were flowing through my veins. I hid the bottles of pills that had been in my car just in time as an officer approached me, and was able to make it through the aftermath proceedings. But after my mom came to pick me up, a sharp pain in my neck started to worsen, and so we headed for the emergency room. This would be the second of more than 10 emergency room visits in 2016.
Let’s take a step back for a second, to 2013, the year of my back operation. My back never healed quite correctly from the surgery, because although the x-rays looked fine, I’ve suffered from fairly severe pain throughout the fused area ever since. Additionally, I have kidney problems (which, surprisingly, turned out to be unrelated to the anorexia) that add more pain to the mix. Thus I never had many issues acquiring narcotics, but after I had taken all those prescribed to me, I took others that were lying around the house, as I previously mentioned. But the pain was intense, and it was hard for me to sit through school. After the second car accident, it reached its zenith. And with as low as my weight was, I simply couldn’t continue with school. I tried to keep attending classes, but it proved too painful. I did what I could from home, but my grades were slipping rapidly. About two and a half weeks after the second car crash, I had the dean grant me a withdrawal from my classes indefinitely.
After the car crashes, I was unable to drive, as I would have flashbacks to the accidents. I had to have others drive me everywhere, and after I withdrew from school I hit a new low. My whole existence had become dependent on outside factors. I depended on others to take me places, give me somewhere to live — I often even required help to get up a flight of stairs. I depended on pills and alcohol to feel something, anything, beyond the all-encompassing despair. I had no hope, and wanted none. I only wanted the pain to end, mentally and physically, and thought death was the only path to freedom from the prison of anorexia and substance abuse in which I had placed myself.
A few days after I withdrew from school, however, something changed in my mind. To this day I am unable to determine why — perhaps I reached a sort of clarity in the disparity my life had become — but I decided to fight. I wanted to get off the drugs. I wanted to have a life.
After almost a decade of active anorexia, I wanted to be free.
So on the Friday of that week, my mom called the Center for Change (CFC), an inpatient eating disorder facility, and started the admission process. The first thing they had me do was see a doctor, to ensure I was healthy enough for them to house me. At the doctor’s appointment the next day they performed an EKG. My heart rate had to be above 35 beats per minute in order to be admitted to the center, rather than the hospital. The first EKG measured my heart rate as 34 bmp. But the doctor decided to try one more time, and it measured as 36 bpm. Thus, I met the parameters for admission to CFC. But, the doctor cautioned me, if I didn’t get help immediately, I had about two weeks left to live.
On Monday, three days after the initial call to CFC, the center called and said they could admit me the following day. In April of 2016, I finally entered inpatient treatment.
Admittedly, I didn’t initially go into treatment for myself. I did it for my mom and boyfriend, because I couldn’t stand to make them watch me die anymore.
Inpatient treatment was hard, to say the least. The first week was a nightmare, as my body adjusted to having food in it while it simultaneously detoxed. I wanted to quit, but instead I wrote furiously. All through treatment I filled pages upon pages of my journal. When I read them now, I can watch my progression unfold as the entries turn from anger and disparity to hope.
I met some incredible girls and women who had been through hell, and while each story broke my heart, we were in it together. As alone as I felt, I never truly was.
Honestly, talking to those who also suffered from eating disorders may have been more therapeutic than the actual therapy sessions.
After a couple of weeks, I began to feel extremely sick. The nurses at CFC wrote it off as constipation, but after a couple of days I couldn’t walk and was put in a wheelchair. One night, my abdomen suddenly began to swell, to the point that I looked pregnant and felt like my ribs were going to crack. CFC sent me to the emergency room, but the doctor dismissed it as constipation as well, without any real examination. The next night it happened again, but this time I began to vomit as well. After hours of me lying on the bathroom floor, the center sent me to the emergency room again, but all they could do was stabilize me, and were unable to determine the nature of the underlying problem. And the cycle repeated itself the following day. The swelling and vomiting continued, and the nurse at the center only kept trying to give me more and more laxatives. At the emergency room that night, the doctor determined that the problem was that CFC had been feeding me lactose and gluten, which I am allergic to, and consequently my intestines had become impacted. Because of this, it was difficult for them to see anything on the scans. The doctor ordered the center to put me on a liquid diet, and to absolutely not give me any dairy or gluten.
Two days later I was scheduled to be discharged, and on my final day at CFC my dietician took me off of the liquid diet. Consequently, I spent my last hours there vomiting and lying on the floor, with my belly pressing violently against my ribs. When my mom picked me up we went straight to the emergency room, where they rehydrated me once again, but like the previous three doctors, could not determine the problem.
For a few days I did better, and my mental state was improved to the point that I tried to eat what I could. But four days after discharge, I fell terribly ill once again. I didn’t want to go back to the hospital, but I knew something was wrong that the past four emergency room doctors had missed. We called 911, and I found myself once again in a hospital bed, surrounded by doctors and nurses. My heart rate had skyrocketed, and my blood pressure was dangerously low. I remember little from that night, but after a series of blood tests and imaging, a doctor came in to tell me that they had found holes in the walls of my bowels, and needed to admit me to the ICU for further testing.
After a couple of days in the ICU, one of the doctors finally arrived with a diagnosis. I had pancreatitis and C. diff, along with the holes in my intestines. The doctor explained that I had contracted pancreatitis from improper refeeding, as my body was not able to handle the sudden onslaught of food after years of starvation. The holes in my bowels were from compaction in my intestines from eating gluten and dairy, as the former ER doctors had noted. The C. diff resulted from when the nurse at CFC put me on two different antibiotics for a cough that had plagued me, which allowed the infection to take hold. Before the doctor left the room he told me how lucky I was to be alive; if I had stayed at CFC another week, he conjectured, I would likely be in my grave now.
Despite the misfortune I had befallen at CFC, when all was said and done, I began to truly want to recover. I would not allow myself to have gone through all that hell in vain. My anger morphed into motivation to recover.
After a week in the hospital at home in Utah, I was transferred to the ACUTE Center for Eating Disorders in Colorado. At this point I was finally becoming truly recovery-minded and handled the weight gain moderately well, but it was a struggle. The most difficult part was feeling my clothes get tighter, and forcing myself to keep eating anyway. Every once and awhile I would catch glimpses of how I actually looked, unmarred by the body dysmorphia, and I clung to those moments. The harsh reality is it’s easy to say you want to get better before your body has begun to change, but the true struggle begins once you have gained some weight, and have to consciously decide not to give up, no matter how much you may hate your body at that moment. And at that time, I hated my body. I felt bloated and nauseous constantly, and was angry that the weight was going to all the “wrong” places. To counteract the disdain I felt for my changing body, I did a great deal of research on the weight restoration process. I discovered that when the body begins to weight restore, all of the weight goes to protect the vital organs, and therefore concentrates around one’s middle. Only after a long period of recovery does the body redistribute the weight, reassured it won’t be deprived of nutrients again. Armed with this knowledge, I pushed ahead.
A week into my time at ACUTE, I got food poisoning from an undercooked piece of chicken. I tried to eat the next day, but my stomach had other ideas. Consequently, I agreed to have a feeding tube placed. I was incredibly frustrated. There I was, finally beginning to make some progress both physically and mentally, but I was set back to the point of being unable to eat. I became even more motivated to recover, as I never wanted to return to the sorry state in which I was.
I wanted to smile without despair threatening to tremble on my lips, to love without substances determining my feelings, to live without the constant stress of food on my mind. I didn’t want to be afraid anymore. I didn’t want to hide in the shadows. As I stared out of the window and imagined the people going out into the depths of the city, laughing and smiling, I longed for nothing more than the freedom they surely felt — a freedom I had never before felt. I wanted to recover not only for my loved ones, but for me. For the first time, I wasn’t seeking treatment to please others. I was in treatment because I believed that I deserved a future — that I was so much more than my eating disorder.
After that night I redoubled my efforts to recover. But I felt caged, and butted heads with my psychiatrist. I wanted to go home and begin seeing the therapist I saw five years earlier, but my psychiatrist deemed me too ill to leave the hospital. Nevertheless, I kept eating. But unfortunately, I contracted food poisoning again. This incident resulted in a state of deep depression and anger. I insisted I wanted to be discharged and to go home, but the doctors believed I was not physically healthy enough to do so. The placed a legal hold on me, and moved me to the nearby Eating Recovery Center (ERC) against my will. There my depression worsened, and while I continued to eat, the psychiatrist at the center realized I was regressing mentally. He agreed to let me go home, so long as I had an outpatient care team in place back home. I quickly scheduled appointments with what would prove to be the best care time I have ever worked with. In June of 2016, I headed for home.
Back home I began to see the therapist I saw when I was a 14, Steve, and an amazing dietician, Paige. Together they came up with a treatment plan that worked wonders for me. I trusted them, and they listened to what I had to say. For the first time in treatment, I felt heard. With my spirits back up, I progressed rapidly mentally — enough to combat the doubts and fears I felt as my body continued to change. After a couple of months it struck me: I no longer hated my body. I was finally entering a state of acceptance.
It was not, however, clear sailing. My mind was tumultuous, and I often wanted to relapse. But after the hell through which I had traveled, giving up was not an option. I pushed through. Gradually I was able to reduce my therapy and dietician sessions as I grew more stable. My health improved, and after being home for two months I was able to return to work. Four months after that, in January of 2017, just shy of a year since I had entered inpatient treatment, I returned to school. In August of that year, I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English. In a year and a half I had transformed from a drugged up corpse to an educated, sober young woman with a promising future.
Looking back on my time inpatient, the negative experiences I had did not outweigh the benefits. They may sound bad, but when it comes down to it, I would be dead if I had not entered inpatient treatment. Yes, I experienced some bad luck, but I believe the people at each place genuinely wanted to help me. They did their best, and in their own ways they did help me. They motivated me to avoid relapsing, no matter how tempting it seemed. As invaluable as they are, I wouldn’t give up those memories for the world.
Today I have a fulfilling career as an elementary school teacher, a healthy relationship with the man who stood by me through my foray through hell, and a love for myself I never thought possible. I can enjoy food, and have even found that I love to cook. Furthermore, I can exercise without obsession overtaking me. But the long-lasting effects of my anorexia and drug abuse still haunt me. I have advanced osteoporosis from years of sustained restriction, and my heart rate constantly runs high. I live with severe back pain, and still feel the pain in my intestines where they tore two years ago. I still cannot fully rely on my hunger cues to determine how much I need to eat, and eating disorder thoughts still sometimes flicker through my head. But my body is healing, slowly but surely, and I am able to easily combat the anorexic notions that rear their heads. It has not gone away — not completely — and I don’t know that it ever will.
As much pain as I have endured due to my eating disorder, I have come to peace with my past. I don’t live in regret because of it; it made me who I am today. It gave me strength, when being strong or dying were the only options I had. It gave me an appreciation for life, and a desire to help others struggling with eating disorders. Trust me, recovery is possible. It is not easy, and it is certainly not fun. Recovery hurts. But it is worth it. I only hope that I can help others see the light in the distance, no matter how dark their lives seem, shrouded under the cloud of an eating disorder.
I am not one of the lucky ones; luck had nothing to do with it — I gave everything I had to get where I am. Luck does not determine whether or not you recover; recovery is a choice only you can make.
Please believe me when I say that you, too, can come out on the other side. We may be battered and bruised, but we are survivors, and we are better people for it.