"I am learning to rely less and less on the mirror, and more and more on how I feel inside." Sierra Turner
Numbers, calories and eating disorder behaviors will be discussed in this post. Please avoid if you are currently struggling with potential triggers.
Sierra Turner always felt a little uncomfortable with her body. She was the "jock" -- tall and athletic -- not the petite dancer or gymnast like most of her friends. Her desire for perfection in every aspect of her life started very young and continued throughout her education. When she entered university, the pressure to make straight A's became overwhelming. As her stress levels increased, her caloric intake decreased. Before she knew it, her eating disorder was quickly unravelling and chipping away at her health. After a heart-to-heart talk with a friend, she decided to confront her illness and seek treatment.
Currently, Sierra is on the road to recovery and wants to share her story as a way to educate others. Sierra is also a volunteer for RAW Beauty Talks, a non-profit campaign promoting the concept of "less is more" in the world of media, body image and self-acceptance.
Thank you for sharing your story, Sierra. You are going to make a difference in so many lives!
Every Ella: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Sierra Turner: My name is Sierra, and I am a 21-year-old girl born and raised in Vancouver, Canada. I grew up in a close family of 4, with an older brother and 2 wonderful, successful parents. As my parents valued a healthy lifestyle, much of my childhood was spend in the outdoors hiking and participating in various sports and activities.
I attended university, studying Psychology and Health Sciences for a few years (off and on, as I was often pulled out to receive hospital treatment). I recently made the decision to take off university to pursue my true passions and focus on my health and happiness :).
We know that you have been overcoming a difficult situation. Can you talk about that?
I have been battling Anorexia for a few years now. It is an illness that has been growing inside of me since I was a child. I often find it hard to admit this, due to the stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding the illness. Anorexia is a mental illness, which is the number one cause of death for women of all mental illnesses. After spending the past few years in and out of hospitals and treatment centers, I am finally choosing and actively seeking recovery for ME. It is by far the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I am learning that recovery is an uphill battle with lots of slips, bumps and painful moments. However, the rewards and the little glimpses of freedom that I experience are beyond worth it.
Can you explain which type of eating disorder you have?
I have been diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa, with a binge-purge subtype. Anorexia is an eating disorder where the sufferer severely restricts their food intake in an obsessive way in order to lose weight. Anorexia sufferers often experience body dimorphic disorder (BDD), in which they are unable to see how truly thin and ill they are. I always find this hard to say "out loud" due to the misconceptions surrounding the illness. I have struggled periodically with compulsive exercise, in addition to binging and purging.
I did not CHOOSE to have an eating disorder. When I was lying in the hospital with a heart rate in the low 30's, my parents begging me to get better, I knew that what I was doing was killing me. Eating disorders are mental illnesses! You can't just EAT. It feels like you are committing a crime, as though everything you have worked for will be over if you take that one bite.
What would you say started your eating disorder? What thoughts were you having?
I believe that there is no "one cause" to an eating disorder. Rather, it is a series of events, stresses and experiences that build up over time. Additionally, up and coming research is showing that there is a large genetic component to eating disorders. So for me, I was born with the genetic pre-disposition to have Anorexia. Many people may have the gene. However, it does not necessarily mean that they will develop an eating disorder. This is why both genetics and environment are factors contributing to the illness.
I think that a number of reasons contributed to my eating disorder. My own high standards, my participation in various sports, pressures from coaches and getting caught up in society's expectations for women. However, it was not until I was taken out of sports for a hip surgery that things really went off course. Going from exercising 40 hours a week to being fully sedentary was awful. Suddenly, my brain and mind were flooded with thoughts, feeling and emotions that seemed so new. I had time to "think" and "worry" because I didn't have my sports to take my mind off of life. As my life began to feel out of control, Anorexia entered, seducing me into it's grasp with a false sense of control.
Every since I can remember, I have always felt uncomfortable with my body. I was the "jock" - the girl who played soccer, basketball, track and volleyball. I wasn't the gymnast or dancer, like many of my close friends. I was also a very tall young child, who happened to form friends with a group of girls who were all very petite. I just felt "odd" … like something was wrong with me.
Fast forward to high school, I was a perfectionist. I wanted everything to be perfect. There were no such things as mistakes in my little world. If I did something wrong, I felt like a failure. Everything I did was to please others. I wanted everyone to like me. I set unrealistic goals for myself and began to set time-constraits to achieve them.
People around me always told me that I was "perfect" … that I was so healthy, so fortunate to have the "perfect" family. Little did they know that this was all a facade and that deep within myself, there was a lot of self-hatred.
When I went off to University, I had the freedom to do what I wanted, when I wanted and without anyone checking in on me. I felt the pressures to perform well in school and achieve high academic status. I pushed myself so hard the first year and rarely went out, so I could achieve straight A's. When second year started, I began to restrict my intake as the stresses of school increased. I felt like no matter how hard I studied, I couldn't get the marks I so desperately wanted. I am now aware that being malnourished makes it very difficult to retain information and have proper thought processes.
It was a slippery slope from there on. Once my parents caught on and my university term was threatened, I put all my effort into having an eating disorder. Each day became invested in how little calories I could consume and how many calories I could burn.
Do you feel that the media’s image of “perfect women” negatively impacted the way you felt about yourself?
If you asked me that a few years ago, I would have said no. Now, when I look around and think of various spots I have been during my journey, I would say ABSOLUTELY.
I will never forget the day where the guy I was seeing told me I was "hot." Let me explain a bit… I'm 5'8, I was 98 pounds, my skin was dry, I was pale and took on a greenish/grayish complex, my cheeks were hollow, I had lost at least half of my hair at this point and wore a little girl's training bra in addition to children's leggings. My heart rate was in the low 40's, my kidneys were showing signs of kidney failure and I had a nice thick layer or "fur" (lanugo) covering my skin. But I was "HOT."
Isn't hot supposed to entail something completely different? At least that's what I thought. This is where the media messes up. They airbrush, photoshop and retouch everything that they post or display. They take already thin and frail women and make them even more thin, until it becomes unrealistic.
So, of course this guy thought I was hot.
Also, I have always struggled with the concept of perfection. My entire life, I was labeled as a perfectionist who had the perfect family and perfect life. I felt like I had to keep myself together. I wasn't allowed to struggle! After all, the women in media who have a breakdown, drink alcohol or struggle with a mental illness are labeled as "crazy." And the women on covers of magazines that play a lead role in a movie? There are no zits, no cellulite, no wrinkles. No wonder why the cosmetic industry makes so much money!
Are there common warning signs for girls who may not even know they’re struggling?
Totally. I think regardless of the type of eating disorder (Anorexia, Bulimia, etc.), when food becomes a coping mechanism, something is brewing. Typically, eating disorders begin with an avoidance of, overconsumption of food or a purging method (use of laxatives, vomiting or compulsive exercise). The longer you struggle, often, the more entrenched you will become with your eating disorder. Some warning signs to look out for are as follows:
- Preoccupation of food and/or avoidance of food
- Preoccupation of ones own physical appearance
- Restricting food intake to justify "cheat" meals (this is very common)
- Anxiety surrounding and/or in food settings or scenarios
- Weight loss and/or gain
- Dark circles under eyes (both signs of anorexia and bulimia)
- Constant dismissal to the bathroom after meals
- Backing out on social events involving food
- Counting calories
If you catch yourself participating in any of these behaviors, I encourage you to seek help earlier than later.
What was the lowest your weight dropped to?
Personally, my weight dropped to the low 90's. As a tall girl (5'8''), this is nowhere near where I should be physically. There are people with eating disorders who weigh much less than me, just as there are others who weigh more. It is not a competition. Your weight does not judge how "sick" you are.
At what point did you decide you needed help?
I think that I knew I needed help once I started to notice the physical complications of my eating disorder. My hair was falling out, my skin grew a layer of lanugo, I was tired and cold and everything hurt. That’s when I knew something was wrong, yet I thought the common thought of 99% of people with eating disorders… “I’m not sick enough.”
It wasn’t until I really experienced the losses that I knew I needed to take recovery seriously. Losing friends, having to leave university, spending time in a hospital rather than attending a family vacation and wedding, having heart and kidney issues… it all caught up to me. I essentially existed. I wouldn’t call It living.
Did your eating disorder cause problems with your family and friends?
Absolutely. My family and friends feared for my life, while I didn’t seem to care. Because so much of society involves meeting up with people in food settings, I would find excuses to stay home. I missed out on birthday dinners, brunch dates with my girlfriends, family gatherings and more. Christmas went from being my favorite holiday to my biggest fear, as I would have to carefully prepare my own “meal,” bring it to my Grandma’s house and then slowly eat it while everyone around me indulged in the traditional, delicious meal.
What was the hardest part of getting treatment?
I could go on and on with this one. There are so many problems with accessing treatment for eating disorders in Canada. First of all, if you want to attend a hospital program, you need to be referred by your doctor to your local health authority. Once you are connected with the health authority, usually after a bit of a wait, you can look as possible treatment options. If inpatient hospital treatment is recommended, you are put on another waitlist, which can leave you waiting for months. A lot can happen in a few weeks with an eating disorder, so wait lists can be detrimental to those struggling. Needless to say, people with eating disorders often feel very hopeless, so the thought of having to wait to access treatment can be devastating.
Additionally, when I attended a residential treatment center, my parents were paying about $900/day, so that I could access the treatment rapidly, without having to be put on a waitlist. For many families, this is not financially possible. Although I was extremely fortunate to have my parents support me in this way, the guilt of knowing how much my parents were paying every day largely impacted my recovery. Treatment for eating disorders needs to be approached from a number of angles; you need the therapeutic support, nutritional/dietetic guidance, doctors and sometimes hospital medical stabilization & medication. Further, having professionals who work in this field, and understand the illness is crucial, yet very hard to find. Often these services are not covered, forcing sufferers to reach into their own pockets to pay for private support.
Do you still struggle with eating disorders or do you feel that the treatment was truly successful?
As much as I would LOVE to say I am living my life eating disorder free, I still struggle. However, I am able to manage a life. I am able to work, volunteer, and engage socially. I have come so far from the days where I lay shivering in my university dorm room exercising compulsively, refusing to see people and having to drop out of courses. But I am completely aware that there is still tons of room to grow. I believe that full recovery is possible. I have seen it. I have met various women over the past year that serve as an inspiration and motivation factor for me. Some of these women own their own businesses, others are married and have children… each of these women inspire me to continue to fight, so I can live the life that I dream of. Not to say that I wont have days 10 years down the road where I look in the mirror and frown… that’s normal! I just hope to be able to shrug it off and not let it impede my day.
You’ve also struggled with anxiety and depression. Is that common with people battling eating disorders? Why do you think that is?
Yes, it is actually quite common for people who have a primary diagnosis of anxiety, depression and/or OCD to experience an eating disorder down the road. I was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder at the age of 7. At the same time, it was not until my eating disorder developed that I began to exhibit signs of both OCD and depression. Often, when you are malnourished, biologically your body is not capable of producing the endorphins and “feel-good” hormones that allow you to feel emotions. This is why lots of people who have Anorexia often describe themselves feeling “numb.” I think that the malnourished state of the brain in many eating disorders can be a biological trigger to other mental illnesses.
We have a shirt that says ‘She is imperfect and that’s what makes her real’… are you learning to love yourself despite imperfections?
I sure am! It is a day-by-day process, some being far easier than others! But I am happy to say that I am starting to learn to accept myself and love myself for who I am, despite my flaws. I am learning to rely less and less on the mirror, and more and more on how I feel inside. I am starting to find beauty in others as I get to know them on a deeper and more personal level. I think some of the most beautiful girls I know are honest, authentic, caring, funny, outgoing, and vulnerable… all internal characteristics! I hope to keep learning and growing in this journey to accepting myself for who I am!
There are so many girls who share your struggles but are unwilling to admit it or seek help. What is the best way to talk to them about treatment?
This is a tough one. I have learned through my journey and watching the treatment of others that recovery does not and will not work until YOU-YOURSELF want it. If you are getting better just to please others or to get people off of your case, it wont work. Everyone reacts differently. For me personally, it took a few things to get me really going. Essentially it came down to having a good friend give me a wake up call “talk.” She didn’t sugar coat anything and told me how it was. “Sierra, you are killing yourself. Your body can’t handle this damage much longer… you need to change.” I think having the tough love from a few people was what I needed. Having people, initially, come running to my side, fearing for my life, showing tons of love, just made me feel oddly comfortable (in a bizarre way). I would encourage loved ones and/or friends to sit down with the person they are worried about and talk to them firmly, while showing their support and care. Getting angry will not work, just as dancing around the subject will not either!
What advice do you have for other girls struggling with eating disorders?
SEEK HELP! Reach out. Please. You probably think that you don’t match the “standard image” of the emaciated girl that pops up in the Google image search box. I felt that way too. Whether you do or don’t, you have to remember that eating disorders are mental illnesses. You are not judged on how “sick” you are based on your physical appearance.
There are lots of online support networks. I encourage you to read some novels on the subject of eating disorders (they make you feel less alone), and book an appointment with your doctor to see if there are any resources in your community, and to check your health status.
I also want to tell you, that using restriction, purging, or any other eating disorder behavior does NOT solve any of the struggles that you are facing. Attending therapy and working out the bumps in your life, does.
What are your goals and ambitions for the future?
Currently, I work as a nanny. I have taken on this role ever since leaving university, and I absolutely LOVE it. Kids are amazing. I learn so much from them every day. I watch them look in the mirror at themselves and laugh! They eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. They are mesmerized by the smallest things! Spending my days with these young children help me practice living in the moment, not thinking about the past or future.
I am also learning to embrace the inner passion that I have for healthy eating and cooking! I have always been a foodie, even in my eating disorder, I would cook extravagant meals and bake treats for my family and friends! I am working for a woman who truly understands the concept of nurturing your body and soul with good, fresh foods. I look up to her as a role model in numerous ways in my recovery. She has started up a food company called To Die for Fine Foods that I help do demos for at local markets and stores.
Additionally, I am currently engaged in a volunteer position for RAW Beauty Talks, a non-profit campaign started by a young woman promoting the concept of “less is more” in the world of media, body image and self-acceptance. I hope to continue to do this and find ways to reach out into the community to help educate young girls about learning to love themselves.
In terms of the future, I am very passionate about giving back to all that has been given and provided to me over the past few years. I hope to become a nurse, and work with those struggling with eating disorders. It made such a difference to my recovery... meeting nurses, counselors and doctors who had overcome their own eating disorder. While in treatment, it gave me hope that I, too, could escape the hole I was in someday!