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A Work in Progress: a story of recovery

07 November 2017 - Dr Jan Orman

Here’s something worth reading by Scarlett Winter, a 30 something woman in my practice. It’s her story of recovery from severe and longstanding anorexia nervosa and, although hers is a very specific diagnosis, there is much in it for us all to learn about recovery from mental illness generally. I take no credit – this recovery story is all her own work! JO

Scarlett's Story

I count myself as one of the lucky ones and am grateful for the life I am living today. Is my life perfect? No, but in comparison to the hell I lived for many years I am in a far better place. As much as it seems foreign for me to say: I love my life.

Firstly, I need to say that I am still a work in progress. And I will continue to be for the rest of my life. The road here was long, incredibly difficult, frustrating and seemed never-ending. I had long periods of hopelessness and despair. I wanted to quit many times and I never even imagined I would get to a place where I felt ok (let alone happy). I couldn’t imagine living in a body that wasn’t anorexic and quite frankly I sat on the fence through most of my recovery. I was the epitome of indifference. There is no way to sugar coat it: my illness and recovery were the most challenging thing I have ever been through. It has also taken me over 16 years since I was diagnosed to put the pieces of my life (back) together. So, to hopefully save others some time (!) I have compiled a list of top 5 things that have helped me along the way:

1. Get a good GP/Psychologist/Psychiatrist/Counsellor

And by good, I mean great. Someone who understands mental health, and specifically your condition- be it anxiety, depression, eating disorders or the trifecta. But also, someone who is able to connect with you- the person underneath the mental health issues. In my recovery, I saw a specialised psychologist in the early years (with whom I did a lot of CBT and mindfulness) and then in the later years I was referred to Jan who was the winning combination of GP/counsellor with extensive experience in eating disorders.  Every time I saw Jan I felt that she was talking to me, not my illness. I felt no judgment from her despite turning up to her room countless times without having implemented any changes. Yet, that connection to ‘me’ really helped me remember who I was before I got sick. Jan’s non-judgmental and caring approach also helped me learn to be kinder to myself.  Aside from that I knew that I was being monitored medically, and she went above and beyond to be there for me in my darkest days, something for which I will be forever grateful for.

2. Keep busy

For me this was really important. Idle time is dangerous territory for me. It's only now that I am learning to be ok with what I perceive to be ‘unfilled space.’

When I was unwell I had to fill my time with as many things as possible including full-time work and a variety of other pursuits (renovating a unit?!), to keep my mind at bay. I tried to keep the mental work to my weekly/fortnightly appointments and keep occupied otherwise. It was so important to get hobbies, interests and passions outside of the illness. Initially that was so hard! I suggest starting with something you already know and used to enjoy in the past.

What also helped me was routine- and admittedly I was very monotonous. But during those initial stages of recovery having a routine really worked for me. Doing something rigidly was still better than having too much time in my own head.

In the later stages of my recovery I started volunteering. It felt good to give back and it also helped me get a sense of purpose, which propelled me to keep going.

3. Be part of a community

I’ve always been a lone wolf. I am an introvert to the core and actually had bad social anxiety through a lot of my illness. I also never lived close to my family and have always been fiercely independent- and quite frankly I was convinced that I hated all people.  I never wanted to rely on anyone either. So, needless to say, this wasn’t an easy one for me.

In the depths of illness, it’s easy to become isolated and, in my case, I stopped being social altogether. It took some time to reconnect with old friends and rebuild the trust that I had broken.

When I initially started to seek new social connections, I attracted toxic and enabling relationships that only served to keep me unwell. I didn’t have a real sense of what I deserved and wasn’t very selective in the company I kept. I went through a few bad relationships and then decided to just focus on myself. It was during that time that I realised I needed to raise the bar. I yearned for something calm, healthy and positive. (Calm used to mean boring to me).

Fast forward a few years and I have never felt such a strong sense of community as I do now. The main reason for that is meeting my partner, who is one of the most genuine, caring, funny and positive humans I have ever met. He also had a tribe of friends (and a dog J) Lucky for me, his friends are great people and have welcomed me into their lives.  A large number of our friends live locally and there is a real sense of connectedness where we live.  I feel integrated for the first time in my life and I think for me that’s something I have missed my entire life. It’s incredible how much one or two good people can change your entire world.

4. Exercise

I slowly learnt to change my relationship with exercise and have changed it from punishment to enjoyment. In the last year, I have taken up boxing (I even had my first fight in July!) and competitive running in half marathons and 10km events (where I placed 3rd in recent weeks). Those two sports (as well as snowboarding, skateboarding and exercise in general) have been my saviours. Not only because of the endorphins, but because of the community that comes with them (see above!). I go to a small, local boxing gym and most people know each other by name. I have discovered talents I never knew I had and I have also learnt so much about my own strength. The mental challenge or running 21km or stepping into a ring is actually nothing in comparison to going through illness and recovery for years on end. I firmly believe that if you can get through that, you can accomplish pretty much anything.  It’s amazing how much persistence and determination you can muster and I continue to discover what I am capable of.

5. Eat well (the trickiest of all when anorexia is the problem)

This has been the last and most difficult piece of the puzzle for me. Whilst I had been weight restored for a few years and have previously worked on increasing my range of food choices, I continued to be petrified of weight gain. This caused me great ongoing anxiety. I was also under eating and not performing at a level that I was capable of.

So, I finally got to a point where I knew I had to confront my fears. In the last 5 months, I have started seeing a great dietitian (who has extensively researched metabolism and also happens to fall under the great practitioner category). Can I just say that seeing her has been life changing? Who would have thought that there is so much bullsh*t out there in regard to food, diet and metabolism! Working on my diet has been challenging, but something that has been that last missing piece in achieving as full of a recovery as possible.  In hindsight, I regret that it has taken me so long to get the courage to see a dietitian. However, I guess that’s the thing about recovery- things happen in your own time and only when you are ready. There are so many things that needed to fall into place for me to get to this point. A huge lesson I had to learn is to relinquish some control and to put my trust into others.

Had you asked me 5 years ago or even 15 years ago if I would be here, I would have not even been able to imagine the possibility. Recovery is not an easy road, but I can guarantee one thing- you are far stronger than what you give yourself credit for. Life does get better and even the darkest day’s eventually pass. Never give up the fight.


For reliable information, resources and support about eating disorders go to following websites:

National Eating Disorders Collaboration  click here for info. 

Centre for Eating and Dieting Disorders click here for info

Butterfly Foundation click here for info 

Centre for Clinical Interventions click here for more info 

Dr Jan Orman
Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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