We know the seriousness of eating disorders; the statistics speak for themselves – over 30 million people will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder in their lifetime. And we know eating disorders are a severe mental illness, with anorexia nervosa topping the list as having the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. Staggering numbers for a mental illness that can take devastating effects on individuals and families.
Salley knows these effects all too well as she is part of the 30 million that has suffered from an eating disorder. Today she finds herself on the road to recovery, but unlike many others, anorexia has been part of Salley’s life for 45 years. Now in her 60’s, Salley is facing her disorder head-on.
The Freshman 15
Like so many, Salley developed anorexia when she began college. Freshman year is an exciting time with new friends and new experiences. But first comes orientation, then classes, and then the legendary “Freshman 15,” the 15 extra pounds that freshman women, in particular, think are destined to acquire. For Salley, this was the trigger; this is what set her life to intersect with an eating disorder. She recalls, “Everyone hears about and even dreads the “Freshman 15,” but I decided I was not going to give in, I was determined to dig my heels in and beat it.”
People often forget that eating disorders are not about food, and they are not a choice; they are a result of a much deeper issue. For Salley, it was about managing her feelings and emotions and a sense of being out of control. Like so many freshmen, Salley was immersed in the uncertainty of the new experiences and emotions that college brings – feelings of homesickness, of the fear of failure, of being inadequate, to name a few. While Salley was feeling overwhelmed and out-of-control on the emotional roller coaster that can accompany significant life changes, she realized that she could control her eating and thereby her weight.
Salley’s first defense for what seemed to be the inevitable weight gain was to eat more healthily, a tough act considering she grew up in the South where fried food was the norm. She became very careful about everything she ate and baked, broiled, or steamed what she could while cutting back on many of her favorite foods. Her determination to not gain weight and her fixation with healthy eating turned into orthorexia. Typically, orthorexia develops in two stages, with the first being the adoption of a healthy eating pattern, and the second developing as more foods are eliminated, and more focus is placed on food, preparing it, and planning meals. For Salley that meant her attention was initially only on healthy eating including avoiding fatty foods altogether. A little weight loss led to some more weight loss, and she began to spiral.
“I remember coming home from college and my mom’s concern. She tried to talk to me about my weight loss, but 45 years ago eating disorders weren’t on anyone’s radar. She expressed her deep concern and wanted to know how to help me,” Salley said. Her mom tried to make sense of what was happening to her daughter, and in a desperate attempt to help, tried to bargain with her. “My mom told me, if I gained weight, she would lose some weight. She didn’t actually need to lose weight, but she didn’t know what else to do to get through to me.”
As college progressed, so did Salley’s disorder. Her orthorexia led to anorexia, and being very thin became her identity. She changed her major from early childhood education to nutrition, feeling that she could better control her weight if she understood more about nutrition in general. She graduated from college with a degree in nutrition and worked as a clinical dietitian before taking a sales position with a nutrition company. Her focus for so long had been health; ironically, she was helping others regain and/or maintain their health, all while struggling with her eating disorder secret.
Many Birthdays Later
Years passed, and Salley was successful in her 20-year career in sales but carried her disorder with her. Through the years she also struggled with alcohol. When she stopped drinking seven years ago, the eating disorder grew stronger dropping her weight to under 100 pounds. As Salley turned 63 in March 2018, she realized she needed help. “I have had many birthdays, and I have lived my life entire adult life with anorexia. It finally took one person to make me realize I needed help,” she recalls. Her daughter at 27 years old was beginning to battle her own eating disorder. Just like her mother so many years ago, Salley became deeply concerned for her daughter and didn’t want her to suffer, “I knew the path she was headed down, and I didn’t want her to go through what I had been through.”
Salley had been seeing a therapist for quite some time, and during one session she asked, “What can I do to help my daughter?” Her therapist gave her a card with the name and number of an eating disorder specialist and the message, “the best way to help your daughter is to help yourself.” Salley knew she needed help and had for quite some time, so she followed up on the referral. She began seeing the psychiatrist and attending a FED (Friends and Family of those with Eating Disorders) support group. She also began attending a second support group, ANAD (Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders). Slowly she began talking about her illness but remained guarded and still more concerned about her daughter than herself. At an ANAD meeting the therapist who was facilitating the meeting asked Salley if she would consider residential treatment; deflecting the attention, she quickly responded, “sure, why not,” and the door opened.
Magnolia Creek Offers Hope
One of Salley’s main criteria for a residential treatment facility was that it be within a 4-hour drive from Atlanta. Her search first lead her to a facility in North Carolina, however; after several phone conversations, she realized that this facility was not a good fit. When she called Magnolia Creek, a voice on the other end understood her struggle like no one else had. “Alycia answered the phone, and she made the difference. She understood my past struggles with alcohol just as easily as she did my anorexia. She told me both of my disorders were like Dracula sucking the life from me, and Magnolia Creek could help me, Magnolia Creek was my answer. Had it not been for that phone call with her, I don’t know if I would have come to Magnolia Creek, she is the one that made the impact.”
Salley accepted that where she was in her life was unhealthy, and Magnolia Creek was her turning point. “My daughter was my mirror, and I was originally doing it for her. To be successful, I understood I needed to shift gears and make it about me,” she shared. As Salley packed and prepared to leave for Magnolia Creek, she realized that her journey had become about her recovery.
“When I first arrived at Magnolia Creek, I was honestly shell-shocked. I was scared and barely putting one foot in front of the other, but I had reached a point of total surrender. Everyone at Magnolia Creek, regardless of their role, just exuded, ‘I am here to help you,’” Salley remembers.
While at Magnolia Creek, the most significant impact on her was the staff. “I never questioned their instructions or the overall protocol. I knew these people genuinely cared about me and my recovery. Their care for me was powerful.” Salley recalls, “The staff counselors were with me day in and day out. They have a tough job. I felt that they took me under their wing from day one; these amazing, and professional people were so kind and encouraging. They did their job so well and made a huge difference in my recovery.”
A Healthy Place
Today Salley is home and continuing her recovery. She has a therapist and a dietitian and attends support groups. “I am in a healthy place now and am surrounding myself with as much support as I can. I have been sick for a very long time and I know I need help to stay healthy,” she shares.
“I hear my daughter say, ‘You are so brave, Mom,’ and that supports and encourages me. She and I are very honest with each other. My journey is mine, and her journey is hers. We will support each other through this, but we can’t do each other’s work. I now know this.”