One woman’s mission to break the stigma around anorexia

By | May 20, 2019

“I grew up in a dysfunctional family and I had a very manipulative, controlling father,” she said. “My earliest memory is him telling me I’m too fat.

“That was the age of four. I was always told nobody is ever going to love you because you are too fat.”

Ms Vanis, now 41, said that family dynamic had a direct impact on her relationship with food and how she perceived her body.

“I lived in a family where the mother and the father would argue,” she said. “I would comfit the mother, the dad would then go and find me, and then the mother would look after me. So it was kind of always that triangle.”

Ms Vanis said when she was 12 years old, those feelings of stress and anxiety became an eating disorder.

“I started becoming aware of my body and my father started getting a little more verbally aggressive,” she said. “I started taking it out on food and would count calories.

“Then my parents separated. For me, growing up in a Catholic school that was not the done thing. So we were the only ones who had a family who was separated and I coped with it by discovering how to purge.”

Ms Vanis said it was like “magic” because she was relieved of those feelings of stress and helplessness. But from that point onward, her life began to spiral.

Despite previously being a straight-A student, her grades started to slip. She left home at 16, and subsequently school, when her parents decided to get back together.

“I just couldn’t cope being around my father,” she said. “I had to leave school to be able to pay for my rent and my utilities. I was just an absolute mess.”

For those next five years, Ms Vanis said she was unstable and unhappy in her life.

“There was a lot of drug use, lots of alcohol, lots of laxative abuse,” she said. “I would take 240 laxatives a day because I had to have a clean system. I was sick.

“I also had obsessive compulsive disorder where I had to wash my body 24 times a day. My skin started wearing away. It was about being clean and in control.

“If I was going to eat something, I had to eat double the amount of it so I would end up with a bloated belly. My meals were only fruit and vegetables and nothing else.”

It was only at the age of 20, after spending years in and out of hospital, that her life slowly began to turn around.

“I’m strong. I knew I was sick and that my head was messed up,” she said. “I had been a day patient of the Royal Melbourne Hospital for three months and was desperate to get out of there.”

“I joined a drama company and met the leader of the drama company. He was just accepting. I was scared of him because he was 10 years older than me but he would just let me be.

“I got a role in the show. I’m very good on stage but to talk to me one-on-one, I clam up. I have severe social phobia. But he would just slowly let me come to where I needed to be.”

SHARING: Sarah Vanis has written a book called Food Hurts - Healing Anorexia Nervosa with Yoga and Ayurveda, which details her experience. Picture: NONI HYETT

SHARING: Sarah Vanis has written a book called Food Hurts – Healing Anorexia Nervosa with Yoga and Ayurveda, which details her experience. Picture: NONI HYETT

Ms Vanis said the leader of the drama company, who later became her husband, was the sort of “supportive structure” in her life that she had never had before.

“He has just never questioned me,” she said. “He has seen me scream, and yell, and go from anorexia to alcoholism, because it’s all about addictive behaviours.”

Ms Vanis said studying youth work at 21 years old also allowed to analyse herself.

She began to realise that many of her actions and thoughts about her body had a direct correlation to what was happening with her family.

“When you have an eating disorder, you’re very intelligent because you have to be manipulative and very controlling and very ordered,” she said.

“In learning about psychology, I learnt about myself. It was a huge turning point to accept that my parents stuffed up, they didn’t have the coping strategies to be able to look after me.

“But I knew that I was now an adult and I need to find ways to cope for me.”

Alongside the studying and the drama, Ms Vanis said she found her new passion in yoga.

“I had always been a huge gym junkie,” she said. “I remember one day I was at the body balance class and I would always walk out when it came to that final relaxation part.

“But one day I stayed. I was in the fetal position and I had this realisation that this was me. I am an adult now and it was time to let go of that child who was in so much pain. It was just a turning point.”

Ms Vanis has now written a book detailing her experience, called Food Hurts – Healing Anorexia Nervosa with Yoga and Ayurveda.

Sheused the case notes from her hospitalisations and her journals from the time to write the story. She said she wanted the book to break the stigma around anorexia.

“One of the reasons that I have gone public with it is because no one ever speaks about it,” she said. “There’s a whole lot of pain for people with anorexia or anxiety or depression and it’s very hidden.”

Ms Vanis now runs the Aligning Health Retreat and Day Spa just outside of Axedale. She opened the retreat in 2016 with a focus on providing a safe space for people.

She said the traditional Indian medical practice Ayurveda – of which she is a qualified practitioner – also helped her understand herself.

“I realised I’ve got a lot of fire and intensity in me and that fosters that addictive behaviour,” she said. “So I stopped drinking alcohol because alcohol is hot and it brings up that heat and intensity in me.

“I also stopped eating meat because it’s heavy and I’m prone to depression.”

Ms Vanis said while she was in a better place now than she had been at 16, her actions of that time had long-lasting consequences.

“I think I have done permanent damage to my body,” she said. “I suffer from permanent bloating because I took so many laxatives. As much as I try to improve it, my digestive system is compromised.

“I think you’re always managing. I still suffer from bouts of depression but I am aware of that and now I have a toolbox to cope.”

Ms Vanis said while she was able to find support in Yoga and Ayurveda, each case of anorexia was unique.

“For people who are suffering from anorexia, just listen to yourself because you already know you have the power to heal,” she said. “It’s just that’s it’s covered. So listen to yourself.

“For someone who is caring for a person with anorexia, don’t give up. Also take care of yourself because they need you to be strong because they are suffering and they’re dying.

“For the practitioners, learn about your person and listen to them.”

If you need support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673.

Western Advocate – Health