Ten years ago, while gripped with anorexia, doctors told Sarah McErlain she might not see Christmas, and would never exercise again. She speaks to Liam Tunney about her battle with the condition, the loss of her brother and her inspirational journey to competitive powerlifting.
Memories forged at Christmas time are vivid. Especially when you are told you might not live to see it.
“Torture. Just torture in your head,” is how Magherafelt woman Sarah McErlain describes her lengthy battle with anorexia.
Ten years ago last week, she was to be admitted as an inpatient to Antrim Area Hospital to be treated for anorexia nervosa.
She made it home that Christmas, and memories of that traumatic time now fuel her determination.
Last month, the 25 -year-old, who was told at 15 she would be lucky to see past Christmas 2010, took first place in a powerlifting competition.
Anorexia first appeared in Sarah's life a decade ago. It crept in gradually, but its grip became vice-like.
“I was sitting GCSE exams in fourth year and had noticed my concentration wasn't at the same level in class any more,” she told the County Derry Post.
“I wouldn't have eaten at lunch, and then at home I would say I'd already eaten. People started to mention to me that I was losing a lot of weight. I just passed it off.
“I remember saying to my best friend at the time about wanting to eat something and she said 'why can't you just eat it? It's not going to make you fat'.
“That resonated and I thought 'this isn't normal behaviour', but I still didn't think I was unwell or sick. I had never really heard of anyone who had anorexia.”
Sarah was not alone. That lack of understanding led some of her peers to cruelly mock her worsening condition.
The jibes and comments gradually increased in intensity. They began online, but eventually, Sarah was confronted with them in school.
“Just before we broke for the summer holidays that year, we were sitting in the school canteen,” she said.
“I was looking around the canteen and one of the girls lifted her plate and said 'do you want some of my lunch?'
“The group erupted in laughter. I got up and left. I didn't think much about it, and didn't tell anybody, but I was so consumed with anorexia at the time that I didn't have the energy for their comments.
“I was literally on the brink of death, so we didn't act on it the way we should have, or push for anything to be done. Our main priority was to keep me alive.
“The doctors had already said whether I saw Christmas or not was a big question, so school wasn't our main priority.”
The support of Sarah's family was vital during her battle.
By this stage, Sarah's family were trying desperately to save her life. The voice in her head instructing her to refuse food was growing in volume.
She was referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) at Antrim Area Hospital, but even when the health professionals outlined the seriousness of her condition, it was hard to accept.
“At my first meeting, they said it would take at least 5-7 years for me to recover, and I actually laughed at them,” she said.
“We didn't realise the severity of it. We didn't understand the complexity of the illness and how big an impact it would have mentally.
“The doctor said because my body was in starvation mode, my thoughts and rationale was totally skewed.
“Even when I was back to a healthy weight, the mental side of it was hard. It was hard to get out of the habits I had created through anorexia.”
While being treated for the condition, Sarah began to deal with feelings of childhood trauma that may have strengthened anorexia's grip on her.
When she was four years old, her younger brother Jack was killed in a freak accident at the family bakery in Magherafelt. He was just two years old.
“We were really good friends as brother and sister, and when I was in with CAMHS getting treatment, I talked about Jack,” she said.
“When you're four and you lose someone really close to you, you don't grieve as such, because you don't really understand what is going on.
“Childhood trauma can come in later years. It could have been that this was my way of controlling what had happened with Jack.
The loss of her baby brother Jack when she was just four has had a huge effect.
“We lost Jack through a tragic accident; nobody could have controlled it, nobody could have helped it. Mummy would have said to me 'you can fix this, you have the help and support around you'.
'We didn't with Jack. We had no say in it. We can keep you alive,' she said. Obviously, mummy and daddy didn't want to lose another child, when they could keep me alive.
“Jack was a big support for me during recovery and still is now. I used a diary and would have written to him when things were hard, or there were thoughts in my head. It was a massive help.”
For Sarah, Jack's presence was always there, looking out for her and the family. On that fraught Christmas ten years ago, a sequence of events made him feel closer than ever.
“They let me out for Christmas. I remember leaving the hospital that day thinking I was cured,” said Sarah.
“Christmas was horrific, it was really, really tough. Obviously it's surrounded by food and drink, family and change of routine. Everything anorexia hates.
“It was tough for me and my family. Come January, we were nearly back to square one, and one of my brothers had a football match.
“The deal was I was allowed to go if I ate, which I didn't, so I couldn't go. I remember mummy crying in her room and I was crying in my room.
“You don't know where to go, or who can help. Peter had lost the match, and we had a terrible day at home. As soon as he came into the house, a picture of Jack fell off the wall.
“Mummy took it as a bad sign, but to me it was Jack saying 'you've got this, you'll get through it'. There were always wee signs and comforts like that, which kind of helped.”
Now the manager of Slim's Kitchen in Magherafelt, Sarah describes her personality as 'addictive'. It almost killed her, but also saved her life.
As a teenager, she was driving her compulsion into exercise, burning calories, losing weight. Even a stark medical analysis wasn't enough to stop her.
“The first time I went to the doctor she said I had to stop exercise immediately,” she said.
“I'd run every day, sometimes twice. It wasn't for the love of it. I remember the pain, because I was literally running on empty. .
“I didn't stop. I would have locked myself in the bathroom and done whatever I could to keep moving, but eventually it got to the stage I didn't have the energy for that.
“The doctor said I would never be fit, healthy or strong enough to exercise again. At the time, I didn't really think about it, but as I got healthier I thought 'I will exercise again.”
And she did. It was a struggle at first, as pressure to conform to the false ideals showcased by her peers on social media hampered Sarah's ability to reach a healthy weight.
Six years into her recovery, though, came a shift in training that would change her life.
Sarah began weight training on the advice of a friend at her local gym in Magherafelt.
The move gave her more of a healthy focus, but anorexia's nagging voice had not been completely silenced.
She decided to do a photo shoot as part of her training, working towards developing her image, but it almost triggered a relapse.
“I think it was something that came far too early in my recovery. I wasn't mentally well enough at that stage, even six years in,” she said.
“It was a control thing. I'd dropped out of university; everyone my age was there, they knew what they were doing and I hadn't a clue.
“I thought I could control my calories, control my training, but there was no end goal. I did the photo shoot and it was a case of 'what now?'
“I continued to restrict calories and, come Christmas, my family were telling me I was too thin and going back into old ways. It scared me. I said I'd never go back to how I felt when I was sick.
“It was the following year then I started competing, and things really did change when I focused more on performance rather than how I looked.”
Sarah says competing helped to 'mend her relationship with food'.
It is competition that Sarah credits with saving her life. Her training became focused on strength and readiness to compete.
The determination that saw her excel in her GCSEs despite suffering an acute period of anorexia, kicked in once again.
“Once I got into weight training and the competitive side, I started to mend my relationship with food,” she said.
“Before I was competing, I was still skipping meals and restricting calories, which was ultimately going to harm me in the long-term.
“When I got into competition, the switch flicked. I needed to look after my body and fuel it properly, not just for training, but for everyday life.
“If I hadn't got into the training, there would always have been that element of calorie abuse.”
Ten years ago, Sarah barely had the energy to move. Last year she competed in a European weightlifting competition and, Covid-permitting, will do so again in 2021.
“That's actually pretty cool, when you consider they told me I was never going to exercise again,” she said.
“I think if I had succumbed to what they said, it was letting anorexia beat me and it wouldn't be me fully pulling myself away from it.
“I remember before the Europeans a friend of mine sent me a message. He said 'you'll be great, you've suffered a lot more than any competition'.
“He was so right. Even if the competition is horrendous, or I completely mess it up, I've suffered a lot more.”
Every time Sarah loads weights onto a squat rack, she allows herself a wry smile.
“I look back and at one time I weighed 40kg,” she said.
“Now I lift that as a warm-up weight.”
For information, or to find support with anorexia and other eating disorders, visit the Beat Eating Disorders website.
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