real life

'I was diagnosed with anorexia on Christmas Eve.'

Olivia Soha is 23-year-old from Melbourne. Her body image issues started in her late teens and spiralled in her twenties. She was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa on Christmas Eve 2014, right before her family dinner.

Here, she talks about her relationship with food, the role Instagram played in her illness, how she’s recovering – and she has a message to others who are struggling…

Growing up, I was definitely a perfectionist. I always set myself high expectations and compared myself to other girls in my class. My parents divorced when I was seven. I lived mostly with my mother and saw my father every second weekend.

Olivia Soha. Image supplied.

My brother Steven, who’s three years older than me, is severely allergic to nuts. In my teens I developed an intense fear about having an allergy to nuts too. This grew and become a fear of allergies to many foods.

Steven also choked on meat when he was 13 so a fear of choking intertwined with a fear of allergies. This laid a foundation for disordered eating habits.

In the three months leading to my hospitalisation my sister, who was six at the time, witnessed my gradual deterioration. A part of me wishes she hadn’t. But she also got to see my determination in getting well, overcoming anorexia nervosa and flourishing into a new woman.

My body-image dissatisfaction started in my late teens. I became highly aware of ‘clean food’ and it became an obsession. When I was 20 I moved with my mum into the city, away from my friends and began a strict exercise regime. Due to my obsessive nature, this quickly became dangerous. I wanted to be a little bit leaner here or a bit thinner there.

"My body-image dissatisfaction started in my late teens." (Image via iStock.)

Soon, my newfound control of my body and food intake saw me cutting myself off from my friends and family.

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I was always scrolling through Instagram checking out food crazes. I wasted so much time comparing my food and body to everyone else. Instagram is so influential and uncensored. We don’t know what teens are being exposed to or how much that’s influencing the way they feel
about their bodies.

After a year it all became too much for my mother. Other family members intervened and I agreed to see a therapist. After swapping through a bunch of specialists, I was eventually diagnosed with anorexia nervosa on Christmas Eve 2014, right before family dinner.

Olivia was diagnosed right before Christmas. (Image via iStock.)

I’d just arrived from my appointment and had to sit down to dinner with my
extended family. I felt really confronted with the whole table of food. Christmas festivities
were beyond frightening; it’s so focused on food, and generally a lot of it.

On the outside I was a strong, super fit, clean-living advocate. It all came to a head when I was clinically diagnosed and had to leave my job at the same time. I couldn’t hide it anymore.

I moved back home with my dad, broke up with my boyfriend, and my grandfather passed away all in just over two months.

The last couple of months leading up to my hospitalisation was the first time I actually became scared. The most scared I ever got was the day prior to spending seven weeks in hospital when my doctor told me if I didn’t admit myself it would become life-threatening.

Olivia admitted herself into hospital.

I went downhill and landed myself in hospital, spending 10 days in the medical ward. Physical symptoms are the last thing we see; there’s so much more going on behind-the-scenes with eating disorders.

Once I was medically stable, I spent the next six weeks in an inpatient facility where I was closely monitored to ensure I gained the appropriate amount of weight each week. I just wanted to get out of that place.

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It’s really important for family and friends to show unconditional support. Often people who are struggling retreat internally, so it’s important to keep conversation light and positive. I wanted my family, friends and treatment team to believe I could engage in therapy fully and recover with some independence.

I’m grateful they trusted me. I believe I was meant to walk that path. I’m eternally grateful I got to experience profound healing and growth through such an intense experience. I was so lucky to have the support and encouragement of such nurturing and accepting family and friends.

"It’s really important for family and friends to show unconditional support." (Image via iStock)

Collectively they supported me to a place where I felt I had enough inner strength to take charge of my own life.

I want others to know there is light - and the light is so bright if you let yourself see it! The most important place to start is self-love. Starting with gratitude for simple things is so helpful.

Not only is recovery possible, life beyond being in ‘recovery’ is so rich. Never feel like you have failed yourself. Never feel like you have failed your friends, your family, or even your treatment team. They are all there by your side to hold your hand and guide you down a healthy path. This process will lead you to the next stage in your life, and I promise that if you let it, life can be full of magic.

This Christmas I will be with my beautiful family being festive and merry! And of course, enjoying the delicious and nourishing food on the table!

Olivia received help and support from The Butterfly Foundation which helps Australians in the prevention and treatment of eating disorders & body image issues. Call 1800 33 4673.

For more from Corrine, follow her on Facebook here.

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