Conquering anorexia one day at a time

Alyssa Horrobin
By Alyssa Horrobin April 26, 2018 05:54

By Alyssa Horrobin

Lilyana Neposlan, 17, is recovering from an eating disorder that put her in the hospital two years ago. (Photo by Alyssa Horrobin)

 

Lilyana Neposlan leads a small group of pre-teen girls in an exercise routine to warm up for a ballet class. She bends over to touch her toes and her shirt falls up, revealing her stomach. She laughs and pulls it down again, but tucks it into the waistline of her jogging pants to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Lilyana seems to have a perfect life — she has good friends, attends a private school and has grown up attending church with a loving family. Nobody ever expected an eating disorder to take her down.

When anorexia sent her to the hospital, she and her mother found Lilyana was in a fight for her life.

 

The Beginning

From her earliest memories at about six or seven years old, Lilyana remembers feeling afraid of being fat. It was constantly on her mind, but she assumed it was a normal fear.

“I was always careful, but at the same time I really loved food. So, it was like a battle between my love of food and what the food would do to me.”

Like most feelings in her life, this fear was internalized. Lilyana recalls only one time when she voiced this feeling, crying fearfully to her mother in a church bathroom. Colleen Neposlan spoke calm truth to her daughter’s irrational fear and brushed it from her mind as a one-time instance.

Several years and gradual unhealthy behaviour patterns later, Colleen realized this incident may have been the beginning of something more.

 

 

Breaking Down

“She was just cold all the time,” says Colleen, remembering when she first began to be concerned about Lilyana.

“She wore big sweaters and was always cold. And then after Christmas, in January, I really saw how skinny she had gotten to be.”

And Colleen wasn’t the only one who noticed. People danced around the heavy words “eating disorder” but would often ask Lilyana if she was okay.

“They always just said ‘Are you okay? You look sick, you look like you’ve lost a lot of weight recently.’ And I just took that as, ‘Yay, I lost weight!’”

Lilyana would do vigorous workouts twice a day to lose more weight on top of cutting back on food as much as she could.

“I saw her exercising and I saw her skinny arms and I saw no stomach when she bent back and it was just this cavity where her stomach used to be, I said to her ‘You are way too skinny, this has just gone way too far,’” says Colleen. Her voice shakes, but her tone is firm.

At this point, Colleen reached out to other parents who had gone through similar situations and asked for advice. She ended up at the Teen Health Centre.

“I didn’t want to drag her kicking and screaming to go. I was hoping that she might recognize that ‘I have a concern and we need to act on it.’”

Lilyana went willingly but still did not recognize she may have a problem.

One week later, a nurse from the Teen Health Centre sent Lilyana to the hospital because her heart rate was dangerously low.

“That was probably when it hit us the hardest,” says Colleen.

Lilyana still struggles with her self-image, but says the time she spends in front of a mirror now is much healthier than before. (Photo by Alyssa Horrobin)

Although somewhat unexpected and a little scary, she says it wasn’t entirely surprising.

Feeling the tightening noose of her control being taken away, Lilyana exercised in her hospital bed every time her nurses and doctors turned their heads and resisted food and help as much as she could.

After three weeks, she was told they would be moving her to Victoria Hospital in London, Ont. to go through a specialized child and youth program for eating disorders.

“I felt guilty for not getting better,” says Lilyana.

But after being moved to London and beginning treatment, she continued to fight help.

“I was kinda separated into two halves. There was the part of my brain that knew ‘Okay, this is all in your head, this is an eating disorder, so you don’t have to be afraid because you’re sick.’ But then there was the other part of me that was like ‘No, they’re wrong, you have to fight this as hard as you can’ and that was like a new battle in my mind,” says Lilyana. It is still a struggle to quiet the voice that wants to destroy her.

In the four weeks Lilyana spent in Victoria Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House, she was forced to eat three full meals and three snacks every day. She was put on a timer for each one and if she didn’t finish in time, would have to also have a meal replacement drink.

“I thought that was the dumbest thing to do to a kid with an eating disorder,” says Lilyana.

“It was maybe a little harsh, but it needed to be harsh because without that structure the food just didn’t get eaten.”

After coming home from the hospital, she was even more determined to resist recovery.

“I had this idea now that I had an eating disorder so now I was sick, so it wasn’t up to me to want to get better, it was just part of the illness to fight it.”

 

A New Normal 

After her seven long weeks spent in hospitals and going through treatment, Lilyana was more than ready to come home again. But things would look different for her and the whole family.

Her meal and snack schedule stayed the same as it had been in the hospital. Every lunch was spent in a private room at school, eating with her mother. Every dinner, with her family gathered around the table, a timer sat next to her plate counting down the minutes she had left to eat.

“We tried to talk about anything but the food while we were eating, but we had to learn how to do that,” says Colleen. She packed and ate every snack and meal with her daughter.

For the next two months, her mother kept a close watch on her and caught her sneaking workouts and hiding food.

“[She] watched me like I was a toddler,” says Lilyana.

“I felt so powerless. And eating disorders, they feed off of the feeling of having power over yourself, like control, and so that was ripped from me.”

It was not easy.

Lilyana keeps pictures and quotes all over her bedroom wall to inspire her daily and remind her why she fights for recovery. (Photo by Alyssa Horrobin)

 

During her time in Victoria Hospital, Lilyana had learned tips and tricks from the other girls in the program about fighting the rules.

The hospital staff had told the girls not to build friendships for this exact reason, but the girls thought the rule was cruel and unfair and found ways to talk anyway.

When the hospital rules came home with Lilyana, so did the tricks.

Colleen saw her role as not just monitoring her daughter, but equally as an emotional and mental support.

“I could see how frustrating it was for her, and sometimes it was tiring and exhausting. I think most of the time I just knew she needed to be encouraged.”

 

 

 

Hating & Hurting

Exercise had always been part of Lilyana’s daily routine to keep in shape for ballet. It became an unhealthy obsession as the eating disorder progressed.

“If someone is medically fragile and they’re going to get into trouble physically and it’s dangerous to exercise, the recommendations can be to not exercise for a period of time or to really cut back on it, just for their own safety,” says Beth Kinnaird-Iler, director of clinical practice at the Teen Health Centre.

Until she was restored to a normal body weight and heart rate, Lilyana was not allowed to do any kind of physical exercise, but she longed to dance again.

When she was allowed to return to ballet lessons, her therapist recommended she wear a t-shirt over her ballet suit. The walls of mirrors were a constant reminder of her insecurities.

“People would tell me I was a lot skinnier than any girl in the class, but in my mind, I was still the biggest one. That’s what I saw in the mirror, that my legs were bigger than all of theirs.”

Colleen believes ballet played a key role in her daughter’s struggle with anorexia. She knew coming back to the studio environment and seeing other girls look the way she wanted to look could make the struggle worse.

Jaclyn Brown-Paquette, a social worker with the Bulimia Anorexia Nervosa Association (BANA) in Windsor, says parts of someone’s past can affect their recovery, but that it usually isn’t just one thing.

One of the inspirational notes Lilyana keeps on her bedroom wall to motivate her in her daily battle for recovery. (Photo by Alyssa Horrobin)

“Often times, it’s not one thing that tends to be a trigger, it’s sort of … the perfect storm,” she says.

Because dance was Lilyana’s passion, Colleen cautiously allowed the return.

“She was going to be a lovely, curvy, attractive young woman, but it just didn’t fit her image of what she was supposed to look like,” says Colleen, desperate for her daughter to see herself the way she sees her.

“She saw herself getting bigger in parts of her body that weren’t supposed to for a ballerina … she perceived that she was getting fat, because she was changing from that body type that she wanted to have in order to be a ballerina.”

Then came the cutting.

To cope with the stress of being forced to gain weight while still not wanting to recover, Lilyana turned to harming herself.

It started with writing things she hated about herself all over her arms in permanent marker. Then she would use blades from pencil sharpeners or razors in the shower and cut herself in places she could hide.

According to kidshealth.org, cutting is something some teenagers use to cope with the pain of strong emotions or intense pressure that come from feelings that seem too much to handle or situations they feel they cannot change.

Eventually, Lilyana felt brave enough to show her mother.

“When she told me, it broke my heart, and not because she disappointed me but … she was hurting herself,” says Colleen, her voice breaking with pain and tears beginning to fill her eyes.

“At the same time I understood, I guess, and realized ‘Okay, here’s another element, another layer to this battle we’re in.’ She would cut areas of her body she perceived to be fat. She wanted to cut away at those areas: her thighs, her stomach, her arms.”

Brown-Paquette says it is not uncommon for people who have an eating disorder to use cutting and self-harm as an outlet for the stress they are under, but she believes this is because the eating disorder is already a form of self-harm.

 

One of Lilyana’s interests is trying different styles of makeup. (Photo by Alyssa Horrobin)

A Turning Point

During her entire struggle with anorexia, Lilyana’s faith has caused her conflict.

“I had this inner battle with myself. I knew that, as a Christian, God didn’t want me doing this to myself, because I hated something that he made and I knew that was wrong,” says Lilyana.

“Eventually that shifted from me knowing that was wrong to being angry at God because he made me the way I was.”

But a year after coming home from the hospital and continuing to fight recovery, something changed.

“It wasn’t a complete 180, but it was a 180 in my mind,” she says, remembering the exact moment she chose to embrace recovery.

She was at a Christian concert with some friends when she says she felt God telling her this was the moment to let go.

“It was like the climax of tugging war when someone finally has to win,” says Lilyana. “It was a battle going on for so long and it was kind of just that one final moment, where somebody has to let go.”

Brown-Paquette says that moment is something she sees in her clients, and that’s when she knows they understand and are ready for recovery.

“A lot of people think eating disorders are about control,” she explains. “They foster a perceived sense of control, but people who are struggling really don’t have any control over what they’re doing.

Now, the battle really began ─ she was fighting the disorder that had become a part of her identity instead of fighting help.

There were still times she felt she could not separate herself from the anorexia and struggled with finding a new identity.

“I was the girl with the eating disorder, and who am I without the eating disorder?”

Lilyana keeps the pictures and quotes that mean the most to her closest to her bed. (Photo by Alyssa Horrobin)

One Day at a Time

It has been more than a year now since Lilyana chose recovery.

Every day, she packs a lunch and picks out snacks for school. Every day, she sits around the kitchen table with her family for dinner.

Some days are harder than others, but Lilyana says recovery is close enough to taste.

She says her faith, therapy and the support from her family and friends have been instrumental in her journey.

“I feel like I’m finally working in the right direction with my identity, trying to tie it to something that won’t fail me,” says Lilyana.

At the Teen Health Centre, they believe full recovery is possible, especially when the problem is caught and dealt with when the person is still an adolescent. Kinnaird-Iler says relapse is an ongoing challenge but that regular check-ins and consistency in good patterns are the best way to know you are in the clear.

Major life transitions or stressors could trigger a relapse, according to Brown-Paquette. She says it is something a person should always be mindful of.

The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (nedic.com) says it can take years for an adolescent to fully or partially recover from an eating disorder, and some will carry it with them well into their adult life.

Colleen says although it may not be a struggle that will continue throughout her daughter’s life, the temptation may always be there.

“Each day is one day at a time,” says Colleen. Each day of choosing life, choosing to live and choosing to remember her commitment to get better is a victory.”

“My hope is that she will always have people around her who can give her the support she needs.”

Alyssa Horrobin
By Alyssa Horrobin April 26, 2018 05:54

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