an·o·rex·i·a: an emotional disorder characterized by an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat

This month 18-year-old Sage Chador, a senior at North Tahoe High School, celebrates the one-year anniversary of admitting to her parents that she was suffering from an eating disorder. Normally in this column I tell someone else’s story. This month, however, I’m honored to give Sage the opportunity to express in her own words her tragic yet triumphant story of the past year.

When you hear about people wanting to be skinny, what goes through your mind?

I want to shake them. I feel so sad because I know eating disorders can start out as innocently as wanting to eat healthy, lose a couple pounds, or cut out desserts. The scary part is that you don’t know it’s taking control of you. You can’t stop. I see beautiful girls every day body shaming and thinking that losing weight will make them happy. They don’t realize that the problem resides in their brain, not their body. I know from experience losing weight doesn’t make you happier. Loving yourself comes with learning to love imperfection.

How did you hide your eating disorder?

In the beginning I was very good at hiding it. Not even my parents knew I wasn’t eating. But my friend Johanna Gur told the school that I wasn’t okay, that my parents needed to know. I was so mad at her! Now I see she probably saved my life. After that, meal times at home were a battle. My therapist asked me to eat three meals a day and two snacks. My parents tried to feed me, but it was a struggle that included swearwords, crying, and even throwing food. They did the best they could, but I wouldn’t listen. I had become so irrational I thought they were trying to make me fat.

Did you feel empty or whole when you were the weight you were aiming for?

Empty. Utterly. The goal weight is never enough. The hollowness becomes a place of comfort, as well as an addiction. I’d tell myself I could wear a certain dress only if I lost 5 pounds, then 10, and then 15. The more weight I lost, the more I hated myself.

What does anorexia rob you of?

Your life. I remember looking in the mirror every morning and breaking down, not being able to face who I saw. I wouldn’t go into public unless I had to. I wouldn’t wear shorts because I was so scared of people thinking I was fat. I was freezing even though I wore baggy sweatshirts and long pants. I passed out if I over-exerted. I couldn’t eat anything unless I knew the caloric count. I avoided friends and family, scared they would take my control away. Most importantly, I lied to and hurt people I love. Sure, I smiled sometimes, but my eyes were dull. I was dying and I couldn’t see it. An eating disorder isn’t a lifestyle choice; it’s a mental illness that kills people every day.

How did anorexia take hold of you?

People don’t seek out their eating disorder. It finds them when they are vulnerable. Anorexia first became a part of my life when I was taking four AP classes, two independent classes outside school, and traveling to show my horse. I wanted an equestrian scholarship at a Division 1 NCAA school. My mental health decreased and I cried my eyes out after every show I lost. When school and showing ended, anorexia had such a grasp over me that it was what was safe. I couldn’t give it up despite the absence of stressors.

What did anorexia do to your body?  

When I was admitted to Cielo House in Moss Beach in August for 10 weeks, I had tachycardia (heart palpitations caused by electrolyte imbalances), anemia, vitamin B12 deficiency, and elevated amylase  levels (an indicator of pancreatitis).

Tell us about the treatment you received at Cielo House (cielohouse.com).

Treatment is physical and mental but you have to heal your body before your brain. I met with doctors, a psychiatrist, dietician, and family and individual therapists. Every morning I peed in a cup and had my vitals and weight taken. But food was my best medicine. Like all the girls, I had to eat breakfast, a snack, lunch, snack, dinner, dessert, snack. I was so full after eating I’d lay on the couch in pain with a hot pad on my stomach. But all of us saw in each other what we could not yet see in ourselves: beautiful, strong girls.

Describe the ups and downs of the recovery process.

Every day I make a conscious effort to pick recovery over relapse. When I make mistakes, I’ve learned to do the next best thing. When it comes to food, a motto of mine is “balanced, not clean.” It’s okay to eat chocolate, it’s okay to eat salad; it’s when you go to extremes that problems occur.  

What’s the best thing about your everyday life now?

Being able to enjoy life. I’m okay eating pizza with my friends, my day isn’t ruled by the number of calories I eat, and I’m not defined by what the scale says. In fact, I don’t weigh myself at all. There are more important things to think about. I don’t think Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spends her time preoccupied with her weight; she’s too busy promoting gender equality.

What do you tell yourself daily?

Do all things with kindness. If you make a mistake, treat yourself kindly and move forward. I try to apply the same philosophy of kindness to others and remind myself we all make mistakes.

Sage wants to help people struggling with mental illness and will study neurobiology next year at UC Davis. Contact Sage at sagechador (at) gmail.com.