Raleigh woman uses personal battle with eating disorder to raise awareness

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Sarah Olevsky says her struggle with Anorexia Nervosa began during her senior year of high school. (WTVD)

Sarah Olevsky says her struggle with Anorexia Nervosa began during her senior year of high school.

"It started out just kind of cutting back on meals," she said. "I just cut back and cut back and cut back, and before I knew it I just couldn't eat anything."

After graduation Olevsky went away to college, but it wasn't long before she says she had to return home.

"It had gone from, 'Oh you look great, how are you losing weight?' to whispers behind my back of, 'Oh my gosh, is she ok?' I had lost probably a third of my body weight," Olevsky admitted.

Dr. Laura Weisberg studies and treats eating disorder patients at Duke. She says that anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders are generally characterized by a preoccupation with eating, weight, and shape.

"Anorexia nervosa, specifically, involves a person restricting their food intake so that they are no longer maintaining a healthy weight," she said. "It's associated with a body image disturbance, and a real fear of gaining weight and becoming 'fat,' even though the person's actual weight status is quite low."

Weisberg also cautions that this is not just a phase or fad afflicting teenage girls. It can affect men and women, from children all the way to adults.

She says it's certainly not something sufferers choose.

"(That's) not the case at all," Weisberg said. "As a matter of fact, I have yet to meet someone who has started going down this path with the intention of having anorexia or having any kind of eating disorder. It usually starts out from the person's perspective, actually, as an attempt to try to feel better."

Dr. Weisberg explained that this type of behavior often starts as a coping mechanism for sufferers.

For Olevsky, she says she's not quite sure what prompted her disease to take hold the way it did.

Olevsky says she believes, in part, that she may have been nervous about starting college, and she was also trying to cope with changes her body was going through after taking a break from a lifetime of competing in gymnastics and cheerleading, but what began as a diet, quickly led to a complete deterioration of her health.

"I just didn't have the energy to do anything. I remember a couple of times walking to class, I had to walk up these stairs, but I had to stop and sit and take a break 2 or 3 times just to get up the stairs," she said.

Olevsky admitted that perhaps she knew something wasn't quite right with her behavior - describing her eating disorder as a loud voice that wouldn't completely let her listen to reason.

"Going from my weight to being half that size and not being able to walk, honestly, I did not see a change in the mirror," she said.

It's a common phenomenon Dr. Weisberg says sees with patients.

"One of the tragedies is that what often starts out as an attempt to improve things in one's life ends up taking over one's life and really controlling one's brain, one's emotions, and one's cognitions and behavior," she said. "We can see that from a biological standpoint, now, with neuroimaging, we're able to see the changes that take place in the brain, and of course there are a lot of medical consequences that occur that make this a very life-threatening disease."

In fact, Weisberg pointed out that Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate and highest suicide rate of any psychiatric disorder.

Thankfully, Olevsky received the treatment she needed before it was too late. But, it took her almost 10 years. Although she is now married, has a daughter, and says she is happy most days, she admitted there are times when the struggle creeps back up on her.

To keep that at bay she says she relies on her family for support and is now working with others, including creating a line of special items through her graphic design business.

"The inside covers say 'Be Free' and it's a little illustration that I drew," she said as she pointed to the inside of a sample journal she's created.
Olevsky says it's a reminder for anyone who's struggling with something.

"Throughout the day, whether it's on sticky notes or a notepad or journal to just free your mind from those negative thoughts and feelings and worries," she said.

Olevsky is selling products online and using some of those proceeds to donate personalized journals to other individuals dealing with an eating disorder.

She says it's bringing her journey full circle, as she credits much of her healing to journaling she did while in treatment at Duke. It also serves as a reminder of where she's been and where she doesn't want to go in the future.
"I know what I have to do to stay on the right track, I know I don't want to go down the path I was on," Olevsky said.

If you suspect a loved one is battling an eating disorder, health professionals say it's important to urge them to get help.

Treatment can range from outpatient to inpatient therapy, and often requires a team, from a doctor to monitor the patient's physical health to counselors dealing with the mental health aspect.

Admittedly, broaching the subject can be difficult. Health professionals advise people to first educate themselves on eating disorders to learn what they are dealing with, and then try to approach their friend or family member with compassion and non-judgement.

Dr. Weisberg says expect denial, avoidance, and even anger at first, but she recommended saying "I'm concerned about you." and then know that at least you've planted a seed that the person will hear and will start to reflect upon.

She also suggested coming prepared with resources on how they can learn more about the eating disorder or where they can go to get it diagnosed or treated, and offer to go there with them or even make the first appointment for them.

For more information visit these websites:Duke Center for Eating Disorders, National Eating Disorders Association and
Academy for Eating Disorders.

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