The Phoenix Project: Conquering Anorexia
Meet Cara Lyons, a recent graduate from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in Religious Studies. She is currently working as a medical scribe and applying to PA schools for next fall. In this interview, she shares her recovery story, her work with Project HEAL--an organization that provides healing for those struggling with eating disorders--her goals and passions, and her advice to those struggling with an eating disorder.
When did you begin struggling with an eating disorder?
I began struggling with Anorexia Nervosa when I was a junior in high school. I grew up always conscious of food and weight because my mom was always on Weight Watchers, but it became very serious my junior year of high school when I started actively restricting my food. In about three months, I lost a significant amount of weight. That’s when teachers and students came up to me and were expressing concern. But at that point, I was so engrossed in my own thoughts, and I didnt want to hear any of it.
What was the catalyst of your eating disorder?
Junior year of high school is one of the most stressful years for students, and I always felt the need to be perfect. I didn’t believe people would like me if I didn’t get straight A’s or excel in everything I did. I couldn’t necessarily control the grades I got in school, but food was something I could completely control. It started out slowly. I just wanted to lose a bit of weight, and as that started happening, it just went downhill really quickly. Food groups were cut out. I started counting calories meticulously. I became isolated, and I lost a lot of friends because I pushed people away. I didn’t want people to see I was sick or call me out on it. My school work suffered partially because my focus wasn’t there, and I wasn’t fueling my body to study and learn all the material. That was really hard because I have a very type A personality. When my grades started slipping, that just fueled my eating disorder even more.
When did you first seek treatment?
Initially it was a forced recovery. I had to go into treatment so many times because I didn’t want to recover. I went for the first time and gained the weight, but my mind and my thoughts still weren’t there. As soon as I was out of treatment, I relapsed again, and I was back in treatment a few months later. The thing with eating disorders is that you know something is wrong. You know that it’s not normal to do the things that you are doing or thinking the way you are. You know its a problem, but it doesn’t really register as a problem you need to fix. You think you can just live this way. I often hear about it as the “Unicorn Myth,” thinking, “I know people die from these things, but it’s not going to happen to me because I’m still eating x amount of calories or only throwing up x amount of times.” You never think any of the consequences are going to happen to you…..until they do.
When did you take recovery on as your own?
When I really started wanting recovery, I was a freshman in college. I ended up in the hospital, and the doctors told me, “You can’t keep going like this. Your heart isn’t able to take this much longer. You’re destroying your body.” And that’s when I realized that I didn’t want to die from this. It was never because I didn’t want to live. It was because I wanted to be perfect at everything I did. I realized that I have goals and passions, and if I keep living the way I am now, I’m never going to accomplish what I want to do in my life. That’s when I really started working at recovery for me and not for anyone else. I think that’s the real click that people have to make.
Many people have the misconception that recovery is a “once and done” process. What did your recovery journey look like?
It’s not just a once and done kind of thing. I was in treatment many times. I don’t want to say you can manage it because I am under the belief that full recovery is possible. But full recovery doesn’t look like going back to who you were before you had the eating disorder. I think people have a misconception that you go into treatment and you are fixed like a car. It’s not that easy because you can’t avoid food. When you are struggling with drugs or alcohol, you can avoid drugs or alcohol. But you have to learn to manage food several times a day. It’s never just about the food. It’s about getting down to what is actually going on, why you are taking your anxiety and body image issues out on food. And that’s something I still struggle with and try to figure out. These thoughts still might pop up in my mind, but I’m able to brush them off. I don’t dwell on them. I don’t engage in behaviors. It’s almost laughable when they come up. I recognize that they are ridiculous and move on with my life.
When did you first become involved with the National Eating Disorder Associations Project HEAL?
I got started with Project HEAL when I was a freshman in college. I started just volunteering with them and doing little on-campus events. At the end of my freshman year, I was asked to take over the chapter at Pitt. It’s grown from an on-campus organization to a city-based organization. While I was the head of the chapter, I was in charge of planning events, both on campus and off campus, and organizing our yearly gala in the spring.
What has been your motivation to fight for recovery and continue to fight, even on the bad days?
My ultimate goal is to be a physicians assistant. For that, I have to be able to maintain my GPA. I have to be able to work in a hospital, and I have to be strong enough to do heavy lifting. I’m on my feet all the time,and I have to make sure I’m well nourished all the time to do my job well so that I’m not putting my patients at risk. As apart of Project Heal, I am now a mentor to a young girl who is in recovery. Being her mentor really pushed me toward full recovery.
What is something you would like to say to someone who is struggling with an eating disorder?
Recovery is possible. One hundred percent recovery is fully possible. When you are struggling with an eating disorder, you think that you are never going to reach that recovery, that you are going to be struggling with this for the rest of your life. It’s possible to recover, and you can do so much more with your life when you are recovered than when you are sick.
I don’t tend to dwell on what the eating disorder was but what recovery has helped me become. I got through it and recovered, and I can now show others that recovery is possible. My eating disorder is a part of my past; my recovery is what is going to lead my future.