Tasha Barwise never imagined she’d spend her 25th birthday in a treatment facility for women with eating disorders.
Then again, she wasn’t sure she’d even be alive.
“I really didn’t believe I was going to wake up on my 25th birthday,” said the Sarnia woman, now 27. “It was a very powerful moment.”
The young mother said the seed of her eating disorder was planted early in childhood.
“I grew up believing that dieting was very normal and stepping on a scale was very normal,” recalled Barwise, who gradually began obsessing about body image, going to the gym, and looking ‘perfect.’
“But I was never comfortable in my own skin, even at my lowest weight.”
Eventually, her family, friends, and coaches and allies from the Circles program began to intervene.
“I only ever knew the stereotype anorexic girl,” she said. “I didn’t really understand that even though I didn’t look a certain way, I still deserved the help that I needed.
“It’s really important to understand that eating disorders come in so many different shapes and sizes.”
She attended a support group in London while waiting to access services locally. Eventually she was referred to the Adult Eating Disorders Residential Treatment Program through London Health Sciences Centre — where she returned for a second time after a relapse.
She graduated from treatment on Dec. 21, 2017 and has been thriving ever since.
Barwise is sharing her story at an upcoming Sarnia Speaks event on eating disorders, in hopes of sparking conversation about an often-stigmatized illness.
“The more I speak about my journey, the more I see other women that struggle with a lot of underlying tendencies that go with eating disorders,” she said. “I really do believe everyone has that little demon inside of them.
“I want people to know that there is no such thing as being ‘sick enough’ to get treatment. You don’t have to wait until you’re on the edge of dying to reach out and get help.”
The National Eating Disorder Information Centre says more than one million Canadians struggle with eating disorders — illnesses characterized by irregular eating habits and severe distress or concern about body weight or shape.
“The more I talk about it, the more people are stepping forward about their own journey and struggles,” said Martine Creasor, who will moderate the Feb. 7 event at the Sarnia Library.
“My daughter experienced it when she was 11 years old, and it was horrific, because I knew nothing about it; I didn’t know where to get help.”
Creasor said much like suicide, eating disorders are considered a ‘taboo’ topic.
“I’ve been to some presentations where they’re calling it ‘nutritional eating.’ The whole thing was about eating disorders, so my feedback was, let’s call it what it is, so people can get help.”
Creasor said the main community contact for individuals with an eating disorder is the Bluewater Health Eating Disorders Outreach Program.
Local patients also have access to the Adolescent Eating Disorders Program through the Chatham-Kent Community Health Centres, run by nurse practitioner Hali Sitarz.
“In recent years, I have done a great deal more public education about eating disorders and the services available in the community,” said Sitarz, who has been invited to speak with groups like St. Clair Child & Youth, local school boards and Lambton Circles.
“Unfortunately our program does not include dietician, social work or psychology services that most other programs include in Ontario.”
She noted the program only services ages 11 to 21, “and unfortunately, eating disorders often have a long trajectory of illness that persists into adulthood.”
A study by the Ontario Community Outreach Program for Eating Disorders revealed 30% of females and 25% of males in southern Ontario between ages 10 and 14 reported dieting to lose weight. One study revealed significant symptoms of eating disorders — including bingeing or purging — reported by 27% of girls aged 12 to 18, but only 4-to-6% received assessment or treatment.
“I know safety is so important and I think we do a really good job of creating a safe, welcoming space for people to have these conversations,” said Danielle Cooper, who founded Sarnia Speaks in 2016.
“I just feel if someone doesn’t take the risk to have these conversations, how are we going to talk about it?
“I think storytelling is contagious.”
The Bluewater Health Eating Disorders Outreach Program can be reached at 519-464-4400, ext. 5217.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: Sarnia Speaks: Eating Disorders
WHEN: Feb. 7, 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Sarnia Public Library
DETAILS: For more information, contact [email protected]. Visit the new website at www.sarniaspeaks.org