Two steps forward: an interview with Sabrina, recovered from her anorexia-bulimia
When I meet her via Skype, I do not expect such brightness, and not only because of the shy sunlight of this winter month. I expected Sabrina to be marked by her illness, as though her anorexia and bulimia that she suffered from for 15 years must inevitably have left visible traces. In fact, quite the opposite. She is very open, particularly "normal", perfectly at ease, speaking without taboo or jargon. A mother and a woman that you can tell is strong, loving and fulfilled. She is full of energy with her eye-brow piercing and her massive smile, she laughs often, mostly at herself, expresses herself frankly and simply. In short, she is truly recovered.
Since our Skype conversation, Sabrina has given birth to her second daughter, her first is 2 years old. I can’t help but admire her, especially knowing the journey she went on to get pregnant. I am, more than anything else, delighted for her, because a birth is beautiful. It makes you want to congratulate, to laugh, to marvel at a tiny little one -- in the most natural way in the world. I think that’s it, really, Sabrina’s greatest victory: she is, today, as "normal" as could be.
Previously an athlete, she has already told the story of her anorexia and bulimia in her début novel, L’âme en éveil, le corps en sursis, (translation: awakened spirit, suspended body) published in 2014. But that’s not exactly what we are going to talk about in this interview.
Rather that recount her suffering once again, I choose to focus our interview on the woman that Sabrina is today, and especially on all she has to teach us about getting out of it and living fully. Let’s go.
Sabrina isn’t merely in remission, she says she is recovered.
I took a long time to call myself recovered, I spoke of remission, of doing better… I feared a relapse, because there were many, and that’s normal, and that’s part of the rebuilding. And then, one day, I thought to myself, I have put in place loads of safeguards, I have a normal, peaceful relationship with food… That day, I will remember it all my life, because I was able to look my father in the eyes and say, "I am recovered".
I ask her what that means, in practice, to be recovered. She replied without hesitation: "It’s returning to the normal flow of things, it’s getting back to a life where, of course, [you] don’t forget, it’s part of your story, but nowadays it’s only a small part of [yourself]. [You] are able to remember certain painful events without having to relive them. It’s not panicking in front of a plate of steak and French fries, but instead finding pleasure in it. It’s finding a life in which you feel fulfilled, simply put. It’s also thinking of your « previous self » with kindness, empathy and compassion. Forgiving yourself because the harm that you may have done yourself was not your fault: you were ill…"
Simple, yet so complicated.
I would like to mention that Sabrina, as a recovered woman, is the first ambassador of the USAB (Union d’associations Solidarité Anorexie Boulimie, translation: the union of organizations in solidarity of anorexia and bulimia). She explains to me that it’s a collective of 21 organizations of patients and families, that all act locally. The primary objective is to accompany these patients and their families towards treatment, or at least to be an entry point towards these ressources. But for some time, the USAB has also been knitting ties with healthcare professionals, in the hope of raising awareness of the causes of anorexia and bulimia, and maybe one day offering complimentary training. The collective of organizations sees itself as a series of places of listening and welcoming those in suffering, online or in person. Today, USAB also has other ambassadors, but Sabrina continues to get involved regularly.
I wonder what she does for a living, and I get my answer straight away: Sabrina stacks up many activities ("I’m predicting a rock ’n’ roll year", she exclaims, laughing), and some of those are paid. So, since September 2019, she is a peer support worker, working part-time for the scheme Un Chez Soi D’Abord, the French version of Housing First in America, which helps people suffering from mental health difficulties such as addiction, who are homeless or living in great instability (this scheme is a national one since 2017 and coordinated by organizations, such as Aurore, in Paris). The idea is to offer therapeutic supported accommodation, which, as its name suggests, allows people who are suffering from poor mental health, to have a roof over their heads and be supported, to then to receive treatment for their mental illness. Basically, it’s exactly the opposite to what was imposed up until now, that is, that people had to have recovered from their addiction and be seeking treatment for their mental health problems, before being eligible for help to find housing (this makes very little sense, given the difficulty of accessing treatment when you have a home...).
Although not centered on eating disorders (including anorexia and bulimia), this program allows Sabrina to find satisfaction in the help she offers others. It’s even better, in fact, according to her: "I think it’s important for me to not only work with eating disorders, I don’t particularly want to be Mrs eating disorders". And in the end, anorexia and bulimia are in fact not that different from an alcohol use disorder or an addiction to cocaine.
It’s not for nothing that eating disorders are classified as addictions
Sabrina first heard about peer support work when she completed the "Santé Mentale dans la Communauté" (translation: mental health in the community) training course, offered by the WHOCC (the French World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Research and Training in Mental Health) in partnership with several French universities. Peer support worker means that Sabrina helps people by using her own knowledge from her experiences: she tells her story, and above all she gives hope given that she too has been there…and has come out the other side: "[the idea is to] make people aware that the situation is not fixed, that it is possible to change, that it is possible for things to improve". She also talks about getting help, treatment, or participates in outings and projects aiming at improving the independence of those she helps. She works in a mutlidisciplinary team made up of around fifteen professionals: nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, educators, advisors in social and familial economy and people taking care of the GLA (Gestion Locative Adaptée). The team cover a lot of ground, going to the homes of people living in difficult conditions or meeting them in cafés, "the metro is our work tool", Sabrina tells me. She doesn’t yet have specific training in peer support work, but she is thinking about it: "It’s important to have a better status and show your skills". Her work doesn’t come from nowhere though: "I realized that through my coaching and charity activities, I was already a peer support worker".
Yes, because Sabrina is also a coach, and has been for four years: she supports people with eating disorders on their journey towards recovery -- or, let’s just go ahead and say it, towards being recovered. Armed with her coaching qualification (she is on the RNCP, the national repertoire of certified professionals), Sabrina also uses her NLP training (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and has begun coaching at home and by Skype to help those living far from treatment centres, in the countryside for example. These days, she limits herself to taking on 4 or 5 people at a time, in order to give them all she has and best support them. She works as part of a network, and also plans to continue her training!
I always want to learn
And, to top it all off, the young mother uses social media semi-professionally, for activism, to share information and guide those who need it towards appropriate ressources. That was how I found her.
In my opinion, you have never quite finished working on yourself
When I ask her what she is most proud of in her life, Sabrina responds straight away: "For a long time I would probably have answered "my sporting achievements" or "to have set myself up" but today, it’s "my children", without hesitation. They are my greatest strength".
I am overwhelmed, but I don’t have time to pull myself back together before she adds: "Being pregnant after suffering from anorexia is not easy, and my baby blues after Clara’s birth lasted a while because it was such an immense gift for me".
I have found balance
Two questions come to me. The first, stems from the fact that Sabrina now has two daughters: how does she imagine her relationship with them later? Will she talk to them about her story, her journey? Her response makes me think she has already worked it out, consciously or subconsciously: "I won’t really have a choice! I have done quite a lot of work around the topic, all you have to do is type my name into the Internet for it to come out… Yes, I will talk to them about it because it’s part of mummy’s story, it’s her past, without trivializing, without dramatizing, but I want us to be able to talk about it. In our house, it isn’t a central topic, but occasionally we talk about it with my husband from time to time, just as we would anything else. I don’t want them to find these things out for themselves, I would prefer to talk to them about it, in my own words. And [even better if] it can serve as a form of prevention."
I hope they don’t come and talk to me about diets, aged twelve!
The second question concerns, naturally, what she has planned to put in place to protect them -- as much as possible -- from eating disorders. As it happens, Mummy Sabrina isn’t too alarmed: "I think that the best thing to do, and this is perhaps the coach speaking, is to have a healthy relationship [with food and your body] yourself, that is to say not eating differently, sharing meals with the family, at the same times, not filling the cupboards with diet foods, it’s already good for a child to know that his/her mother feels good in herself!" Sabrina argues that it is better to pay attention to how children are developing and growing up, to react as and when necessary, rather than try to protect and anticipate actively, which could generate anxiety. She adds: "And let’s not forget that eating disorders are not hereditary!"
Without being alarmist, it’s all about paying attention
The young mother won’t hesitate, however, to take her daughters to see a psychologist if necessary: "In my day, and that of my parents, going to a psychologist was a bit taboo… Nowadays I wouldn’t hesitate, if I felt there was a need, to accompany my daughter to see a psychologist. I would rather she went to see a professional and for them to tell me that nothing is wrong with her, rather than missing something."
Sabrina is herself an inspiration for many people, but she admits that she very much leans on others herself, namely her husband: "I am lucky to be able to lean on my husband, who had only one wish, and that was for me to find something that I enjoyed, and he knew it was important to me to do something in line with my values."
I have worked a lot on the question of values, namely in therapy
I ask her what she would say to 17 or 20 year old Sabrina if she could. She thinks for a second. "Love yourself more." Isn’t that advice you would have found it hard to listen to at that time? "Exactly. In that invitation to love yourself, it’s also an invitation to not pay too much attention to the nasty comments some people might make, and find your own path, without worrying about others, and to trust yourself."
Love yourself, give yourself time and attention. Be patient and kind towards yourself
And the advice that has most helped her? "Give time to time. Give yourself time. Often, it does things well, even if we might rather get better straight away. One day at a time, one step at a time, little bit by little bit, and you have to encourage yourself on little things." I am completely in agreement: it allows you to put less pressure on yourself to get better, too. "It’s not an imperative to recover, you are not either ill or recovered. It’s about becoming aware that the person in front of you is on their own recovery journey, and has already travelled some way along their path, in fact".
It can only work with time
And her advice? The most inspiring of all: "In terms of eating disorders, relapses are frequent, and it’s a piece of advice that I often give: you binged? Okay, don’t beat yourself up, you took one step back, tomorrow you will take two steps forward. And it’s those two steps forward that lead to real recovery".
After her book, "Troubles alimentaires: mieux comprendre pour mieux guérir", (translation: eating disorders: understand better to recover better) Sabrina is planning on writing another book, even if her work is currently put on pause because of her adorable newborn baby. The subject will be mental health recovery, and the book will "give a voice to the users, those who experience recovery". In the meantime, thank you for everything, Sabrina.
- The Canadian NEDIC's website (National Eating Disorder Information Centre) which provides information as well as a helpline
- The helpful blog Beating Eating Disorders
- The UK's eating disorder charity Beat which offers support, advice and ressources
Ressources in French only
- Sabrina Palumbo's articles on the HuffPost
- Sabrina's first memoir on her anorexia-bulimia
- Sabrina's second book about her recovery
- The USAB website, of which Sabrina is an ambassador