Sally Chaster was only six years old when her battle with anorexia began.
Following a deeply traumatic event, Chaster ended up in the hospital and realized the only way to gain control of her life again was to limit what she was eating, which she continued to do until she left the hospital.
Once released back to her family, she was able to gain some weight and stabilize her diet. But since that time, years ago, Chaster has never been free of her eating disorder.
Now, the Victoria resident is spearheading a new peer support group to help those with eating disorders on Vancouver Island.
Growing up battling anorexia, a potentially life-threatening eating disorder, characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss, Chaster would eliminate certain foods. She would cut out ground beef, potatoes or breakfast.
Within a couple of years, she eliminated breakfast and eventually both breakfast and lunch. Everything she put in her mouth became an equation with Chaster carefully calculating what she could and couldn’t eat. While she knew she had a problem, she couldn’t get help.
“Since I was six years old, I was always doing the equation with my weight. Everything I ate was calculated,” Chaster said, adding her eating disorder was about making herself feel safe. “It’s about feeling smaller, taking up less space. When I am underweight, it numbs my emotions. The things that I might otherwise have had to deal with in terms of trauma or anxiety, I get to numb it out.”
When she was in her 20s, Chaster found software that allowed her to keep track of what she ate — every calorie, every nutrient, and it quickly fuelled her eating disorder.
Eating was one problem, exercising was another. Chaster became addicted to exercising, going to the gym six times a week for roughly five-and-a-half to six hours a day before or after work.
“You feel in control, you feel calm, you feel euphoric, you can have all of these feelings and you feel good. That good feeling makes you want to do it more,” said the now 57-year-old.
“Despite the fact that I had lost such a significant amount of weight, I carried on with that exercise, I felt good, I felt strong.”
It wasn’t until 10 years ago that she decided to get help and was so stressed she could no longer work. At one point, Chaster, who loved clothes and always thought people stared at her because of her fashion sense, realized they were staring because of how skinny she was.
Now, Chaster is helping other people who suffer from eating disorders as part of a pilot project with Island Health.
The peer-supported meal process program, which kicks off during the provincial eating disorders awareness week, beginning Feb. 12, is a three-month, bi-weekly program at Royal Jubilee Hospital.
Meal trays will be brought in at lunch time for each of the six program participants, who will choose what to eat, from a minimum meal plan to a normalized meal plan. Each plan includes foods from the five food groups.
Following the meal, participants will talk about their feelings and experiences with their peers.
“Often talking about eating disorders is very triggering for the person themselves or also for other people and that’s where the facilitation comes in and keeping it a safe space, despite the fact that we’re talking about something that is typically very triggering and that we don’t get to talk to each other about,” said Chaster, who will oversee the program. She founded the first peer support group for people with disorders at the hospital two years ago, and sits on the patient/parent advisory committee of eating disorders with Island Health.
While Chaster admits she is still struggling with her disorder, she takes it one meal at a time.
The free peer support group meets Mondays from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. in room C201 of the patient care centre at Royal Jubilee Hospital.
For more information about the peer-supported meal process program, call 778-533-3843.
There are an estimated 3,000 people living with eating disorders on Vancouver Island. However, that number is believed to be significantly higher since admissions to hospital are rarely coded as an eating disorder.