In The Family: Sisters Spread Eating Disorders Awareness

Sisters Sarah Aya and Brenna Paxton are two of many people around the world that are participating in Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2014 from February 23rd to March 1st. Sarah Aya, who has successfully recovered from anorexia nervosa, and Brenna, who has supported her sister throughout her journey, are sharing their insights with the world in the hope that they can connect not only to individuals battling eating disorders themselves, but also to the family and friends affected by the illness.

Brenna and Sarah Aya Paxton

Brenna and Sarah Aya Paxton

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, "20 million women and 10 million men in the United States suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or an eating disorder not otherwise specified."

Why is eating disorders awareness important?

Sarah Aya: "Eating disorders awareness is important because it's not just the preconceived notion of an eating disorder being an image issue. An eating disorder is an issue far deeper and I don't think people realize that. This is a serious mental disorder that is affecting a huge portion of our society and yet it is being somewhat belittled and overlooked. To be able to starve yourself, something must be going very wrong for a person. The fact that this issue is not being addressed and is just brushed aside is very reflective of something terribly wrong with our society at large. We need to look into the underlying cause. If we could pinpoint why this is happening to so many people, we could pinpoint a big fault in the way that we are living on earth."

Having experienced an eating disorder yourself, what would you say should be the first route of action to help someone with an eating disorder?

Sarah Aya: "The very first thing is just loving the person. Just hold the person and tell them 'I'm happy you're here and I care about you.' Physically hold them and tell them. If they can have anyone in their life that can do that – a parent or a sibling or a friend – they should. Hold them and tell them 'I'm happy you're here on this earth and we need you here. You're okay. We love you. There's nothing wrong with you.' Genuine love is the most important thing."

What advice would you give to people that have friends or family members with an eating disorder?

Brenna: "Be gentle. Every person has a different perspective, a different way of communicating, and a different way of interpreting the world. Growing up with my sister, I eventually realized that she did not understand things in the same way I did. I had to learn how to communicate with her in a way that was completely unique from how I communicated with other people. It's important to remember that the person and their eating disorder are two separate entities. I learned to recognize when my sister was Sarah Aya, and when she was a hollow shell of an eating disorder. When someone is overcome by an eating disorder, as with any mental illness, they are not functioning in the same way you are, so you can't expect them to think or behave the same way you would. You need to be kind, understanding, and non-judgmental. Never frustrated or angry. Just gentle."

Of course it's been difficult, but has your sister's eating disorder positively impacted your family in any way?

Brenna: "We've definitely had some difficult times but we are much stronger because of it. We are a very close family and we can thank our struggles for that. It may seem contradictory but my sister's eating disorder brought us closer together. There was a period of a few years where it felt like the eating disorder was causing our family to unravel, but we did our best to address our problems and love each other no matter what. Everyone in the family is affected when one member has an eating disorder, so you have to support one another. Not only has conquering the eating disorder helped us, but hopefully we can help other families that are going through similar experiences. We want them to know that they aren't alone and that their family can be happy and healthy again."

Throughout the week Sarah Aya is sharing her story, insight, and inspiration and Brenna is sharing stories of strength and hope.

Help spread eating disorders awareness this week by posting inspirational images on Instagram and tagging them #CaptureHope. Even if you haven't had an eating disorder, every person has had dark times. So what's something that has inspired hope in you?

For more ways to get involved with NEDAwareness Week, visit nedawareness.org and for more information on eating disorders, go to myneda.org.