Eating Disorder Recovery: Q&A with Dr. Christina Bjorndal
I’ve already had the great opportunity to speak with several women about their recovery from eating disorders and emotional eating (you can find the interviews here). I hope to regularly feature Q&As with individuals who’ve recovered from eating disorders, binge eating, negative body image or any kind of disordered eating. If you’d like to share your story of recovery, I’d love to hear from you! You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today, I’m happy to feature another interview on eating disorder recovery with Dr. Christina Bjorndal, a naturopathic doctor. In Part 1 of her interview, Christina recounts her struggles with an eating disorder, depression and anxiety and lays out what has helped her recovery.
1. Please tell us a bit about yourself.
In my mid-30s I made a career change to become a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine. The reason I became a Naturopathic Doctor (ND) is simple: I was sick and tired of being tired and sick. I had a high profile job reporting to a high profile CEO in the investment management industry and had been diagnosed with several health challenges: cancer, depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure due to stress.
In addition, I was recovering from an eating disorder and an addiction to exercise given my talent as a track competitor at the National level and Ironman triathlete background. When I was 33 years old, I passed up an incredible job opportunity after asking myself one question: “If money didn’t matter, what would I be doing with my life, career-wise?” The answer came immediately to me: Become a Naturopathic Doctor and help people recover from the same illnesses you have dealt with using a balanced approach that involves more than simply suppressing symptoms with pharmaceuticals.
2. How and when did your eating disorder start? What do you think contributed to it?
My eating disorder started very innocently and I remember it distinctly. It was the spring of 1981 and I was finishing the 9th grade. My family had recently moved from Nanaimo to Richmond and I was over at a friend’s house from my new school. After eating an after-school snack of junk food and watching the soap opera “All My Children,” my friend went into the bathroom and vomited. I didn’t have a clue what was going on and thought she was really sick. She said, “This is what I do when I don’t want to digest what I’ve eaten. You should try it some time; it helps you not get fat.” A subtle suggestion that I didn’t quite comprehend. Why, on earth, would I do THAT?
Well, maybe it was to fit in, maybe it was to be accepted, maybe it was because she was my “first friend” at the new school and I wanted a friend, maybe it was because of all the teenage marketing propaganda, maybe it was because my mom seemed unhappy with her figure, maybe it was because many women in my family were overweight, maybe it was because I was an athlete and wanted to “look good”…..who knows the real reason why I started. All I know is that I did.
3. What motivated you to seek treatment?
This behavior continued until I was in my early 20s. The frequency at which I engaged in disordered eating varied throughout the years. I was not motivated at all to seek treatment, and in fact, I didn’t do so until I was in my mid 30s. I look at my recovery in stages. The first stage was when I got “caught” shoplifting. In university, I had developed a bad habit of binge eating when I was super-stressed, which seemed like every day. Generally, around exam time, it got really bad.
Since I was a starving Commerce student, I could not justify spending money on food that I was going to consume and immediately purge. So I developed the sneaky habit of stealing. I knew it was wrong, but I somehow justified it in many ways: The store owner makes too much money and marks his products up too much; they won’t miss one box of Twinkies and a liter of ice cream; I’m not really eating it anyways; all I have to do is confess and I will be forgiven for my transgressions against others…..and on and on it went. The shop clerk who caught me marched me directly to the store owner. I immediately started to cry and showed him my wallet and said “I can pay for this. Here take my money.” He must have had teenage daughters as he said to me, “What were you thinking? And why are you doing this?” I told him exactly what I was going to do and his response was this: “Have your mother come in to see me.”
When I got home, I was in a panic. I called one of my best friends, who was working at her Uncle’s fruit and vegetable stand, and told her what had happened. She said she would go in and pretend she was my mom. I was quite touched by the gesture, but reminded her that I didn’t think that would work as she was my age and a different ethnicity! Once I calmed down, I knew what I had to do. Tell my mom that I had “screwed up.” For some reason, I was terrified to tell her, to let her down, to be a disappointment, a disgrace, etc. I was too busy beating myself up for being so stupid, that it never crossed my mind how she would react to the news.
When I told her, quite matter-of-factly, that she had to go to the Safeway and talk to the storeowner, she naturally asked why. I told her. She said to me, “Are you ready to admit you have a problem and seek treatment”? I said, “Yes, I am ready to admit I have a problem, but I do not need treatment. I have exams to study for,” I paused and then continued, “You mean you aren’t mad? And you knew I had a problem? Why didn’t you say or do anything about it?” Her response amazed me: “Because you have an addiction. In my experience, you have to wait until the person hits rock bottom before you can offer them your helping hand. Otherwise, all you encounter is resistance. It has been nothing but heartbreaking knowing that this is what you were doing and you must feel like you have reached a new low by being caught shoplifting. Mothers don’t miss much, Christina.” And she asked again, “Are you finally ready to accept the help you need?”
My response was the same. I immediately stopped shoplifting and I immediately stopped purging. I did not learn to manage my stress, balance my exercise or stop binge eating until I was in my mid 30s – this is the second stage of my recovery. Some might argue that I am still working on these last three areas to this day.
4. Eating disorders are tremendously treatable but the key is to find the right treatment. How did you go about seeking services?
When I was at medical school (naturopathic), it dawned on me that I was still dealing with this condition. This surprised me as I thought I was “over it.” It was the subtle things, like having an extra helping and telling myself that it was okay because I had planned to run an extra few miles the next day. When I connected to these thoughts, the next day I would purposely NOT go running so that I could sit in the feelings and address what came up. I was now at school again, under stress, etc, and I did not want to end up on the same slippery slope or treadmill I had just gotten off in order to pursue a career as a doctor.
I wrote in my journal about my eating disorder, my “healthy” addiction to exercise and my root feelings of insecurity and abandonment. I sought counsel in Overeaters Anonymous (a 12-step program), spoke more openly about my experience with bulimia and continued on my healing journey with my healthcare team. As I have also experienced severe depression and anxiety in my life, and I believe that these are connected to my eating disorder, I also have tried my best to heal these conditions by addressing the following areas:
- Mental thought process: I studied cognitive-behavioral therapy and Gestalt psychotherapy while at medical school. Also, deep breathing exercises and yoga have helped me from an Ayurvedic perspective by helping me move out of my head and become more connected to my heart and body. Many First nation healers I have seen say that “the journey from the head to the heart is the shortest distance, but takes the longest for many to walk.”
- Emotional: Dealing with my past “hurts” – in my case, adoption, has been a huge component of my healing journey, as well as my parents’ divorce and ostracization from my family as I have conditions in the “mental” realm. I grew up with a grandfather and aunt that died of Huntington ’s chorea, so I knew firsthand what it was like to live with the stigma of a brain disorder. I just did not like being the one with one! My training in Gestalt therapy was instrumental in my healing journey, as well as seeing a licensed psychologist in 1998 for an entire year (one visit per week). I also did group therapy for a year in 1999 through my psychiatrist. Emotional therapy is an ongoing process that I continue to this day with my health care team.
- Genetic: I sought to find my biological family in 1992 after the BC government changed the regulations and made contact an “open” process. My sole intention of finding my birth parents and extended family members was to find answers to questions regarding my health history.
- Environment: I changed where I lived, did a detox, tried to eat organic to decrease pesticide exposure, and did a variety of testing through my naturopathic doctor (i.e. heavy metals, food intolerances, salivary hormones, thyroid and neurotransmitter testing).
- Miasmatic: This is homeopathic term which means an inherited energetic trait. It takes into consideration the emotional state of both parents while an infant is developing in their mother’s womb. There is recent scientific research on this in Dr. Gabor Mate’s book on addiction. For me, I saw a world-renowned homeopath and naturopathic physician in 2004 when I experienced a debilitating depression.
- Spiritual: The spirit in you is your life form. When studying anatomy, I dissected a cadaver – the difference between a cadaver and me is life flow. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, this is referred to as “chi” or life energy. It is my personal belief that a connection to a spirit, whatever your chosen practice is, is critical and vital to healing yourself and the current state of the planet.
5. What led to your recovery?
Do we ever recover? I am not so sure. This has been a huge part of my life, either consciously or subconsciously for quite some time. I said to my husband just the other day on Dec 29th when I was violently ill with food poisoning. He said to me as I was writhing in pain “Try vomiting”….I know he was trying to help me and my response surprised me. Through my tears of pain I uttered “I can’t, I am a recovering bulimic. I have to wait for nature to take its course.”
My comment surprised me as I had the belief that I WAS recovered, yet, I still have these humdinger thoughts that stop me in my tracks. As such, I like to think that I am and will always be “in recovery.”
6. What were the toughest parts of your recovery and how did you get through them?
For me, resisting the urge to purge after bingeing has been a challenge, as well as stopping long enough to ask myself if I really wanted to eat what I was about to eat. I found Geneen Roth’s books extremely helpful – Breaking Free from Compulsive Eating and When Food is Love. I recommend them to all my patients that either have an eating disorder or who are struggling to manage their weight. I also feel that cognitive-behavioral therapy, Gestalt therapy and compassion-focused therapy have been beneficial for me.
I am proud at how far I have come. For example, I used to not be able to keep any “junk” food in the house as I would eat it all in one sitting, probably late at night when I didn’t want to. I learned to stop and ask myself: “What emotion are you feeding? What do you really need right now?” I would try to look at the underlying emotion or behavior behind the eating pattern. I realized that if I addressed the underlying emotional need or changed the behavior behind the eating pattern, then maybe the symptom of my disordered eating could be tackled. Often, we are eating because we are stressed, emotional, upset, hurt or frustrated. I also learned to love myself enough to change the unhealthy patterns that were keeping me stuck.
7. Do you still struggle with eating disordered thoughts and behaviors? If so, how do you overcome them?
I would say yes, but not as much as in the past. Another technique I learned that has been helpful is a called “The 5-Minute Rule” from cognitive-behavioral therapy. Basically, when you want to eat something or continue eating something that isn’t fueling you positively, just stop and say to that part of yourself that wants to start or continue eating “why don’t you wait 5 minutes and if you still feel like you want to have that, then go for it.”
Life is not about denying or depriving yourself. It is about learning to listen to yourself and becoming aware of your actions in each moment. I often found that after 5 minutes, when I checked in with that part of myself that wanted to binge so desperately before, the answer now was: “No, thank you, I am full and no longer need that.” It takes time, but eventually, you will engage in behaviors that don’t come with guilt feelings attached. Also, with increased awareness, you learn to eat until you are full as you ask yourself with each bite if you want to continue eating and you thoroughly chew your food by putting your fork down between bites allowing yourself time to actually taste each bite by eating slower.
Last month, I read a wonderful book called In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan that I have found extremely helpful. His tag line for the book is simple: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Thank you, Christina, so much for sharing your story with us! Please stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow when Christina talks about eating disorder myths, how families can help and what resources she finds valuable.
Tartakovsky, M. (2010). Eating Disorder Recovery: Q&A with Dr. Christina Bjorndal. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 14, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/weightless/2010/01/eating-disorder-recovery-qa-with-dr-christina-bjorndal/