Eating Disorder Recovery: Q&A with Kendra Sebelius, A Voice in Recovery
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.
I’m really excited to present this interview with Kendra Sebelius, also known as A Voice in Recovery. Kendra is a very active eating disorder advocate. She has both a fantastic Facebook page and Twitter account, where she posts relevant news, research, articles, blog posts and discussions. I think she does an amazing job. Being an eating disorder advocate is a full-time job and Kendra already has a demanding full-time job as an accountant.
Below, she talks about her struggles with eating disorders and substance abuse and her road to recovery. She shares some important insights about emotions and her keys to recovery.
Tomorrow, in part two, Kendra talks about misconceptions in the media, books and websites she recommends for recovery, how parents can help and more!
Like every woman who’s shared her experiences and journey to recover from eating disorders, Kendra is incredibly courageous and generous in telling us her story. Thank you so much, Kendra!
1. Please tell us a bit about yourself.
I am an eating disorder and substance abuse survivor. I am a daughter, a sister, a cousin, a girlfriend, an advocate and a soon-to-be aunt. I have a BA in Business Economics. I currently am a Senior Accountant/Billing Specialist at a consulting company that helps restructure and re-organize companies in financial distress. This job provides me the means to go back to school through Harvard Extension to take psychology courses to find my path in education. I do not know if it will lead me to a masters of social work, clinical psych, Ph.D, PsyD, or what, and I am OK with that at this point.
I want to help people. Whatever path I am taking on in this journey of life, I will find a way to help people who struggle with eating disorders. I am a full time Advocate for Eating Disorder and Body Image Awareness. I have been through a lot with my addictions, and being in recovery is the greatest blessing I have been given in life. It is through recovery, relapse, and recovery again that I have discovered my life path. Advocacy, blogging, tweeting, volunteering, is all a “side” passion to me. I think of it as round the clock work – but ultimately the most rewarding thing in my life.
On a personal side, I am a Scorpio, who is extremely passionate and emotional. I am a strongly opinionated person who is learning to be open to different opinions in the world of advocacy. I think advocacy has been one of my biggest challenges in the last year. I continue to grow as a person through advocacy. I love traveling, and hope to one day travel around the world. I love road trips, good books, baths, listening to music, journaling, making jewelry, and sitting by bodies of water to relax. I am a California transplant in Boston and have grown a lot since the move a year and a half ago. I feel I have grown up in many ways with this huge change in my life.
I have a wonderful partner, who is pursuing his education to apply to med school. I have supportive parents, and will be an aunt in a few months! Other random facts: I have danced since I was three, and competed up until high school. I have done yoga exactly once, and am currently trying to find time in my busy schedule to get to more classes. I love nature, and the beach. For me the beach brings a little bit of sanity! I also make self-care and ME time a priority. I tend to take on more projects than I can handle and am constantly re-evaluating my goals. I have learned that self-care has to be a priority in my life, for my physical and mental health.
In the end, I am goofy, shy to new people, but once I get to know a person, I open up and won’t stop talking! I am a loyal friend, and am grateful for social media because I have gained friends I never would have foreseen in my life. Some of my closest friends I have met through Twitter and Facebook, and am so humbled by the support they give me on a daily basis.
2. How and when did your eating disorder start? What do you think contributed to it?
My disorder started in college. Like most college students I didn’t eat healthy and drank a lot on the weekends. I had gained some weight and went home the summer before my Junior year and for some reason one day after eating, decided to throw up my food. I did not know anyone who had an eating disorder, nor did I know much about eating disorders at the time. I honestly don’t know why one day I decided to start. I told my parents I wanted to lose weight or get healthy – I don’t remember the exact words. My dad and I started to play tennis every day – and so my pattern was to eat, throw up, and go play tennis. In this summer I dropped 25 pounds. I remember the feedback to the lost weight – how great I looked, how awesome I was for working out a lot, etc.
These comments basically fed the toxic behaviors and thoughts and I continued with my behaviors the entire summer. I honestly didn’t think there was ANYTHING wrong with what I was doing. I was so dissociated from myself – that with the purging, the workouts, and the not drinking – I thought this was the perfect way to lose weight. In three short months I had achieved what was impossible – lost weight and yet still able to eat any foods I loved.
Honestly at this point I did not feel dissociated from the eating – I still could taste the food, and it was pleasurable. I think this is the honeymoon period of the disorder. I did not experience any side effects, and focused on the weight, and the external compliments. I had danced since I was three, and was always slim and could eat what I wanted – but in college I stopped dancing, put on weight, was eating outside my family’s healthy eating habits, and drinking. This led me down a ten year struggle of an eating disorder.
I often think about what contributed to it. Was it going away to college, being around new people, in a new environment, drinking, eating poorly? But the longer I am in recovery, the easier it is to look to the past for some clues. I have always had a distorted perception of myself. Even when young, I would compare myself to others. I remember in high school thinking how heavy I was. I look back at these videos in absolute amazement. Before junior year I was a beanpole. I danced every day and had no body fat. I think it is from my distorted perception of self that the disorder began. In no way do I blame my parents: They always cooked meals, we ate healthy, and no one ever commented on weight or diets while growing up.
I think how we view ourselves is a large part of why we are possibly predisposed to an eating disorder. I also believe eating disorders are so complicated. I read research daily about eating disorders. I know there is a biological, chemical, cultural and genetic link. My mom struggled with anorexia in high school, but her struggle lasted a year and never returned.
Do I think it’s possible I had a genetic predisposition? Maybe. I think I was struggling with life, with the weight gain, and was trying to get control over my life in some way. Throwing up became like a drug of choice when I couldn’t control my life, for years to come. The rush, the euphoria, was addicting. I think it is hard to determine what exactly contributed to it. I feel I almost fell into the eating disorder by chance, and with the positive feedback of weight loss, it changed my neural pathways in the brain to seek it out, and also create a habit in my brain.
3. What motivated you to seek treatment?
I did not seek treatment. I had no desire to stop my behaviors. If you have read my blog, I had years of ambivalence in the disorder. I thought I wanted to recover, and created a MySpace page to help others also struggling. But it was a way to hide my behaviors once again. My parents had NO idea I had an eating disorder until years later, when I finally decided to tell them. For years I had had periods of extreme binge/purging, and periods where I felt I did not struggle with it. After college, I felt lost. I was drinking a lot, numbing my brain to the negative thoughts, and think I lost who I was for years.
I would not eat in order to drink and feel the effects more. I would drink, and wouldn’t think about the food. The eating disorder was a way to control, and the drinking was a way to avoid life and people. My parents saw the drinking, but in no way saw the eating disorder. It was something I could easily hide. I was in and out of mental health facilities in order to detox from extreme alcohol binges for a few years. I could have died several times due to the drinking and not eating. I believe while I was drinking, I also slipped into a more anorexic profile.
In the end I was never motivated to seek treatment…That is a sad reality. I was stuck in ambivalence for so long, and so dissociated from who I was, I honestly didn’t care to get better. But then I wanted to get better, I was sick of crying, of feeling like shit, of bleeding when throwing up, etc. At one point my body had started to shut down and while this should have been the “bottom,” it was not.
I wanted to get better, but didn’t want to let go of my behaviors. It was my parents who finally laid down a boundary I could no longer ignore. A year or so after they knew about the ED and were sick of the consequences of my drinking, they told me “You are either going to this facility for a month, or we are dropping you off at county” (the general county mental health center, which I had no desire to go to because I had no understanding of what this place was). That was the start of my recovery path. Once I got sober at a home detox, I went away for a month to get treatment.
4. Eating disorders are tremendously treatable but the key is to find the right treatment. How did you go about seeking services?
I had pursued a local mental health facility for detox, and outpatient for nearly a year before I went away for the month long “vacation” I like to call it. I found comfort in the detox – I was able to go away for a week, stop drinking, and all the while I could just restrict and not binge. I was always honest about the eating disorder in outpatient, but refused to stop drinking. I tried to stop throwing up, and I did.
The sad part is, I honestly thought if I stopped throwing up I would be cured. I had no understanding that limiting my food was a problem. My parents did research for a while on eating disorder treatment centers and those that dealt with dual diagnosis. Due to how costly it was, I was unable to go to a place that specialized in eating disorders, but my parents found one that would add individual therapy on a daily basis to meet with someone to get help for the eating disorder. It is here that I started to see how much the eating disorder ruled my life.
I struggled daily with eating healthy, but was unable to skip meals because I was being monitored. I finally understood why I drank, to shut up the voices in my head that struggled. I liked where I went because I was able to see people from all walks of life, with a variety of addictions, and in the end was surprised at how much I could relate. It didn’t matter our substance, but our toxic thought processes. I finally felt at home so to speak. I didn’t feel alone there.
5. What led to your recovery?
Once I got out of the month long treatment, I felt a little lost. I pursued recovery on my own. There weren’t many ED support groups, only OA (Overeaters Anonymous) ones, and I had a hard time relating to those meetings. I went to AA twice a day for six months just to make friends, and it was a young house, so I was able to create a healthy life, surrounded by people who also were in recovery. I loved the AA people at this one location, because again it did not matter what our disorder/addiction was, it was how we chose to deal with struggles in life that was the issue.
To hear people being so positive, and find a way to fight in recovery gave me hope. I also believe being accountable with my parents was the start of recovery. I told them ALL my tricks, all the things I would do, and told them to not only watch me, but call me out if I pursued them. I think it would have helped me to find a support group where I could talk about ED. I felt sort of split from myself, as if I did not belong anywhere because I struggled with both ED and drinking.
6. What were the toughest parts of your recovery and how did you get through them?
I believe ambivalence was a difficult part of recovery. Wanting to get help, while at the same time unwilling to give up the behaviors. I think when my parents finally put their foot down and sent me away, that was the greatest gift they could have given me. I had to stop playing the victim, I had to face that I had a choice in life, to follow the path to destruction, or choose a path of recovery.
I struggled in early recovery out of the month treatment center because I struggled with eating healthy, and in front of people. I would share the struggles with my parents. I honestly think being accountable helped me get through the struggles. I finally had a way to fight the negative thoughts, because I was unable to act on behaviors.
But in early recovery I felt a bit lost. I did not receive CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy), which has been very successful with BED (binge eating disorder) and bulimia. I had to find my own way in recovery. I couldn’t eat out at restaurants for a while, and my parents made foods that were healthy and what I thought were “safe” foods. I had a lot of emotions, and struggles, but I had made a choice that I did not want to die. I was very patient with myself, as were my parents. I had safe foods, didn’t go to the grocery store, and ate small portions. I had no ability to listen to my body, but I had chosen to follow recovery. I honestly believe that until people want to get better, it is hard to pursue recovery.
I also believed that if I did not act on behaviors I would be “better” and “healthy.” It took me a long time to be patient with myself, because while stopping behaviors is key, I had to also deal with my thoughts, feelings, and negative inner talk. I taught myself how to counter that voice, and fight it. I decided to stop listening, and stopped giving the voice power over my behavior.
I think naming my feelings, and being honest helped me. I decided to no longer hide what I was feeling. I decided to follow the path to becoming authentic. I think accountability, patience and learning how to ride feelings (and not avoid, ignore or run away from), and fight the voice were the key strengths in my recovery.
7. Do you still struggle with eating disordered thoughts and behaviors? If so, how do you overcome them?
I do. I have recently decided to start sharing these struggles with people in social media. I always fear, being an advocate, that I have to be perfect, and healthy, and not struggle, or else I am some fraud. I know this is absolutely ridiculous. I need to be authentic and real and honest about my struggles. Being accountable is my greatest strength in recovery. By sharing my struggles with others, I show others they are not alone. I also know that just because we have the thoughts and feelings, it does not make them true and we do not have to act on them.
I think in recovery I have learned how to express and be true to my feelings. I let myself feel everything. I do not fight my feelings or emotions, nor do I get stuck and trapped by them. I am able to self talk my way out of inner shit talk. We are human, and I think most people struggle at times with negative thoughts. I find it helpful to share with people the struggles, to write them down and process them, and ride the feelings wave without judgment.
I may feel sad, or feel stress, but I no longer cope in unhealthy ways. I get outside, I take a walk. I have found ways to help me through the struggles. I also do not struggle every day. I used to, and looking back now I am amazed at how far I have come in recovery. I can go to grocery stores, can eat in front of people, love going out to restaurants, and enjoy eating food again. I taste it, and can listen to my body.
I sometimes struggle lately with being so busy I forget to eat. I am now trying to work through whether I am using busy-ness as an excuse to allow dissociation. I can eat intuitively, and can eat whatever I want and know that my struggles do not define me.
I may have stinky-thinking sometimes, but those thoughts do not hold the power they once had over me. In the end it comes back to me being accountable and a driver in my own recovery. I recently went to NY and was at a restaurant where there were caloric postings. This had an extreme reaction in my head. I was actually surprised at my negative reaction to the menu. My first thought was “oh shit I can’t eat anything on here.” I have no control over that first instinctual thought. But I do have the ability to not listen to that voice and know it’s lying, and ridiculous. I was able to move on and enjoy the meal after some initial anxiety.
I personally do not, and have never followed any meal plan, and do not count calories, because for me that could be a trigger to slip into unhealthy controlling behaviors. Knowing myself, knowing my struggles and triggers is critical in my own recovery. I know what is good for me right now, and what is not. I know when to challenge myself and when to take care of myself. I always listen to myself. I take ME time. I talk to my partner about all my struggles. If I do not share my struggles, I leave them in my head, and that could be dangerous. Sharing my struggles makes me accountable to my behavior. I simply refuse to hide ever again.
Again a huge thank-you to Kendra for such an honest, authentic, inspiring interview. Stay tuned for part two tomorrow!
Tartakovsky, M. (2010). Eating Disorder Recovery: Q&A with Kendra Sebelius, A Voice in Recovery. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/weightless/2010/01/eating-disorder-recovery-qa-with-kendra-sebelius-a-voice-in-recovery/