On Eating Disorder Recovery, Relapse & MentorCONNECT: Q&A with Shannon Cutts
A few weeks ago, I reviewed Beating Ana: How to Outsmart Your Eating Disorder and Take Your Life Back by Shannon Cutts and took some great advice from the book for my post on silencing the eating disorder voice. Today, I’m pleased to present an interview with Shannon! Below, we talked all about MentorCONNECT, Shannon’s book, eating disorder recovery and relapse. I think you’ll find Shannon’s responses very helpful. Even if you don’t have an eating disorder, you’ll certainly find many words of wisdom.
Before we dig in to the interview, I wanted to mention that MentorCONNECT welcomes women of any age. Currently, they have members of all ages, including women in their 40s and 50s.
1. How does MentorCONNECT work? For instance, what does a week or a month of mentoring look like for a mentee and a mentor?
MentorCONNECT was created to provide a forum where individuals in strong recovery (mentors) could match in one-on-one mentoring partnership with individuals still working towards recovery (mentees). We also encourage self-selection of mentor-mentee teams from within our mentoring pool because we have found that that produces the strongest, most effective matches, although we do provide assistance with matching upon request.
Our mentoring teams are responsible for setting the communication parameters for their partnership – so in answer to your question, it will look different for each team. Some teams like to have a short daily check-in followed by one longer email or phone call per week. Other teams will choose a different structure that works for their communications preferences and schedules. We do provide a comprehensive orientation packet that guides new teams in how to set these parameters and get set up for a successful partnership.
2. The foundation of your book, Beating Ana, and MentorCONNECT is that relationships replace eating disorders. You emphasize the importance of social support and volunteering your time to help sufferers when you’re strong in your recovery. How can individuals with eating disorders go about finding a support community that works for them? What are the options?
Well, this is the million-dollar question, isn’t it! You just highlighted the reason MentorCONNECT was created – because it is still quite difficult for many individuals to locate a supportive local community that is stable and has a strong contingent of recovered individuals who are active and participating in the community.
Because of this, I have spent quite a bit of time talking with people who ask me this question, and my recommendation is to focus on quality over quantity. When I was struggling, I literally had no one I could confide in for the first seven years of my battle. When I was eighteen, my life was changed forever because of the presence of my eating disorder, and that was when I met the woman who would be my first mentor (I talk a lot about her in Beating Ana). So then I had one – count them, one – person I could confide in who was willing to support me. But for me, after seven years of having nobody to talk to, having just that one person was unimaginable wealth to me!
Furthermore, while it is recommended and certainly ideal to have a full professional treatment team (medical doctor, psychiatrist, therapist, dietitian, ancillary professionals as needed) as well as several individuals who are willing to offer lay support (mentor, family members, friends, peers), this often is simply not possible. So I recommend focusing on building your network slowly – one person at a time. In the last chapter of Beating Ana (called “Just Get Over It”), I recommend locating just three people who can serve in sustained, supportive roles during the recovery process. In the chapter, I give ideas about how to approach those people, what to say, and how to proceed once they have agreed.
MentorCONNECT also offers a source of sustained support with several hundred members interacting online and a very strong recovered presence with all of our mentor members.
I also tell people who do not have support groups in their area to consider starting one! Where there is one person struggling and suffering in secrecy and silence, there are most likely others. Reach out into your community, share your story, raise awareness, ask for help, and you will give courage to the entire community to shed their secrets and come forward to support each other.
Finally, it is important to be aware that many times the reason for a perceived or real lack of support is because a) others don’t know you are struggling (let’s face it – we with the eating disorders are much more knowledgeable about eating disorders than those around us who don’t struggle similarly) or b) others do know but they don’t know how to approach us or how to help us. They may also fear prying or intruding without a direct invitation. Make it easier on those around you to help you by inviting them in.
3. Do MentorCONNECT and Beating Ana include all eating disorders, such as binge eating disorder and EDNOS (eating disorders not otherwise specified)?
Great question – thanks for asking! Beating Ana, despite the title, focuses not on anorexia but on eating disorders mentoring – and we have a fairly equal split amongst MentorCONNECT members between those who struggle with anorexia, bulimia, EDNOS and binge eating disorder. Some of our members also struggle with more than one type of eating disorder, as I did when I contracted first anorexia and later bulimia as well.
4. A very common issue that the many women who’ve shared their recovery stories on Weightless raise is the lack of information about recovery and what recovery actually looks like. What does recovery from eating disorders mean to you?
You are right – this is a question that arises quite often, because everyone wants to know what “recovery” means. My answer has evolved over the years, and I have been privileged to talk with so many hundreds of people about recovery, and what I now feel is the most accurate and respectful answer is “recovery is whatever you decide it is.”
Also, expect that your definition of recovery can and probably will change as you progress through your recovery journey. For instance, when I first started recovering, my definition was “get through the day without resorting to eating disordered behaviors to manage stress and life.” Later, as I got stronger and no longer turned to eating disordered behaviors very frequently, but was still having all kinds of eating disordered thoughts and desires, my definition became “quickly redirect body-centric eating disordered thoughts to identify and address what is really triggering me.”
Today, my definition of recovery is, “make the most of this gift of life and be kind to myself when life gets tough.” My goal is literally to be my own best friend, which is easy some days and tough other days (like when I disappoint myself). The important thing when defining recovery is to let your definition evolve with you – your definition should never limit or inhibit you, or lock you into the perfectionist black-or-white mindset of the eating disorder, but rather should serve your highest potential and expand your recovery horizons.
5. I loved the section on relapse in Beating Ana. Instead of viewing relapse as a setback, you view it as an opportunity to explore the reasons behind the relapse, to essentially check in with yourself and see what’s going on, so you can strengthen your recovery. In addition to exploring the reasons for your relapse, what other ways have you been able to minimize relapse?
Thanks for the kind words – no author ever gets tired of hearing “I loved the section about….”!
In terms of minimizing relapse, these days I am very aware of things I find particularly unpleasant to be exposed to … malls, for instance. While I no longer expect myself to look a certain way or fit into a certain size clothing, I do not at all appreciate having to walk through an entire mall that feels like strolling inside of a self-esteem-reducing fashion magazine. I don’t feel it is self-respectful to shop in stores where none of the display mannequins look like me. I prefer to shop at stores that don’t use mannequins!
Also, I am aware that reading fashion magazines does nothing particularly positive for either my self-esteem or my outlook, so I tend to avoid reading them.
My recommendation as far as minimizing relapse is again to really work on getting to know ourselves. Whether we have ever had an eating disorder or not, we are all human and we all have things that bug us – things that seem to make us feel small, things that re-injure old wounds – and most of the time exposing ourselves to those things is really not necessary. It’s like that old saying, “why are you standing in the fire expecting not to get burned?” And while it is perfectly understandable why we might want to be able to be exposed to every single thing that has ever triggered us and experience that we can stay placid and unmoved, is that really the best use of our recovery time and energy?
To my mind, it is much preferable to replace those types of situations and relationships with healthier, more life- and self-affirming people, places, and things that reflect the recovered me!
Thanks so much, Shannon, for your insight! Stay tuned for part two of my interview with Shannon tomorrow.
What does recovery mean to you? How have your relationships helped you in your recovery? How do you work to minimize relapse? Whether you have an eating disorder or not, how do you deal with magazines and mannequins?
Tartakovsky, M. (2010). On Eating Disorder Recovery, Relapse & MentorCONNECT: Q&A with Shannon Cutts. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 28, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/weightless/2010/03/on-eating-disorder-recovery-relapse-mentorconnect-qa-with-shannon-cutts/