I so enjoyed a recent chance to share more about my work in mentoring for eating disorders recovery with Ashley Solomon, PsyD, who publishes the wonderful “Nourishing the Soul” blog. I thought I would share our two-part interview with you here as well. Thanks Ashley for such a great resource!
Nourishing the Soul, Part I:
I’m thrilled to be able to share with all of you today my interview with Shannon Cutts, author of Beating Ana: How to Outsmart Your Eating Disorder and Take Your Life Backand creator of MentorCONNECT. If you’re not familiar with Shannon, you are truly missing out! She is a renowned speaker, intuitive writer, and award-winning musician. She is also someone who has struggled herself with eating disorders and has a beautiful message of hope that she shares through various media. In Part I of our interview, Shannon talks about her own recovery journey and why recovery isn’t optional.
NTS: You are a person in recovery, a speaker, author, songwriter, and advocate. What was instrumental for you in getting to be the person who you are today?
SC: Well, the first thing I can say is that who I am today continues to be a work-in-progress. When I first started my recovery journey I had no plans to do what I do today in terms of advocacy and outreach work for eating disorders recovery. Since I became ill at age 11 and progressed all the way through recovery before I ever met another person who had struggled with an eating disorder, I had little formal information about my disease and only the support of one person – my mentor – to figure out how to do the hard work of recovery.
So I emerged from my recovery journey understanding just how vital, how critical, the presence of even one caring, supportive, encouraging person can be in the life of someone who is struggling to recover.
NTS: You say frequently that “relationships replace eating disorders.” Explain what you mean.
SC: Funny you should ask that. In my own recovery journey, I noticed that I had definitely developed a “relationship” of sorts with the eating disordered thoughts and coping skills, and with that voice in my head that I later began to call “the eating disorder voice”.
So instead of turning to friends and family members, in time I turned only to my eating disorder for comfort, advice, and understanding. I spent so much time immersed in maintaining my eating disorder that it became my primary source of companionship – I didn’t even remember that I was a “me” anymore. I had become my eating disorder in my mind. I think that is what is behind the phenomenon we see on social media sites such as Facebook, where there are so many profile pages that contain the name “Ana” or “Mia”. That identity between the person and the eating disorder voice becomes so intertwined that it takes over their awareness of who they are and what their life is about.
NTS: Tell us about meeting your own mentor and how that relationship played a role in your recovery.
SC: After a health crisis that finally woke me up to the life or death struggle I was in, I met my first mentor. When I met her, I suddenly had the opportunity for a contrast – the experience of a different type of equally strong relationship. I also noticed that my mentor was a lot nicer than my eating disorder. She was more loving, more encouraging, and I noticed that I preferred how she spoke to me, and how I felt when I spent time with her. And since by then I was fighting like a dog to recover, I was really paying attention to anything that could help me to replace the eating disorder with some other kind of relationship.
Also, the relationship I had with my mentor and the relationship I had with my eating disorder were not complementary – I began to realize I had to choose either one or the other. Because of my mentor, I am alive today. She reached out to me and offered me her support, and that is why I am the person I am today. And that is why I do the work that I do today.
NTS: What about for those individuals who struggle with eating or weight issues but may not have an eating disorder. What role might a mentor or relationships play for them?
SC: Interestingly, my first mentor did not struggle with an eating disorder. But she did know what it was like to be confronted by a significant, life-threatening, sanity-threatening challenge, and she taught me that we are the equal to any challenge life hands us, and that it is human to struggle – she would always say to me “everybody has something”.
Today I remind others of this same truth. We all have something we struggle with. Which means we all have the ability to benefit from mentoring. And we all have the ability to offer our support to others in appropriate ways as well. I tell my mentees that sometimes they are ahead of me in some areas and yet in this one area where I am recovered and they are still struggling, I am well-placed to mentor them. On MentorCONNECT, we always remind each member that no one of us is too healthy to still need support ourselves, or too sick to have something to give.
I would encourage anyone who is struggling with eating issues that impact their quality of life, sense of self worth, body image, self esteem, and ability to feel enthusiastic and hopeful about life and their dreams, to reach out for support.
NTS: Tell us about MentorCONNECT. What was the inspiration and how does it work?
SC: When I first started sharing my story, it was at the direct invitation of a young woman who came to one of my music concerts. Eventually I agreed to speak at that young woman’s treatment center, and after that I began to receive letters from some of the women I talked to. I started informally mentoring these women, and I was simply shocked to find out that there were still so few recovered voices sharing hope and providing daily living proof that recovery IS possible.
After awhile other recovered persons found my information and they wrote to me, asking how they could serve and support those who were struggling like I was doing. They would write “how can I do what you are doing” and that is what made me aware of how important mentoring really is to people in recovery from eating disorders on either side of the spectrum – it was important for those who struggle to receive, and equally important for those who had recovered to find a way to give and also stay connected to a recovery community as well.
I had some colleagues and I asked some of them to help me brainstorm a type of global portal where recovered persons who wanted to be mentors could meet recovering persons who wanted a mentor and connect. We spent a year and a half brainstorming what is now MentorCONNECT.
I still remember how, just a few days after we launched, I stayed up until 4am processing 22 new applications in one day. It was awe-inspiring to watch… that hunger people had to accept support, to give support, and to connect in a community of peers who truly understand.
In MentorCONNECT, we have lots of training and support for our mentoring teams, as well as lots of daily and weekly group mentoring activities that the community can do together. And we are very strict about the type of content that can be shared during group mentoring activities – we do not allow any triggering information about weights, numbers, behaviors, medical details, etc – and we are also very clear about the difference between a mentor and a treating professional for our members’ safety.