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, here and 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 [email protected]

I’m happy to present Part 2 of my interview with Kate Thieda about her recovery. If you didn’t get to read the first part, you can check it out here.

Below, Kate talks about the hardest parts of recovery, how she deals with eating disordered thoughts, how families can help, some of her favorite books and more!

5. What were the toughest parts of your recovery and how did you get through them?

As I said, for every step forward in treatment, there is usually a step or two back. The very beginning of seeking treatment was probably the hardest, and it was very tempting to give up. I had made a commitment to my mentor, though, so while I was basically on my own (she lived in a different state), I was determined to at least prove that I had tried. There were lots of tears in the first few months.

When I moved here in 2007, I was enrolled in graduate school in the top program for my field in the country. I had been warned multiple times that it would be challenging, but I was not in the physical or mental shape to be successful. My eating disorder went into overdrive and I couldn’t cope. I dropped out of the program after only three weeks. I was actually granted a medical leave of absence because my program directors thought I was suffering from depression, which I was, but I didn’t mention that an eating disorder was at the true heart of the problem. So here I was, only a few months living in a new state, and I had nothing—the dream of attending this particular graduate school I had worked so hard for was gone, and I had nothing: no job, no friends, and no self-esteem left. It was a really tough time and my depression worsened rapidly. I began seeing my therapist twice a week, and my doctor made a med change to help lift my mood. It was a dark few months before I found a job and rejoined the “land of the living.”

Being honest with my treatment team helped a lot. After all, I was paying them to help me, so what good would it do to not be truthful about my struggles? I trusted that my team would do what needed to be done to get me through the tough time—I didn’t have to do it alone. My advice to others is to make sure you feel the same way about your healthcare providers—if you don’t trust them completely, you need to find someone else to support you.

Taking things one by one, whether it’s one minute at a time, one meal at a time, or one day at a time, makes a difference. Mindfulness training can help you learn this skill.

6. Do you still struggle with eating disordered thoughts and behaviors? If so, how do you overcome them?

I’d be lying if I said no to this question, but at the same time, I can honestly say that when they do come up, I now have the skills to recognize them for what they are and, 99 percent of the time, not act on them. Here’s an example: A few weeks into this semester, I began wearing clothes that I had not worn since last spring, and my pants were on the snug side. The latent eating disorder voice piped up and said, “Oh, no problem—I know how to take care of this,” meaning that I should restrict my food and increase my exercise, and the weight would come off. My voice, however, said, “No, I’m not willing to do that,” and I called my dietitian, whom I hadn’t needed to see in over a year, and set up an appointment. Ultimately, we decided that I didn’t need to do anything—that my body was settling at a new set point, and that I was not willing to “diet” just to make my clothes fit. My dietitian was amazed at the change in attitude from the person she had started counseling two years prior.

A technique that one of my therapists taught me to use when I was being plagued by distressing thoughts was to write dialogues between me and the eating disorder. This can be a tremendously empowering exercise, as it helps you to separate out what you want versus what the eating disorder is trying to make you think you want.

Something else that helped me was to make two lists: “Who and What I Am” and “People Who Love Me Just the Way I Am.” For the first one, define who you really are, such as “good friend,” “animal lover,” “writer,” “Cubs fan,” etc. instead of labeling yourself as your eating disorder. The other list should be obvious. Think hard and include everyone. The list will be much longer than you think. Add to both lists as new ideas come to you.

7. What are some misconceptions about eating disorders?

The blog you did on myths covered most of them. Here are a few more:

If you ask the freshmen at the university where I now go to school, they would tell you that eating disorders are fueled by the media—their portrayals of skinny women “having it all.” That may be a piece of it, but that’s not the whole story. No person in this country is insulated from the media, but not every person develops an eating disorder. The person who develops an eating disorder has other issues going on psychologically. The food and exercise behaviors are attempts to manage the deeper pain inside.

Another misconception is that eating disorders can be resolved without professional help. There are tons of self-help books, websites and other materials out there, but again, because eating disorders are a symptom of an underlying psychological issue, people need to work with professionals to uncover the deeper problems and work through those.

8. Many people don’t realize the physical consequences of eating disorders, including electrolyte imbalances, irregular heartbeat, osteoporosis, severe tooth decay and digestive problems. Did you experience any health problems as a result of your eating disorder?

My menstrual cycle stopped for fifteen months after about eight months of engaging in eating disorder behaviors. While I am pretty sure there were no long-lasting effects on my fertility, I won’t really know unless I try to conceive. I do know of other people who have struggled with fertility because of either past or present eating disorders.

Also, about two years ago, I was going through a tough time with my eating disorder, and I had not been eating appropriately. I was working in a local emergency room at the time, and I contracted gastroenteritis, which, in layman’s terms, is really, really bad stomach flu. I was hospitalized for two days, but not just because of the gastroenteritis—my potassium level was so low, I was in the danger zone for having a heart attack. They gave me potassium infusions through an IV, and it burned throughout my entire body! I begged from them to take the IV out, but they couldn’t—I needed the treatment. Although I was only hospitalized for two days, I was sick for weeks afterwards. It wasn’t specifically an eating disorder-related hospitalization, but I am sure I would not have gotten that sick if I had been taking care of myself.

9. What can family members do to help a loved one with an eating disorder?

I can only imagine how difficult it must be to watch a family member struggle with an eating disorder. It’s hard to understand what is going on in the person’s head and to not get sucked into the problem as well. It’s a fine line to walk between being overprotective and responding appropriately to the person’s needs.

A few key points for family members to remember, in no particular order:

  • It’s not about food. As I said earlier, food is just a way to exert control over a life that feels as if it has none.
  • It’s not your fault. You are not a bad parent/brother/sister/friend/significant other because this is happening. Don’t focus on what could have been done to prevent it; look forward to what needs to be done to help.
  • The patient needs professional help. If you are lucky, the person recognizes she needs help and is willing to get treatment. Unfortunately, this is not often the case, and you may have to be the bad guy and insist. Do it anyway! Better to take the person for evaluation and find out you were wrong in your suspicions of an eating disorder then have to plan a funeral because you looked the other way. Yes, that’s blunt, but it’s also reality.
  • Patience. Eating disorders don’t appear overnight and they don’t disappear overnight, either. Be prepared for a long recovery process, with many victories and setbacks.
  • No shaming! Eating disorders in and of themselves are punishing—putting the patient on the spot and making her feel bad about her behaviors will not help her “snap out of it.”
  • Educate yourself. There are tons of resources out there, from books and websites to support groups for family and friends. Utilize them. Ask questions, although I would recommend that you pose your questions to qualified professionals, not the patient, who may not be able to put words to her experience or may not know the answer.

10. Anything else you’d like readers to know about eating disorders?

  • Eating disorders can affect anyone, at any time in their life. They don’t only affect wealthy white teenage girls.
  • Your eating disorder is not your friend, and neither is anyone else who wants you to maintain your behaviors.
  • One in ten people with anorexia will die from the disease. Count up your Facebook or Twitter friends and divide by ten…and then imagine having that many people gone forever because of an eating disorder.
  • Advocate for yourself! You deserve the best treatment available. If something isn’t working, speak up. People with eating disorders tend to be people-pleasers, but you don’t have the luxury of being nice. Practice using your voice and ask for what you need and want. It may literally make the difference between life and death.
  • Some of my favorite books that helped in my recovery:
  • Recovery is probably the most difficult thing you will ever do, but you are worth it!

Thanks so much, Kate, for an insightful and inspiring interview!!