I regularly feature Q&As with individuals who’ve recovered from eating disorders, binge eating, negative body image and 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].
Here’s part two of my interview with Elizabeth Short, who writes the blog Finding Hope, about her recovery from an eating disorder. Elizabeth struggled with an eating disorder for 16 years. Though her eating disorder was severe and she suffered a long time, Elizabeth was able to recover. Like other women who’ve shared their stories on Weightless, she’s another example of the real hope – and recovery – that exists when you find effective treatment, commit yourself to it and work hard.
As she writes on her blog: “After my last treatment (Nov 2008-March 2009), I finally feel that I am in recovery…and it’s hard! Recovery is a daily commitment. But I’m here to tell you, it’s totally worth it!”
Below, Elizabeth talks about the important insight she’s gained from her struggles and recovery, how her family’s support was critical, what recovery means to her (her answer is incredibly powerful!) and so much more.
If you didn’t get a chance to yet, check out the first part here.
Q: Do you still struggle with eating disordered thoughts and behaviors? If so, how do you overcome them?
A: Oh, how I wish I could say no to this question! But the answer is yes. I have to stay proactive in my recovery; which means daily prayer, utilizing my “Letting Go” journal, and weekly sessions with my therapist and nutritionist.
My “Letting Go” journal is just a regular journal where I write down the things I need to let go of for each day. It might be an old distorted belief, a behavior, an unhealthy relationship…anything that could get in the way.
When the thoughts and/or behaviors do slip in, the first thing I need to do is tell someone supportive. This helps with accountability. I try then to get underneath. I look at ED thoughts and behaviors as a “red flag”— it means there is something going on that I’m either not aware of or not acknowledging.
Usually, if I deal with whatever that might be, I will no longer feel the need for my eating disorder. If I can’t do this in the moment, then distract, distract, distract. Go to movie, hang out with a friend, play with my dogs — whatever works to get my thoughts onto something else and then I can take it into my next therapy session and figure out what’s going on.
Q: 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?
A: Yes, I am still dealing with health problems related to my eating disorder. Electrolyte imbalance and irregular heartbeat were the most serious health consequences I experienced. I constantly had low potassium levels from purging, and was placed on a potassium drip five or six times. People don’t realize that low potassium can lead to your heart stopping. It is very serious and very dangerous.
I did have an irregular heartbeat, a slow heartbeat, and was diagnosed with Atrial Fibrillation at one time. Much of my tooth enamel is gone, which has led to increased cavities and sensitivity. My thyroid, adrenal glands, and digestive system are all still struggling to function correctly. But with everything my body went through, I feel extremely lucky to be alive.
Q: What insights have you taken away from your struggles and recovery?
A: I have learned that unpredictability, the very thing that makes life so scary, also makes life exciting. I can’t control the future, but I can make the most of what’s in front of me in at any given moment. If I can look for the blessings in each day, I will find them. I have learned that connection — to God, to myself, to others and to the world around me — is what makes life fulfilling.
My eating disorder isolated me from any sort of connection. I was not living, just merely existing. I now believe the most important thing I can possibly do with my life is show love and compassion to other people. I have realized that everyone has hurt or is hurting, in some way or another. We are all doing the best we can with what we have.
We are all human. We all make mistakes and that’s okay. My struggles opened my mind and heart to people and situations I never would have otherwise experienced. For this, I will forever be grateful.
Q: What can family members do to help a loved one with an eating disorder?
A: I think that eating disorders are family illnesses, and therefore, family therapy and involvement during treatment is of utmost importance. One of the first things parents can do is enter counseling for themselves. I know from my own parents that finding out your child has a potentially fatal illness is horrifying. It’s important to have someone to discuss this with so that all of your anxiety isn’t being thrown onto your child.
Individuals with eating disorders often feel guilty for the world and guilt can strengthen the disorder. When I knew my parents were scared, I felt guilty for creating that fear. Besides being a sounding board, a therapist can also help parents know how to best to help their child.
I definitely needed support from my parents, but what is support to someone with an eating disorder? Support is not enabling, but it’s not arguing or creating a power struggle over food either. It is listening, really listening. It is accepting your child’s reality — you may not get how your child could possibly feel fat or ashamed, but you can accept that it’s real for him or her. It is validating that feeling even when you don’t get it. It is understanding that the family dynamics probably contributed to creating the eating disorder and change needs to happen within the entire family unit — not just the eating disordered individual.
And it is being patient and persistent. Eating disorder treatment is often a long, difficult process. Don’t expect things to change in weeks, months or possibly even years, but at the same time don’t give up. Recovery is possible. I am so incredibly thankful to have parents that did anything and everything it took to get me well, even when it meant doing work themselves.
Q: What resources (books, websites) do you recommend for individuals struggling with an eating disorder?
Specific to eating disorders:
- “Eating in the Light of the Moon” by Anita Johnston
- “Life Without Ed” and “Goodbye ED, Hello Me” both by Jenni Schaefer
- “Bulimia: A Guide to Recovery” by Lindsey Hall and Leigh Cohn
These next three that were very helpful for me are not specifically about eating disorders, but about the underlying emotions.
- “The Dance of Intimacy” by Harriet Lerner
- “The Dance of Fear” by Harriet Lerner
- “Letting Go of Shame” by Ronald and Patricia Potter-Efron
These next two are for those seeking to believe in a God of unconditional love and acceptance. This was an important aspect of my recovery.
Q: What does recovery mean to you?
A: I’m going to answer this question with an excerpt from my book. I wrote this about five years ago when I was at the very height of my disorder and I would answer it the same today.
“Recovery means life. Recovery means believing the things that I know in my head — that I am completely and totally loved, accepted, forgiven, and chosen by God. It is waking up each morning thankful for a new day to be alive. It is trusting in the uncertainty of each day and believing in whatever the future holds. It is looking at each day as an opportunity for growth, love, and adventure.
It is knowing that in living a full life, heartache is inevitable, but so is love. It is feeling- even when it is painful- but knowing that to truly feel joy and happiness I must also feel pain and sorrow. It is being able to safely express my feelings.
It is full of healthy relationships. First with God — trusting in His love, grace, and sovereignty. Second with myself- accepting who I am and loving and respecting myself. Third with my family- having healthy boundaries and being able to accept their love and support while maintaining my own separate identity. Fourth with friends- opening up, sharing myself, knocking down the walls and experiencing intimacy and connection.
It is letting others in. It is encouraging and being encouraged, supporting and being supported. It is having these close relationships, but being able to say no when things are busy or stressful.
It is taking time to pray, to read, to take a walk, watch TV, journal, take a bubble bath, or just sit still. It is being present in each moment, good or bad, and just experiencing what is happening. It is not about doing, it is about being. A life in recovery is not defined by a certain location, a certain job, a certain lifestyle- it is being at peace with myself and with whatever comes my way. It is letting go of the inner turmoil and chaos. It is letting go of the paralyzing fear that keeps me stuck.
It is being healthy enough physically and emotionally to give of myself to others. It is experiencing true freedom instead of imprisonment. It is a life of love, acceptance, and compassion instead of judgment. It is resting in God’s hands and experiencing His presence in the world around me.”
Q: What are some misconceptions about eating disorders?
A: The two most common misconceptions that I have found are:
- Eating disorders are not about food or weight. The food and weight are distractions from the real issues. It is much easier to focus on something we can control than to deal with things that seem out of our control.
- A person does not have to look sick to be sick. I walked around for many years with an eating disorder and looked perfectly healthy. This is why many people do not get the help they need.
Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about eating disorders or your story?
A: The most important thing I want readers to hear from my story is that there is hope. I titled my book and my blog “Finding Hope” because there were so many times that I felt hopeless. It took me three times in treatment before ever having one successful day on my own. There were times when I prayed for my disorder to kill me because I didn’t believe I could have a life without it. I have been to the very bottom of eating disorder hell and I am living proof that recovery is possible. Do not give up. Treatment is long and painful, but it is so worth it. There is a beautiful life waiting.
“Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly” -An Old Proverb
Again, I’m so grateful to Elizabeth for wanting to share her story and spread a positive and hopeful message! Thank you!
Today’s favorite post. “Second Chances” by Melissa at Finding Melissa. An absolute must-read.