Today, I’m honored to share Jenn Lawlor’s story of recovering from anorexia. Jenn is the founder of a website called “The Best Body Ever is Yours,” where she interviews individuals who’ve fully recovered from an eating disorder.
(She recently interviewed one of my favorite people, Julie Parker, who talks about her work helping people reach full recovery.)
Below, Jenn talks about how dieting triggered her eating disorder, how her parents intervened and what helped her recovery.
What struck me from her story is not only her unyielding commitment to getting better, but the importance of familial support. It’s the support of her parents — who got her into treatment — and later her husband that would play a pivotal role in her recovery.
Q: Please tell us a bit about yourself.
A: The most significant achievements of my life include: (1) being a mother to three boys whom I adore, (2) loving my 13 years of marriage to my best friend in the world—Zach, and (3) being fully recovered for over 10 years from a 15 year struggle with anorexia.
Q: How and when did your eating disorder start?
A: My eating disorder started when I was 12 years old. My dad made a comment about my bum being like “a plump roast” and my best friend at the time, Diane, got a scale. I started weighing myself daily at Diane’s house and shortly after, Diane and I decided to go on a “stop eating junk food” for a week diet. A week of dieting turned into more for me, and before long I was a full-fledged anorexic. I spent a good part of my high school years in the hospital, struggling.
Q: What motivated you to seek treatment?
A: At the time, I didn’t want treatment. My parents and doctors insisted upon it. My parents insisted on treatment because my mom was worried about the amount of weight that I lost, and my refusal to eat regular meals. My mom could see that anorexia had taken control of my life and she was scared that I would die without inpatient treatment and re-feeding.
Q: Eating disorders are tremendously treatable. But the key is to find the right treatment. How did you go about seeking services?
A: I was in the depths of anorexia from 1986-1988 in Toronto, Canada. At the time, there weren’t any eating disorder treatment centers.
So, my parents started my treatment with my family physician, who then recommended we seek further treatment at the Toronto Sick Children’s Hospital where I saw a doctor who had more experience with issues such as teenage depression, self harm and eating disorders.
My doctor worked closely with my mother to monitor my health and weight. I was admitted to inpatient treatment several times, each time when my doctor felt my health was at risk.
Q: What helped you recover?
A: It’s difficult for me to say exactly what I did to fully recover. The process was a slow and gradual one. I do know that much of my recovery was inspired by me wanting to avoid negative consequences. For example: After my final inpatient treatment (5 months on a psychiatric ward), I made a promise to myself that I would NEVER let my weight fall below a level that required inpatient treatment. I hated being in the hospital.
So, I made sure I didn’t end up back there. I think this was very good incentive for me to not let my eating disorder spiral out of control. I kept myself at a very low weight for about a decade, not recovering, but making sure I didn’t go back into the hospital.
When I met [my husband] Zach and we married, Zach confronted my eating disorder and some of the underlying issues causing it, such as a lack of boundaries and uncontrolled anger. Zach was patient with me, but he also made it clear that he would not tolerate being treated unfairly.
At one point, a year into our marriage, I had a realization that I was either going to do some inner work or I was going to lose my husband.
So, again, a negative consequence (losing my husband) incentivized me to work REALLY hard to deal with the underlying issue of a lack of self-love that was resulting in me lashing out at the people that were closest to me.
I really felt like during this time, I was re-training my darker side—giving that side of myself compassion and love, while firmly disciplining her. I resolutely decided that I would find healthier ways to express my emotions than to lash out at the man I loved. I think this also taught me how to do the same for myself.
Finally, when Zach and I decided we wanted to start a family, I did the final steps of my recovery. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I did NOT want to bring even one tiny morsel of my eating disordered thoughts/habits into my life as a mother.
So, before getting pregnant (which I wasn’t even sure I could do, since I’d experienced amenorrhea for more than a decade), I decided to take several months away from work. I really worked on myself, visited the depths of my inner self, turned over every rock and let go of the pain. I still recall sitting on the beach in front of our house, wailing for hours… just letting it all go. It was like a cleanse.
Pregnancy challenged me—my body was changing before my eyes. I was getting softer, gaining weight. At first it was scary and I didn’t know if I could handle it, but then, like all the other times, I made a decision.
I decided that I wanted to be a healthy mother. And in order for me to do so, I couldn’t hold onto anorexia any longer. So, I let it go. Just like that, I let it go.
Of course, anorexia tried to creep back into my life. But, like with everything else I’ve ever done, when I make a solid decision to do something, there really isn’t any turning back. And for me, anorexia is just no longer an option in my life. There are better ways for me to deal with challenging times and feelings of inadequacy.
With little steps, and Zach’s patience, I did the work to reach full recovery.
Stay tuned tomorrow for part two of our interview!