This is part two of my interview with Shani Raviv, author of the award-winning book Being Ana: A Memoir of Anorexia Nervosa.
In part one, she discussed her inspiration for writing Being Ana and how she was able to separate anorexia from her identity.
Below, Shani reveals what helped her recover from a 10-year struggle with anorexia, the powerful role yoga played and what full recovery means to her. I especially love what she says about being full recovered.
Q: What helped you recover from your eating disorder?
A: First and foremost what helped me recover from Anorexia was my will to be well. It has to start with that. Nobody can force you into recovery. Recovery, although a personal journey, also requires tons of external support, time and money.
At age 24 when I started recovery, I stopped working and moved back home to live with my mom. She supported me financially and emotionally. My entire family was supportive of me dedicating years to getting well. They were non-judgmental, generous and patient with me.
My therapist is the first person I thank, however, in my book’s acknowledgements because having him to hold my hand as I took my first tentative steps into the world of recovery was invaluable.
His kindness and expertise in the field of eating disorders helped me slowly begin to confront my Anorexia and denial thereof and my sessions with him built a strong foundation for my recovery.
He was also the facilitator of a support group that I attended for years. This was probably the most powerful aspect of recovery because on a weekly basis I sat in a circle with other girls/women at different stages of their recovery from various eating disorders and we would echo each other’s feelings through our stories.
Something incredibly powerful and magical happens when you sit in group therapy––you become receptive to others’ pain, pain that mirrors yours, stories that put yours in perspective, and mostly you start to find compassion and empathy for others first and ultimately, you find this for yourself.
Yoga was also central to my recovery. I talk about this in the next question.
Q: In your book you also share how yoga helped you learn to honor your body and really yourself. Can you talk a bit about why you think yoga was so powerful?
A: I started yoga four years before I started recovery (though not for healthy reasons). Yoga was challenging and physically difficult due to my body’s stiffness and limitations and holding on.
Slowly, over years and years (I have been practicing yoga for 16 years now and it’s the one constant in my life) my body started to respect its limitations, its moods, and to open up and surrender.
Yoga and the concentration on breath calms the mind, eases anxiety and relaxes the body. It sounds clichéd but with the right intention and enough patience and respect for the process, it works.
Because Anorexia manifests on such a physical level, too, the anorexic’s body radically deteriorates through rigorous self-starvation or purging or over-exercising or all of these.
A friend of mine told me recently that she saw an anorexic woman at her gym and that “her body was so sad.” That’s a perfect example of how the body holds the displaced emotion.
So, anorexics are usually holding in all their pain, beneath the surface and this manifests somatically in a turning in of the body, a tensing and contracting of the muscles, in hunched shoulders to protect the heart, concave belly to turn inwards to isolation and protection, general physical rigidity.
This is not to say an anorexic can’t move. I danced myself to oblivion during my Anorexia while on drugs and pounded my body almost to death through aerobics high on adrenaline and endorphins but in the in between times, like an injured spider I retreated into my body.
Now, however, largely due to my yoga practice, I walk tall with my shoulders pulled back, an open heart, my body far more relaxed and at ease, my belly soft and feminine, and above all I am able to breathe deeply and freely.
Q: What does full recovery from anorexia mean to you?
A: This is an important question because over the years I have met many anorexics-in-recovery who have supposedly been “in recovery” for years and yet still exhibit disordered eating behavior, still have negative body image issues and deep seated insecurities, still count calories (even if it’s occasionally) and still haven’t found self-love and acceptance.
For me, full recovery means I don’t count calories, restrict my food intake, have dietary restrictions that are related to fat content. It means I made a concerted effort once I started recovery to unlearn and forget how many calories were in which food and I stopped reading food labels.
It also means that through therapy and over time I stopped associating experiencing not eating with a negative emotion. So, if I was sad or angry it didn’t mean I would not eat a meal because of it.
After about five years of recovery, full recovery also meant that I dropped the label I had been clinging to of being an anorexic-in-recovery and embraced just being me, without labels.
It means on a superficial level that I don’t scorn a part of my body that I don’t like, I accept it because it’s a part of me and I like myself. It means I welcome my womanly curves and soft tummy.
It means I exercise in moderation to stay fit and healthy not to lose weight. It means I welcome healthy weight gain rather than weight loss.
On an emotional level it means I’ve grown up into an adult woman. I take responsibility for my life and for nurturing myself in all ways. It means I’ve dropped self-destructive coping mechanisms like starving, cutting, bingeing, smoking, drinking in excess, drugging, promiscuity, none of which served me.
It means I choose to be friends with and associate with people who are of healthy mind, body and spirit. It means I create a life that I love, filled with people I respect.
It means I have a healthy marriage and have given birth to a beautiful son and become a woman in my own right, and am proud to be a woman.
Full recovery means I am in control of my emotions not the other way around. It means I have self-love and self-respect. It means I use my creativity and intellect and contribute positively to society and interact with people from all walks of life.
It means I choose to do no harm to myself or others. It means I stop when I’m too tired, rest when I’m sick, honor myself, honor my limitations and my moods. It means I work on ways to channel my anger or sadness rather than take it out on myself.
Full recovery means I can be a wife, a mother, a friend, a daughter, a sister, an aunt with a full and open heart. It means I am true to myself, I stand proud in who I am.
It means I have come a long long way.
Stay tuned tomorrow for the last part of my interview with Shani!
Shani Raviv is a writer, writing teacher and author of the award-winning indie book being Ana: a memoir of anorexia nervosa. Shani worked as a freelance journalist/columnist in South Africa before moving to the U.S. where she now lives with her husband and son in the Bay Area. She is available to do readings/talks for being Ana. Please contact her through her website: www.shaniraviv.com