When you’re struggling with an eating disorder, recovery can feel light years away. It can feel impossible. You may quickly lose hope, and assume that recovery just isn’t a reality for you. Which is understandable because the eating disorder voice is very convincing.
But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
As Shannon Kopp underscores in our interview, full recovery is possible. Kopp struggled with depression and a debilitating eating disorder for 7 years. Today, she is fully recovered. She’s a National Recovery Advocate for Eating Recovery Center and author of the memoir Pound for Pound: A Story of One Woman’s Recovery and the Shelter Dogs Who Loved Her Back to Life. She’s also a mom.
Below, Kopp shares powerful, inspiring insights about recovery, including how she defines it, what’s helped her in maintaining recovery, what loved ones can do, and much, much more.
Q: How do you define recovery from an eating disorder?
A: In my experience, recovery from an eating disorder happens on three levels: physically, mentally and emotionally.
Physically, a person stops engaging in eating disorder behaviors (restricting, bingeing, purging, laxative use, over-exercising etc.).
Mentally, she recognizes the difference between her true self and eating disordered thoughts (which once ruled her and claimed her identity).
Emotionally, she gains the ability to feel her emotions without turning to the eating disorder to cope. She doesn’t starve her feelings or stuff them down or throw them up—she faces them without the crutch of an eating disorder.
Q: What are several myths about recovery that you’d like to clear up?
A: Eating disorders do not discriminate. People of all ages, races, ethnicities, genders, sizes and backgrounds have eating disorders. There is no way to “look” like you have an eating disorder. The illness does not discriminate.
Eating disorders are not a choice. They are complex medical and psychiatric illnesses caused by genetic and environmental factors.
Parents don’t cause eating disorders.
Full recovery is possible.
You cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder by physically looking at them. Most people with an eating disorder aren’t underweight.
Q: What have you found to be the biggest challenge in recovering from an eating disorder? What’s helped you navigate this challenge?
A: Thirty million Americans will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder in their lifetime, but only 10 percent will seek treatment. Seeking treatment was by far the most difficult challenge for me. Three reasons:
- Fear: Even though the illness was devastating my life and the people closest to me could see that it was a problem, the eating disorder felt like my solution. It gave me a sense of comfort and a way to numb out. It was the way I coped with my father’s alcoholism and my depression and the overall anxieties of being a young person in this culture. Destructive as it was, I was terrified of letting the eating disorder go. I didn’t know who I’d be or how I’d survive without it.
- Shame: Since I was not underweight, I was ashamed that I didn’t match society’s typical portrayal of an eating disorder. I also didn’t understand the complex nature of eating disorders and why it is nearly impossible to recover on your own. I felt like I should have never developed an eating disorder to begin with, as if I could have prevented it.
- Finances: When I finally became willing to seek treatment, my insurance wouldn’t cover it. The way I overcame these challenges was by being honest about my struggles. I found a therapist who accepted community service hours as payment and began telling her the truth about my deep-seated fear and shame. She helped me to find free support groups and other recovery resources in the community, where I was also honest and emotionally vulnerable. I then got a job working with shelter dogs and spoke to them as if they could understand me (on some nonverbal, emotional, spiritual level—I feel they did). The more I told the truth to loving people and animals and the less I hid my illness—the healthier I became.
Q: How can friends and family support a loved one in getting and maintaining recovery?
A: They can:
- Educate themselves on the signs and symptoms of eating disorders, as well as treatment and recovery resources.
- Approach their loved one with compassion and a listening ear.
- Let their loved one know that they are concerned and want to support their recovery (not their disease).
- Listen to and believe their loved one when they describe how they feel, even if it is hard to understand.
- Share helpful resources and information.
- Not give up hope for their loved one’s recovery.
Q: What has been helpful for you in maintaining your recovery?
- Continuing therapy after I recovered from the eating disorder to work on underlying issues
- Developing a spiritual practice
- Surrounding myself with compassionate, positive people.
- Setting boundaries and ending unhealthy relationships
- Remembering that diets don’t work
- Rediscovering my soul passion: animals
- Giving back to others (human and animal) to get my mind off of myself
- Continuing to speak honestly with my support team about my struggles
- Celebrating my progress.
Q: What do you want someone who’s struggled with different relapses and feels hopeless right now to know?
A: If you have relapsed or are struggling with an eating disorder, you are not alone. For the longest time I believed I was a hopeless case, and while I continue to have struggles, I know today that none of us are ever hopeless. We are never too old or too young or too far gone or too (fill in the blank) to recover. If we can find a trace of willingness inside, hope can find us in the hardest, darkest, most unexpected places.
I wish I didn’t waste so much time feeling like I was a bad person for having an eating disorder. The false belief that I could have prevented my eating disorder or should have been able to recover from it easily and without help—this kept me sick for a long time. If you feel ashamed because you are struggling, please know that you did not choose or cause this illness. You didn’t choose it any more than a person would choose cancer. Compassion is the only way to heal from an eating disorder, not self-blame and self-loathing.
The absolute bravest thing we can ever do is to keep pursuing recovery in spite of it being so hard. Please don’t give up. Full and lasting recovery is possible, no matter what your eating disorder says.
Learn more about Shannon Kopp and her writing at http://shannonkopp.com.