Jenni Schaefer is an Eating Disorder and Trauma Advocate, Author, Speaker and Coach. Her blog topics ranges from eating disorders and body image, trauma and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to social media and technology.
My therapist prescribed me to drink more alcohol. I had described symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), yet once again, the diagnosis was completely missed. Even worse, this uniformed therapist suggested that I drink wine “medicinally,” beginning in the morning, to help cope with what he said was high anxiety. What makes this horrible advice even more dangerous is the fact that upward of fifty percent of those with PTSD also battle substance use disorder.
PTSD is often missed, and trauma is frequently dismissed. It is no wonder that so many of us who struggle don’t know it. Many of us already think “what happened to me wasn’t that bad,” so PTSD is nowhere on our radar. Using specific language like the words “trauma” and “PTSD” isn’t about labeling but rather about serving as a compass for help. This PTSD Awareness Month, let’s work to get the truth out about posttraumatic stress disorder, thus, getting more help to more people:
To read the full post on The Meadows Blog, click here.
I am thrilled and honored to announce that I have a research assistant for my upcoming book about PTSD! Enter brilliant Heather Hower to save the day—and the book—with her expertise in both eating disorders and trauma. Not only is Heather well versed in research and clinical wisdom, but she also knows what it is like to suffer. Today, Heather is open about her recoveries from both an eating disorder as well as PTSD. Heather, I so admire you, and I thank you for writing this important contribution to our field.
Recovered Eating Disorders Professionals: The Stigma
by Heather Hower, MSW, LICSW, ACSW, QCSW
It is widely recognized that there is stigma towards mental health (vs. physical health). The perception is that many people with psychological disorders somehow “choose” to have them, that is their “fault” for being “weak,” that they could just “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and “snap out of it” if they wanted to, and that they deserve less empathy overall.
There is a particular stigma against eating disorders, compared to other disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (viewed as more serious, and biologically based). Eating disorders are considered a “lifestyle choice,” for “vain” people, who could decide to “just eat.”
Extensive research has shown, however, that psychological disorders (including eating disorders) are based on genetic and environmental influences (as with physical disorders), and should be considered as severe.
There is a similar stigma towards recovered eating disorder professionals. Some are viewed as “less qualified” compared to others who do not have a personal experience of eating disorders. There is an ongoing question of whether the professional is truly recovered, or will relapse. Overall, the potential for emotional triggering while working with clients is higher for them. Nevertheless, it is important for recovered eating disorders professionals to speak out about their symptoms, recovery, and maintenance. In this way, they can make the connection between research, clinical practice, and the real thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that they have experienced.
Individuals such as Jenni Schaefer, Jennifer Rollin, Carolyn Costin, and Cheryl Kerrigan have had the courage to disclose their personal eating disorder histories, and in the process have helped so many people with their books, educational series, advocacy, therapy practices, and media outreach.
Carolyn Costin and Jenni Schaefer singing at the 2013 Santa Monica NEDA Walk!
In contrast to eating disorders, there is an acceptance of recovered substance abuse professionals. Given their usually extensive experience with abusing (sometimes multiple) substances, there is a level of understanding, and credibility, that they bring to the role that others widely respect. In fact, in many cases, if a professional in this area does not have personal experience, they can be “easily duped” by savvy users, who may be able to convince them that they aren’t using.
We have also seen in other disorders that disclosures by recovered professionals can be very helpful to decrease stigma. This is particularly powerful when the professional has been involved with research/clinical work that is based on their personal experience, and they have cultivated a career despite (or rather, because of) their disorder. A recent example is Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., who disclosed that she created dialectal behavior therapy (DBT) in response to her own borderline personality disorder (BPD), which had previously not been properly treated.
The field of eating disorders is relatively new, small, and under-funded compared to other disorders. There is a need for continued research, novel interventions, a next generation of professionals, and fresh perspectives on understanding the symptoms, recovery, and maintenance processes.
Recovered eating disorder professionals are able to contribute to all of these goals, and provide a unique “inside look” as to what it is like to experience the transition from serious illness to well-being.
“To me, curvy means striving for balance, authenticity, and mindfulness.”
Healthy emotions come in all sizes. Healthy minds come in all sizes. And healthy bodies come in all sizes.
~Cheri K. Erdman
The number on the scale plummeted yet again, and with it, my confidence. Yes, you read that right; unlike what society preaches, losing weight isn’t always a good thing. Less of ourselves is not necessarily better.
As my curves melted away, my body was sending out the message: “Help!”
I had fully recovered from anorexia over a decade earlier and had learned not to give the scale too much power. I’d even written three books on the topic and given hundreds of talks on embracing a strong, healthy body. Society tells us that being thin makes us happy and successful but I knew this was a big lie. At my thinnest, I was miserable.
And yet, when I unintentionally lost weight due to PTSD, my doctor congratulated me during a yearly exam.
Why was I getting complimented for having a mental illness?
It happened when I had anorexia, too—I received accolades for having a life-threatening psychiatric illness with the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Recovering from anorexia, I had learned to think of gaining weight as gaining pounds of happiness. Now, I was in recovery for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after being raped in my late twenties. The accompanying depression and anxiety had killed my appetite, the stress had caused havoc on my thyroid disorder and my weight was going down again. Importantly, it wasn’t just my body that was shrinking; PTSD itself disintegrates self-esteem.
I was diagnosed with osteoporosis in my early twenties. Why were my young bones already losing tissue? Women who struggle with anorexia nervosa, like me at the time, are at a higher risk of developing the disease.
I also believe that my eating disorder may have contributed to my sluggish thyroid. Many people don’t realize that the malnutrition in patients with eating disorders can lead to abnormal thyroid function.
An eating disorder is a serious, life-threatening mental illness that directly impacts every part of your body, from the hair on your head to the tips of your toes, and everything in between. After all, an eating disorder impacts eating, and, truly, we are what we eat.
To read the full post on The Meadows Blog, click here.
When I bought this guitar, I was at the height of my battle with anorexia and bulimia. I didn’t have the energy to push down the strings or to concentrate.
So, I actually took the guitar and I shoved it in the back of my closet. Well, ten years later, I’m recovered. And the guitar is out of the closet. I’m learning how to play, and I’m finding that it’s actually really fun.
What is your guitar in life?
What is it that’s in the back of your closet that you need to take out, something that your eating disorder has taken from you? Is it going back to school? Is it starting a new hobby?
I encourage you to take out your guitar, whatever it may be because we recover from our eating disorders in order to recover ourselves. And, after we recover, we can do anything at all.
Watch the video!
What is Your Guitar? (Jenni Schaefer "Goodbye Ed, Hello Me" - YouTube
Recovery from both an eating disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder, PTSD, is possible. Here, brave Amie Shields shares her inspirational story of transformation. Amie writes about needing to get to the “roots” of her eating disorder. We all know what happens if we pull a weed up only by the surface, leaving the roots. Inevitably, it grows right back. To eradicate a weed as well as an eating disorder, we need to “pull it up” by the roots. In my life, this meant that I couldn’t hold onto any of the eating disorder. If I tried to hold onto just a little restricting, as an example, some eating disorder roots remained. I relapsed. For those with trauma that precedes their eating disorder, they might need to address PTSD. If you are struggling with an eating disorder and/or PTSD, hold onto hope, like Amie says. She writes, “There is so much joy ahead.” I agree!
To submit your own Dream Big story, please click here.
I stood crying at the end of the long hallway of a residential treatment facility for eating disorders, surrounded by women like me – broken, hurting, and physically and emotionally unsafe to be on our own. The indescribable feelings intensified to the point it seemed my heart shattered in a million pieces. I didn’t think I could survive it.
Even though, in so many ways, that was one of the worst days of my entire life, it was also the beautiful beginning of the rest of my life. The treatment team literally held me up – mentally, spiritually, and even physically – as I began the difficult process of pulling the eating disorder out by its roots.
We started with the earliest time I could remember. Beginning with an abduction at the age of three, much of my life was stained by trauma and abuse. No one ever talked about it. Being sad was being silly. We never discussed negative emotions; someone always had it worse. I blamed myself for so much.
In my junior year of college, everything began to unravel, creating the perfect storm for an eating disorder. The unprocessed trauma, the abuse, the violations – all of it came to a head when a boyfriend blamed me for some of the incidents.
The catalyst was a physical education class which required documentation of all intake and daily workouts. Part of our grade included our BMI. That was all the eating disorder needed to sink its claws in and draw me into its horrific slavery. Over the summer, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.
I agreed to go to counseling for a couple of months. Unfortunately, I became really good at covering symptoms for the next two decades. I never reached the roots of the disorder. And the heavy baggage of messy life experiences was still strapped tightly to my back.
When I entered marriage counseling in 2016, I began processing my traumatic experiences for the first time. And the embers of the eating disorder that had hidden quietly all those years exploded in flame within me. After four months of extreme behaviors, it was determined that a higher level of care was necessary, and I was placed in an intensive residential treatment facility. Not once, but twice. The diagnosis was anorexia nervosa–extreme, PTSD, and major clinical depression.
Recovery has been a process of unpacking that heavy bag I’ve been carrying my whole life. Because I never acknowledged or processed trauma, I learned to push those disgusting, shameful, and dirty pieces way down in the bag, out of sight. I ensured the pretty pieces were arranged neatly on top so that everyone could see the part of my life that was all put together.
So my team and I dug down to the heaviest and ugliest pieces. Treatment was like sitting in the middle of the floor with the entire contents of my bag strewn all around me, covering the entire room. It was a mess. It was exposing. It was painful. It was scary. It made me vulnerable. It gave me anxiety.
We looked at each piece, many of them a lot more than once. Some were fine. Others had been mislabeled. Many were not my pieces to carry and shouldn’t have even been in the bag. Yet they were a part of the heavy load. Many were covered with such thick layers of guilt and shame that they were distorted and indistinguishable.
And, as we began to peel back those layers, hope emerged.
Hope had been there all along. His name is Jesus. But the eating disorder had filled me with such shame that I didn’t believe I was even worthy of hope.
Nonetheless, truth remains. I am worthy because of the price He paid for me. And He has been the glue that’s allowed us to put my broken pieces back together.
Today, I’m still on the floor with my team. We’re sorting, re-labeling, peeling, and gluing. But we’re making progress day by day.
Once God has restored the broken pieces, I’m tempted to put them back in the bag, hiding their imperfections. But my team challenges me to put them on a safe shelf, even while the glue is still drying, even if it means people may notice them. Every crack tells a piece of my story, and God is the Master of using broken things for good.
How beautiful it is when others see the brokenness and feel that it’s okay to bring theirs. They see that hope is possible because of God’s deliverance in my life.
Sometimes I slip up and make a mess again of part of our work, because recovery is far from perfect. But I get right back up and start in again, because hope allows for so much grace.
I’m amazed to look around me and see all that God has restored thus far. And as I walk this road of recovery, my eyes are being opened to the incredible sights along the way.
I’m learning to be present with my family. As I learn ways to survive the full impact of negative emotions, I’m simultaneously experiencing the full impact of positive ones. I’m feeling the wonder that comes from being fully present, being loved, connection, and even vulnerability. Relationships that the eating disorder destroyed are being restored.
The hope of all that recovery will bring strengthens my commitment.
Amie Shields, click image to read her blog
God has given me a passion for writing which I’ve turned into a blog. He’s placed a dream in my heart to publish a memoir.
I’m going back to school to work on a counseling degree. I can’t even describe my deep fulfillment when God allows me to help someone because of my brokenness.
I want to be a recovery advocate. I dream of using the gifts of singing and educating God’s given me to travel the nation and share my story through word and song.
There have been many times in recovery over the last couple of years when my intentions were good, but my efforts were exhausting and futile. I valiantly surrendered my heavy bag on most days, but I always kept one hand on it so I could quickly scoop up all its contents and take it back when I needed its familiarity on the tough days. It kept me stuck. The ponderosity of the bag made me weaker by the day.
It was only when I relinquished the entire bag to Christ and took both hands off of it that the futility ended. That’s when He dumped out the entire bag for me, for good, and began the work of restoration. That’s when He opened my eyes to the truth that my treatment team had so desperately been trying to help me see.
One by one, He’s redeeming each piece in the pile, and in the redemption, He’s strengthening what once was so weak – my mind, my heart, my soul, and my body. His strength can move mountains. In Him, all things are possible.
That means that full recovery will be a reality for me one day soon. And it can be for you, too. No matter where you are, there is always hope. Don’t ever lose sight of it. There is so much joy ahead!
If you follow me on social media, you know that I love trees. Think Austin, Texas, treehugger. Last year, my neighbors helped me to save a tree on my property that was at risk of being cut down by the city. The tree, affectionately named Moose by the neighborhood, is alive and well today. (See the image of Moose and me to the left. You can kind of tell why the tree is named Moose, huh?) I was told by countless people that Moose wouldn’t make it, but, banded together with a team of advocates, we beat the odds. Yes, this is a metaphor for recovery. Never quit. When I received this Dream Big submission from Sally featuring her beautiful artwork, I just had to share her inspiring story. Sally’s artwork was an assignment in treatment; she explains what the image means below. Thank you, Sally, for giving us the gift of your experience, strength, and hope!
Values Tree of Life
When I fall deep into the eating disorder, I find that my creativity wanes. My inner spirit fades away, and my soul literally evaporates.
As soon as I begin obtaining life-sustaining nutrients, I become like a potted plant brought out from a dark room into a well-lit window. I blossom. I become so engaged and prolific in art and writing that I feel as if I am bursting with energy, inspired to express myself.
The roots of my tree of life represent activities that enable me to feel grounded, de-stress, and to help me maintain my focus. For example, I love taking walks in the park—not to exercise or to burn calories, but to breathe fresh air, recharge, and let go of anxiety.
My tree encompasses values that I consider essential to my well-being, such as creativity, compassion, intelligence, and empathy. The branches of my tree display beautiful flowers and leaves depicting my soul flourishing as I transform.
Recovery, to me, represents a rebirth, a dying flower garden regaining life as the sun fosters growth and development.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Sexual violence can lead to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, addiction, depression, and other trauma-related problems. What I know now: if you have to ask yourself whether sex was consensual, it wasn’t. By definition, the idea of consent means that you would know.
This is a message that, as young adults, many of my friends and I desperately needed to hear. If I had, when I experienced sexual assault with a boyfriend in my late twenties, I might have known to call it what it was. I believe that we should take the “date” off “date rape” because it seems to minimize the assault. I’d later develop PTSD as a result.
To read the full post on The Meadows Blog, click here.
When I was struggling, confused, and pretty hopeless regarding my own trauma, I remember reading Dr. Peter Levine’s Waking the Tiger. Finally, my strange set of symptoms and behaviors made sense. I wasn’t going crazy. I was actually having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.
Sadly, research suggests that it takes twelve years from the onset of PTSD symptoms for someone to receive a diagnosis. This means that many, like me, suffer in silence and often get misdiagnosed for a very long time. For me, a diagnosis wasn’t a label. It was a compass pointing in the direction of help. With time and appropriate treatment, I got better.
Today, it means the world to me to join The Meadows as a Senior Fellow and advocate for its specialty eating disorder program, The Meadows Ranch. Dr. Levine, the author of that book that helped me so much, is a Senior Fellow, too! Yes, this is yet another full circle moment in my life. Years ago, I never could have imagined having the chance to work with the nation’s premiere program for treating trauma.
If you struggle with PTSD, other trauma-related symptoms, or something else, hold onto this kind of hope. Healing can happen, and recovery can bring the most beautiful gifts, often ones that showed up in the ugliest of packages.
You are not alone. (I once thought I was.) Get help, and never, never, never give up.
So, it became no surprise to me now that, by the time I entered college, my high anxiety, sensitivity, and perfectionism had fueled anorexia nervosa. Restricting food decreased anxiety. And, if I ate enough in a binge, I didn’t have to deal with difficult emotions. Controlling my body size was an unconscious way to cope with perfectionism. (If I can’t get the perfect grade, I can, at least, have the so-called perfect body.)
Of course, none of this worked in the long-term. Eventually, my solution became my biggest problem, my greatest fear. A year or so after college graduation, I desperately wanted freedom from my eating disorder.
What we want often lies on the other side of fear.
I had to move directly into what scared me most—over and over again—in order to save my own life as anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness.
To continue reading, click here to read the full post on Mogul.