Lu Curtis is a former client of The Emily Program. She is a teacher and the mother of a daughter in recovery from an eating disorder.
ED (an eating disorder) reared his ugly head in 2013 in my then, 13 year old daughter. We never invited him, or at least I didn’t. However, he became significant to my daughter, ever-present, super-influential and controlling as hell. ED ruled every aspect of my daughter’s life and began to control our entire family with his horrible influences. The messages my daughter received from ED were more powerful than the messages she received from me or anyone else in the family.
When I took her in for an evaluation at the Center for Treatment of Eating Disorders, they hospitalized her at the Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis that same day. That was the first of many hospitalizations and inpatient treatments in the past five plus years. It has been a long, difficult road for the entire family, especially my daughter.
I wish I had someone to talk to, heck even lean on during this process. This is where my willingness to be a guest blogger steps in. If I help one person, one family, it will have been well worth it. My first suggestion is to find your people! Find those that support you and/or your person battling an eating disorder. The people who you can talk to about your struggles with everything and who understand eating disorders. Because, unlike other unhealthy habits, you cannot simply quit food like you would alcohol, drugs or tobacco, to name a few. I had one person in my tribe, who always said the things I needed to hear. She tried to understand what my daughter and I were going through and listened with an open mind and heart. There were others in my circle, they just were not really my people.
Next, learn what you can about eating disorders. No, don’t Google it and inundate yourself, while at the same time scaring yourself. Get information from the hospital, clinician, therapist or treatment centers you are involved with. Read through this information and do your best to understand it. Eating disorders are complicated and anorexia, the most deadly of mental health diseases. No two cases are ever alike, each has its own unique presentation and therefore needs a unique understanding.
DON’T take everything personally. Sometimes, in my child’s case, it was the eating disorder talking, not my daughter. The ED was mean, ornery, spiteful and no fun to be around. This experience will try even the most patient people. You HAVE to operate from the position of love for your person suffering from an eating disorder. Believe me, I love my daughter, more than anything; I simply did not like her much during some of these times. You too, are human and have flaws, accept them and do your best.
Plan every snack and meal in the beginning. It just makes life a lot easier than having to stop and inundate, in my case, my child, with the overwhelming task of choosing a snack on the road. Food is your person with an ED’s enemy, so expect some battles. My goal was to win the war, even if I lost a battle or two along the way. Thankfully, more than five years in, my daughter is happy, at a healthy weight and starting college in two weeks! There were days that I never saw this outcome, but continued to strive for it to the best of my ability. We made it and so can you.
The preceding six paragraphs give you just a glimpse at the beginning stages of recovery. The path to wellness is not a straight trajectory, it is more like squiggly lines, or better yet, a path where you take one step forward and two steps back. The journey seems to be endless, but in reality it doesn’t have to be, with the right support. Take recovery, not a day at a time, but a meal or snack at a time. Slow and steady wins the battle with ED and that, is something worth celebrating!
We all know that reading can be a wonderful way to learn, to glimpse into other people's lives, and to feel less alone. So we asked our staff to share recommendations for some great books related to mental health, body image and eating disorders. We hope you enjoy these books as much as we did! But keep in mind that it is important to prioritize your recovery above all else. If you think reading books about eating disorders may jeopardize your recovery, we suggest speaking to your therapist or care team first.
The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points by Alice Boyes
Description: Negative emotions such as anxiety, stress, and depression often overwhelm us and feel unavoidable in our day-to-day lives. This workbook helps readers to develop a personal toolkit of skills they can utilize to find relief from anxiety and stress. This book provides an easy-to-follow approach of how to positively cope with anxiety and regain control over your life. It’s full of candid conversations, practical solutions, and proven strategies for coping with anxiety.
Staff says: "“It’s easy to read! Each chapter can stand alone and offers a quiz at the beginning to see how/when that type of anxiety applies to you. The author gives concrete and applicable skill ideas. This book is loved by many!”
Description: In a world where the media and advertising often dictate what we look like and how we should feel, it’s easy to stop finding joy in who you are and what you look like. This book shows readers how they can foster a positive relationship with themselves and their bodies by approaching themselves through a lens of love and empathy rather than shame and judgment. This book offers practical advice on how to care for your whole person.
Staff says, “I LOVE Body Kindness. It feels like all the goodness of Health At Every Size, mindful eating, intuitive eating, body acceptance, self-compassion, and self-care information combined into one digestible approachable resource. It has sections on body image, nourishment, joyful movement, sleep, emotions, resilience, goals/values, self-compassion, relationships… and it has great visuals and self-reflection activities. Rebecca also has a podcast by the same name, Body Kindness.”
Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook by Ellyn Satter
Description: In this book, Satter offers easy cooking and eating tips for families who are struggling during mealtimes. She offers simple recipes, practical cooking tips, planning suggestions, and easy ways to get children involved in the cooking process. She encourages families to have fun around cooking and not to get too caught up in following nutrition guidelines or only eating healthy. Satter believes that cultivating positivity and fulfillment around food can contribute to an individual’s health more than any diet or strict meal plan could.
Staff says, “I love this book! It is my go-to book for parents to read if they are involved in Family Therapy.”
8 Keys to Recovery From an Eating Disorder by Carolyn Costin and Gwen Schubert Grabb
Description: This book is the go-to recovery workbook for those struggling with an eating disorder. It offers readers practical tools to push forward on their road to recovery. From musings and assignments to simple tips, this workbook will actively help individuals experience recovery and healing. Included in this book are goal planning sheets, clinical stories, exercises, and various worksheets that will facilitate healing and help readers leave disordered eating and negative behaviors behind.
Staff says, “For adolescents who don’t enjoy long reading, this workbook is engaging and helpful. There is also a book of it that I would recommend for those that do enjoy reading! The book and the workbook are always client favorites.”
Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chödrön
Description: Pema Chödrön is an American Tibetan Buddhist and an ordained nun. Her teachings and writings have inspired millions of peoples to seek a more meaningful, more reflective life. In Living Beautifully, she teaches readers that holding onto things out of fear keeps us from experiencing the satisfaction and joy of being fully present in our daily lives. She offers wisdom of how to accept difficult situations and be fearlessly present, even when our typical behavior patterns differ. Instead of clinging to what doesn’t serve us, she shows us how to gently let things go, be present in our sadness, and move on more effectively. If you are struggling with uncertainty and change, this book is a must-read.
Staff says, “This book is often helpful to those experiencing changes or life transitions. She offers down-to-earth wisdom and advice to those who are struggling in their daily lives. This book is about building up emotional and mental strength to find calm in chaos.”
Landwhale: On Turning Insults Into Nicknames by Jes Baker
Description: Jes Baker is a writer and activist who is well-known and loved in the body positivity community. She fights against stereotypes, harmful advertising, and promotes fat-acceptance and loving who we truly are. Her writing is raw and her voice is sharp, honest, and biting. Landwhale is a memoir about growing up while fat, from binge eating to dating, she covers it all. Jess offers insight into her experience while also showing the reader how American culture treats fat individuals and all the ways in which we need to be better.Staff says, “I just finished reading this book and found it to be so powerful! In her memoir, Jes Baker discusses the challenges of being in a larger body, her struggles with dieting and binge eating, and her current journey to body liberation.”
Staff says, “I just finished reading this book and found it to be so powerful! In her memoir, Jes Baker discusses the challenges of being in a larger body, her struggles with dieting and binge eating, and her current journey to body liberation.”
One thing that makes eating disorders so difficult to live with and to treat is that they often do not exist in isolation. A very large number of people suffering from eating disorders may also suffer from another illness. For instance, it is extremely common for someone with an eating disorder to have significant anxiety—and there is likely a biological relationship between eating disorders and anxiety symptoms. Depression is also extremely common in relation to eating disorders. This may be related to biological traits that are similar; however, it may also be related to the change in brain chemistry that occurs with starvation, binging, purging, and/or other eating disorder behaviors. Or it may exist as a completely separate diagnosis.
It’s also common for an eating disorder to exist alongside a substance use disorder. Some people with eating disorders use substances as a way of dealing with the pain of the disorder or past abuse, but others may have a more complicated relationship with drugs and alcohol with a less clear “cause and effect” relationship.
Addressing a history of trauma is also critical for the treatment of eating disorders. Unfortunately, we live in a world where trauma is common and many individuals with eating disorders have witnessed trauma or been subjected to it. Again, the biological relationship of trauma and eating disorders is complex and often not well understood. However, many report that their eating disorder started or worsened after a traumatic episode. We also know that those with this dual diagnosis often don’t feel fully well until the eating disorder and the effects of the trauma have been addressed and treated. Our current understanding is that the eating disorder should be addressed prior to the trauma because trauma treatment may worsen eating disorder behaviors. However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution and treatment programs at The Emily Program directly address individuals who may be suffering from both trauma, related symptoms, and an eating disorder.
For many, having a second or third co-occurring condition in addition to the eating disorder will complicate treatment. It is essential that every issue is addressed. If treatment does not apply to an individual’s other mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or attention issues, it’s likely that the treatment will not be successful. This is why eating disorders require a full treatment team and often a higher level of care.
If you or a patient are coping with an eating disorder with or without a co-occurring condition, please reach out to The Emily Program at 1-888-364-5977 or complete our online form.
Leah Palm is a Dietitian at The Emily Program in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She has worked as a Dietetic Technician at The Emily Program since 2015.
TEP: Tell us about yourself!
Leah: Hello! My name is Leah Palm and I am a dietitian at The Emily Program and I hope to work here for years to come! I was born and raised in St. Anthony and currently reside there. In my free time I like to hang out with family and friends. No children, husbands or pets at this time, just a wonderful boyfriend!
TEP: Tell us about your position at The Emily Program.
Leah: I have the honor of being a program dietitian, which means I get to spend lots of time with the clients who are in the Intensive Day Program and Intensive Outpatient Program levels of care. I eat breakfast and lunch with them daily, participate in case management, teach a nutrition class, and meet with them individually for dietitian appointments. I like getting to participate in meals with the clients. It’s a great way to build rapport and learn more about them but also better understand how their eating disorders present when food is involved.
TEP: What do you like the most about working for TEP?
Leah: I love seeing the progress my clients make throughout their recovery. It’s cool to look back upon when someone first started treatment versus now and reflect on how much progress has been made. I also can’t forget to mention my coworkers. They are extremely supportive and always there to help consult me through complicated client cases.
TEP: Do you have a favorite health tip?
Leah: When it comes to food choices, my favorite health type is encouraging moderation, balance, and variety. I truly believe all foods can fit!
TEP: What’s a piece of advice you give to those in recovery?
Leah: I like to remind my clients that recovery is a journey and the journey is not linear! There’s going to be ups and downs and that’s okay. One bump in the road doesn’t define recovery. It takes time!
TEP: What’s your favorite food?
Leah: I don’t think I can pick just one! I’d have to say my favorites are lasagna or a medium-rare steak with garlic mashed potatoes and some roasted vegetables. I guess you could say I just love food!
TEP: Do you have a favorite quote or saying?
Leah: “She believed she could, so she did.” I truly believe willpower play a huge role in one’s success.
TEP: What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
Leah: I love to travel but have never been out of the country! I’m hoping to travel out of the country in the near future!
Stacy Schilter Pisano is the Site Director at The Emily Program’s South Sound location in Lacey, Washington.
TEP: What programs does The Emily Program’s South Sound location offer?
Stacy: The Emily Program’s South Sound location offers multiple levels of care to individuals struggling with a variety of eating concerns. The most intensive level of care is our Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), which is a multi-diagnostic program offering services 35 hours per week.This level of care is best suited for individuals who engage in eating disorder symptom use daily or multiple times weekly and have difficulty intervening on their symptom use independently.The alternative intensive level of care is our Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), offering services up to 12 hours per week. This level of care is designed for individuals whose eating disorder or body image concerns are interfering with various life domains, including emotional and relational health. Both IOP and PHP services include therapeutic groups, gentle yoga, supported meals/snacks, individual therapy, nutrition counseling and psychiatry. The South Sound location also provides outpatient services to individuals stepping down from higher levels of care or to individuals who are hesitant to enter a higher level of care.
TEP: Tell us about South Sound’s Binge Eating Disorder program.
Stacy: In South Sound, The Emily Programs offers a separate IOP program to individuals living with Binge Eating Disorder. Modeled on "Health at Every Size" and "Intuitive Eating" principles, this program is designed to support people who are striving to eliminate binge eating behaviors and increase overall participation in life. Mealtime challenges are individualized and tailored to meet the needs of this population and participants acquire skills for communicating effectively, setting appropriate boundaries and coping with challenging experiences. Individuals who participate in this program develop an understanding of their personal relationship with food and often experience an increase in body confidence or acceptance. The majority of program participants experience a decrease in binge eating, increased freedom in their relationship with food and improved self-image and body esteem.
TEP: Can you talk about South Sound’s Intensive Outpatient Program?
Stacy: Along with our PHP program and stand-alone Binge Eating Disorder IOP, South Sound offers a day IOP and an evening IOP to individuals who need additional support in their recovery. This program is scheduled 12 hours per week and includes therapeutic meals facilitated by a dietitian and therapist. As with our other programs, groups offered include, but are not limited to: experiential groups, goals group, nutrition education, food exploration, CBT and DBT groups, process group and weekend planning. Within these groups, participants are able to speak openly about their experiences and challenges while experiencing the support of their peers and professionals who are specially trained to treat eating disorders. Gentle yoga is also offered at least once per week by a certified yoga instructor for purposes of reconnecting with one’s body. Further assisting in the recovery process is a twice monthly friends and family group, where loved ones/support people are educated about effective support strategies and variables that contribute to, or maintain, an eating disorder.
TEP: Who's a good fit for these programs?
Stacy: A wide variety of individuals benefit from The Emily Program’s services, including people of all ages who identify as any gender and who have diverse ethnic backgrounds or sexual orientations. The common variable present in people seeking services at The Emily Program is a struggle with disordered eating, ranging from restrictive tendencies to binge eating and/or purging calories consumed through identifiable undoing behaviors. In South Sound, our higher levels of care (PHP, IOP) are offered to individuals over the age of 18, with Outpatient Services and Family-Based Treatment for those younger than 18 years of age. Staff members observe the most progress in people who understand the problematic nature of their eating behaviors or body image concerns and who are motivated to live life free of disordered eating and body dissatisfaction.
TEP: Why would you recommend The Emily Program?
Stacy: The Emily Program provides a compassionate, encouraging, supportive and effective environment to people who have sought answers to their body image distress or eating concerns through dieting, surgical options and independent efforts. Our food philosophy allows clients to dispel often-held beliefs about eating, weight and overall health, thereby increasing freedom and personal empowerment. The Emily Program offers research-based treatment options that can be challenging to find elsewhere.
TEP: Why do you think clients find success at The Emily Program?
Stacy: What clients have the opportunity to learn at The Emily Program is often the foundation of their success in recovery. The expertise of staff members and the healing environment in which services are offered allow for holistic change.
If you or a patient need help for an eating disorder, contact us at 1-888-645-5323 or fill out our web form.
If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder and looking for specialized eating disorder treatment, our admissions team is the place to start! Staffed by caring, compassionate, and knowledgeable staff, our admissions team can help individuals concerning eating behaviors and connect them with experienced clinicians who can start them on the road to recovery.
Kylee Kulow, an Admissions Specialist at The Emily Program, was interviewed for this glimpse into our admissions process. Kylee enjoys communicating with clients and helping them start their personal journey to recovery from an eating disorder. Knowing she can connect and work collaboratively with clients on their personal goals is something special to her. In her free time, you can find her at the lake, with her family camping and boating, spending time with her husband and golden doodle, Juno, or enjoying the farmers market.
Q: Who is the admissions team?
Kylee: The admissions team is the first contact potential clients will speak with when starting the process of coming to The Emily Program for treatment. The team also helps callers who are seeking information about treatment for their family members, loved ones, and friends. Team members are available 7 days a week to provide exceptional service over the phone to help ease any anxiety, fear, or concern a person may have when making the decision to seek treatment or taking the first step to seek support. The admissions team is always happy to answer questions and talk about the services offered at The Emily Program, as well as how to get started.
Q: What is the admissions process like?
Kylee: We know that calling to make an appointment can be nerve-wracking, which is why the admissions team is there to help guide individuals through the process of seeking treatment. When reaching out to The Emily Program, admissions will start learning a bit about the person calling and obtaining insurance information, which is then followed by asking about ten questions related to their eating concerns and symptoms. From the screening questions, along with self-report questionnaires completed by the individual, and a discussion with the therapist, all three will determine the support needed. The goal is always to provide individualized care for each client that can lead them to recovery and healing.
Q: Can those in school receive treatment from The Emily Program?
Kylee: Yes! If you are in school (whether it be elementary, middle, high school or college) and want to start treatment at The Emily Program, we have options that will work around your schedule. Calling the admissions team at 888-364-5977 extension 1612 will get you on your way to schedule your first appointment, where you can discuss treatment options specific to your situation. With our multiple locations and early morning and evening hours, our treatment is set around what works best for our clients and their schedules—whether it be work, school, or home-life. The goal of our first appointment with our clients is to find the best fit for treatment.
Q: What are some tips for helping your loved one make the first call?
Kylee: At The Emily Program, we understand helping a loved one can be difficult. So, you can offer to make the call for them to gather basic information. Or, you can make the call together! Here are some more tips and advice we give when individuals are helping a loved one make a call to come in for their first appointment with The Emily Program.
Make sure to have open communication with your loved one. Let them know you are there to support them and be sensitive to their feelings.
Exhibit openness and ask your loved one how you can help while comforting them during this challenging time
Listen to your loved one without judgment while they explain their eating concerns and symptoms.
Are you ready to start your journey to recovery? Do you want to reach out on behalf of a patient, friend, family member, or loved one? If so, give us a call at 1-866-364-5977 or fill out our web form here.
Sheena Washburn, Clinical Manager and Outpatient Dietitian at our Seattle location, won an Outstanding Preceptor Award from the University of Washington for excellence in her work providing training to interns in her community.
Two University of Washington interns nominated Sheena for this award. They also shared that thanks to their time at The Emily Program, there will be two more "non-diet-like" dietitians in the field.
"I feel honored to have received this award and grateful for the opportunity to precept two future (excellent) Eating Disorder Registered Dietitians!" said Sheena.
This is one person's story; everyone will have unique experiences on their own path to recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors or symptom use. Please use your own discretion. And speak with your therapist when needed.
Rebecca Witt is a former client of The Emily Program. She was born in India and lives in Olympia. She is a mother, educator and photographer. She has her BA in addiction recovery and plans to become a trauma therapist. Her favorite color is glitter and gold. This is her first blog for The Emily Program and she hopes it helps to inspire others to break open and let their light shine.
When I fall short of finding words and when nothing else makes sense, I often turn to Brené Brown, a well-known author, researcher and storyteller. One of my favorite quotes is:
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” Brené Brown
It has taken me some time to “own my story” or to even accept that I have walked the uneven road of mental illness, addiction...and an eating disorder. I do not say any of this lightly. There are days I do not always believe it; I don’t believe I’m that person. Then I look in the mirror and look deep. After some time, I am still trying to accept there is no shame in being that person. If you are one of those people, a person who struggles with mental health illnesses, you’re not alone. A good friend of mine often reminds me that I am not the only person who has gone through; experienced; or felt (fill in the blank). I believe all humans struggle with something. I have not met a soul yet who does not have a story to tell.
When we can find common humanity amongst one another it can change the course. If I have learned anything, it is that recovery, of any kind, is not linear. There is nothing like meeting a person you’ve never met, who is from another place with different life experiences, and learning to be vulnerable. It was through the listening, the quiet, the tears, the laughter and the sharing with another human being that I felt a sense of belonging. I have never experienced this type of belonging—a deep connection that only some understand. There is nothing as powerful as hearing, “me too.” All of the times I’ve heard or said “me too” has lessened the shame and broadened acceptance. Opening up with another person has become slightly less scary over time.
I grappled for the “right” words when I saw the Instagram post from The Emily Program to write for their blog. The thing is, there are no right words when it comes to recovery. Be bravely authentic. That is the title of the blog I began over a year ago when I unexpectedly found myself learning how to live life in a different way. So, being my vulnerable authentic self, I am here to say: I am not fully recovered. Not yet. The everyday hope and goal I keep somewhere within me is that I want to create a life worth living (in recovery). If you have ever experienced treatment, you’ve most likely heard the phrase “create a life worth living” more than once. That phrase resonates with me more now than it did previously. For me, the most important part about creating a life worth living is to be as present as possible so I can spend time with the people I love.
Recovery can vary and look different for each person. Not everyone’s path is the same. I feel like people are expected to be fully recovered if they are going to share their story. Perhaps that is another societal implication regarding mental health. And it is one that’s not true. Share your truth. Even if your voice shakes, even if it’s painstaking. Being recovered or striving towards recovery is part of this individual, yet collective path that many people share. It’s the people who still struggle and show up every day that I look to and think, “Maybe I, too, can do this one more day.” And one day turns into another and another. Each day I am searching and grasping for the little things life offers: positive role models, ideas, creativity, self-acceptance and stillness; all of which play a part of surviving in this world. I have acquired a remarkable amount of insight over the past two years about who I want to be and how I want to show up in the world. Showing up is the first step to anything we face. And possibly one of the bravest. There is a lot of falling down that occurs and being willing, which comes with continuing to show up through the pain, is not an easy choice to make.
There are days I think everything is at bay and nothing is wrong. I think, “I’ve got this”. Then there have been days I have found myself living on the 3rd floor of residential treatment centers. I never thought living there would be have been so life-altering. A piece of my soul was left there. I spent 50 days and nights fighting life (or death), all for the hopes of living. Most often I could not see what was going on within me. It took a team of amazing clinicians to tell me the truth. They told me things I didn’t want to hear. They asked me the hard questions. They showed true, tough love. They broke me open. Once I was broken open, I could begin to let the light in. That’s when I could begin to hear them. That is when I learned to be more willing.
I struggle with willingness and being open-minded often. My life is far from “put together.” I strive for connection and honesty in my life and I’m trying to let go of the perfection. I hang onto my passion for helping others. I try not to lose sight of my values. Values draw me in, they draw me closer. Values connect me. Values help me set boundaries. Values drive me either towards or away from the life I want to live.
You may all be wondering what my “story” is. I am still trying to navigate that myself. This all really began years back when I went to a support group at The Emily Program to support a friend. I certainly was not there for myself. It was slowly at first, then suddenly, that something was wrong; yet I was oblivious. People have asked me how long I’ve struggled with an eating disorder and for a while I couldn’t give an answer. My conclusion with the help of many providers, was that I have struggled for at least 15 years and I just didn’t know it, nor accepted it when the diagnosis finally surfaced. My thoughts, emotions and behaviors were never tied to an eating disorder. At least I never thought they were. Now, I can see more clearly the connections between things that I could not see before. I have a Registered Dietitian to thank for noticing and observing and encouraging me to have an intake done (this was after having gone to that support group for my friend). I had a clinical director and therapist tell me I needed residential care. I was completely beside myself. I did not understand. I was not “sick enough”, or sick at all. I fought against their recommendation(s). And yet, I went.
And I went again, and again. And each time I left as a different person. A person who gained more knowledge and insight. And, I struggled. And I lived through the struggle. In the end, it was the best decision I made. Only I can save myself. But I have to thank the people who were on my team who were extraordinarily caring, compassionate and protective. I learned I don’t have to do this entirely alone. A lot of sacrifices get made when you stop life to go to treatment. But life doesn’t actually stop. It continues. Reintegrating into life is far from simple. I’d like to think I’ve come out stronger than I did before walking, or sometimes crawling along this path. There have been many ups and downs along the way.
Where am I now? I am living each 24 hours as they come. I’m falling down, I’m getting up, I am fighting fiercely with everything in me. I say all of this and no, I don’t have it all right. I am not perfect. Progress not perfection... so I keep hearing. I still need help in a multitude of ways. And that’s okay. Asking for and accepting help is not a weakness. It’s admirable and it takes courage and vulnerability. And it is something I do not like to do. And at times, I do it anyway.
So you, yes, you: Your story is important. You matter. You are worth it. What drives you? What do you hope and dream for? What are you afraid of? What will break you open so the light will shine in? Who is your recovery hero? I have mine and I wouldn’t be here without them. I’m holding hope for you, as people have held it for me. Still, we will rise.
If you’re reading this and you’ve been a part of my journey, thank you. Thank you for fighting for me, with me and beside me. I have had amazing people supporting me throughout this process and I am beyond grateful. To all of the unbelievable, wonderful providers and other recovering warriors, you have been life changing. I would not be the same without having met you. Your heart will always be carried in mine.
And if I fall down, I know where to go…and I hope anyone who reads this knows where they can go—to loved ones, to support groups, or to treatment. Connection is a basic human need. It is a key piece of this journey because you do not need to do this by yourself. You are loved and worthy of belonging.
Ellie O’Brien is a yogi and a mother of two. During her free time she enjoys practicing yoga and spending time with her family. She works hard to raise her two daughters to be strong in their own voices, opinions, and physical bodies.
As both a woman and a mother, I am constantly bombarded by messages of what I should look like and how I should behave. These messages, advertisements, and cultural norms have existed for decades in order to make women feel less than. If we ourselves do not feel complete, whole, or worthy, we are more likely to buy new products, invest in new activities, and pay to look like what we see in the media. This become a cycle—the media perpetuates what we “should” look like and we often try our best to adhere to this ideal out of fear of stigma, shame, or judgment. But, I refuse to participate in this cycle. As a mother of two daughters, ages eight and ten, I want to raise my girls to be strong in their own voices. I want them to think positively of themselves and their bodies, and I do the following to make sure my daughters feel strong, confident, and loved in their day-to-day lives.
I build my own resilience to the constant onslaught of negative messaging
Negative body messaging is directed towards everyone, all the time. I can’t stop building my own defenses against this messaging if I am trying to be a role model for my children. I do this by making sure I identify and focus on media that is positive or that provides some sort of humor around body and beauty. Right now, Beauty Redefined, Celeste Barber, Jessamyn Stanley, Serena Williams, and Lizzo are a few of my favorite people preaching empowerment and body-acceptance. While these advocates aren’t always for my kids (or even appropriate for them, generally) they are for me.
I speak openly about media messaging so my daughters understand what is and what is not true
Recently, my youngest daughter was referred to a dermatologist for a minor surgery. When we went to the appointment, a floor-to-ceiling poster promoting cosmetic body sculpting treatments greeted us. The message on the enormous poster featured an illustration showing a woman’s abdomen shrinking as the result of a first yoga class, then salads, and finally (the “power through” step), cosmetic procedure.
I practice yoga regularly. I teach my kids about healthy foods and vegetables. And, if I had walked through that lobby and let my daughter absorb that message, she may have concluded that the purpose of my yoga and vegetables is to become thin, and that my motivation is to become thin. If she thought that was my motivation, then she’d likely think it should be hers, too. So, we stopped. I let her read the advertisement and then I asked her what she thought. Does she think mom exercises for a small body or a healthy body? Does she think there are valuable reasons to nourish our bodies with vitamins and minerals that don’t have to do with our size? I wanted to be clear with her about my motivation, so I explained to her that I want to be healthy and strong. I also wanted to be clear with her about what the poster wanted her to think. I told her the poster was trying to tell her one size is better than the other, and that the goal was to make money by getting her to believe it and buy what the company was selling.
We had a chance to further explore that concept in the clinic room where more advertisements showed before and after photos of treatment patients. We took time to ask questions about the after images. Did that new body shape make the person kinder? Smarter? Happier? Healthier? Funnier? More caring? No. Then I asked if we should care about what shape our body was if it didn’t change all of those important qualities in us. I also made sure to follow up with the doctor who referred us to let him know I was disappointed to take my child into that environment, and that he might want to consider being more selective with his pediatric patients in the future.
I openly practice body positivity in my own home
I’ve always had an “open door” policy in my home and regularly change my clothes or get ready for a shower in front of my kids. So, they’ve seen me naked and have never shied away from questions. My youngest loves to giggle when she sees my butt and how it jiggles. We even made a game out of it. Before I step into the shower, I shake my hips and she goes wild laughing. Most recently, she commented that my, “butt has dents in it.” If I wasn’t positive about my own body, I would have hushed her and hid my body. But instead, I told her, “Yep! And, if I do this (clench my butt cheeks), I get even more!” After a few laughs, my whole family was comparing our cellulite.
My children are bound to hear a million messages about zapping away cellulite and desiring smooth skin. My hope is that when they do, they will remember how confident their own mom is with her body and how loved they felt when they discovered their own “dents.” It also isn’t lost on me that they have inherited my body. They are my children, after all. If I don’t love my own body, and if I don’t make it known to them, what are they going to think of themselves? I love them dearly, and if I want them to love themselves, then I have to love the genes that created them.
I talk about the strength of our bodies
Boys receive constant messages about their strength. Walk through a toddler boys’ clothing aisle and you’ll inevitably find a t-shirt with messages about big muscles. This messaging about being strong shouldn’t just be for boys, it should be for everyone!
At a food shelf where my daughters and I volunteer with several of their elementary school classmates and their parents (mostly mothers), I took a chance to demonstrate that girls can be just as strong. The organizers were looking for people to carry filled grocery bags to the recipients’ vehicles, so they asked the group for some “big, strong boys” to help. The oldest boy in the group was 11 and the boxes were 40 pounds each. There were also several adult women in the group. I stood there, a foot taller and with many more pounds of muscle on my body than any of these “strong boys,” and I still wasn’t the obvious choice. The organizer was feeding into the message that boys are stronger. What was that telling my daughters who were standing next to me? That even as a grown woman, boys are stronger. If that’s true, then what good is their body? This message contributes to the thought that women’s bodies are for appearance and not function, and creates an environment that thinness and beauty are the most important thing about women. So for me, part of fighting negative messaging about body shape and size is to promote messages about our own strength. (By the way, I took the opportunity to chime in, “How about the grown women carry the boxes?” to the organizer).
Another game I like to play while waiting for my kids to brush their teeth is “guess how many pushups mom can do in the hallway while you brush your teeth.” I also don’t ask their dad to do things for me that my own body is capable of doing. I lift heavy things and I ask my daughters to do it too—my ten-year-old and I can move a couch as well as any two men could. When my daughters help, I make sure to tell them how nice it is to have a strong girl in the house to help me. Last year, at our family camp, they took the stage to “roast” me with a “look how strong I am” skit. That was when I knew the message had sunk in!
My final thoughts are this:
I refuse to let my daughters think advertisements are always true. I tell them they are strong and capable. I make sure they see me model body-acceptance. I don’t talk about diets. I don’t speak negatively about myself or how I look. I don’t say clothes look bad on my body. I don’t speak badly about another person’s size or shape or weight. I tell them that all bodies have value and that all people are important, regardless of what they look like.
With school starting, it’s common to feel a mix of emotions including excitement, anxiety, and stress. For those in middle and high school, the start of school often means a new schedule, new teachers, and adjusting to new classes and classmates. For those starting or returning to college, school may mean moving, new roommates, challenging courses, and the difficult task of navigating conflicting priorities.
If you're also struggling with an eating disorder, starting school may trigger or worsen disordered behaviors. If you find yourself relapsing in your recovery or engaging in eating disorder behaviors to cope with the changes school brings, the most important thing you can do is reach out to get professional help. In addition to seeking treatment, there are other ways to stay on track in recovery during school.
1. Prioritize Your Recovery
If you are entering school while in recovery from an eating disorder, it’s important to prioritize your recovery above all else. Before starting school, we recommend making a recovery plan with your support team to keep you on track in your recovery. This plan should be specific to your unique situation and should focus on your health and wellbeing. That means placing your recovery before your grades, before sports, and before social outings. If you start to relapse or are no longer able to maintain a healthy weight and healthy eating behaviors, you should speak with your support system and a medical professional as soon as possible.
2. Stay Connected to Your Support System
If you are starting school with a strong support system, it is important to stay engaged with those people. Having a reliable network of people who know your story is essential to eating disorder recovery. If you start feeling disconnected from your support system, reach out via text, call, or email. By maintaining a dialogue with those that are on your team, you may experience an easier recovery and fewer relapses.
3. Meet Your School Counselor/Local Therapist
If you are in high school or college, it can be helpful to connect with a therapist or counselor at your school. By connecting with a mental health professional at school, you create a built-in, local support system. It’s key to discuss your eating disorder history and current treatment plan with a local therapist so they can understand your eating disorder and better help you throughout your recovery. If you meet with a mental health professional that you do not mesh well with, it’s important to know that it’s okay to try a second professional. It’s essential that you are able to connect with your therapist and feel comfortable relying on them for support. There’s no shame in trying out a few therapists to find one that is right for you!
4. Set Regular Check-Ups
In order to make sure you are staying on track with your recovery in college, it’s important to set regular check-ups with your doctor, treatment team, and support system. We suggest scheduling check-ups with a medical professional to make sure you are maintaining your physical health while in school. Medical professionals will be able to assess your basic health and make recommendations if you are not meeting key health requirements. We also recommend meeting with a therapist or counselor regularly. School can cause people to become stressed, sleep deprived, anxious, overwhelmed, and a variety of other feelings. By having regular meetings with a mental health professional, you can better monitor your recovery and learn new methods of dealing with negative emotions. Last, make sure you are staying in contact with your support system! Try to check in weekly about how you are doing and feeling.
Develop Eating Routines
Before starting school, make sure to look into what typical meals and meal plans will look like. It’s important that you decide on a plan that is best for you and your recovery. If you tend to isolate and skip meals, it may be helpful to do a meal plan that will allow you to eat three meals a day that are pre-prepared. This will also allow you to eat with friends if you need a support system during meals. If you are worried about the buffet-style dorm food and afraid of binge eating, we suggest making a plan with your therapist or nutritionist about how to best portion and structure meals.
Before starting school, it may be helpful to practice eating in the style you will in school. This may mean finding a local cafeteria and eating meals there or going to a restaurant off-campus. You can evaluate the experience and identify potential triggers or difficulties. From there, you can meet with your treatment team or support people and create a plan for potential setbacks you may experience.
6. Manage Triggers
Before you enter school, it’s important to identify what your potential triggers may be. Triggers are defined as any occurrence that poses a challenge to your recovery. Common triggers for those struggling with eating disorders may include hearing conversations about weight or size, seeing people eat minimal amounts of food, listening to friends talk about burning calories, or hearing people make shaming comments around food choices.
After identifying what your potential triggers may be, think of ways to cope that don’t include engaging in disordered behavior. If you find yourself triggered, we suggest starting by acknowledging your feelings and reminding yourself that it is okay to feel triggered. From there, it’s essential to take a breath and not make any rash decisions or let yourself spiral out of control. Instead, remind yourself of how far you’ve come in recovery and how strong you are. Choose to act in favor of recovery. If you are comfortable doing so, you may choose to tell those around you that their conversations make you feel uncomfortable.
Always know that if you feel triggered, you can connect with your support people or reach out to a mental health professional. It’s okay to ask for help if you need it!
7. Practice Stress Management
With classes, work, friends, and everything else that comes with school, it’s natural for us to feel stressed. Instead of letting stress build up inside of us, it’s important that we develop healthy ways of releasing stress and relaxing. Some common stress management techniques are gentle activity like yoga or a short walk, or more relaxing activities like taking a bath or watching a movie. We also suggest releasing your stress by journaling or talking to friends that understand what you are going through.
8. Expand Your Support System
If you are starting school without a support network, it’s essential that you make one. We know making new friends and gathering a support system can be difficult and intimidating, but it’s essential to a successful recovery. If you aren’t able to build a network of new friends or if you don’t have the luxury of a family that supports you, there are other options to create a support system. We recommend seeking out a therapist or attending an eating disorder support group. We also offer recovery night support groups that are free and open to the public. These are a great place to start building a support network.
If you are entering school with a strong support system, there is value in working to expand your network. Once you are settled into the groove of the new school year, work on connecting with peers going through the same experience as you (college, recovery, etc.). This can be a huge aid in maintaining recovery and finding solidarity. By connecting with those around you, you can talk and work through problems together from a similar point of understanding.
9. Be Gentle With Yourself
Recovery is exhausting and frustrating at times. Remind yourself that it’s okay to not be perfect all of the time. It’s normal to have bad days in recovery, so it’s important to not let one hard day negate all of your progress! If you are having a hard day or feeling bad about yourself, make a list of all of the things you did during the current week that were positive. Did you eat all of your meals? Did you not binge? Did you do something nice for someone else? Be gentle with yourself. Keep in mind that you are doing the best that you can with the situation you were given and the knowledge that you have.
10. Know When You Need Immediate Help
It’s vital that you know your limits in your recovery. If your eating disorder begins to get in the way of your day-to-day life or if you are unable to maintain a healthy weight at school, it’s essential that you get immediate professional help. In addition, if you are feeling overwhelmingly anxious or depressed, it’s recommended that you seek out a mental health professional. If seeking treatment means you have to take a break from school for a bit, that is okay! Once you have stabilized your mental and physical health, you can return to school.
If you are returning to school with an eating disorder and looking for support, reach out to us at 1-866-212-6479. If you prefer to not use the phone, you can fill out our online contact form here. We can provide you with treatment options and support that fit into your schedule. We also recommend looking into the tips given by our guest blogger, Blythe Baird, on how to heal from an eating disorder.