It's not easy to talk about eating disorders. There is shame associated with eating disorders. Though I've been recovered for 30 years, I still feel that sting of shame when I open up about the brutal disease that stole most of my teenage years. Nonetheless, I decided to say yes to an opportunity to speak at a recovery night at the Emily Program in St. Paul. Here I share my story and an excerpt from my 30-minute talk I gave to patients, family members of patients, and health care professionals.
Last night, I did something that scared me. As part of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, my lovely and talented friend Jordana Green asked me to join her on her show to tell “my story” of my battle with anorexia nervosa that plagued me during my late teens. I had one goal in mind: Tell my story of survival to offer hope to those struggling with the disease and to those who have family members or loved ones who are struggling. I had discussed the details of my story with Jordana over lunch the week prior but chatting with her privately was much different than talking about it on live radio. But what I discovered as Jordana interviewed me on her show (with my incredible friend of 35 years, Laura, at my side for moral support) was that while I have battled with feelings of shame about my disease and have only shared the details of it with trusted friends, there was a sense of freedom and empowerment in sharing it with others.
Brene’ Brown truly has it right when she says,
“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.”
We all have our stories. Many of which we hide away from others, and even from ourselves. But if you have a story that you think could give someone a glimmer of hope, I would encourage you to allow yourself to be vulnerable, open your heart and let yourself be seen and heard. For me, although it has been 30 years since I found myself strangled by the powerful grip of an eating disorder, which could have taken my life, sharing this dark and troubling piece of my history combined with the message that recovery is always an option was a way for me to offer comfort, hope and light to others.
As discussed in the interview, I recently joined The Emily Program as a Friends and Family Support Group facilitator. Volunteering once a month to co-lead a support group for those family and friends of those suffering from an eating disorder has given me another opportunity to give back and provide support for those in need. If you or someone you love is struggling, please know that help is readily available at the The Emily Program. Do not hesitate to take action. You can also feel free to comment or send me a private email if you have any reflections that you would like to share about this issue that effects nearly one out of every five women.
Reiterating the message I gave on the radio when Jordana asked me what advice I have for anyone struggling with an eating disorder, please remember:
Never give up. On yourself or on someone you love.
To listen to the podcast, go here (podcast date: 2/25/15, 10 pm).
I was late (per usual) for my writer friend's book launch. I had debated about whether or not to brave the sub-zero Minnesota temperatures that night but something inside me told me that I really needed to be there. I walked into the Melrose Center and took in the hospital smell. Christmas decorations adorned the walls and the greeters were cheery but I noticed a sinking feeling in my stomach. A woman directed me to the room where Lee Wolfe Blum was reading from her memoir and I gingerly opened the door, hoping it wouldn’t squeak and that no attention would be drawn to me and my lateness. I sat down in the back row and took in the scene. Lee was reading a powerful excerpt from her book (which I read in two days and put it down only when I had to) to a room full of people. I turned and within two seconds I recognized her husband Chris from Lee’s Facebook page. To me, he was somewhat of a hero in her book and I wondered what was going through his head as he sat and watched his healthy, confident, beautiful wife and mother of their three children recount her nearly fatal struggle with an eating disorder.
Then I noticed the two rows of young girls/women sitting in the front rows listening or not listening to Lee share some excerpts from her book. My attention veered slightly from Lee’s words to these girls, whose scrawny wrists held their hospital wrist bands, and I knew at that moment why I didn’t feel so cheery. As happy as I was for Lee and her success with her book, walking into Lee’s place of employment, a hospital/treatment center for children and teens struggling with eating disorders where Lee is a Health Educator, triggered some very uncomfortable memories in me.
I found myself studying the patients in the room. The faraway look in their eyes was all too familiar. I knew first-hand that this detached, empty, fearful look was the result of a combination of starvation, and the need and desire to disconnect from reality and from the self—the desperate attempt to escape inner pain. Lee’s book, A Table in the Darkness, explores Lee’s pain and her path of self-destruction, and ultimately her healing journey to recovery. She does this with such articulation and honesty that I felt like I was right there with her. Lee’s book also allowed me to take a closer look at my story and my memories without feeling shame. Lee told her truth—she exposed her soul and her imperfections. She revealed the gritty details of a person who fought a heart-wrenching, yet inspiring battle with depression and anorexia; wherein food became her vice to mask her pain and to “control” and her demons.
My 17-year-old self was very familiar with this method of demon fighting. Like Lee and the patients sitting a few rows in front of me, I used food to try to numb, control and expunge the self-loathing and perfectionism that plagued my psyche. Thirty years have passed since my three-year battle with the disease began, and although it seems like a life time ago (and I find myself wanting to go back and talk to and comfort that 17-year-old girl), I remember so vividly what it felt like to be one of those patients, sitting in a hospital, trying desperately to hold on to my control over food and my emotions. I thought this control was the key to my survival, and yet, in actuality, the desire to control was pulling life out of me, and pulling me away from the people I loved and who loved me.
My heart ached for the patients in front of me as the memories of my long, difficult road to recovery flooded back to me, but I also felt hope for them and wanted to share with them how much I learned and grew in the process. I wanted to hug them all and tell them to choose life, to do what it takes to recover—to allow themselves to let go, open up, be vulnerable and imperfect, to trust the people around them; to believe that they can and will be helped and healed, and that they are loved and are worthy of happiness and self-love.
But I didn’t have to. Lee, with her strength, conviction, powerful connection with G-d and her faith, and her willingness to document and share her story of sickness and recovery, did that and is doing that for all of us. Her book allows readers to fully immerse themselves in Lee’s world of darkness, and to root for her as she finds her light. Lee bravely marches the reader through the agony of living (or barely living) with depression and anorexia, and the havoc it creates for her, her family, her friends and for all of those who care for her. She does not shy away from exposing herself in a way that most people, myself included, would have a very difficult time doing. She then pulls the reader into her courageous and inspiring recovery process. As a Jewish person reading this book, in which Lee's strong connection to her Christian faith is woven into the fabric of her life story, I was moved by how pivotal her belief in G-d was to her recovery and how her faith continues to guide her and her family. Her journey inspired me to look more deeply into my own faith and connection with G-d.
After Lee signed my book (“You’re next” as I recently completed a manuscript for a book on self-care for mothers) and I hugged her tightly and told her how much I appreciated her book and how proud of her I was, I walked out of the hospital and back out into the cold. Tears began to fall and by the time I got to my car, I felt myself release all the uneasiness that began the moment I walked into the hospital.
I, like Lee, am a survivor. I survived the terror of anorexia—and trust me when I tell you, it truly is a terrifying disease—terrifying for the diseased person and terrifying for those who care about and love her or him. Like Lee, the battle with the disease and the victory over it is something that will always be with me, but it does not define who I am.
I sat in my car and prayed for those girls who sat in the front rows and who would not go home to their families but would spend the night (and probably many nights) in a hospital bed feeling lonely and afraid. I prayed that they would find their light, and would let go, stop fighting and allow themselves to heal.
Then I went home, hugged my husband and kids, and found an even deeper feeling of acceptance of and compassion for my 17-year-old self, and my 47-year-old self.
Lee’s book is a truly a gift for anyone who has suffered or is suffering from an eating disorder, or any kind of addiction, or for someone who loves and cares for someone who has battled or is battling an eating disorder or addiction. It is a valuable tool that can provide healing and hope for every reader.