Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Walk Down Recovery Lane with Jenni Schaefer

Jenni Schaefer is the author of two books- Life Without Ed and more recently, Goodbye Ed, Hello Me. She is an activist, educator and motivational speaker, seeking to raise awareness about eating disorders. She is also a musician; she writes music and sings! She recently gave an interview (back in November) sharing her thoughts about being in recovery from an eating disorder. Her most recent book, Goodbye Ed, Hello Me is focused on her life post- ED (the name she gave her eating disorder) and her experience of living and loving life without ED! Below is the interview, copy and pasted from November 4th's Planet Blacksburg, the collegiate publication of Virginia Tech.

Q: How would you describe a life of suffering with an eating disorder?

Schaefer: It’s a complicated illness, it doesn’t make sense. I always ate normal when I was around my family. I didn’t really think I had a problem. I knew there was something wrong but didn’t define that as a problem. The denial is so huge in this disease. My friends would comment on my weight, but I thought everyone was jealous. I was lying to myself, not them.

Q: Describe the relationship that you formed with Ed.
Schaefer: I was always depressed. I thought I was never going to get better. My therapist, Thom, kept telling me that was Ed, not Jenni. The eating disorder was my identity. I really thought I was the eating disorder. We label ourselves as the anorexic girl, or the skinniest girl in the world, or the bulimic girl. But that’s not us. And we really grieve when we have to let that identity go.

Q: Your eating disorder started in college. What exactly prompted it?
Schaefer: I have an older brother and a younger brother, and I was the perfect child going to medical school. I appeared to have this perfect life and I always smiled. I knew instantly it was about perfectionism. I was always called ‘Perfect Jenni.’ It was about criticism, and very low self esteem. I realized that my eating disorder helped me control emotions and feelings. I struggled with Ed thoughts at the young age of four. These thoughts grew louder as I grew older. I didn't question the thoughts until I was 22 and at rock bottom.

Q: Who was the first person you told?
Schaefer: I finally got up the courage to tell my ex-boyfriend at the time. I was so ashamed. I was silenced by my eating disorder. I had him tell my parents. I didn’t want anyone to know, not even my brothers. My eating disorder was not going to get better if I stayed silent. I tend to have black and white thinking. That’s part of my recovery, to fight that. Nobody’s going to know, or everybody’s going to know.

Q: How did your family react when they discovered you had an eating disorder?
Schaefer: I remember my mom calling me after she found out I was struggling and getting help. Knowing that my mom went to a library and was trying to learn more showed me that she really cared. Both of my brothers never realized that someone could be struggling with something so deadly, but appear to be so normal. They thought someone with an eating disorder was extremely emaciated like those you see on TV.

Q: One of your famous quotes is, “Never married, but happily divorced.” Can you explain this?
Schaefer: I am divorced from my eating disorder, not a person. I was actually taught by my psychotherapist in recovery to treat my eating disorder as an abusive boyfriend, or husband. Really, that’s how it felt. I felt controlled and abused by my eating disorder. Ed actually had a chair in our therapy sessions.

Q: In your interviews you never discuss your lowest or highest weight throughout your treatment. Why is that?
Schaefer: You can be any size and have an eating disorder. It’s not about food or weight, it’s not about size. That doesn’t matter. It’s really about what’s inside. It’s a huge paradox; it’s not about the food and weight, but it’s all about the food and weight. Definitely don’t talk about specific behaviors. People use numbers as bullets.

Q: Do you believe recovery is possible for all individuals?
Schaefer: It’s a constant process. Recovery is a very long process. But I do believe you can be recovered. Food is something we deal with at least three times a day. It’s not something you can just quit, give up. With an eating disorder, it’s a continuum. It’s something you have to do every day, three times a day. It’s a real struggle to find the balance with food. Food is everywhere. It’s how you celebrate holidays, and it’s how you celebrate birthdays.

Q: Then how were you able to recover?
Schaefer: That is a million dollar question. I think there are so many aspects of eating disorder recovery. For me, it was about using all the resources I had and constantly staying connected to my therapist, to my family, to my doctor, and not isolating. It was also never giving up. Every time I relapsed I had to stand back up again. My favorite quote is, “fall down 7 times, stand up 8.” It’s very, very frustrating and very, very hard. It’s a spiritual process as well. We don’t want to talk about higher power; we hate them because we think they gave us the eating disorder. It was a big disconnect.

Q: Describe this disconnect.
Schaefer: You disconnect with everybody. I had spent 10 years trying to avoid my friends. I alienated all my friends. I’d say, “I am completely self sufficient.”

Q: So how did you reconnect with God?
Schaefer: First of all, I had to just yell. I had a journal about how God hates me, and listed all the reasons. For me, I really had to meet people in my life that were spiritually fit, spiritually healthy; who had a good relationship with God. I had to look to those people as guides and mentors. It’s not what happens to us, but it’s how we respond to it. Use things that happen in a positive way. Turn it around.

Q: During your recovery process, when you would fall into a pit of relapses, how would you pull yourself out?
Schaefer: I fell into relapse often. In fact, it got worse before it ever started getting better. I had to hold onto hope that recovery is possible. Connecting with others always helped.

Q: What inspired you to finally make a change, accept help, and move forward with your life, independent of Ed?
Schaefer: Like I said above, I got help because I hit rock bottom at 22. I was depressed and hopeless. I couldn't function as a productive member of society. I often couldn't get out of bed.

Q: How did you realize that you actually wanted to recover?
Schaefer: I was frequently afraid to let Ed go. Ed was my main way of coping with life. To fully let Ed go, I had to find other ways to deal with life. I also had to be willing to let go of the things I "liked" about Ed. I liked how Ed made me feel special (i.e. being the thinnest one in the room). I had to find other ways to feel special: by just being myself.

Q: What advice would you give to others suffering with Ed?
Schaefer: I can’t emphasize enough the importance of telling someone and getting professional help. Making one phone call; that is such a key to start with. Learning how to love myself was a key. A real key.

For more information on Jenni Schaefer, or to find out more about either of her books, follow this link to access her website. For the original interview, follow this link.

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