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Submitted by: Susanne Johnson
I have been living in San Jose, California since 2008. If you were to meet me today, you would see my active lifestyle and zest for life but would probably not imagine that I spent years of my life in the midst of an eating disorder. My own struggles led me to pursue a Bachelors degree in Psychology and Exercise Science and a graduate degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. Now, I am the Director of Outreach for one of the best known eating disorder treatment centers in the U.S., mentor individuals struggling with eating disorders, and am an active volunteer for several eating disorder non-profits.
I struggled with an eating disorder during my high school years. While in residential treatment, I learned that our pain can often be our greatest blessing. I didn’t know how I would use my story later, but it seemed opportunities kept presenting themselves to encourage others, share my journey, and be involved in eating disorder support and advocacy. In college, I was a leader in an eating disorder awareness and education group on campus and pioneered a wellness program. When I graduated, I moved to California to work in the drug and alcohol addiction field. As a counselor, I lived in a group home for teenage girls and quickly moved into a supervisory role. I started seeing crossovers between addiction and eating disorders and developed a plan to support clients with eating, body image, and exercise issues in their recovery. I also began working as a volunteer for a nonprofit that provided free community education and support groups and eventually became Program Manager for the organization. A few years later, I started my current position, which involves interacting with families, clients, and professionals to assist in treatment admissions and discharge.
I experienced a lot of illness as a child, resulting in dietary changes that impacted my view of food and my body. I attended a rigorous high school and excelled in athletics, including soccer and cross country, adding to pressure and body awareness. I remember a guy telling me, “If you keep eating this much, you will get fat!,” while my soccer coach told me that I needed to gain more muscle. At a nutrition class in school, the teacher taught us how to eat healthier and count calories, which is where my awareness of portions and calories began.
As I began struggling to differentiate from family and experiencing disappointment in relationships, I also started comparing with peers, attempting to fit in, and struggling with identity. My self-esteem plummeted. In ninth grade, my problems manifested internally and externally through anorexia, which began in an attempt to be “healthier and more disciplined” and quickly became more and more restrictive. I was angry constantly; my anxiety increased; and I was difficult to be around. I began lying about my behaviors and becoming someone even I didn’t recognize. I didn’t realize it at that time, but the eating disorder served many roles in my life, from self-medicating to providing control and identity.
Thankfully, my parents intervened early. I showed severe symptoms at age 15, attempted outpatient counseling and nutrition services, and after no success, was admitted to treatment at age 16. Since I was so severely underweight and medically at risk, the doctors pushed for a feeding tube. Though at that point, I preferred to die, I knew I had two choices: either to continue “my way,” which was leading to chaos and eventually death, or to take a “leap of faith” and trust God and professionals with my recovery. I chose to give life a chance and to surrender control.
Since eating disorders do not have a “stop” date, it’s hard to put numbers to an actual duration of the problem. What I know is that recovery has been a journey.
Although I have not engaged in behaviors in a long while, it took learning from relapses, continual counseling, and continual self-challenge to develop a loving relationship with food and my body and to be where I am today.
I have always loved exercise and movement. It has been hard at times to find a balance between eating and exercise and to even be aware of my own motivations, especially in a culture that encourages “healthy eating,” exercise, and discipline. Today, I’m careful to notice my motives for exercise. I don’t hike, run, dance, or play sports because I have feelings of guilt from eating, want to burn calories, fear becoming “fat,” or think I “should.” I move because it gives me joy and allows me to disconnect from stress and to connect to myself. I have to be self-observant not to overdo it, simply because I love being active and how it affects my mind and mood. At times, I have to ask myself what will nourish me most in a given moment and intentionally choose rest.
Exercise is also a great way to connect with others. Early in my recovery, I would get irritated if friends slowed me down, but now, I’ve let go of my agenda. Exercise is about connection and health, not about my capabilities or achievement. If I start increasing training and in doing so, isolate from friends, this is a red flag. From my experience and research, I’ve learned that eating disorders often have roots in relationship wounds and attachment issues. Isolation can lead down the path of sickness while community leads to healing and growth.
Today, I rarely have negative feelings attached to what I eat or how I move. Sometimes I eat too much and sometimes I eat too little. Some weeks I don’t get to exercise, and other weeks, I overdo it. My body communicates with me, and I do my best to listen to it, having grace with myself when I ignore signals or override them. Rather than being angry that my body feels hunger, I send it gratitude and respond as if it were a friend by feeding it. In retrospect, I am grateful for my former eating disorder, because in the long-run, it gave me a better relationship with my body and understanding of who I am and why.
The eating disorder is a liar, and it wants to take your life. However, the personality traits you have that contributed to and maintain the eating disorder can be used constructively to regain your life. They can be applied to do great things. You can learn new and more effective ways of coping. The eating disorder may have made sense for a while to manage your world, but it will not serve you long term.
Thankfully, there are many more resources available today than when I needed help, including online mentor programs, helplines, and in-home recovery coaches. If you are seeking outpatient therapy, it is best to work with a multi-disciplinary team, including a physician, dietitian, therapist, and if necessary, a psychiatrist. I highly recommend working specifically with eating disorder specialists or those with specialized training. If you are unsure if you have an eating disorder, there are free online assessment tools available such as the EAT-26. Most treatment programs offer free assessments and recommendations on the level of care needed.
Several things impacted me in recovery. First, I had to remind myself that we are all different, and this was my journey. I had to put “blinders on” to focus on my needs and accept where I was, rather than comparing with others or getting swayed by the world’s many and often conflicting messages. Just as in a long-distance race, rather than thinking about the result or finish line, I had to focus on one step at a time. Lastly, I had to remember that I wasn’t alone. I had to reach out to support and be willing to ask for help. I had to let go of control a bit and trust – and I had to hold on to hope for a better and freer life. I also had to “fall into grace,” to have compassion for myself and to avoid putting myself in a box through labels. I am not my former eating disorder: I am Kira. My struggle doesn’t define me, but it does refine me.
Recovery begins when we learn to accept ourselves and accept the imperfect journey (and gift) of life.