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Jenni Schaefer is an internationally known author and speaker whose work has helped change the face of recovery from eating disorders. Her appearances on shows like Dr. Phil and Entertainment Tonight, in publications ranging from Cosmopolitan to The New York Times, and before live audiences have brought a world of hope to men and women seeking real solutions.
"I want people who struggle with eating disorders to know it is possible to move from being 'in recovery' to being 'fully recovered,'" she says. "I want them to get into life and follow their dreams, not be stuck in or defined by an eating disorder."
Jenni is the author of two books, Goodbye Ed, Hello Me: Recover from Your Eating Disorder and Fall in Love with Life (McGraw-Hill), and her breakthrough best-seller, Life Without Ed: How One Woman Declared Independence from Her Eating Disorder and How You Can Too about her journey and recovery from eating disorders.
Jenni's straightforward, realistic style has made her a role model, source of inspiration and confidant to people across the globe looking to overcome their eating disorders and live complete lives. The National Eating Disorders Association-Long Island recently honored Jenni with the "Inspiration and Advocacy Award" inscribed with the words, "Recovery and pursuing your dreams are possible!!!"
When did you realize and finally admit to yourself that you were struggling from an eating disorder and needed help?
In dance class at four-years-old, I remember hearing the voice of Ed (aka “eating disorder”). Ed told me that I was fat—that I wasn’t good enough.* I didn’t question this negative voice back then, so it just became louder and stronger as I grew older.
I finally asked for help after college graduation at age twenty-two. One reason I love speaking so much in schools today is to inspire young people to get help now, rather than later.
* In therapy, I was taught to treat my eating disorder like a relationship rather than an illness. I named mine Ed, and ultimately, “divorced,” myself from “him.” I describe this process in detail in my first book, Life Without Ed.
How were you able to open up to your friends about your eating disorder? How did they react? Did you find some friends drift away from you because of your eating disorder, or did they become closer to you?
I was sick and tired of being sick and tired, so I finally told my boyfriend about the “other man”—Ed. Luckily, my boyfriend knew that he could love and support me, but he couldn’t save me. With his lead, I told my parents about my struggles. We found professional help. With time, my therapist guided me in opening up to other family members and friends.
Eventually, the stigma and shame that I had originally felt about the illness subsided. No one reacted in a negative way! In fact, the response was overwhelmingly positive. People looked up to me for getting help. And they went out of their way to support my recovery.
We often hear about how eating disorders tear families apart, but we don’t hear a lot about how recovery brings people together. I am closer than ever to both my family and friends.
How did your family support you through your eating disorder, and what do they still do as a way of checking up? What do you think someone can do to help a friend that has an eating disorder? Are there any dos or don’ts?
The best way to support someone going through an eating disorder is to ask them, “How can I best support you?” Ask what feels supportive and what doesn’t. I had to teach my family and friends how to support me. What worked for me didn’t necessarily work for my other friends in recovery.
I’ve heard it said about eating disorders, “From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.” That’s the bad news. The good news is that it doesn’t matter. You never have to understand what it’s like to have an eating disorder. What you do need to do is believe your loved one. When they say, “I feel fat,” believe their experience. Provide hope, support, and lots of love. There is some wonderful information on Center for Change about supporting loved ones.
What are some difficulties for friends and family that are supporting or trying to support someone dealing with an eating disorder?
Ed often tells the person struggling, “You don’t have an eating disorder.” He might even say, “You are healthier than most people. They are just jealous.” Family members and friends need to be prepared for this type of denial, which is simply a characteristic of the illness. It can be helpful to separate your loved one from the illness. Recognize when “Ed” is talking, and fight against the eating disorder, not your loved one.
Family members and friends also need to know that you can’t tell how someone is doing just by looking. When individuals struggling with eating disorders gain weight in recovery, they often feel worse than ever before. On the outside, your loved one might look healthier, but on the inside, they could feel absolutely horrible. This is when they need the most support. It is not the time to quit therapy, which happens all too often.
What are signs to look out for if someone thinks their loved one might have an eating disorder?
Go beyond signs and symptoms related to food and weight. Most individuals suffering with eating disorders don’t look like they have an eating disorder. The truth is that there is no certain way that people with eating disorders “look.” (The majority of those with bulimia are within a normal weight range.) Eating disorders come in every shape and size. Unlike what many people believe, these illnesses do not discriminate by weight, gender, age, ethnicity, or anything else.
That said, look for changes in mood and/or a tendency to isolate. Notice whether or not your loved one possesses genetic traits that might make them more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder. These traits include high anxiety, perfectionism, and compulsivity. When it comes to eating disorders, researchers often say, “Genetics loads the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger.”
Bottom line: if you suspect that someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder for whatever reason, I encourage you to approach them. Look to National Eating Disorders Association for guidance on how to do just that. One thing is for sure: left untreated, eating disorders do kill. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychological illness. With treatment, however, people can and do fully recover.
Was writing your two books, ‘Goodbye Ed, Hello Me’ and ‘Life Without Ed’ therapeutic for you? Did you learn something new about your condition from your writing?
Yes, sometimes I think that my books help me more than anyone else!
What was most gratifying about writing your books?
I love hearing from people who have been inspired by my work. It is wonderful to know that you can turn something horrible (an eating disorder) into something good. In my life today, I try to remember this lesson—lemons can be turned into lemonade!
I often hear from men and women who want to share their recovery stories as well, so I posted information on my website about this process.
Are eating disorders still a daily struggle for you? If so, how do you cope and keep strength?
I am fully recovered. Period. A chapter in my latest book, Goodbye Ed, Hello Me, talks more about this.
I often say that I am fully recovered from my eating disorder, not life. In other words, now that Ed is behind me, I can focus on other areas in my life. I am always growing and learning!
Any words of encouragement for those with an eating disorder, and for friends and families whose loved ones have an eating disorder?
Full recovery from an eating disorder is absolutely possible. Never, never, never give up!