Jennifer Rollin speaks with Heather Hower, MSW, LICSW, QCSW, ACSW.
Jennifer: Tell me a about your struggle with an eating disorder (please avoid numbers of graphic descriptions of behaviors, so as not to trigger my readers):
Heather: I had Anorexia Nervosa (AN) for 23 years, and have been in recovery since February 16, 2012. When I woke up on the day of my “new reality,” I knew that I could not continue on the path of listening to “ED (Eating Disorder),” as it had been a roller coaster of restriction, over-exercise, and emotional turmoil with those who loved me.
At times when I would allow myself to eat (e.g., holidays, vacations), I would feel horrible after, and ED would tell me to “cathartically cleanse (go back to restricting)” as soon as I returned home. My life was ruled by the scale, a main tool of ED, and I thought that the lower I weighed, the more in control of my life I would be.
I also looked at myself in the mirror a lot (my husband called it EMT; Excessive Mirror Time) to check my body parts. There were times when I was starving, sick, injured, and in danger of seriously damaging my relationships, but ED yelled at me to keep going, saying “How bad do you want it (to be thin)?” The answer was, of course, “bad,” in every sense of the word. ED promised that if I followed his rules, I would be happy, but I realized that morning that I was miserable, and I would be for the rest of my life if I didn’t change anything.
Jennifer: What do you think was the function of your eating disorder in your life?
Heather: My AN served as a way to communicate with my body what I could not say with my words; I am ill, emaciated, anxious, overwhelmed, depressed, angry, confused, sad, lonely, and exhausted. When I tried to convey to my parents, teachers, and ballet coaches how I was feeling, I was ignored, shut down, or even reprimanded for not being “strong enough.” I learned that asking for help from them would be counter-productive, so I retreated inward to the safety of my AN.
Jennifer: Was there a turning point for you, where you really started to embrace the idea of recovery?
Heather: My turning point began on February 16, 2012, as I noted above. The “essential me” knew that I needed to save myself (from ED). Working with my doctor, therapist, and nutritionist (my professional “support bench”), I learned how to hydrate and fuel my body, growing to trust it would tell me when I was hungry and full, and that it would make up for my mistakes. I had a lot of momentum in my recovery at first, and then I realized that I needed to maintain a pace that was sustainable (life is a marathon, not a sprint). Today, I continue with the “long game.”
Jennifer: What helped you get through the tough times in recovery?
Heather: There were times that I felt like I was on the cusp of giving up, that recovery was too hard, that I would never make it, and that it was easier to go back to my AN. A pivotal moment was when, six months into recovery, I was finally at a threshold weight where my period returned after several years, and I was very anxious about what that meant (physically and symbolically).
That day, I reached out to a good friend, and told him that I was seriously considering relapsing. He told me “Pause, you don’t have to go forward, but don’t go backwards.” He gave me permission to stop pushing myself so hard, to maintain where I was at for a while, until I felt that I was able to move forward again. His words gave me the strength to keep going during the tough times.
Jennifer: What were some of your motivations in terms of pushing yourself in recovery?
Heather: I am in recovery for my loved ones (especially my husband), but most importantly, I am in recovery for ME. There are many benefits to living without ED, but the driving one for me is a sense of sanity (it is priceless). I am seeking a balance; not too little or too much of anything, and when I am there, I am in my “sweet spot.”
Throughout recovery I have been further discovering my identity, the things that make me happy. I am really excited about moving away from ED, and focusing on the “essential me.”
Jennifer: What was the most helpful for you in terms of your recovery (i.e. specific skills, tools, treatment etc.)?
Heather: During my first inpatient AN stay there were a variety of exercises that my therapist did with me , which were helpful in terms of my body image. Fluoxetine was also prescribed for me during this stay for my depression symptoms, which did start to lift. More recently, my dosage was increased to target my various anxiety symptoms.
While the medication was directed toward my co-morbid disorders, my AN recovery benefited, because I finally had the head space to make a conscious decision to fight “ED” and recover.