Common Eating Disorder and PTSD Questions
Jenni has had the chance to connect with thousands of women and men over the years. Here, we would like to share some of the most commonly asked questions along with Jenni’s answers. If you have a question that you don’t see listed here, please send us an email. We update this page regularly!
Writing and Speaking
This is such a popular question that I created a pdf to best answer it! Download here.
First of all, believe in yourself! This is also such a common question that I created a pdf to answer it! Download here.
In therapy, I was taught to call my anorexia/bulimia “Ed” (an acronym for “eating disorder”). Treating my eating disorder like a relationship truly helped me, so I wanted to share that idea with others. In part, Life Without Ed was born from numerous journals and notes that I kept during my recovery process.
When I wrote my first book, Life Without Ed, I was significantly recovered from my eating disorder. And I wanted to share what I had learned with others. I decided to write my second book, Goodbye Ed, Hello Me, because I had finally reached the place I call fully recovered. With both of my books, I wanted people with eating disorders to know that they can leave the illness behind and find true joy and peace in life.
Yes, sometimes I think that my books actually help me more than anyone else! When I wrote Life Without Ed, I realized that I needed to become completely accountable for my own recovery. Ed could no longer be an option in my life.
When I wrote my second book, Goodbye Ed, Hello Me, I realized what life beyond Ed really means. Throughout the writing process, I connected more deeply with both people in my life as well as my passions. I connected more with myself.
Harvard Medical School invited me to join the Almost Anorexic project, and I excitedly accepted. I think The Almost EffectTM is a great concept that will help a lot of people.
Dr. Thomas is an incredible clinician and researcher. We had a lot of fun writing the book together. Indirectly, she even introduced me to my fiancé! Stay tuned for a blog entry about that.
A wide array of travel! I feel grateful to have friends across the globe.
I have no typical day. I like that freedom and flexibility. If I am on the road for a speaking engagement, I am often in airports and hotels. I try to get lots of rest and relaxation when I travel, so you might catch me getting a manicure or massage.
If I am home in Austin, I try to write and work on music. Yesterday, I was writing outside on my back patio. Some days, I tote my laptop to a favorite coffee shop.
I do my best to incorporate fun and relationships into my life. This is the best way to keep the creative juices flowing!
Trauma and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
I battled posttraumatic stress disorder for well over ten years before I ever sought specific help for the illness. It wasn’t until I typed “exaggerated startle response” into my computer’s search engine that I realized I had PTSD. Thanks, Dr. Google! I share my story, because I don’t want others to suffer as long as I did in silence.
My PTSD recovery was like a jigsaw puzzle. Eye Movement Rapid Desensitization was one of the early treatments that helped me. Then, Somatic Experiencing entered the picture. Finally, Prolonged Exposure Therapy was added to the mix. Other key aspects of my healing included Cognitive Processing Therapy, Acceptance Commitment Therapy, and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Other methods of healing included massage, acupuncture, and mindfulness.
At first, I refused to take medication for PTSD. I wanted to “do it on my own.” (This reminded me of my attitude in eating disorder recovery.) In the end, I realized that PTSD is a brain injury. I needed all of the help that I could to get better. I finally took medication, and, for me, it made a huge difference. Every body is different.
Yes, PTSD can go away! The trauma memory never leaves us, but the symptoms of posttraumatic stress absolutely can.
If your loved one struggles with PTSD, it is important for you to realize that their brain is essentially hijacked.
In therapy, I learned to treat my eating disorder like a relationship—rather than an illness or a condition. I actually named it “Ed,” an acronym for eating disorder. “He” was very much like an abusive boyfriend or husband. Read a short excerpt from the introduction of Life Without Ed to help explain this concept.
I’ve met males and females in recovery who have used the name “Ed” for their eating disorders. I have also connected with people who have chosen a different name. Others choose not to use the metaphor of Ed at all.
Important to note, personifying my eating disorder was just one tool in my recovery toolbox. Eventually, by utilizing all of my tools, I divorced Ed!
The method of personifying Ed helped me to view my eating disorder as separate from myself. I could finally talk back to that negative voice in my head and make room for my own personality and thoughts. I was not an eating disorder; I was Jenni.
Secondly, the metaphor of Ed gave me hope. It took something that I didn’t understand (my eating disorder) and put it in a context that I could relate to (relationships).
Finally, by using the metaphor, my friends and family began to see my eating disorder as separate from me as well. We could all fight against Ed and for me. This felt good.
I was sick and tired of being sick and tired, so I finally told my then-boyfriend about the “other man in my life”—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. (He actually told them over the phone while I cried next to him.) We found professional help. In time, my treatment team guided me to opening up to my brothers. I still wasn’t ready to tell anyone else.
Eventually, the stigma and shame that I had originally felt about my illness began to subside. My family and treatment team helped me to see that an eating disorder is a life-threatening illness. If I had cancer (another life-threatening illness), I would connect with as many loved ones as possible for support and guidance. I learned that the same must be true for an eating disorder: I was battling a deadly illness, and, I needed as many people behind me as possible.
Slowly, I began letting my friends and other family members know about my eating disorder. To my surprise, no one reacted in a negative way! In fact, the response was overwhelmingly positive. People looked up to me for getting help (not down on me like I had thought). 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 before to both my family and friends.
Even if you don’t think you have a “real” eating disorder (so many people don’t think they do), reach out and get help anyway. Take steps in recovery anyway. I spent my first few weeks in therapy asking, “Do I really have an eating disorder?” The truth is that I was benefitting from therapy regardless of whether or not I really had an Ed. So, I kept going. Eventually, I realized, “Yes, I do have an eating disorder.”
Try not to get caught up in diagnostic terms and definitions. Our book, Almost Anorexic, is all about the fact that labels don’t matter when it comes to pain and suffering. What matters is getting help.
I struggled with these feelings a lot during my recovery. I loved Ed, and I hated him at the same time. My treatment team pointed out that I was stuck. I was stuck trying to dissect Ed—attempting to keep the parts I liked (i.e. Ed made me feel special, helped me to relieve stress) and get rid of the parts I hated (i.e. Ed made me depressed, stole my dreams). It took me awhile to believe it, but no one can dissect an eating disorder. To get better, we have to be willing to let go of all of Ed. We must grieve those parts of Ed that we like. For me, this meant finding new ways to relieve stress and to feel unique. I learned that I am special just by being myself. I don’t need Ed’s help with that. You are special, too! If you have the book Life Without Ed, you might want to read the chapter called “Grieving the Good” on page 146.
And remember, as we mention in Almost Anorexic, you can always go back to your eating disorder if you choose to. (When you get to full recovery, you won’t want to!) You have nothing to lose by just giving recovery a try. Try it out for a week. Or just a day.
Yes! Ed is like a muscle. When we engage in eating disordered behaviors, the Ed muscle gets bigger and stronger. When we get into recovery and start disagreeing with Ed, the muscle becomes smaller and weaker. If we disobey Ed, the muscle atrophies even more. This is a slow process. For me, it took years for the Ed muscle to atrophy. But, eventually, it did. Today, I don’t hear Ed at all. You can get there, too. Don’t quit.
I don’t know anyone who never has a negative body image thought!
What I do hear sometimes is Societal Ed—society’s eating disorder. Everyone in Western culture hears Societal Ed—not just people with eating disorders. We all hear the message that we should be super skinny—on television, in magazines, and even sometimes from our well-meaning friends.
Interestingly enough, because I had an eating disorder and worked to recover, I know how to deal with Societal Ed. Most “normal” people don’t learn practical tools to cope with Societal Ed, but I am grateful that, for years, I had the chance to attend body image therapy group, to consult with a registered dietitian about food, and to participate in individual therapy. These are gifts that live on in my life today.
I talk a lot about this topic in Goodbye Ed, Hello Me. If you have the book, check out the chapters titled “The Worst Pickup Line Ever” (page 131) and “Societal Ed” (page 133).
What I have learned is that we all have to let go of numbers (i.e. clothing sizes, weights, etc.). There is nothing easy about this. This is a hard part of recovery. To get past the hard parts, we must go through (not around) the pain. We must cry, face the fear, and feel the feelings. We must believe that when we do all of this, we will get better. At first, I hated my new body, which was much larger than I had ever imagined. The miracle of recovery is that, today, I love that very same body. Don’t quit before the miracle of recovery happens for you.
I must emphasize the importance of working with a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders. Before I could even begin to think about intuitive eating, I first needed structure around food. I have heard my former dietitian Reba Sloan refer to my first food plan as “structured flexibility.”
After consistently working with this food plan, I slowly began to feel hunger/fullness cues. Even more slowly, I began to crave specific foods – in a healthy way. I am not talking about the intense craving experienced during a binge. I am talking about the subtle desire for something specific, because my body truly wants that type of food. Just now, I was hungry and walked to the fridge. My body said “protein”, so I grabbed a protein-rich snack. I feel satisfied.
Here are several things that helped me with the intuitive eating process:
- Taking my time at mealtimes, not rushing
- Sitting down at the table to eat (sometimes lighting a candle)
- Meditating/praying before eating
- Eating with other people (people with positive eating/body image behaviors)
- Taking deep breaths
- Journaling before and after meals
My favorite quote is the Japanese proverb: “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” We all fall down in recovery a lot. We just have to keep standing. If we keep standing, we will end up on our feet. We will make it.
Spirituality truly helped me to stay on the recovery path. It took awhile, but I eventually let go and began trusting a higher power (which I call God). I attended 12-step meetings for support. (A helpful resource for some is Eating Disorders Anonymous, EDA.) When I fell down, my support group helped to pick me back up again. I could rarely pick myself back up on my own.
If you are reading this, it is obvious that you are working hard in recovery. Never, never, never give up. Do your best to stay connected with your treatment team and support network. None of us can do it alone. But, together, we can do it.
We hear this a lot: Eating disorders are not about food and weight. That’s true. Eating disorders are truly about underlying issues like painful perfectionism, constant self-criticism, low self-esteem, and crippling depression. But eating disorders are a big paradox. While the illness is not about food and weight, to get better, we have to develop a healthy relationship with food and our body. There is no getting around it. So, to answer your question, yes, I am sure about the eating part! Food is actually the best medicine for an eating disorder.
Eating is like jumping off a cliff with a parachute. We must jump and trust that our parachute will open. The hard part is: the parachute won’t open until we jump.
“Jump” (page 53) in Goodbye Ed, Hello Me speaks to this. An interesting side note is that I almost deleted this chapter from the book. I wasn’t sure if people would understand my line of thinking. Well, I am very happy that I left “Jump” in the book, because it has become one of the most popular chapters of all.
I actually wrote a chapter in Goodbye Ed, Hello Me to answer this very question, which is one of the most common of all. This chapter, “Who am I Without Ed?” (page 45), is free and downloadable here.
At four-years-old, negative body image was the first part of my eating disorder to come along. Not surprisingly, it was the last part to leave. But it did leave! The biggest key to improving my body image was having patience. My body changed in my recovery a whole lot quicker than my mind did. I had to have patience, so that my mind could catch up with my body! It took time for my attitude and perspective about my body to shift.
In Almost Anorexic, we include a body image exercise to help you see how you may be “wearing Ed glasses.” Download it for free here. Further, download a helpful body image chapter from Goodbye Ed, Hello Me called “A Thigh of Relief” (page 144) and “Compare and Despair” (page 105) from Life Without Ed.
In the beginning, I needed my treatment team to provide me with specific guidelines about exercise. They told me when I could exercise, what I could do, and for how long. While exercising, I learned to shift my focus. Instead of concentrating on how many calories I was burning, I thought about how I felt energized and alive. Also, I chose exercise activities that were fun for me. I like to hike and bike, because these activities feel good to my body. So, you will more likely see me on the trail than on a treadmill.
In Almost Anorexic, we dedicate an entire chapter to overcoming compulsive exercise. If you have the book, check out chapter 8, “Get Moving (Or Not): What’s Best for You.”
Take the compulsive exercise test, which we introduce in Almost Anorexic.
One of the best ways to support someone with an eating disorder is simply to ask, “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 others.
Parents have told me that one of the most helpful parts of Life Without Ed is in the Introduction where I talk about believing your loved one. You might never understand the eating disorder, and that’s okay. But you must learn to believe your loved one’s experience of the eating disorder. If he or she says, “I feel fat,” you might respond, “I believe you feel that way. I’m so sorry you are struggling.”
Learn as much as you can about the illness. Read firsthand account memoirs like mine or other books written by people who have suffered.
Provide support and lots of love. Hold onto hope when your loved one can’t.
Ed often tells the person who is struggling, “You don’t have an eating disorder.” He might even say, “You are healthier than most people. Your friends are just jealous.” This type of manipulation takes time for the person suffering to fight through.
Family members and friends need to be prepared for denial, which is simply a characteristic of the illness. It may be helpful for you to separate your loved one from the illness. Recognize when “Ed” is talking, and fight against the eating disorder, not your loved one.
Go beyond just 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.” 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, “Genes loads the gun, and the environment pulls the trigger.”
If you suspect that someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, I encourage you to approach them. Look to the National Eating Disorders Association for guidance on how to do just that. One thing is for sure: left untreated, eating disorders can kill. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychological illness. With treatment, however, people can and do fully recover.
YES! Don’t settle for anything less. There are lots of mediocre versions of recovery out there, but I encourage you to go beyond those places. Don’t stop until you reach full freedom.
You might want to read “Recovered (Period.)” (page 13) in Goodbye Ed, Hello Me, which is free and downloadable here.
Also, check out an inspirational, downloadable excerpt from Almost Anorexic, “Don’t Settle For Almost Recovered”.
And you might as well read a hopeful one from Life Without Ed, too! Here’s “Serenity” (page 183).
For me, full recovery was “hindsight’s 20/20.” In other words, I didn’t know I had reached full recovery until after the fact. Here’s what happened:
I experienced several rough times in my life (i.e. family member’s cancer, broken wedding engagement, friend’s death), and I didn’t even think about turning to Ed for support. Instead of binging, purging, or restricting, I felt the feelings. I was sad—and lonely. But I was not with Ed. People in my life started saying, “Jenni, you are fully recovered.” Ultimately, I realized that they were right.
Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. We must give ourselves time to fully heal.
You can do it!
I stopped seeking perfection, which doesn’t exist. Instead, I began striving for excellence, which is a concept I learned from Michael E. Berrett, Ph.D. When I aim for excellence, my motto is “do your best.” Simultaneously, I respect and understand that I am not always at my best. Sometimes, my best is actually quite bad! And that’s okay.
I also began to harness the power in my perfectionistic trait. I learned a lot about this concept from Carolyn Costin, LMFT. When refined and taken in a positive direction, my perfectionistic trait helps me to be driven, hardworking, and detail-oriented. These are good things, especially when writing a book! But, when taken in a negative direction, this same trait will drive me into the ground, into exhaustion, and ultimately into complete misery.
Slowly, I became aware that perfectionism had tentacles in so many areas of my life. Check out a couple of excerpts about this from Goodbye Ed, Hello Me: “I’m Not Wonder Woman” (page 58) and “Making Waves” (page 177).
To self soothe, I do lots of things. Here is a list of things I do regularly:
- Take a relaxing bath
- Call a friend
- Hug my fiancé
- Go on a walk outside
- Buy myself flowers
- Acts of service (even something as simple as writing a thank you note)
- Get a massage
- Gentle yoga
- Meet with a friend to talk
- Practice my guitar
- Sing and write
- Focus on my body and its sensations
Music has always been a healing force in my life. Sometimes, music helps me to get in touch with my feelings and to express myself. Other times, music is just a way to relax and have fun. I love both listening to music and making it!
I like to encourage others to utilize the power of music in their lives. I have actually co-written a couple of articles that talk specifically about the healing power of music. See them here.
I have discovered that much of what I learned in recovery from Ed can be applied to Matt, Tom, and Joe! In other words, eating disorder recovery tools and concepts were quite helpful in the dating process.
For instance, I used to believe that I would never recover from Ed. While dating, I often found myself thinking, “I will never meet someone.” That word, “never,” signifies black and white thinking. And that kind of thinking doesn’t work. I had to become aware of this negative self-talk. I did my best to replace negativity with positive thinking: “I will meet someone special when I am ready. And it will be wonderful.”
And guess what: I did. I recovered from my eating disorder, too.
Today, I am engaged to an amazing man named Eric. Luckily, his name isn’t Ed! That would be really weird. Recently, someone suggested that I write a book titled Life With Eric. I kind of like that idea. Stay tuned…
To me, letting go is a spiritual concept that truly works. In my personal recovery, I learned to let go of things that I couldn’t change—like the past. And, instead, I learned to focus my energy on what I could change. I also learned to live in the moment as much as possible. Often, I repeated the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
I wish I’d known about letting go when I was younger, especially as a student in high school and college. This concept could have saved me a lot of grief.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not perfect at letting go! I sometimes have to remind myself daily.
In the beginning, what helped most was talking with people in my life who were spiritually healthy; who had a good relationship with their higher power or God. I looked to these people as guides and mentors. I talk about connecting spiritually here, in the downloadable chapter from Goodbye Ed, Hello Me called “The Hole” (page 68).