3 Essential Steps that Led to my Recovery from an Eating Disorder
By Kathleen MacDonald, Health Insurance Advocate
The first time I shared about my experience with an eating disorder was back on June 13, 2002. And though by then I had been suffering with bulimia and anorexia for 18 years, I had never shared with anyone about the debilitating anguish I suffered as a result. The eating disorder had long silenced me and convinced me that no one cared, that I was too great a burden, and that I wasn’t really that sick and, therefore, I didn’t deserve to talk about what I suffered. But by the grace of God, on June 13, 2002, I found myself standing before a room full of strangers on Capitol Hill, prepared to give a speech about the 18 years I had suffered. I was given five minutes to share ‘my story’ and relate it to the topic being discussed that day on Capitol Hill: why people with eating disorders deserve to have insurance treatment.
What moved an entire room to tears left me coolly stoic. I could hear myself saying the incredibly tragic words and I knew it was ‘my story,’ but as I read the words aloud there was no wherewithal left in me to feel the pain I deserved to feel. For 18 years my emotions had been suppressed as a result of being told to ‘just get over it,’ being told I was just ‘too emotional,’ being told I didn’t ‘look anorexic,’ and years of insurance telling me that I wasn’t sick enough to need treatment. As I finished my speech, I should have been bawling my eyes out. Instead, I indifferently said, “I hope I don’t become part of the 2-5% statistic of eating disorder victims who take their own life.” What I didn’t tell the audience was that my plan was to complete suicide after the speech. Like so many sufferers, I had given up hope and the eating disorder had stolen my will to even consider another day of life.
Yet, also like so many sufferers, I truly believed I was “fine.” After the speech, person after person came up to hug me, tears in their eyes, looking for any sign of life in mine as they said, “You can beat this,” “You have to get help,” “I’m so worried for you.” My response to everyone was, “Don’t worry. I’m fine, I promise.” How do you make sense of such a completely twisted and nonsensical state-of-being that so many eating disorders sufferers live with? How do you explain to people that a person with an eating disorder can be extremely close to death, including very close to suicide, but still utter the words, “I’m fine.” That is just one of many serious conundrums about the eating disordered brain that makes these disorders so difficult for people to understand, including the sufferer.
Well, it’s obvious that I did not complete suicide on June 13, 2002 – in fact, I did not even attempt it. The miracles of that day changed the course of my life, and resulted in me fully healing from the eating disorders and all its accoutrements (depressed mood, suicidal thinking, self-hatred, body disgust, etc.). But how? How did I go from having zero hope left, to completely healing and living the blessings of an abundantly full life? To explain all that went into my personal healing process is about as difficult as condensing 18 years down into just five minutes! Therefore, I’m going to focus on the three essential steps that allowed me to recover from the eating disorder. As I share these three essential steps, please know that I honor the fact that every person has their own unique healing journey; these steps were essential for my healing. If they help you on your journey, wonderful. If they don’t really jive for you, that is ok, too. We are all unique, including how we heal. I believe we can always learn from one another’s journeys.
The first essential piece of my recovery process was that I had to come to grips with: suicide is never an option. The reason I did not go on to complete suicide on June 13, 2002, was because that very day I heard Kitty Westin share the story of her daughter, Anna, who completed suicide after suffering with anorexia. It was hearing and seeing Kitty’s pain that made me realize what those left behind are faced with. Even though I was convinced my family wouldn’t care if I was dead, I felt like I couldn’t fly in the face of Kitty’s pain and suffering. And so, from that day forward, “Suicide is never an option” became a recovery-mantra for me. I cannot possibly recall how many times during my recovery process I had to write down the mantra, speak it out loud, and scream it into the darkness of my eating disordered brain before it finally took root. No matter how hard healing was physically and emotionally, I made it a fact in my life that suicide is never an option. The healing process I endured was every word in a thesaurus that means “Sisyphean.” I had gastroparesis, I had no treatment team, I felt completely alone, my spirit felt completely and utterly dead, my finances were non-existent, I had severely damaged my collegiate career, I had no friends, my family had pretty much given up – it was not easy to stop considering suicide. But I remembered Kitty and I remembered Anna. So, for them, suicide was no longer an option. I looked into my dog Gretz’ eyes and promised him that mommy’s suicide was never an option. Eventually, I looked into my own eyes and said, “Suicide is never an option.” And eventually, I no longer had to repeat the mantra. No matter what happens in life, and trust me, I have lived through some very hard life moments since I fully healed, suicide is not something I have to remind myself isn’t an option. Now I know that while I continue on living, living is my only option in this great sweep of things we call Life.
The second essential piece of my recovery process went hand in hand with the first step: I got serious about nourishment. I had to recognize that my emotions and my feelings about my body, my will to live, my self-disgust, etc., none of those things could ever get better if I continued to under-feed my Self. Imagine under-feeding a baby. Would the baby be happy? Of course not! I had to come to grips with the fact that I was just a big-baby, and as such, I was no exception to deserving nourishment in order to feel happy and balanced. Over the course of the 18 years I suffered, I made attempts at recovering – too many to recall. But the one thing I had always denied myself of during those attempts was really solid nourishment. I was ‘the queen’ of eating low-fat everything, exercising off what I ate, weighing myself to make sure I wasn’t gaining weight, laxative use (abuse), purging, claiming to be Vegan so I didn’t have to eat much, etc. After June 13, 2002, I got serious about nourishment. I got serious that I needed to gain fat. I got serious that I needed to ‘over-nourish’ in order to replenish all the years of undernutrition, even though my bloodwork always was “WNL” (within normal limits). I got serious that my brain had shrunk during the eating disordered years, and that if I didn’t take steps to fix it, I was likely looking at early Alzheimer’s. I got serious that my guts needed to be refed, too, and that if I didn’t take that seriously, malnutrition would persist and I would never be able to climb out of the darkest despair that led me to ever consider suicide in the first place. No matter what label of eating disorder applies to you, you must solidly re-nourish yourself, especially your guts, without compromise, if you want to heal.
The third essential piece of my recovery process was the enigmatic power of Hope. By the time June 13, 2002, rolled around, I had lost all hope and I had succumbed to truly believing that everyone would be happier if I was dead. I had lost all hope and all faith in God. But as fate would have it, I was working at a social work clinic at that time and my co-workers were very faith-filled, most practicing Judaism. My co-workers were some of the happiest and well-balanced people I had ever known, in large part because of their faith and the sustaining hope and community their faith brought to them. It was in witnessing their faith actively lived out that inspired me to start investigating my own faith. Though I had been raised in a religion, I seemingly had no faith – no surprise given that eating disorders destroy anything life-sustaining and positive. I had been raised to believe that God loved us, but the eating disorder convinced me that I was an exception to the stories from the Bible that told of God’s love and His ability to work miracles – again, no surprise given that eating disorders thrive when you’re hopeless. But slowly as nourishment began to repair my brain, I was able to ‘see the light.’ I was able to see that the parents I met on June 13th were miracles in my life. There was no other way to explain why on that June day, in a room full of strangers, I met Kitty Westin and Mr. and Mrs. George, whose daughter Leslie died from bulimia. Once I realized those miracles, I decided to blindly cling to the enigmatic power of Hope. No matter how unworthy of recovery I felt, no matter how filthy and broken I felt, no matter how many times I had been told, “You’ll never be able to fully recover,” God apparently had Hope for me still. In the beginning of my recovery, it was physiologically too hard for my brain to stay consistently focused on Hope, so instead of relying on my depleted brain, I started filling my brain with Psalms and chapters from the Bible, in an effort to fill my brain with truth and Hope. I printed out the definition of Hope and taped it up on my bathroom mirror as a constant reminder that, “Because the word Hope is in the dictionary, it exists.” The amount of speaking-truth that goes into healing the brain from an eating disorder is immense. I spent countless months simply repeating the banality that “I must believe in Hope because Webster’s says it is a word. Therefore, it exists.” It’s like I had to rebuild my brain from the ground, up. As I rebuilt my brain through nutrition and with truth, I had another miracle happen. I viscerally no longer felt filthy and worthless. I no longer believed the limitations that had been placed on me when people would say, “Once you have an eating disorder, you always have some part of the eating disorder; it’s genetic, you can’t fully heal.” But my growing faith and healing brain allowed me to be bold about my healing. I realized that NO ONE should ever tell someone what they are or are not capable of doing or what they are capable of healing from. No one should ever limit you to a lifetime of suffering from an eating disorder or body dislike and no one should ever tell you that your genetics have signed you up for a lifetime of hell. The scientific community was just on the cusp of neurogenesis when I was healing. Now we know that the human brain can be re-wired. My life is proof of that, and scientists now confirm what I found through my healing process, “The brain is a finely-tuned instrument. It is fragile, but it is heartening to know that the brain also has the amazing capacity to regenerate.” My faith made me boldly believe that I could indeed fix my brain. In reconnecting with my faith, I knew that I was the very sparrow God cares about, I was Jonah whose soul had fainted, I was Samuel who was taught that God does not see us as society sees us, but rather, God sees our hearts. Instead of seeing cellulite on the back of my thighs, instead of seeing a fat face, ugly nose, instead of seeing a number on the scale, I saw the humbling truth about my body, my very Self: that I had been drawn with loving kindness, in God’s image. As I continued to heal, the eyes of the eating disorder became dead and the eyes that I had prior to the eating disorder were restored – same eyes, restored vision. I now know that I am beautiful because I am alive. I do not see anything ugly about my body. I no longer strive to weigh xxx, I no longer strive to ‘look good’ in clothes…I only strive to make my heart something that God views as beautiful; a humbling work in progress, to say the least.
There is so much more that went into my healing process. But without the above three things I never could have fully healed.
I beg you to never give up hope. I beg you to accomplish more than what the eating disorder tells you that you can’t. I beg you to believe that YOU ARE beautiful, because you are alive.
My deepest thanks to Gürze/Salucore for providing this space to share.
About the author:
Kathleen MacDonald is a Health Insurance Advocate at Kantor & Kantor, LLP. In this role, she has the humbling and rewarding privilege of writing appeals on behalf of patients/families when insurance denies benefits for treatment. Prior to joining Kantor & Kantor, Kathleen served as the Policy & Communications Director at the Eating Disorders Coalition for Research, Policy & Action (“EDC”) and the Education & Prevention Coordinator at the Gail R. Schoenbach F.R.E.E.D. Foundation (For Recovery & Elimination of Eating Disorders). Through the F.R.E.E.D. College Speaking Tour, Kathleen has presented for over ten years at colleges and universities –from Bowdoin to Stanford, to students, staff, medical students, coaches and parents. Kathleen is grateful to have presented extensively on eating disorders on Capitol Hill, at NEDA Walks, and at the BEDA, F.E.A.S.T., NEDA, Renfrew, and SCAN conferences. Her story of overcoming eating and body image disorders has been featured in several media outlets, including the Hill, The New York Times and several documentaries. She is in the process of publishing a book on how a very special dog, Gretz the Super Setter, helped her to fully heal.
Kathleen was born and raised in the great state of Michigan. She moved to the DC area in 2006 to serve the EDC on Capitol Hill. Outside of work, Kathleen finds joy and peace in volunteering, spending time outdoors in Montana, sharing time with family and friends and painting. She is owned by four (about to be 5!) rescue English Setters and a few rescue cats…affectionately known as, “The Zoo.”