In this episode, we talk to Jenni Schaefer, who discusses trauma, ptsd, eating disorders, and recovery.
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For more information on Jenni, please visit Jenni’s website –
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Full transcript –
Kathy: Hello and welcome to ED Matters. This is Kathy Cortese your host and my guest today is Jenni Schaefer. Welcome, Jenni. How are you today?
Jenni: Hi. Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.
Kathy: We’re going to start off by me reading a brief bio of Jenni. Jenni Schaefer is the National Recovery Advocate of Eating Recovery Centers Family Institute and an internationally known writer and speaker whose work has helped change the face of recovery from eating disorders. She’s the bestselling author of Life Without Ed, Goodbye Ed, Hello Me and Almost Anorexic. A book about subclinical eating disorders in collaboration with Harvard Medical School. She has been featured as an expert in a wide range of media including on shows like Today, Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil and in publications ranging from Cosmopolitan to The New York Times. Her first book Life Without Ed was released in the 10th anniversary edition as well as an audio book. Jenni is also chair of the Ambassadors Council of the National Eating Disorders Association and in accomplished singer/songwriter living in Austin, Texas. And again, welcome, Jenni.
Jenni: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Kathy: Well, we are kind of going to dive into something that is pretty meaty. I was wondering if we could please talk about your recent presentation at the 2016 International Conference on Eating Disorders.
Jenni: Absolutely. I was thrilled to have the chance to speak at the Academy for Eating Disorders Conference. My colleagues and I were very grateful to the Academy For Eating Disorders for selecting us. I had the chance at that conference to speak alongside the incredible Dr. Tim Brewerton as well as the incredible June Alexander and for me working with these two was truly a dream team and our topic was trauma, PTSD and eating disorders and we talked about immigrating personal and professional perspectives so June and I both in our lives have had experienced trauma. We both had eating disorders and we both had PTSD. Importantly, we both recovered from those things and Dr. Brewerton truly has been a doctor in this field that has helped countless people to recover from eating disorders, from trauma, from PTSD so working with these two was truly incredible for me. Dr. Brewerton is definitely a mentor to me in the topic of trauma, PTSD and eating disorders and I’ll tell you what, June is a mentor to me in writing. She writes so many books that’s so prolific. I wish I could write books like the way she does. I’m only on three and she’s probably on 10 by now.
Kathy: Or more. I’m going to just make a quick comment. First off, this is a remarkably skilled group that was addressing a very complex issue. Just for those who are not familiar with Dr. Brewerton or June, Tim of Charleston, South Carolina is a distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association along with many other accolades and June of Victoria, Australia as an author and editor who is currently completing her PhD in creative writing. As we go into this very intriguing topic of trauma, PTSD and eating disorders, I’m going to just start with borrowing a quote from William Shakespeare who wrote in Othello “What would did ever heal but by degrees.” So why do you feel it’s important for professionals and nonprofessionals to learn more about the intersect of trauma, PTSD and eating disorders?
Jenni: Well, eating disorders and PTSD are truly debilitating conditions that co-occur frequently and people need to know that. In fact, research confirms higher rates of PTSD among individuals with eating disorders especially individuals who struggle with bulimic symptom eating disorders. So you more often see trauma and PTSD in someone who struggles with binging and purging so that might be in bulimia, that might be in binge eating disorder, that might be an anorexia nervosa binge purge type or it can also be in the formerly known category EDNOS. Now, it’s called OSFED, Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder but individuals who fall into that category might also struggle with binging or purging and clinicians truly need to be looking out for this. Unfortunately in my case, I went to various professionals for about 10 years and when it came to post-traumatic stress disorder it was never diagnosed. In my case Dr. Google actually diagnosed PTSD and that was me entering something into a search engine. I entered the words, exaggerated startle response because in my PTSD I had developed an exaggerated startle response which can be one of the arousing reactivity symptoms of PTSD. I knew this wasn’t normal and I typed it in and came up a ton of pages on PTSD and then I knew I had the illness and then I knew to get help. A diagnosis cannot measure pain and suffering but a diagnosis can point someone in the direction of help. So at that point I knew that I needed to find a professional who treated PTSD and interestingly enough in my eating disorder recovery, I also struggled for a long time without the diagnosis happening so without getting professional help. So these are both illnesses that are frequently missed. They’re dismissed and we need to do a better job at catching these disorders earlier.
Kathy: You know I think your comment is so relevant that both PTSD and eating disorders are often times overlooked just not, you know, scrutinized, not identified and then people suffer and suffer. You mentioned your exaggerated startle response and I don’t want you to get personal in terms of but could you just help our listeners understand the general description of exaggerated startle response.
Jenni: Right. So for me an exaggerated startle response was something that could be triggered either by something externally or by something internally. So I actually had a startle response that could be triggered by thoughts and this was often thoughts or something in my environment that reminded me of the trauma. What the exaggerated startle response looked like to people from the outside was it looked like someone had just come up behind me and scared me and startled me and we’ve all been startled in that way and we all kind of go, and that’s kind of what my exaggerated startle response sounded like. But interestingly enough with PTSD I would startle in this way without anything that was out right fearful. There was nothing really in my environment or in my head that was dangerous to me because in trauma therapy I actually realize the memory of the trauma is not dangerous. In fact not thinking about the trauma is what’s dangerous because avoidance, avoiding, thinking about it is what leads to PTSD.
Kathy: You know, that’s important for people to know. You know, in therapy, in work with professionals, I think that part of psycho education can really have an impact to help people understand, you know, there is a real reason why you have this startle response. There’s a real reason why you have those physical sensations. There’s a real reason, you know, for X, Y and Z and I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that when you understood, wait a minute, my brain is registering something here and my body is reacting.
Jenni: Right, so what I learned in my treatment for PTSD is PTSD is as real as any physical wound. PTSD often is referred to as a brain injury. Now, what’s interesting about PTSD is that often when someone gets help or when someone tells a friend or a family member about their struggle they might be dismissed and someone might even say to them, well just get over it. Just like in my eating disorder recovery people told me well, just eat. Well, we know mental illness is not a choice, it’s not a matter of just choosing to eat or just choosing to get over it. Now, it is a matter of realizing that we have a problem, being aware and getting help so that we gather the tools to start making better choices in our lives to start combating these behaviors but it was helpful for me to know in PTSD recovery that there were truly were alterations in my brain, that there were reasons why I was hyper reactive. There were reasons why I was having this startled response. There were reasons why I was having nightmares. The brain truly changes with PTSD and in many ways PTSD is like an invisible wound. We don’t see it on the outside and it was so helpful for me to hear from my therapist that PTSD is a brain injury, there’s really something changing in your brain. In fact, the hippocampus actually shrinks with PTSD and we know this from brain scan. So PTSD is absolutely real and we just don’t often see it. It can be very invisible. It can be masked and when we look at soldiers for instance when soldiers come back from war and a soldier might have a shrapnel wound on their leg where we can see that wound, it’s very physical and we can see how much pain it must have cost but when a soldier comes back who has PTSD, we don’t see that wound and we often dismiss that wound and we don’t understand it and we don’t get help for things we don’t understand and many of us with PTSD we think we’re just going crazy and so we don’t want to tell anyone and we don’t think that anybody is going to relate to us but truthfully there’s so many people out there who struggle with trauma, who struggle with PTSD just like those who struggle with eating disorders and help is available and brains can change and people can heal.
Kathy: I’m so glad that you talked about how, yes, indeed brains can change and I’m not sure who, you know, taught me that, you know, brains are plastic but they are plastic which means they can be molded in a lot of different directions. I would like to take a moment and just compliment you in terms of your decision to speak about what you know about PTSD and recovery just as I’ve always admired your work in terms of using your voice as an advocate for recovery from eating disorder and I guess what I’d like to say is one of your many admirable strengths is your decision to pursue self discovery and what I know this means is to allow for your own self understanding and opportunities for positive personal growth. How would you say your recovery shaped your perspective on yourself and also on mental health?
Jenni: Well, for myself I can say that I have learned through my various recoveries that it is through our struggles that we stumble upon our strengths truly so now I can say looking back in my life with my eating disorder for instance in my book Life Without Ed I wrote about how my eating disorder has actually been one of the best gifts in my life in the absolute ugliest package and that’s because I was able to add recovery to it and I cannot say that about post traumatic stress disorder as well. These illnesses have made me stronger. They’ve made me more resilient, they’d made me more able to face hurdles in life and not give up, not quit so I’ve also learned from my various mental illnesses that I’ve struggled with that truly mental illness is not a choice, that people don’t choose to have these problems but people do choose to get better and I’ve never for instance had alcoholism but I can understand alcoholism much better now that I have had an eating disorder and now that I have had PTSD. With alcoholism similarly with eating disorders and with PTSD there’s so much to it than what people see on the outside than the behaviors and the symptoms. It’s a much deeper issue. Mental illness truly cuts to the core of someone sometimes and for me with my struggles at times I literally thought I was losing my mind. I literally thought I was going crazy. But I learned that I have genetic traits that make me vulnerable to developing various mental illnesses but you know what those traits that I have they can also respond to the positive and I can start using these traits that I have for good rather than using them for negative and for instance with perfectionism. I learned that perfectionism is bad when you apply it to food and weight but if I take my perfectionist trait and I apply it to something like writing a book it makes me motivated, it makes me detail oriented and that’s actually a helpful trait. So I’ve learned about mental illness that some of us are born with traits that make us more vulnerable but I’ve also learned that these traits can be gifts. They’re not bad and in recovery we can learn to dig deep inside ourselves and shift while we’re utilizing these traits in our lives and use these traits for positive rather than negative and so I’m very grateful in my recoveries that I’ve learned so much more about myself than I ever would have learned had I not walked into a therapy wrong and had I not been diagnosed with an eating disorder and PTSD I might never have walked into a therapy room and that would have been a shame because I’ve learned a lot in those rooms.
Kathy: Well, certainly I can hear something that I think is really, really relevant to recovery and that’s what I would sort of summarize as your nonjudgmental approach to your symptoms and your diagnosis and what that would translate to in someone’s life and choices. Your thoughts?
Jenni: Oh, right. Definitely and I learned there’s other ways to work with high anxiety as another example and high anxiety is something I was born with that made me more susceptible to developing both an eating disorder and PTSD but I’ve learned in my life that anxiety is not a curse that I can actually tailor, I can refine that.
Kathy: So the idea of judgment?
Jenni: Yes, well what you said about me not judging myself for the symptoms is true now but I think it’s important for listeners to know that that wasn’t the case in the beginning. In fact in the beginning I hated myself for the symptoms. I blamed myself for the symptoms and so it was through the recovery process that I learned that it’s not my fault I have an eating disorder, it’s not my fault I have experienced trauma, it’s not my fault I have PTSD but it is my responsibility to be accountable for my recovery and to get the help that I need to start making better decisions in my life. So it was a hard journey for me to stop blaming myself, to stop judging myself but you’re absolutely right. That’s a key part of the process and for me that was simply awareness in the beginning. I had to be aware that I was blaming myself and I was wallowing in shame and self hatred and I needed to be honest with that to my treatment team so that I could get out of that and start the true process of healing. We can’t get better if we’re stuck in shame and self hatred.
Kathy: Can you recall any particular let’s call it like spring boards around that time when you were honest about your shame and self blame and any, you know, maybe they were comments that somebody made or a catch phrase that may have launched you into this other type of awareness where you could lesson and lesson and then eventually let go of that judgment?
Jenni: Well, for me in my therapy something that was truly helpful was being a part of a group. So both the eating disorder and in post traumatic stress disorder recovery, I had a group of incredible individuals led by a therapist and we all together shared our thoughts, we shared our symptoms and it was so powerful for to see that the way I thought was the way the woman across the room from me was thinking and I wasn’t alone anymore and I wasn’t crazy because the 10 other people in this room were having the same thoughts that I had and they’re not crazy. So I must be okay. And they’re learning to accept themselves. They’re learning to love themselves. I can learn that too. And the power of a group for me was truly, truly incredible and it was especially helpful to be in groups that were led by a therapist.
Kathy: Thank you for that because I think that the group support is a remarkable and often times sort of an experience where we don’t really put our finger on it but you kind of put your finger on it and it’s like, oh, that was great, you know, that really got things going so thank you. As we close down this podcast, what message would you like our listeners to take from today’s conversation?
Jenni: My message is always one of help. I would encourage anyone out there listening if you’re struggling with body image, with food, with trauma, with post traumatic stress disorder symptoms on any level, you might not meet a specific diagnosis but that doesn’t matter. Diagnosis cannot measure pain and suffering like I said before. I would encourage people to get help, to never give up in recovery, life can come full circle in the most amazing ways and an example in my life today is that I now work with Eating Recovery Center as the National Recovery Advocate of the Family Institute and what’s especially amazing about this role is the fact that I now work alongside I’m colleagues with my former eating disorder doctor. So Dr. Ovidio Bermudez who’s the chief clinical officer of Eating Recovery Center was my eating disorder doctor nearly 20 years ago and I promise you back then if he would have said, Jenni, one day we’re going to work side by side with each other, I would have said no way because I thought I was the one person who would never get better. But in recovery that’s just an example of how life can come full circle. The things you think are impossible, are totally possible when you add recovery to the mix and an example in my life recently was just a couple of weeks ago I had the chance with Eating Recovery Center to visit our in site program that specializes in mood, anxiety and trauma and in this program I had a chance specifically to speak with patients about my posttraumatic stress disorder recovery and this was the first time I’d ever talked to patients about this and being in a group with people who battled PTSD and being the person in the group who’s offering hope was truly was shift for me because I remember my first ever PTSD group locking in and feeling completely hopeless but there was one woman in the room who shared her story, who said it got better and its’ truly surreal to flip flop things, to be on the other side, to be the one sharing hope and I would encourage listeners out there to know that you can be the one sharing help one day. Just don’t give up. So I would encourage people not to suffer in silence. Reach out for help at Eating Recovery Center. We want to help you. We have a website eatingrecovery.com that is for professionals, it’s for people suffering, it’s for family members. Get help. True recovery is possible. You don’t have to suffer. It does get better.
Kathy: Jenni, I can’t thank you enough for your words that I know come from the heart for the energy that you offer to the let’s just say humanity because it’s not just exclusive to the eating disorders community and I want to thank you for sharing your wisdom with our listeners today. Our guest has been Jenni Schaefer. Thank you so much.
Jenni: Thank you so much. Thank you for all that you guys do. Truly amazing.