Betsy Brenner joined us for an interview on her book, The Longest Match: Rallying to Defeat an Eating Disorder in Midlife. What follows are our questions in italics, and Betsy’s thoughtful responses.
As a child you believed “being strong meant being positive and unemotional.” What do you believe about personal strength now?
Personal strength now encompasses both vulnerability and authenticity. It means being in touch with my emotions and allowing myself to feel my feelings, including the difficult ones. I no longer ignore and internalize negative emotions and am now able to reach out for connection and support whenever I need it. I can be strong yet still imperfectly human. I express emotions and embrace connection and support.
Your journal entries tell us about your food and body focus which seemed to start about the age of 11/12, yet your eating disorder did not erupt until midlife. What would you like people to know about midlife eating disorders?
Whether an eating disorder is first diagnosed in midlife or resurfaces after many years, the reality is that there is both more shame and and a reluctance to seek treatment. Midlife eating disorders are much more common than people realize. In midlife we are often more focused on caregiving than self-care. My message, as someone who was both diagnosed and has recovered in midlife, is that it is never too late to be a work in progress. No matter how many chapters of significant challenges there have been, including identified trauma, healing is possible. The recovery journey is difficult, often with many twists and turns, but it is indeed possible to become healthier in mind, body and spirit in midlife and beyond. Recovery must become the priority and treatment and support are essential.
How have your journals supported your recovery?
My journals gave me a lens into my past allowing me a greater degree of introspection as I looked back on difficult times in my life. The result was self-awareness and a deeper understanding of my emotional development. I learned that though my eating disorder did not become full blown until midlife, the seeds were planted throughout my childhood and young adulthood. My journals also revealed the origins of my anxiety and how I attempted to cope. This self-awareness was a key component of my recovery. My journals were a significant resource for writing my memoir allowing me to go beyond my memories and recollections of my past. This deeper understanding of my past and resulting self-awareness has been instrumental in my healing.
Can you please speak about what your journey has taught you about grief?
I learned the hard way the familiar quote, “the only way out is through”. My mindset of always being positive, ingrained in me from a young age, significantly impaired healthy grieving. Grief requires feeling the pain and expressing the difficult emotions. I understand now that grief reflects the relationship with the lost loved one. I had very complicated relationships with my parents, so my grief was complicated. It was further complicated by my inability to acknowledge and feel the pain and sadness. Suppressing the intense emotions often leads to unhealthy coping mechanisms. For me, it likely contributed to the development of my eating disorder in midlife, co-occurring with anxiety and mild depression. In my bereavement work, I describe grief using the metaphor of the waves in the ocean. Sometimes the water is calm and at other times, the waves can knock you over. The loss of a loved one requires adapting to a new reality and figuring out to do with the love for the person who has died. This is the essence of grief. It changes over time, but never ends.
At one point you state, “ED’s rules made me feel in control, but I was not truly living.” How did ED’s rules constrain your daily life?
When I spent my mental energy each and every day consumed by thoughts about food, calories, and exercise, it left me simply going through the motions of my life. Instead of being present in my life, I focused on what I would eat, how much I would eat and when I would eat. It was, without exception, directly linked to how much I was exercising which for me was vigorous tennis. On days when I was unable to exercise, my anxiety level increased significantly and worsened my intense fear of gaining weight. The result was restricting my food intake even more. I was also overly focused on how my clothes fit, whether they made me “feel fat”. I did not understand at that time that fat is not a feeling. I spent too much time body checking in the mirror to make sure I looked thin enough.
How have you chosen to view your body since your surgery?
After experiencing a cancer scare and undergoing major abdominal surgery, I gained an even greater appreciation for my body. It was a profound reminder that I have only one body and I need to take care of it. Filled with gratitude that the tumor on my ovary was benign, I was able to view the two months of post-surgery recovery as a time for complete rest and reflection and a time to allow others to help and support me. If I wanted to resume my active lifestyle, I had no choice but to nurture my body with rest and nourish my body with the food it needed for healing. I was at peace with my only exercise being limited to slow, short walks. It was a time of self-care and healing and propelled my recovery forward with an appreciation for good health and a determination to provide my body with whatever it needed to regain my strength after major surgery.
Please share your definition of recovery as it applies specifically to you.
Recovery for me means being fully present in my life and enjoying relationships and activities, and endeavors in a more profound way. I am not hesitant to use my voice to meet my needs. When I engage in self-care, I no longer see it as selfish, but rather, it is necessary for my well-being. Instead of suppressing my emotions, I can express them and feel both positive and negative feelings. I am comfortable with letting myself be vulnerable and am able to embrace my authentic self. In recovery I have learned to accept that I can’t always be in control. Life will always present challenges and stressors, but in recovery I have learned healthier coping skills such as reaching out for support. I appreciate the connections in my life that recovery has made possible and I appreciate that I have been able to share my journey in my memoir. I have healed on the deepest level possible and I am passionate about giving hope and inspiration to those who are struggling. Recovery is possible, the gifts are life-affirming and it is never too late!
About the author:
Betsy Brenner, a long time high school tennis coach and retired hospital attorney, shares her journey to healing in her memoir, “The Longest Match: Rallying to Defeat an Eating Disorder at Midlife.” Her inspiring message is that it is never too late to be a work in progress. Betsy is an eating disorder recovery speaker, advocate and peer support mentor and through her memoir shows us that it is possible to heal from past trauma and become healthier in body, mind and spirit.