Hello everyone! I am SO EXCITED to present my new interview with none other than Life Without Ed author and speaker Jenni Schaefer! Jenni’s book came on the scene around 10 years ago, sending shockwaves throughout the world of eating disorders. Eating disorder professionals and individuals suffering from eating disorders alike acknowledged that Jenni captured a way of looking at eating disorders that was elegant and accurate. Since that time, countless people have found solace in her book, reading chapter by chapter and literally nodding to themselves and saying, “she gets it.” It has been transformative in the eating disorder field. Both outpatient eating disorder therapists like myself in San Diego, as well as clinicians in higher levels of care have recommended this book as people start on their recovery journey. Jenni has since written two more books on eating disorders. PLUS, Jenni travels throughout the country, not only spreading her story of eating disorder recovery, but more recently on trauma recovery as well. She’ll talk about both areas in this interview. Enjoy!!!
Would you share a little about your eating disorder history?
At the age of only four-years-old, I heard a voice in my head that said, “You’re fat. You aren’t good enough.” That voice was my eating disorder (aka “Ed”). I was 22-years-old before someone finally told me that I didn’t have to listen to that negative, self-critical voice anymore.
Although my eating disorder began as negative body image thoughts, I ultimately ended up restricting food. And, in time, this behavior led to bingeing and purging. Sometimes, it seemed like the treacherous, painful cycle would never end.
What kind of eating disorder treatment did you seek?
To recover from my eating disorder, I needed the help of an expert treatment team. It included a therapist, dietitian, psychiatrist, and an internist (physician). Importantly, my internist discovered that I had osteoporosis in my twenties. Gratefully, recovery reversed this! My bones are strong and healthy today.
Support from peers was also a key. For me, this meant attending Twelve Step meetings as well as a weekly therapy group. The women and men in these groups inspired me more than anything else. If they could do it, then maybe, just maybe, I could too. Others in recovery made healing seem like a real possibility. Because support like this was so pivotal for me, we launched a Life Without Ed® Weekend Workshop at Rio Retreat Center.
What would you say was the turning point in your eating disorder treatment?
I had so many turning points in my recovery! One big turning point was when I came to terms with the fact that recovery meant not only getting rid of the parts of the eating disorder that I hated (e.g., feeling out of control when binge eating, depression), but it also meant giving up those parts that I liked (e.g., feeling in control when restricting, a sense of being unique). I discovered that I couldn’t hold onto any of Ed (A little restricting hurts a lot). To heal, I had to let go of all of Ed. This process meant grieving the good. In the end, I found other ways—better ways—to navigate life.
In your first book, Life Without Ed, you have detailed how you’ve started viewing the eating disorder in a particular way that helped your recovery. Would you explain this perspective?
In therapy, I learned to treat my eating disorder like a relationship—rather than an illness or a condition. I actually named my eating disorder, “Ed,” which is obviously an acronym. Ed was like an abusive boyfriend or husband. I hated him, but, for so long, I could not leave the relationship. This method of personifying Ed helped me to view my eating disorder as separate from myself. I could finally talk back to Ed and make room for my own thoughts and opinions. By connecting with my true self in this way, I gained some hope that I could recover. I have heard that the metaphor of Ed helps many people to feel this same hope. For that, I am deeply grateful. 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.
What would you like people to know about eating disorder treatment?
I was not born with an eating disorder, but I was born with traits that made me vulnerable. Constantly striving to be perfect certainly made me more vulnerable to having an eating disorder. So did other genetic traits like high anxiety and obsessive-compulsiveness. However, when channeled in a positive direction, these traits played a crucial role in my recovery. I was able to refine perfectionism, for instance, and apply it to things like attending doctors’ appointments and finishing therapy assignments. As I wrote about in my second book, Goodbye Ed, Hello Me, when taken to the light, our genetic traits absolutely support recovery. All in all, no one is born with an eating disorder. We are born with beautiful traits that can actually serve us in life. And, ultimately, full recovery is possible.
Further, it is important for people to know that a diagnostic label cannot measure pain and suffering. Sometimes, people with eating disorders that don’t fit neatly into the boxes of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder don’t feel like they deserve help. Yet, research shows that eating disorders that don't meet full criteria can be just as severe or even more so. I collaborated with Harvard Medical School to write a book, Almost Anorexic, all about this topic. It is that important.
I think that through your message in Life Without Ed, you were able to validate so many people’s experiences in their eating disorder recovery journey. You have since opened up about your recovery from trauma as well. Would you share a little about that?
The average amount of time between the onset of posttraumatic stress disorder, PTSD, symptoms and the initiation of treatment is twelve years. This was my story. I experienced sexual assault toward the end of my eating disorder recovery, yet, like countless others, I didn't label the experience as trauma for quite some time. Because the perpetrator was my boyfriend at the time, I didn’t think the words “sexual assault” applied. Boy, was I wrong. I am grateful that a trauma therapist finally helped me come to terms with the fact that I had been raped. It took years for me to be able to say that last word. In recovery, I learned that saying specific words, rather than avoiding, was important in breaking free.
What kind of treatment did you receive for trauma?
My trauma treatment has been a jigsaw puzzle with countless pieces. The first two therapies that helped me included EMDRand Somatic Experiencing, the latter, which was founded by my colleague at The Meadows treatment center, Dr. Peter Levine. Then, I worked hard in prolonged exposure therapy. Other therapies I utilized included ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy), DBT (dialectical behavior therapy), Brainspotting, mindfulness, massage, acupuncture, and yoga.
In what ways do you think the trauma and the eating disorder symptoms were related?
First, it is important to note that PTSD and eating disorders share common risk factors, including high anxiety, perfectionism, and obsessive-compulsiveness. People with eating disorders, especially those characterized by binge eating or purging, have a higher lifetime rate of PTSD than the general population.
Following my trauma, PTSD symptoms emerged, which exacerbated my eating disorder. I binged more, and I purged in even more violent ways. Researchers have indicated that people with comorbid ED-PTSD are more likely to engage in multiple forms of purging. We also know that PTSD is a significant predictor of poor prognosis in eating disorder recovery, so PTSD must be addressed for complete healing.
Would you tell us about your work for The Meadows Ranch treatment center and how they integrate trauma and eating disorder treatment?
I am honored to be a Senior Fellow with The Meadows, as well as an advocate for its specialty eating disorders program, The Meadows Ranch. In my role, I get to do two of my favorite things: educate and offer hope. As an example, I truly enjoy speaking with our incredible patients on our beautiful campus in the Arizona desert.
Unlike most other eating disorder treatment centers, The Meadows Ranch integrates treatment for PTSD and eating disorders. This integration includes these components for addressing PTSD:
We are the only eating disorders treatment program with a Brain Center, including neurofeedback and biofeedback. Patients report over and over again that our Brain Center helps to calm their anxious minds. We are able to utilize this neurotherapy to guide patients’ readiness for trauma treatment.
We utilize EMDR, which is one of the evidence-based treatments for PTSD.
Further, patients are able to participate in our signature workshop, Survivors I.
What is helpful for people to remember about eating disorder and trauma recovery?
For some, PTSD might be considered the source of the infection. In other words, PTSD fuels the eating disorder. Many binge and purge to achieve relief from the debilitating symptoms of PTSD. In order to heal, people need to recover from both disorders. The latest research suggests that integrated treatment for trauma and eating disorders is the way to go. Research also shows that people can get better.
I am currently writing a book about my recovery from PTSD. Earlier, I mentioned that the average time between the onset of PTSD symptoms and the initiation of treatment is twelve years. This needs to change. I hope to be a small part of that change. Far too often, PTSD is missed and dismissed, sometimes misdiagnosed as depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, or generalized anxiety disorder. I view a correct diagnosis not as a label, but as a compass pointing toward the best treatment.
How can people find out more about you and your message of recovery?
I love connecting with people on social media. You can find me here:
Also, please visit my website, www.jennischaefer.com, to read blogs and even listen to music!
Further, I host Facebook Lives with The Meadows Ranch, which are interactive, informative, and loads of fun. Check out https://www.facebook.com/TheMeadowsRanch to watch some of our past Lives and to stay posted on future events.
What is one fun fact about you that people might not know?
I am a tree hugger in Austin, Texas. I seriously love trees. I even bought my house just for a beautiful heritage oak tree on the property. And, I do indeed hug it!
Jenni, thank you SO MUCH for participating in my little ole’ blog. It has been an honor to interview you. Good luck as you continue to spread your message of recovery.
:) HAPPY to be a part! Thanks for asking!!
Hey everyone, I really appreciate you reading my blog! Have a wonderful day. :)
If you are struggling to find eating disorder treatment in San Diego, give me a call for your free 15-minute phone consultation at (858) 699-3754, and I will help you get where you need to be!