Contributor: Kirsten Haglund, Founder and President of the Kirsten Haglund Foundation
Speaking out about anything you’ve struggled with is not easy. There’s the risk of judgment, the fear you’ll be misunderstood, or that people just won’t care. Being vulnerable is hard, but often, openness, honesty and self-disclosure can lead to strength and empowerment – not only your own, but others’ as well.
That is the lesson I learned from sharing my story of recovery from an eating disorder.
At 17 years old, I had recovered physically from my battle with anorexia. I had restored my weight and many of the other physical effects of the eating disorder. I had worked hard with my nutritionist to learn what a balanced diet really was, and to enjoy cooking for myself, having meals with family and friends, eating “fear foods.”
I had pulled up a lot of the emotional roots of the eating disorder, working with my therapist on my rigidity and perfectionism, practicing taking thoughts captive and replacing false thinking with truths, finding healthy ways to channel and express emotion.
Most importantly, I began learning that I was worth more – to my family, friends, to the world, and existentially – than my body shape and size, and ability to perform to a certain standard.
Being a Professional Ballet Dancer
A huge part of discovering that last part came from giving up my dream of being a professional ballet dancer. In that world, the pressure to be thin was too strong for me to be able to continue at the level that I was, and simultaneously participate fully in my recovery process.
By cutting back on the time and devotion I gave to ballet, I could explore other things that I could do well. For the first time, I could imagine and dream involving other things that I could do and give.
The world opened up to me as I felt an enormous weight lifted off of my shoulders – the hope that comes from discovering your life does not have to be defined by a body ideal. As I pulled back from ballet, I decided to go to college – for musical theatre. I got more involved in youth group activities with my church, the musicals and choir in school, made more friends. I was seeing that life, and recovery, was really worth it.
Sharing My Story with Others
However, the stamp on my recovery really came when I started to share my story with others. That opportunity came through my involvement in the Miss America Organization. I know it seems paradoxical, but it is true.
Before I became Miss Oakland county (a local title within the organization), I had not shared the depths of my battle and the victories of recovery – and the massive transformation that had happened in my heart and mind – with anyone outside my immediate family and a few close friends. I was scared to tell other people, and at just 17, I really didn’t know anyone else who was out sharing their story – I didn’t know people did that.
I didn’t know about any “eating disorder community.” But then came this opportunity to compete in a pageant for some scholarship money for college. On a whim, I decided to compete, never thinking I’d actually win. In fact, I didn’t really want to! But I did, and so at 17, I found myself trying to be a freshman in college on the weekdays, while traveling back to my hometown to speak at city council meetings and attend county functions on the weekends. I was in a position of leadership, and however small, I had a voice.
Raising Awareness of Eating Disorders
I began to speak publicly about the platform I had chosen: to raise awareness of eating disorders. I never planned to share my own story, but thought I could speak to the issue. I was passionate about it, and if pressed, could say that I understood the pressures because of my time in the ballet world.
I wasn’t trying to hide the fact that I’d struggled, I just didn’t know how to put what I’d been through into words, and I didn’t want people to not hear my message by only seeing me as someone to be pitied.
All that changed, when at one appearance, while speaking about my platform, I literally, quite accidentally said aloud, “…and I chose this as my platform because I struggled with an eating disorder.” It was a complete slip! To this day I don’t know what happened – but I am glad it did. Immediately, my face grew red and I became so nervous. What would the audience think? Would they judge me? Would all my credibility be gone?
But I didn’t need to be worried. After I finished speaking briefly about my journey to recovery (which was probably not very eloquent or long, just honest), many people approached me and thanked me for being candid. They said it gave them strength. They appreciated a young person in a public position being real, admitting struggles, and sharing a story of hope. Their comments and support, rather than resulting in condemnation, really made a positive impact on me.
That day, and through subsequent events – especially with young women – I learned that I had battled and survived an eating disorder not just for my own benefit, but to impact the lives of others. I learned the power of sharing stories, when one is fully recovered and able to do so in a way that is healthy and not triggering for others. I found strength from sharing my own battle, learned things about myself in the process, and saw the hope that it gave to others. That inspired me.
Establishing a Sense of Self Worth
A huge part of my recovery was establishing a sense of self worth outside of my body shape and size, and my performance as a ballet dancer. Through public speaking, eventually whether it was about my eating disorder recovery or not, I found a voice. Through my work later as Miss Michigan and Miss America, living a life of service to others, I experienced the most exhaustion and most exhilaration I’ve ever felt.
I realized that my worth wasn’t derived from a good hair day, the size of my dress, saying the perfect words, or pleasing people to the detriment of my own health and happiness. I realized that it came through connection, compassion, honesty, sharing, giving.
Strength and worth came through the life I’d simply been blessed to live, with all its hardships and all its joys. And as a woman of faith, through my relationship with God and His deeming that I had value. Through sharing my story and being in a vulnerable place before others and God, pride was constantly stripped away, only to be replaced by peace.
Recovery Meant Something Beautiful and Meaningful
By sharing, and giving back, I got outside myself and learned that I really was worth more. Recovery meant something beautiful and meaningful, and wasn’t something to hide, but a gift to share with others.
Once you’re at a place to share responsibly, it can be wonderful for anyone who has fought an eating disorder and can provide hope and inspiration to others.
Every person has a story to tell, and every story has value. Humility, honesty, and candid self-disclosure bring humans together. We find that we are not in the trenches alone, and that there is hope and life on the other side of the struggle.
People need living proof, that when they feel like they’re trying to do the impossible – recover and beat an eating disorder – there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Freedom is possible. Hope is real, and so is recovery.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on March 13th, 2015
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com