Interview with Shannon Cutts

Learn more about Shannon Cutts here.

1. What drew you to the field of eating disorder treatment? Why?

Shannon CuttsI first developed anorexia at age 11. Later, I developed bulimia as well. Because of my age (I’m turning 44 this year) there wasn’t much available in terms of “treatment” when I got sick. So I just had to “wing it” – cobbling together resources where I could. The most significant support I received was through connecting with mentors along the way.

In that way, I feel like the field of eating disorders drew me towards it and not the other way around.

After I began to get stronger in recovery, I started giving music concerts again. I was a songwriter and it was my love for music that motivated me to do the hard work of recovery. One night I was singing in a little coffee shop and a young woman approached me.

She shared that my songs made her feel less alone and asked if I had recovered from an eating disorder. I had never met anyone else with an eating disorder and had never been asked that question before that night.

The young woman kept in touch with me for the next year. She also passed my information along to the treatment center where she had received treatment, recommending me as a speaker for their patients. I had no interest in speaking or sharing my recovery story – it felt like a very personal thing to do and I didn’t feel prepared – so I declined. But she kept asking and eventually I agreed.

That was the way I first became aware there was an eating disorder “field,” per se. Over time, I began mentoring several of the women I had met during that first trip to speak at the treatment center. Then they began telling their recovering friends who had questions to write to me if they wanted to get a recovered persons perspective. One thing led to another and the volume of correspondence I received each week began to increase.

I also started noticing that many of the questions my new mentees asked were quite similar topically. So I thought I would start writing down some of their questions and my answers – the goal was to help more recovering women by answering some of the most common questions.

Eventually that project turned into “Beating Ana: how to outsmart your eating disorder and take your life back,” which was published in 2009. In that book, five of my mentees share some of their questions, paired with my answers, and some additional notes I offer along the way about how to find, form, and conduct mentoring matches.

While I was in the beginning stages of working on that project, I also began hearing from other women who had recovered and wanted to give back. This was so interesting to me – I wanted to see if I could connect them with some of the women who were writing to me because the volume of email was getting a bit overwhelming and I was doing all of this as a volunteer.

At the time, the internet was just starting to really show its potential, and that gave me an idea. I thought I would just look online and find a website where mentors (recovered people) and mentees (recovering people) could find one another and match up to work on recovery together.

But I couldn’t find any such website. It was also around that time when I realized that writing “Beating Ana” was just going to awaken in readers a desire to find a mentor – and I was already overwhelmed personally with correspondence.

So that was when I got the idea to found MentorCONNECT, the first global eating disorders mentoring community, a place where recovered mentors could match with recovering mentees and everyone could receive the support of a positive recovery community. We launched the same month that “Beating Ana” was published – in February 2009. Today, we are a registered nonprofit serving recovering persons in 44 countries. We are also celebrating our sixth birthday this upcoming February 2015!

2. What keeps you in this work, day after day?

When I started this work, what kept me going was the desire to see recovered persons recognized for their significant recovery achievements and given a respected place within the eating disorders field so they could share their unique experiences, insights, and – as your organization so well puts it – eating disorder HOPE with others.

Overall, the more I got involved in the eating disorder field itself, attending conferences and meetings and networking events, the more I felt frustrated that many of the professionals I met seemed so skeptical, and at times downright distrustful, of recovered people’s value in the field.

The fear seemed to be, “Well, what if a recovered person begins mentoring someone and then they relapse? What kind of message will that send the recovering person about whether or not recovery is possible??

Yet the one consistent request patients always make is to talk to someone else who has firsthand experience with whatever issue or disease they are dealing with. No one other another person, who has recovered from that issue or disease – whether they relapse again in the future or not – can address that particular, unique, need for any patient.

So that drove me for the first few years – wanting to see recovered persons being given their rightful place and space within the greater eating disorders community.

Happily, in time, through researching the efficacy of MentorCONNECT’s programs (we did a Texas A&M-sponsored study in 2010 studying our mentoring program that yielded positive results) and presenting the study results at conferences, the resistance to what we offer began to break down.

Today, I would say we field very few questions from professionals about whether it is “safe” or “wise” to add a mentor to a recovering person’s support team. Within MentorCONNECT, our philosophy is “more support is always better.” I would add to that – we are just one more option, and it is always better to have more options rather than less when it comes to recovery support.

3. What is your philosophy on eating disorder treatment?

That is an interesting question – there are several ways to look at it. Since I work on the non-medical, non-clinical, peer support side of the field, I will say this – within MentorCONNECT, our motto is “relationships replace eating disorders.”

Here I what I mean by that. When I was sick, and especially in the early days of my recovery struggles, I experienced a very tangible type of connection or “relationship” with the eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. Those repetitive thoughts and behaviors offered me an odd sort of comfort in my anxious moments.

They gave me a way of looking at life and the world that was easily (if not comfortably) quantifiable through weights, numbers, shape, and size.

As far as the medical/clinical aspect, first through my own recovery journey, then in beginning to mentor others, and now in my work founding MentorCONNECT, it has become impossible to ignore the rank disparity between how many people need medical and clinical support for eating disorders but (for one reason or another) do not receive it. That is just part of the journey we are on together – individually and as a society – to find ways to better serve people who are ill and trying to get better.

So my philosophy and MentorCONNECT’s really are one and the same here – “more support is always better.” More options, is always better. Relationships replace eating disorders. The more healthy, supportive, loving, encouraging, empathetic, nurturing relationships we have in our life, the less inclined we may become over time to return to the eating disordered thoughts and behaviors for “support” when life gets tough to handle.

Ideally, everyone who struggles should have access to as much clinical, medical, peer, and family support as they need. Careers, family, and spouses should be offered the same. It will be a great day when that philosophy becomes a reality.

4. What tools would you like your participants to gain while working with you?

Within MentorCONNECT, we like to keep our programs and services simple and focused.

So there is my book, “Beating Ana,” which offers matched mentors and mentees one possible format within which to conduct their mentoring partnership.

We also offer training packets to mentors and mentees with a variety of tools to help them make the most of the chance to participate in our mentoring programs.

Then we offer free monthly teleconferences (live call-in events) that we also record and podcast. These teleconferences feature professionals and recovered mentors who are sharing research, clinical information, and personal recovery stories as a source of additional support.

We also offer an online community that is private and reserved just for our members. Within this community, members can join a weekly online support group, create their own recovery blog, learn about upcoming events, meet other members, and more.

It is my hope – and the hope of our board and staff – that each person who joins MentorCONNECT will be able to benefit from these tools as they continue to strengthen in their recovery.

Also, for our recovered members (mentors), MentorCONNECT offers a rare opportunity for them to give back and help others who are still struggling without needing additional credentials.

While many of our volunteer mentors are pursuing their credentials to work in the eating disorder field, some are not, but they still want to be a part of an active recovery community and give back.

This is protective for our mentors too – it is rare that it happens within our community because we have a fairly extensive volunteer pre-screening process, but if one of our mentors ever does experience a relapse, they are already a part of a recovery community and we can right away offer them the chance to match with a mentor and make use of all the same resources our mentees have available to them.

So they can hopefully recover more quickly from a relapse because they are already surrounded by a group of empathetic, supportive peers. Otherwise, without mentoring as an avenue to stay connected, there still are not too many ways to stay involved in a recovery community once you have recovered.

I am hoping we see many more opportunities in the future for recovered people who want to stay connected and give back to participate in recovery communities!

5. What do you envision the future of eating disorder treatment to be like?

I think I will simply return to what I shared in question 3 and 4:

Ideally, everyone who struggles should have access to as much clinical, medical, peer, and family support as they need. Careers, family, and spouses should be offered the same. It will be a great day when that philosophy becomes a reality.

I am hoping we see many more opportunities in the future for recovered people who want to stay connected and give back to participate in recovery communities!


Beating Ana book:


Shannon Cutts: