Recovery Story by Kathleen MacDonald
When I was born, no one said to me, “Thrive, sweet baby! But never hold out hope that you’ll be happy.” When I was 10 months old and starting to walk, no one said to me, “Why bother trying? You’re going to fall anyway.” When I was learning to read, no one said to me, “You’re too young! You can’t figure out what words the letters form.” And when I started playing piano, no one said, “Put away Mozart. You’ll only master chopsticks!” No, in all of those life-moments, I was encouraged with great enthusiasm! As a baby, I was cooed at and giggled with and taught that life is joyful and I was meant to be happy; when I started to walk and took a tumble, I was encouraged to get up and keep trying; as a 2 year-old, my mom never told me I was too young to figure out the words in books; and when I started playing piano under the direction of the greatest piano teacher a kid could ever hope to have, Dr. Robert Facko, he pulled out Bach and Beethoven and had no doubt that I would learn how to master their works (eventually)! As a young girl, I was encouraged to achieve whatever I set my mind to, and so that is what I set out to do in life.
When I was around 12 years old, however, something shifted in this enthusiasm. Rather than being encouraged that when a young woman goes through puberty, her body fat needs to increase by a dramatic percentage in order that she can begin menstruating, as a young girl entering puberty, I was encouraged not to get fat. Up until that time, I had never thought anything negative about my body. I loved my body because it was me –I was symbiotic with it and it with me; my body and I were one. Up until that time, I never realized how much the grownups in my life liked my body, not because it was beautifully and uniquely made, not that it allowed me to be alive, not that it allowed me to play piano, swim, play tennis, thrive in school, go to church, etc., no, what ‘grown ups’ seemed to like and value about my body was that I was naturally thin (some might even say I was a “skinny kid.”) So when I entered puberty and my body and I began to naturally develop into a young woman, it surprised me how quickly I was encouraged that: a woman’s body is nothing to be enthusiastic about if it’s not thin and unless it looks like women (what our society calls “models”) in magazines. That was the beginning of the separation between me and my body.
I felt so confused as to how to handle no longer loving the very vessel that was “me.” I was so confused as to why other people began commenting on my body, teasing me about gaining weight and no longer being skinny. I was confused as to why people started comparing my body to that of my older sister and pointing out that I was stocky in comparison. I was confused as to why the lady who sold me my first bra felt the need to compare my mom’s breast-size to mine, and then they both laughed afterwards because mine was bigger. But even though I was confused, I wasn’t stupid. I could discern the coded-messages that these comments and comparisons were meant to teach me. It was sickening to feel like I had no choice but to become part of the madness of messages that had been well-tweaked over generations to be subtle, yet unrelentingly brutal and urgent; the messages that were designed to teach me what generations before me had been taught: “Yes, you want to grow up and become a wonderful young woman, maybe even a concert pianist, but you absolutely, positively, never ever, not even when you’re going through puberty, and definitely not when you go away to college, want to get fat. Your growing body is not something to be enthusiastic about, Kathleen, because your body (and your face) doesn’t look like a model’s body. The best chance for you to look beautiful is to make sure you stay thin.” It felt like a dark veil had been placed over the natural joy I had always felt for my body, and I succumb to a life led by society’s dislike of my body.
So what did I do? I was charged with the disappointment others felt about my changing body so I vowed to do what I had always done in life: achieve what I set my mind to. Unfortunately, what I set my mind to was: getting the perfect body (or rather, getting a body that was anything but the one I was born into).
I started dieting. I started exercising according to Glamour’s “Top 10 exercises to get a better butt!” I started critically assessing my body when I looked in the mirror. I started dressing my body to hide the “flaws” I had been told I developed. I started asking things like, “Do I look fat in this?” I stopped eating foods that I loved. I encouraged myself with everything I had, to never ever, no matter what, get fat. My focus instead of Beethoven shifted to, “I wonder if Dr. Facko thinks my legs are fat?” My life went from being led by a natural delight and curiosity about life, and a conviction that I could achieve whatever I set out to achieve, to a life boxed in by this lie: you will never be what you want to be, and you will never be truly loved, because you don’t have a body or a face that is “beautiful.”
And like generations gone before me, I fell for that lie.
I fell for that lie for 18 years of my life.
During those 18 years I repeated this process more times than I can count: I started dieting; I started exercising according to Glamour’s “Top 10 exercises to get a better butt!”; I started critically assessing my body when I looked in the mirror; I started dressing my body to hide its perceived “flaws”; I started asking things like, “Do I look fat in this?”; I stopped eating foods that I loved; I encouraged myself (and others, unfortunately) with everything I had, to never ever, no matter what, never ever get ‘fat.’
The thing that stumped me about all of the things I did for those 18 years in an effort to be the revered ‘thin,’ is this: all of those things never led to me loving my body (or myself). Instead of being happy, I was pissed off at my body for failing me in my pursuit of achieving my goal. I was mad at it for always being a little bigger than my sister’s. I was mad at it for having ‘fat thighs.’ I was mad and embarrassed by it because of its ‘ugly’ face. And I was so mad at it for looking back at me from the mirror with seeming mockery, and more flaws, after all my ‘hard work.’ In being so mad at my body, I became mad at myself because I realized that I would never be able to separate me from its hideousness and I soon believed that I was a hideous human being, too. As a result of the lies that I was conditioned to believe about my body, I began to hate myself (which was not what the magazines promised in their catchy headlines like, “Change Your Body, Change Your Life!”).
Eventually, my family tried to get me help. My friends tried to get me to get help. I tried to get me help. But everyone who I met in positions to “help,” all had a similar message: you’ll never fully get over this; you’ll always deal with feeling fat; as a woman, you’ll always dislike some part of your body; you’re going to have to learn to live with this. All the “help” left me feeling more helpless and I succumbed to believing that I was not capable of achieving: loving my body, loving myself, and nourishing my body for the sake of health, not for the sake of “don’t get fat.”
In June 2002, after 18 years of not liking my body and 18 years of being told that I never would, I was blessed with what can only be described as a miracle, and my life forever changed. In June 2002, I had become so depressed from under-eating that I was no longer thinking clearly (to put it mildly). The more I dieted, the more I hated my body. The more I hated my body, the more I hated me. This self-disgust led to me wanting to ending my life. On the very day that I had planned to end my life, three angels were strategically placed in my life. On June 13, 2002, I met Kitty Westin and Ron and Sally George. Kitty’s daughter Anna had committed suicide because of suffering from anorexia, and the George’s daughter Leslie had died because of bulimia. When Mr. George took me in his arms, his face red and wet with tears, he wept as he embraced me and he said words that I will never forget, “We just lost our daughter 20 months ago. You need help or you’re going to die.” It was in that moment that I awoke. I awoke because I realized that people just like you and me do die from eating disorders. I awoke because I realized that suicide is indeed final and it leaves behind a chasm of pain so vast that a parent’s heart is never the same. I awoke because I felt so mortified and embarrassed to be in the midst of parents whose daughter had died as a result of the very behaviors that I had engaged in earlier that morning. I awoke to a feeling of never wanting to fly in the face of Kitty’s and the George’s pain, and so in the moment that Mr. George was hugging me, I made a promise to him, and to myself, that I would do everything in my power to fully recover from the disordered eating, body-dislike and all the hell I’d put my body through, no matter what.
In retrospect, what I now know about that day in June 2002 is that it was also in that moment that my body awoke for the first time in 18 years. It was the first time my body didn’t feel the need to hide from me in fear that I would abuse it or degrade it again. For the first time in 18 years, my body and I didn’t view one another as enemies; I didn’t view my body as an “it,” I viewed my body as me. And for the first time in 18 years, we had a mutual and healthy goal: fully recover and become one again.
Of course, this was not an easy goal to achieve. All the years of lies had taken deep root. All the professionals who told me the lie, “Don’t try to fully recover, because you can’t and it’s not possible,” played over and over again in my head. And Lord knows that society wasn’t on my side either, as society hadn’t given up its love of ‘thin.’ All those things plagued my mind and rendered me fearful about even beginning to try and recover. Yet somewhere within myself I knew that there was a history that predated the lies.
There was a history of a newborn who was cooed and ooo’d at. There was a history of a wobbling baby who “took her first step today!” There was a history of someone who mastered Beethoven. And somewhere buried deep within, there was a history of a girl who once loved her body without question, without doubt. Armed with the reality of history, I charged forth towards my goal.
My recovery process involved so many things, but in the space that I have to write this, I want to focus on a just a few. In order to fully heal, I focused on the following: I got serious about nutrition, and I stopped thinking that I was an “exception” to needing to eat really well in order to recover; I got serious about gaining body fat; I learned to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable in my body, and I didn’t fall back into the disease every time I “felt fat” or my belly felt distended after eating; I got serious about the fact that every purge could be my last; I got serious about the fact that it wasn’t safe to exercise until I was fully healed; I put God and nutrition at the center of my recovery-process; I did not listen to the doctors who told me that I had to give up gluten and dairy because I had “intolerances” — of COURSE I had intolerances to those foods…I had intolerance to most foods because my body was so screwed up from all the years of ‘dieting’; “Suicide is not an option!” became one of my mantras; I disconnected myself from unhealthy relationships; Recovering became my number one focus; I dared to dream that RECOVERED existed and I sought after it with all my heart (it exists, trust me!). Practically, that involved challenging myself and a lot of self-talk such as, “Why the hell should I spend $40 on nylons that promise to reduce cellulite?!? Oh, that’s right, I was taught my thighs are fat. That is a lie. My thighs aren’t fat. My thighs are awesome!” I challenged each and every lie the likes of that one, every single day, for nearly two years, AND I replaced them each with a truth, before they were no longer. That’s right, they are no longer. I am very humbled to say that my brain is no longer a victim to the years of conditioning that made me believe that my body was ‘wrong,’ ugly, in need of toning up, in need of being less than, in need of a diet, in need of cellulite cream, in need of being covered up, etc. I now believe the truth about my body, and that truth is: It is a given my body is beautiful, because it is alive!
I do not presume to take all of the credit for undoing the lies and replacing the lies with truth. SO much credit goes to one of the best ‘professionals’ I’ve ever had the privilege to know and be encouraged by. That professional was named: Gretz. Now, Gretz didn’t have a Master’s degree in counseling, he didn’t even go to high school, but Gretz taught me all I ever needed to know about learning to love my body. How? Well, you see, Gretz was my dog. And Gretz never once looked in the mirror to negatively assess his furry-self once in his 13 years of being on this earth. He never compared himself with the dog next door. When he went outside, he didn’t first check to make sure every piece of fur was in place, and he most certainly didn’t stay inside because he was having a “fat day.” Gretz never thought that he was any less than other English Setters who had longer feathers and more spots than he did. He didn’t base his self worth on how much kibble he ate the day before, and he most certainly never wanted to go o-u-t-s-i-d-e for a w-a-l-k because he thought he needed to “get a better butt.” And guess what?! People loved him and thought he was absolutely adorable; people thought that Gretz had just the right amount of spots, and they thought that he was beautiful. And perhaps most importantly people encouraged Gretz that he was worthy of unconditional love because of who he was…broken tail and all. Gretz taught me that we are all beautiful, that no one deserves to ever be taught to dislike their body. Gretz is the one who taught me what I hope to teach you today: it is a given YOU are beautiful because YOU ARE ALIVE!”
I want to close by offering you the encouragement that I wish I had been given long before 18 years of my life became a mostly memories of “feeling fat.” First, I want to tell you that you can’t change the thoughts in your brain if you’re not nourishing your body really well. Feed your body and your brain really, really well, so that you stand a fighting chance of healing. Remember that it takes a lot of nourishment to rewire your brain and to achieve neurogenesis .
Second, I want to offer you the encouragement that you can achieve what you set your mind to! Give yourself permission to take your first step, over and over again, until you walk. And if you decide that you want to try and fully recover, mind, body, soul, THEN GO FOR IT! Do not let any man or woman determine for you what YOU are or are not capable of achieving. Where you take your recovery is up to you. Will it be easy? Likely not. But you are capable of so much more than being a victim to lies. Give yourself the opportunity to create what thoughts YOU want consuming your mind, and thus prevailing in your body; free yourself from negative body and self-thoughts.
Third, if you need help, ask for it today. Professionals are so much more Gretz-savvy than they were when I was sick, so give help a chance. Finally, and perhaps most importantly: if you pray, pray that you get sick of the lies; pray that you smile the next time you step on the scale and see a number –because that number means you’re alive!; pray that you and your body heal from all the years of under-eating, or whatever you did to it in an effort to ‘not be fat’ (I have great faith that God allows us to be capable of healing our bodies fully, even from gastroparesis, even from decreased gray matter, even from a potential ‘genetic predisposition’) And pray for all those yet to come after you –pray that they are never taught the lie that they are anything less than beautifully and wonderfully made; pray that they always believe that they are capable of joy, walking, reading, playing whatever piece of piano music floats their boat, and loving their body. And pray that they always embrace the truth that it’s a given they are beautiful, because they are alive.
: “In adult centers the nerve paths are something fixed, ended, immutable. Everything may die, nothing may be regenerated.” Santiago Ramon Y Cajal, “Degeneration and Regeneration in the Nervous System,” 1928. In 1998, the journal Nature Medicine published a report indicating that neurogenesis, the growth of new brain cells, does indeed occur in humans. As Sharon Begley remarked in her book, “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain,” “The discovery overturned generations of conventional wisdom in neuroscience. The human brain is not limited to the neurons it is born with, or even the neurons that fill in after the explosion of brain development in early childhood.” What researchers discovered was that within each of our brains there exists a population of neural stem cells which are continually replenished and can differentiate into brain neurons. Simply stated, we are all experiencing brain stem cell therapy every moment of our lives. As one might expect, the process of neurogenesis is controlled by our DNA. A specific gene codes for the production of a protein, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which plays a key role in creating new neurons. Studies reveal decreased BDNF in Alzheimer’s patients, as well as in a variety of neurological conditions including epilepsy, depression, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Fortunately, many of the factors that influence our DNA to produce BDNF factors are under our direct control. The gene that turns on BDNF is activated by a variety of factors including physical exercise, caloric restriction, curcumin and the omega-3 fat, DHA. This is a powerful message. These factors are all within our grasp and represent choices we can make to turn on the gene for neurogenesis. Source: Neurogenesis: How to Change Your Brain, Dr. David Perlmutter: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-david-perlmutter-md/neurogenesis-what-it-mean_b_777163.html; accessed February 20, 2014.
About Kathleen MacDonald:
Kathleen firmly believes that eating disorders and body dislike are a preventable epidemic, and she believes that educating people about the realities of eating disorders and Health At Every Size are major components of preventing future generations from suffering eating and body image disorders. Kathleen first started working in the field of eating disorders in 2004 when she partnered with The Gail R. Schoenbach F.R.E.E.D. Foundation (For Recovery and Elimination of Eating Disorders) as their Education and Prevention Coordinator, and Insurance and Patient Advocate. Through the F.R.E.E.D. Foundation, Kathleen began the F.R.E.E.D. College Speaking Tour. In 2008, she became the Policy Assistant at the Eating Disorders Coalition and helped draft the first comprehensive bill in the history of Congress to address eating disorders research, education and prevention, treatment, the FREED Act (Federal Response to Eliminate Eating Disorders). In 2012, she had the privilege of joining the team of Kantor & Kantor as a Health Insurance Advocate. Kantor & Kantor (K&K) is the only law firm in the country with a dedicated practice devoted to eating disorders. Learn more about K&K at their blog and Facebook page. Outside of work, Kathleen devotes herself to enjoying the blessings of this great sweep of things we call “life,” spending time with family and taking care of her one and only “Zoo” (a dog and a ‘few’ cats.)
Page Last Updated and Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on
February 22, 2014
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com, Online Help and Resources for Eating Disorders