• Shannon Brault

NEDA Week, Need a Hand

Let me start out by saying eating disorders are real, difficult to manage and all consuming. And that is something I have struggled with for so long. It is so easy to fall into these thought traps where that one specific thought consumes you and dictates how you live your life and interact with the world. For a long time I have struggled with these thoughts around food and exercising, but the larger picture included not only the way I saw myself and my own body, but the way I saw my successes. It is impossible (literally impossible) to fit these contradictory size-zero standards set in play today, but yet we still insist on having a flat stomach and abs, thigh gaps and muscles, clear skin and thick hair, and the long list of items that somehow make us more worthy to live than those who do not have those traits. In recent years people have constantly been telling me to stop beating up on myself, to stop being so hard on myself, caring too much and becoming obsessive, but neither them, nor I saw the real problem. I was still a prisoner to the thoughts in my head.

Since my treatment in Middle School I considered myself cured, free and immune to my eating disorder, but that wasn’t the case at all. I simply suppressed all these feelings and ignored the fact that I could still need help. I have recently been told that you cannot run away from yourself, and that is what I have been trying to do for so long. I struggled all of High School thinking what I was doing was never good enough, and I felt like I was acting in a way that I knew was not me fundamentally. Like any other person, I had seasons in my life. I had times of immense pain and suffering, and I had times where I felt as if nothing could ever stop me. I had loved and lost, tried and failed, tried and succeeded, found happiness, lost it, found myself, lost myself, surrounded myself with some really toxic people and found the people who would lift my spirits and bring out the real me, but all the while I still struggled with this mental mind game of my ED and it was tough (to put it lightly).

In November of 2018 I went to the 25th anniversary of the Emily Program where Jessie Diggins (my forever role model) was the keynote speaker discussing her eating disorder, the effects of it and how the Emily Program helped her. I went with my mom, brother and sister, which quite frankly made me uncomfortable to begin with. Here I was standing in this room with so many supportive, empathetic and understanding people and I was almost embarrassed to be there as if I was giving away some part of me I wasn’t ready to share. Jessie invited anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder to raise their hand, but only if they were comfortable and I froze. I was stuck in this phase between protecting myself and knowing I wasn’t being true to myself, or genuine to anyone else by keeping this part of me a secret. I think the stigma around eating disorders is what caused me to freeze. It takes every ounce of courage one has to admit something like this, as if it is something to be ashamed of. It is not the fault of the victim, it is the fault of the society. During the program and Jessie’s talk there were some extreme waterworks from me and a churning feeling in my stomach. I guess I should include that I had been having a really rough time all Summer and Fall quite honestly. After we had gotten home and after I had debated for quite a while I told my mom I wanted help and I wanted to go into the Emily Program and see what I could figure out. She agreed, and thus began my second journey to recovery.

I think before I continue on, a very important thing to know is that I am a person that is very focused on self improvement, progress and tenacity. Comparison truly is the thief of joy, and I have robbed myself of too many opportunities because I was too stubborn to notice that my improvement as a person, friend, leader, athlete, or whatever else under the sun was a valid enough reason to rejoice and be happy. I am all about encouraging myself and others to be the best version of themselves that they can be. I have learned soooooooooooo much about myself in the last few years and I am beyond proud of how far I have come.

I went back to treatment to improve myself, to take care of myself and to give myself a chance to live. The last year or so I had been so consumed by training for the Cross Country ski season that I unknowingly let my recurring thought traps and habits enter back into my life. Now skiing was not the reason why I reverted to my own ways, but as I was avoiding other things in my life and as I was so consumed in wanting to do well I reverted back. I was constantly thinking about skiing and how I could reach my goals. I became distant. I was restricting food and thinking that certain foods had to be off limits for they would hinder my improvement and training. I was not eating enough for my body to keep up with it, but I was still training all the while. I reverted back into my old habits, because with so many things changing and so many things up in the air I felt like I had no control over anything in my life. In times of great change I am susceptible to these patterns, but although I felt like I had no control over certain events, I did have control over my own health and I was ready to take that control. I still had and have a lot to figure out in order to be the happiest and healthiest me I can be. I was going to appointments throughout the whole ski season and without those sessions I really do not know where I would be now. I especially wanted to figure this out, because next year I plan on going to college where I will be on my own. The Emily Program has really helped me. Despite the lonely feelings of Senior year, I think I am the most at peace with myself I have ever been in my life and it is a really nice feeling to know that regardless of whatever happens, there is still so much hope in the future and everything that it holds.

I think one of my favorite things about my time at the Emily Program so far was a worksheet I was given to do. The sheet had two quotes about values and asked to recall times where you had been so absorbed in what you were doing that you hardly noticed the time, and to think about things that are important to you. It then had a list of values and you had to circle all the ones that applied to you, and then narrow it down to your top ten values. Then your top five. The goal of the exercise is to realize your values and your importance and to show that your body and the way you feel about it has no reason to be on that list, because it is truly unimportant. Why do we spend so much time worrying about what our bodies look like? The truth is that there is so much more to life than fitting in your jeans and it is so easy to lose sight of that.

I saw a post on Facebook that was posted by a women named Alexa:

How to talk to your daughter about her body, step one: Don’t talk to your daughter about her body, except to teach her how it works.

Don’t say anything if she’s lost weight. Don’t say anything if she’s gained weight.

If you think your daughter’s body looks amazing, don’t say that. Here are some things you can say instead:

“You look so healthy!” is a great one.

Or how about, “You’re looking so strong.”

“I can see how happy you are — you’re glowing.”

Better yet, compliment her on something that has nothing to do with her body.

Don’t comment on other women’s bodies either. Nope. Not a single comment, not a nice one or a mean one.

Teach her about kindness towards others, but also kindness towards yourself.

Don’t you dare talk about how much you hate your body in front of your daughter, or talk about your new diet. In fact, don’t go on a diet in front of your daughter. Buy healthy food. Cook healthy meals. But don’t say, “I’m not eating carbs right now.” Your daughter should never think that carbs are evil, because shame over what you eat only leads to shame about yourself.

Encourage your daughter to run because it makes her feel less stressed. Encourage your daughter to climb mountains because there is nowhere better to explore your spirituality than the peak of the universe. Encourage your daughter to surf, or rock climb, or mountain bike because it scares her and that’s a good thing sometimes.

Help your daughter love soccer or rowing or hockey because sports make her a better leader and a more confident woman. Explain that no matter how old you get, you’ll never stop needing good teamwork. Never make her play a sport she isn’t absolutely in love with.

Prove to your daughter that women don’t need men to move their furniture.

Teach your daughter how to cook kale.

Teach your daughter how to bake chocolate cake made with six sticks of butter.

Pass on your own mom’s recipe for Christmas morning coffee cake. Pass on your love of being outside.

Maybe you and your daughter both have thick thighs or wide rib cages. It’s easy to hate these non-size zero body parts. Don’t. Tell your daughter that with her legs she can run a marathon if she wants to, and her ribcage is nothing but a carrying case for strong lungs. She can scream and she can sing and she can lift up the world, if she wants.

Remind your daughter that the best thing she can do with her body is to use it to mobilize her beautiful soul.

~ Sarah Koppelkam

All I can really say is that this is so important. We need to teach our daughters and sons how to truly live, be free and be happy. We need to stop the dieting and the degrading comments about ourselves and others. We need to stop the bashing and the neglection. We need to stop the ostracizing and the judgement. We need to create an environment in which everyone is free of judgement and exclusion. We need to build a community, act as one and create a brighter future for everyone.

One thing I really wish could be different in my life so far is how people around me have reacted to other people’s appearances. Quite frankly I was always told it didn’t matter, but then I would always hear comments about other people’s sizes. Growing up I was bullied by many because of my size and I was told by my family in times of doubt that I was just built differently. I have realized that people surrounding me make comments about people being larger or smaller, and it is quite a trigger for me. When people make these comments I cannot help but thinking that those were the same comments that sent me into this downward spiral that derailed my life my entire teenage years. I get so angry and so heartbroken at the same time and it causes so much stress for me. I really can’t stress enough that we all need to stop making comments on other peoples sizes. Why does it matter? Why do we continuously put others down to somehow raise ourselves up? Why do we hold so much judgement around other peoples sizes?

This past semester I took an Introductory Psychology course at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota. Psychology is something that has really interested me since middle school and I was so eager to learn more. I soaked it up like a sponge, especially one day we were talking about the science of dieting, weight, set points, etc. I had been fighting my own batter for so long, and I had never heard of a set point. I had a classmate who had quite strong opinions on why what we were learning about diets not working was wrong. This same classmate also had quite a bit to say about how when people are ¨larger¨ it is because they are lazy, or don’t eat right, or don’t exercise and I had quite a problem with this. I tried politely explaining that exercise, what you eat and laziness generally had very little to do with weight and dieting and that set points play in and the way they were talking about the subject was the same behavior that plays into eating disorders and I was told I would know nothing about those. Crazy how we think we know people and the problems that they have automatically.

I recently became a volunteer for the Emily Program Foundation that was renamed WithAll. They are an amazing nonprofit working to end the stigma around eating disorders and eating disorders in general. So many people with eating disorders are too afraid to come out and talk about their struggles publicly because there is so much stigma around eating disorders. Let me be clear and reiterate that eating disorders are not chosen. There are so many biological, sociological, psychological and physiological factors that go into an eating disorder and it is not simply because someone chose to have one. Prevention and treatment of eating disorders is so important, and often overlooked. This week is National Eating Disorder awareness week and I have been wanting to post my story for years, but have been too afraid to post it (I am still petrified) because of the stigma and responses I assumed I would get, but this is an important part of my own recovery. It is something so difficult to talk about, because for me at least it reopened all the things I spent so long running from. It took me the better part of four years to finally accept the fact that I still needed help, instead of brushing it off like it was nothing.

The sad thing is is that eating disorders are not uncommon and chances are you know someone who is struggling. Eating disorders are not the fear of food. It often times has one or more underlying fears or factors that contribute as to why we hold onto controlling food intake. Eating disorders are not a choice, but recovery is and the way we respond to them are. Join me and others in the movement to end eating disorders and the stigma around them all together. If you yourself are battling with an eating disorder, or any other mental battle, know that you are not alone. More importantly YOU ARE NOT SIMPLY THE SUM OF YOUR STRUGGLES. Recovery is real and possible and you are so much more than a number, or any amount of pain. If you know someone struggling, find out how you can help and support them through recovery. Start the conversation. No one can do it alone. Check out WithAll for more information and initiatives. Together we can end eating disorders.

Thank you for reading,

Shannon Brault


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