I'm not a psychiatrist; I'm not a psychologist or a therapist or a nutritionist or a doctor of any kind. But I have been an anorexic, an exercise bulimic and a binge eater, and if either you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, I can honestly say that I know what you're going through— maybe not the day-to-day details, but certainly the physical and emotional landscape of your struggle.
Perhaps one of the most important and startling things I learned both during my ten-year battle with an eating disorder and during my recovery is just how much ignorance, misinformation, fear and stigma are still attached to eating disorders even in the midst of the so-called information age. The entire time I was struggling and during my recovery process, I never knew anyone who had successfully recovered from an eating disorder. Truthfully, I didn't know if recovery was even possible. All I knew was that I was sick and tired of being sick and tired, so I decided to seek help.
As I began my own journey to recovery, I vowed to myself that if I were given a second chance at life, I would do everything in my power to dispel some of that darkness and bring eating disorders awareness and information into the light. I strongly believe that no one should have to struggle with or recover from an eating disorder alone.
Eighteen years ago, when I first began to develop my eating disorder, I had no idea how many people had the same terrible disease. I honestly believed I was one of the very few. But here are the facts: according to the Eating Disorders Coalition, today, in the United States alone, approximately 10 million women and 1 million men are struggling with anorexia or bulimia, and 25 million people are battling binge eating disorder. Eating disorders do not discriminate; they affect men and women, young and old, and people of all economic levels. You need to know that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate—estimated to be up to 20 percent—of any psychiatric illness. And only one in ten people with an eating disorder receives any kind of treatment. Those figures make me sad and are, quite simply, unacceptable.
As I began to recover and find my strength, I kept the promise I had made to myself all those years ago, and in late 2000 I founded the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness in my hometown of West Palm Beach, Florida. The Alliance is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to prevent eating disorders and promote positive body image by advancing education and increasing awareness. To this end we do community outreach through talks at schools, we provide educational programs about eating disorders to therapists and other health-care professionals, we lead support groups for people in recovery and we do whatever we can to convince government officials that eating disorders ought to be a health-care priority. For specific information about the Alliance, see page 215. I believe we are fulfilling that mission with each person we are able to reach and inform that he or she is not alone and that recovery is possible.
I know how difficult the recovery process can be, but I want you to know that it is possible to get better—and it's definitely worth it! We all trip and fall along the way. But recovery is not about the trips and falls; it is about what happens after you pick yourself up. It's about getting back on your feet, dusting yourself off and moving forward, because that is how we learn. Realistically, neither life nor recovery is ever going to be a fairy tale, but we do have the power to create our own version of a real happily-ever-after.
Give yourself permission to imagine your life beyond your eating disorder. You will get to be present in every moment; you will get to feel; you will get to laugh. You deserve the freedom to live every aspect of your life.
Eating disorders can be very strong—mine spent years telling me all the things I couldn't, shouldn't or wasn't good enough to do. That negative voice isn't going to go away overnight, but there are many tools available to you as you recover to make that voice smaller and softer, and you need to gather and use every one you possibly can. This book is one of the tools you can use to free yourself from your eating disorder once and for all. As you read it, I hope the voice you hear in your head will be healthy, supportive and powerful enough to drown out whatever doubts you may still have about your ability to recover. I've gathered the tools that I offer here through many years of working with eating disorder practitioners, in support groups, walking next to people on their journeys to recovery and by becoming aware of what has helped others. And I hope that these tools will be as useful to you as they have been to me and to so many others. I'm sure some tools will be more useful to you than others, and that's okay. I wouldn't expect it to be any other way. The idea is simply to be willing to try, and if one thing doesn't work, try something else. Just don't stop trying.
As you read on, you will come upon the stories of many different people from many different walks of life who have recovered from eating disorders, and you will come to see that they have followed many different paths. And just as there is no right or wrong way to recover, there is no right or wrong way to use this book. You might read it from cover to cover, or you might choose to read a few chapters and ponder them for a while. You might even decide not to begin at the beginning but to pick a chapter that looks interesting and read that first. Whatever works for you is the right way.
Lao Tzu, the sixth-century BC Chinese philosopher and father of Taoism, said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Taking that first step toward recovery is really hard, and I admire you so much for taking this first step. You have come so far just by picking up this book. I know that together we can keep moving forward so that you, too, are able to create a new reality for yourself.