Kayla Handy and Seth Ickes – Editor In Chief and Staff Writer
CLARION, Pa.- Eating disorders represent a growing mental illness that not only controls one’s life, but consumes it. In an effort to increase eating disorder awareness and educate others on the dangers of living and struggles of recovering from an eating disorder (E.D.), Kayla Handy, sister of Delta Phi Epsilon and E.D. Fighter, hosted motivational speaker and author Jenni Schaefer March 2.
In collaboration with the0 University Activities Board, Bacchus Gamma, Student Senate and Delta Phi Epsilon, the event hosted students from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Clarion at the end of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders Awareness Week.
Schaefer gave insight on being an eating disorder and trauma advocate, author, speaker and musician, her key reasons for speaking on college campuses to motivate and inspire people to get professional help for their eating disorder or any other issues. Her central message at her speaking event at Clarion University was one of “hope.”
She said, “We all have challenges in life, but we can make it through without giving up and having support.”
“Eating disorders aren’t just eating disorders,” she explained, mentioning how they can often hide issues with control, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and perfectionism.
One of her central themes was acceptance and identification of eating disorders, emphasizing that “the truth is simple if you struggle with food and weight on any level.” During her presentation, she explained how, “I learned to instead of looking in the mirror with fear, to look in the mirror with curiosity.”
In reference to her first published novel, Life Without Ed, which outlines her struggle with an eating disorder and how she coped through recovery, Schaefer showcased handfuls of rejection letters, each addressed to her regarding the publication of her book. “Each one of these rejection letters said no,” as she dropped handfuls on the floor, “You’re not a doctor, you’re not a therapist, you’re not even a writer. Why are you writing this book?
“They said basically you are not good enough. Every one of us in this room has probably gone through a problem where we thought, ‘I will never get through this,’” she explained, “and I thought my eating disorder was going to kill me. But instead, my eating disorder taught me resilience. That’s why I ignored those rejection letters. That’s why I kept fighting.”
Schaefer questioned the audience as to what controls their life as E.D. was controlling hers. “Researchers say genetics load the gun for an eating disorder, and the environment pulls the trigger,” she said, detailing how as a young 4-year-old girl she heard the voice in her head saying that she was not good enough. However, in recovery, she was taught that she is good enough.
As a 10-year-old, Schaefer started to see eating disorder behaviors in herself, such as labeling good and bad foods. “Foods don’t have morals do they?” she questioned the audience, “I learned in recovery that food is just food; it doesn’t have moral values.”
During high school, Schaefer started to severely restrict her eating and developed binge eating habits. She described herself as being miserable most of the time, yet no one made the effort to approach her about having an eating disorder because “I didn’t look sick.”
It brings to question: what is an eating disorder? Social media says an eating disorder looks like an individual who is severely underweight or overweight. If one looks “normal,” then nothing is wrong. She emphasized that eating disorders are on a spectrum, and while some people may not meet all the criteria laid out to have an eating disorder, they can still have an issue that needs attention, Schaefer added, “Say you are in recovery and severely underweight, and you gain back some weight to ‘look normal.’ Your family and friends may think, ‘oh good, you look normal, you’re cured, you’re fine.’ But it’s not that easy,” Schaefer said, “If it’s impairing your life, get help.”
Schaefer gave a diverse personal perspective on her work as a professional speaker and her personal connection on how she had an eating disorder during her time in college at Texas A&M University. She spoke on how she was even “complimented for her eating disorder” in the sense that friends would congratulate her on weight loss, not realizing it was due to her eating disorder. “An eating disorder has the highest mortality rate and probably [is] one of the few mental illnesses that gets complimented,” she reiterated, “and it took me five more years after college to truly seek help.”
Having been interested in pursuing a career in music, Schaefer explained how she then moved to Nashville to work toward it and to try to get away from E.D. Unfortunately, simply moving to another state was not the remedy for an eating disorder.
While in Tennessee, Schaefer began to see a therapist who encouraged and motivated her to seek full recovery. “He told me to put E.D. in a chair and told me to tell E.D. how I felt,” she said, as she herself placed an empty chair in front of the audience. “He did this because I was consumed by my eating disorder. E.D. was consuming me, and I needed to talk to E.D., to separate him from my life,” she added.
Schaefer said E.D. was comparable to an abusive partner in a relationship, stating that even though her eating disorder negatively affected her, she stayed because of the “good things” it gave her: weight loss, control of anxiety and other temporary benefits. “An eating disorder has some parts that you like and some parts that you hate,” she said. “They are combined. So in therapy I tried to keep the good things of my eating disorder and just get rid of the bad. But you have to get rid of it all.”
Once she began to realize that she needed to separate her life from E.D., her path toward recovery got steeper and rougher. Things got worse before they got better. “I wasn’t getting better because I wasn’t trusting, I wasn’t letting go, I wasn’t having faith nor willing to go through the hard part,” she explained. “I was trying to go around and above the hard part. But you have to go through the hard part.”
Recovery needed full commitment. In the conclusion of her presentation, Schaefer compared recovery to jumping off a plane. “I was terrified and just wasn’t committed,” she concluded, “But I knew I had to jump. So I encourage you guys to jump. What is sitting in your chair? What is it in your life that you have all the tools, you’re pretty ready to do but haven’t committed to [or] you haven’t gotten the support to do? In eating disorder recovery, to jump out of the recovery plan, you have to change your attitude; you need to get support, and you have to commit.”
She implored the audience to keep questioning the negative voice in their head: “You recover by learning the tools and then taking the leap of faith and plunging through the hard part. The hard part is jumping out of the plane.”