The Center for Eating Disorders Blog

Perfectly Imperfect: A Special Q&A with JENNI SCHAEFER

Jenni Schaefer
In recognition of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (Feb. 23 – March 1), we caught up with Life Without Ed author and all-around inspiring person, JENNI SCHAEFER. 

It was about  five years ago that Jenni last visited The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt  and we are thrilled to welcome her back here to the CED blog and back to Baltimore on Saturday, March 1st for a new presentation entitled, Perfectly Imperfect: Eating & Body Image. 

It turns out that a lot can happen in five years.  Armed with a new relationship, a new book and lots of new experiences, Jenni continues to educate, inspire and lead by example both within the eating disorder community and beyond.  We are grateful to Jenni for taking the time to answer our questions and excited to share her responses below with our readers.

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Q & A with JENNI SCHAEFER  

Q: You’ve been a longtime advocate and activist for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and will be speaking in Baltimore in honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2014. What does this campaign mean to you and what progress have you seen around the awareness and education of eating disorders since you began this journey?

After struggling for years with an eating disorder, I finally picked up the phone in search of real help. I called 1-800-931-2237, which is NEDA’s Helpline.  NEDA sent me a list of treatment resources (via snail mail back then!), and my healing journey began. It is surreal to me how life has come full circle: I am honored to serve as the Chair of NEDA’s Ambassadors Council today. Working with NEDA and NEDAwareness Week means the world to me. My hope during the week is not only to encourage people to get help but also to prevent some from ever going down the treacherous road of an eating disorder in the first place. If I had participated in a NEDAwareness event years ago, I believe that my journey would have been a lot smoother. Maybe I never would have turned to Ed (aka “eating disorder”) in the first place, or maybe I would have realized that I had a problem and reached out for help sooner. Similar to the 2014 NEDAwareness theme, “I Had No Idea” that I was struggling with a life-threatening illness.

Since I began my recovery journey, I have seen eating disorders awareness and education improve greatly. Back when I was struggling in college, I rarely heard anyone talk about eating disorders. But, today, colleges all across the country ask me to speak at their NEDAwareness events. Again, it is amazing how life can come full circle like that!

Q: In addition to your hugely popular and inspirational books, Life Without Ed and Goodbye Ed, Hello Me, you have a new book out with co-author Jennifer Thomas, PhD called Almost Anorexic: Is My (Or My Loved One’s) Relationship with Food a Problem? What prompted you and Dr. Thomas to write this book, and can you elaborate on what you mean by the term “almost anorexic”?

While 1 in 200 adults will experience full-blown anorexia, at Cover: Almost Anorexicleast 1 in 20 (1 in 10 teen girls!) will struggle with restricting, bingeing and/or purging that doesn’t meet full diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder. Almost Anorexic, which is the third book in Harvard Medical School’s The Almost Effect™ series, brings attention to the grey area between “normal eating” and an officially recognized eating disorder. Dr. Thomas and I want people to know that, regardless of their eating disorder diagnosis or lack thereof, both help and hope are available. A diagnostic label cannot adequately depict pain and suffering. All who struggle deserve help, and full recovery is possible.

[To learn more about
Almost Anorexic and to read book excerpts, click here. You can also watch a hopeful book trailer (video) or register to attend a professional workshop facilitated by the book’s co-authors.]

Q: There has been a lot of discussion within the eating disorder field recently around the conceptualization of eating disorders as brain-based illnesses as opposed to purely psychological or behavioral disorders. You touch on the implications of this in Almost Anorexic How can the words we use to define the disorder impact the recovery process?

When I first received help for my eating disorder, people told me that I would never fully recover. They said that an eating disorder was like diabetes and that it would be with me forever. Believing this, in the end, just served to keep me stuck. I had to change my language, and I had to connect with people who believed that I could get fully better. This made all of the difference.

In relation to brain disorder language, Almost Anorexic explains: “Some people and organizations have found brain-disorder language extremely helpful in explaining to others why individuals with eating disorders can’t just “snap out of it” and in absolving parents of guilt and blame for their child’s illness. Others, however, have worried that brain-disorder language may give sufferers and loved ones alike the hopeless (and false!) impression that eating disorders are lifelong illnesses that cannot be treated and may even provide a handy excuse for the continuation of dangerous symptoms (after all, your brain made you do it). To combat this, parent activist Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh has used the term “treatable brain disorder.” We suggest you use the terminology that works best for you. Words are powerful. Don’t let Ed hijack them.”

Q: Perfectionism is one of the genetically-based personality traits most highly associated with the development of eating disorders and will be the focus of your talk in Baltimore on March 1, 2014. Did perfectionism play a role in the development of your eating disorder? Did it also play a role in recovery?

I was not born with an eating disorder, but I was born with the perfectionism trait. Constantly striving to be perfect certainly made me more vulnerable to having an eating disorder. So did other genetic traits like high anxiety and obsessive-compulsiveness. However, when channeled in a positive direction, these traits played a crucial role in my recovery. I was able to refine perfectionism, for instance, and apply it to things like attending doctors’ appointments and finishing therapy assignments. When taken to the light, our genetic traits absolutely support recovery.

Q: Individuals who are perfectionists often struggle with the urge to compare themselves to people around them. Among individuals with eating disorders these comparisons are often appearance-based or weight-focused but can also be related to one’s career, house, family, wealth or talent. Constant comparison can be very triggering and detrimental to the recovery process. What strategies help you avoid this comparison trap?

My motto, as I originally wrote about in Life Without Ed, is “Compare and Despair.” Early in recovery, I actually displayed “Compare and Despair” on post-it notes throughout my home. These notes reminded me that comparing inevitably leads to despairing, so I did my best to stop setting myself up for this kind of self-loathing. Further, learning that I was not alone in my tendency to compare helped me to change as well.  The Center for Eating Disorders’ survey related to Facebook and comparisons, for instance, has helped people I know to better understand the growing prevalence of comparing (as well as the fall-out of it) and to feel a sense of camaraderie in making positive changes.

Q: In the age of social media, it seems the opportunity for comparing oneself to others has reached an all time high. Do you have any tips for individuals looking to use social media in a healthy way that is supportive of recovery?

In the tenth anniversary edition of Life Without Ed, which was just released, I talk about the fact that Ed surely has a Facebook account! Each time a person with an eating disorder logs in online, Ed does, too. This awareness is key. Further, individuals with eating disorders can change their online settings to block triggering people and ads. Within the anniversary edition of Life Without Ed, I give many tips for how to use technology to support your recovery, including using mobile apps like “Recovery Record” and “Rise Up + Recover.”

Q: You last visited The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt as a guest speaker in 2009 during which you spoke about the concept of being Recovered. from your eating disorder. What new insights about being Recovered. have you gained over the past 5 years, and has any of it surprised you?

I often say that I am recovered from my eating disorder, but not from life. Part of being “recovered.” actually means continual personal growth. Since my visit to Sheppard Pratt, I have blossomed in many areas, especially related to relationships. I have learned how to let more love into my life and have even gotten married. Luckily, my husband’s name is not Ed! Related to freedom from eating disorders, you can click here to download a table that Dr. Thomas and I created comparing “fully recovered” to “barely recovered.”

Q: What are some of the main points you hope to convey during your upcoming talk, Perfectly Imperfect on March 1st in Baltimore? Who do you think could benefit from attending the presentation?

One of the most common comments I receive from audience members is, “I don’t have an eating disorder, but I do have an Ed in my head.” People also relate to my efforts to overcome perfectionism as well as my journey to find happiness in life. We always have fun singing my song, “It’s Okay to be Happy.” That said, my talks are applicable to anyone who calls him or herself a human! On March 1st, I will discuss finding balance with food and weight in a world that is anything but balanced. We will talk about striving simultaneously for both excellence and “perfect imperfection.” And one big goal of my presentations is to laugh—a lot.

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Do you have your own questions for Jenni?  Join us on Twitter @CEDSheppPratt for a special Tweet Chat on Thursday, February 20, 2014 from 1:00-2:00pm EST with Jenni Schaefer (@jennischaefer) and Jennifer J. Thomas, PhD (@drjennythomas).  Use the hashtag #CEDchat to participate and follow along. Send your questions in advance to kclemmer@sheppardpratt.org and we might use them during the chat!

More About Jenni…
Jenni Schaefer’s breakthrough bestseller, Life Without Ed: How One Woman Declared Independence from Her Eating Disorder and How You Can Too, established her as one of the leading lights in the recovery movement. With her second book, Goodbye Ed, Hello Me: Recover from Your Eating Disorder and Fall in Love with Life, she earned her place as one of the country’s foremost motivational writers and speakers. Jenni’s straightforward, realistic style has made her a role model, source of inspiration, and confidant to people worldwide looking to overcome adversity and live more fully. She speaks at conferences, at major universities, and in corporate settings; has appeared on many syndicated TV and radio shows; and has been quoted in publications including The New York Times. She is also chair of the Ambassadors Council of the National Eating Disorders Association. An accomplished singer/songwriter, she lives in Austin, Texas

Want to learn more about NEDAwareness Week Events at The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt?  Click HERE.