*This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences on their own path to recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts or behaviors. Please use your discretion and speak with your support system as needed.
Betsy Brenner is a lawyer, married mother of three, tennis coach, and bereavement group leader and in Barrington, Rhode Island. She is passionate about her role as a recovery speaker and has shared her story at treatment centers in the Boston area. Betsy co-leads an eating disorder support group and mentors women who are struggling with mid-life eating disorders.
There are many factors that propelled me into a full-blown eating disorder in my mid-forties. The first significant event was my parents’ divorce when I was 7 years old. It shattered the innocence of my early childhood and began years of internalizing any and all difficult emotions. My Mom continued as if nothing had happened. I had no opportunity to talk about the divorce or its impact, no place for tears, sadness or anger, no place for feelings of any kind.
There is no doubt that my Mom loved me and I am very grateful for many happy childhood memories, but her suppressed emotions and undiagnosed mental health issues made her moody, rigid, and controlling. Even with food, she controlled what I ate, when I ate and how much I ate. I never learned intuitive eating.
I grew up feeling that the only way to make my Mom happy was to achieve success in the classroom and on the tennis court. I felt so much pressure to meet her expectations of perfection so that she would be proud of me. There was no place for questioning her ways or expressing my own needs and emotions. While my tennis success was an important source of self-esteem, the tennis court became my sanctuary, my escape from the emotions inside I was unable to express.
During my sophomore year in college, my Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Such a scary diagnosis, yet I have no memories of any conversations with her expressing either of our emotions or fears. After her mastectomy, we just went on with our lives.
By my junior year, I was slowly trying to break out of the tight web my Mom had spun around me. My Dad helped make possible a summer job in Washington, DC. My Mom could not be happy for me, which was very hard because I still craved her approval. That summer away from her unrelenting control was the beginning of my learning how to be independent and make decisions for myself. It also made possible a good relationship with my Dad for the first time in my life. Just a few months later when I was happily back at school for my senior year, my Dad was diagnosed with colon cancer that had already spread to his liver. He died two years later at the age of 56. I was 23 years old, a year out of college and very much on my own in the world.
The decade of my 20’s was a time of independence, friendship, intellectual and personal growth as well as a time of missing my Dad and a strained relationship with my Mom. After I graduated from college, my mom, devastated that I was not moving home, made me take everything from my room, not wanting any reminders of me. It was like a knife to the heart. Home as a place for unconditional love where you are always welcome would never be the same. I worked in Washington, DC, went to law school, married Jeff, my husband of 28 years, moved to Rhode Island, and began work as a hospital lawyer.
Less than a year after the birth of our daughter, Rebecca, my Mom literally ended up on our doorstep. She had hit rock bottom financially and a family friend gave her a few thousand dollars to start a new life in Rhode Island. I was never able to tell my Mom how much she had hurt me, but I set those feelings aside and helped her find an apartment and two part-time jobs. Rebecca was the only thing that eased the tension between us, and my Mom became a wonderful grandmother. Only a few years after telling me that my wedding was the worst day of her life, she got to know and appreciate Jeff. Then after two good years, she was gone. Her breast cancer, first diagnosed 14 years earlier, came back in every bone in her body. She died at the age of 60. I was 33 and despite having lost my Dad 10 years earlier, I understood nothing about grief. After very complicated and difficult relationships, I had two good years with each of my parents before cancer ended their lives way too young. Once again, I internalized the full range of emotions thinking I was only supposed to focus on the two good years I had with each of them rather than the magnitude of the loss in my life and its impact on me.
The birth of our twins, Alexis and Matthew, brought a deep sense of joy and happiness. A few years later, as a busy and happy mother of three, I was diagnosed with asthma and had to contend with several serious flare-ups. I knew nothing about self-care and was used to going non-stop and being the mom I loved to be. When my children were in school, I started playing competitive tennis again and my passion was reborn. I became very muscular and fit but lost weight I did not need to lose. I received many positive comments and it made me feel good about myself. Tennis once again fueled my self-esteem but also became my escape and my emotional outlet. When asthma flare-ups prevented me from playing tennis and taking care of my children, my anxiety increased. My eating disorder came to the rescue, made me feel in control, and allowed me to cope with my physicals challenges as well as difficult emotions.
It was recommended that I see a nutritionist because of my weight loss, and I was diagnosed with anorexia at my first appointment. My eating disorder was impairing my life and endangering my health. I began regular appointments with my nutritionist and a therapist who specialized in eating disorders.
During my recovery, I often felt isolated and unable to talk about what I was going through except with my professional support. Although constant thoughts about food and exercise and an intense fear of gaining weight consumed me, around my appointments, I went on with my life as a busy mom, bereavement group leader and high school tennis coach.
My nutritionist not only helped me with meal plans and weight restoration, but she also helped me to recognize that I had needs of my own and that taking care of myself was not selfish. I had a safe place where I could let my guard down and be open and honest about my eating disorder, my emotions, and life’s challenges. I learned to be vulnerable which was particularly hard for me. She gave me the care I had never had before and taught me how to nourish my body as well as my mind and spirit. She always knew exactly what to say to help me, stay on track, or get back on track. “Do the next right thing,” she would say giving me the encouragement and support that I needed. She never gave up on me through all the ups and downs and I will always be grateful to her for her huge role in my recovery. From my therapist, I learned so much about how the difficult experiences in my life had shaped me. I could talk about the complicated relationships with my parents and how there was no place for expressing my feelings as I strived to meet their expectations of perfection, feeling that I had to earn their love and approval. The process of unraveling the layers and layers of suppressed emotions continues today.
My recovery journey included attending an eight-week MEDA Support Group for women over 35. The first week I left the group feeling that I didn’t belong, thinking of myself as so much healthier than the other women. I went home and went to the gym, the only way I knew how to cope with all the unspoken feelings I experienced from being there. Something compelled to go back each week despite not feeling comfortable sharing at the group meetings. Then something happened in the eighth and final week. I was very emotional, crying in the car and at the group. I finally acknowledged to myself that I actually belonged there. I was able to share some of my feelings about the shame and secrecy I felt with my eating disorder. I finally allowed myself to feel the support that was there for me all along.
I found MEDA to be a warm and welcoming environment and I absolutely loved all the inspirational quotes all around. I started keeping a special notebook with inspirational quotes from a variety of sources. Whenever I had a particularly difficult day in recovery, reading through my quote book always made me feel better.
Looking back, one of the most significant quotes for my recovery was, “You don’t have to be positive all the time. It’s perfectly okay to feel sad, angry, annoyed, frustrated, scared, or anxious. Having feelings doesn’t make you a negative person, it makes you human.” This quote was so significant because to believe it would require that I undo everything that had been ingrained in me from a young age. I literally needed permission to feel. The fact that the emotions flow freely now is proof that I no longer use my ED to numb those emotions.
The most difficult experience of my life was probably the most important chapter in my recovery story. Early last year, I had a total abdominal hysterectomy because of an ovarian tumor, which thankfully turned out to be benign. This experience reinforced my commitment to self-care not only for my body but also for my mind and spirit. During the two months of recovering from surgery, I had no choice but to nurture my body with rest and nourish my body with food so that I could heal and resume my life. This experience was a powerful reminder that you only have one body, so you need to take care of it. After surviving major invasive surgery, I gained a deeper appreciation for good health and a stronger determination to recover from my eating disorder.
I wish I could say that recovery has been all sunshine and rainbows. It was not easy to accept that there is no actual finish line as I once assumed there would be. The ongoing task is to remain strong in recovery by using healthy coping mechanisms in the face of life’s challenges and allow myself to feel the difficult emotions that accompany these challenges. My recovery gets stronger each and every time I nourish my body, mind, and spirit by engaging in self-care and self-love. I need to be with people with whom I can be my authentic self and I need to connect with those who understand what recovery is all about. My voice is what matters, not Ed’s, and every time I share my story, it empowers me and strengthens my recovery.
The next chapter of my life is unfolding and I am excited to see where my recovery journey takes me next. We are never too old to be a work in progress. I leave you with one of my favorite inspirational quotes, which will continue to guide me and reaffirm what I have learned in recovery, “You fall, you rise, you make mistakes, you live, you learn. You are human, not perfect. You have been hurt, but you are alive to breathe, to think, to enjoy, and to chase the things you love. Sometimes there is sadness in your journey, but there is also lots of beauty. We must keep putting one foot in front of the other even when we hurt, for we will never know what is waiting for us just around the bend.” Thank you.
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