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November 9, 2023

Where the River Flows: A Q&A with Author Rachel Havekost

Where the River Flows: A Q&A with Author Rachel Havekost

**Content warning: This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences in recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, and symptoms. Please use your discretion when reading and speak with your support system as needed.

Rachel Havekost is the bestselling author of Where the River Flows, Write to Heal, and The Inner Child Journal. Along with her other titles, The Self-Healer’s Journal and The Grief Workbook, Rachel has single-handedly built an online social media presence with a combined 300k+ individuals devoted to de-stigmatizing mental health. 

Courage, community, and connection are at the heart of Rachel’s work. After 18 years of therapy for an eating disorder, depression, sexual trauma, suicide attempts, and divorce, Rachel strives to use radical transparency as a window into her mind and heart so that others might not feel alone. 

Her current work is centered in life after suffering: asking questions about embracing humanity, living with uncertainty, and allowing for ease after periods of strife. She is quickly amassing a readership on her Substack publication, “The Messy Middle,” where she writes weekly newsletters about living imperfectly and showing up messy.

Recently, Rachel has completed her master’s degree in psychology, attended Harvard’s first Mental Health Creators Summit, and was recently featured for her writing and advocacy in The New York Times. She is grateful and honored to be able to share her story and support others on their journey to joyful living.

Learn more about Rachel on her website, and follow her on Instagram (@rachel_havekost) and TikTok (@rachelhavekost).

Tell us about Where the River Flows.

Where the River Flows is an honest, unfiltered memoir about my mental health. I was diagnosed with an eating disorder when I was 15 years old, and I yearned for stories or representation of my experiences—was I crazy? was I messed up? was I, like I thought, all alone in my illness? I could only find one book about someone with an eating disorder, and there was a lack of truth and vulnerability in the story that left me feeling more alone. It reinforced the belief that I was utterly twisted, disgusting, and bad.

After going to treatment at The Emily Program in 2016 over 10 years later, I discovered that I was none of those things. Group therapy revealed dozens of other stories like mine, and as my shame dissolved, I emerged. I started to imagine a world where there were more stories of our internal worlds—out loud, in public, and available to people who might not have the privilege to seek treatment. How might visibility encourage recovery? How might stories reduce isolation? How might simply choosing to share what’s real be a source of healing?

Over the next five years, I studied to be a therapist and started sharing my story online and at eating disorder awareness walks. I thought about writing a book, but was terrified of what the repercussions might be. My family and husband would inevitably be in the book, and I planned to be honest. There was a real possibility that in sharing my story, I’d lose vital relationships in my life. I sadly got divorced at the height of the pandemic, and it was in the wake of our divorce that I felt I had nothing left to lose. I found the courage to write my book, and decided to let go of what my parents might think and choose what my heart felt was right for me, and hopefully others to come. 

Naturally, the story of my divorce is woven into the memoir, along with my experiences with suicidal depression, sexual trauma, and anxiety. What began as a desire to share my eating disorder story to increase visibility and reduce shame for others struggling became a deep dive into my own psyche, childhood, systemic oppression, capitalism, sexism, and the vast and endless ways in which none of us who struggle with our mental health are the cause or problem. In the process I discovered that so much of my mental health struggles are signs of my humanity—I did the very best I could to cope with a troubled society with the few tools I had. I survived. And hopefully, readers recognize their own humanity and hold themselves in their courage to try.

How has writing and sharing your story affected your healing?

Writing my story has been a double-edged sword. The experience of revisiting the most traumatic events of my life not once, but multiple times was devastating. The pain of recalling how I fell in love with a man who had only months before asked me for a divorce sent me down a spiral of confusion and doubt—it absolutely exacerbated my grief process and made it difficult to accept reality and let go. I was basically living inside the past for a year—the good and bad. It was a firsthand lesson in how living in the past is not an effective way to heal—it kept me stuck, resentful, angry, sad, and lost. 

On the other hand, sharing my story made me feel incredibly connected to other people experiencing similar pain. The more I shared, the less alone I felt. The less alone I felt, the more shame melted and the more ok I was with all I felt or thought. I was human, just like everyone who said “me too” to something I’d written. The more I shared my story, the less power it had over me. I no longer have anything to hide—I’m an imperfect person, and life is untamable. And I’m comfortable with that now.

Are there any books that influenced your decision to write your story? 

Glennon Doyle’s “Love Warrior.” That book gave me the courage to share my story. It was the first time I’d read something and felt myself in the pages—I suddenly was transported out of my own fears of being broken and unsolvable and into a hopeful territory where for once in my life, I wasn’t alone.

Were there any specific strategies or self-care practices you found helpful while writing your story?

Sadly I still hadn’t fully developed my support-seeking skills, which I believe would have aided in the process. I think this is one of the reasons writing my book contributed to a relapse—I thought I had to move through the process alone. So when I felt stressed or unsure of myself or the wave of grief from my divorce poured over me as I wrote about it, I tried to cope alone. Coping alone is often how I end up in an anxious spiral, relying on my eating disorder, and trapped in my own mind. So I would highly encourage folks who choose to write about their mental health to have a strong support system, and use it. 

How have readers been reacting to the book?

I’ve been blown away. To this day I get DMs on Instagram from people thanking me for writing it, whether it’s someone who is going through a divorce, working through sexual trauma, or in eating disorder recovery—I hear countless people tell me they feel seen and less alone. Recently I had the privilege of sending a copy to Ellen Barry who writes mental health articles for The New York Times, and she gave me incredibly positive feedback which humbled the hell out of me. But the most encouraging and healing response I’ve received is from my parents, who both told me that after reading the book they understood me more, and that they were so sorry for all I’d experienced. Our relationships have grown immensely since then, and I’m proud of all of us for choosing vulnerability and courage over fear in the process.

Could you share an excerpt with us?

Josh sat across from me in our West Seattle kitchen. He looked at me from across the table, where we were about to eat our separate dinners. Him, steak and a side of vegetables and some sort of starch, me, a bowl of raw veggies, seeds, and vinegar.

At this point in my life, my immediate family knew I had an Eating Disorder, and I knew that they knew. Josh knew too—I’d told him that before we started dating I had struggled with disordered eating, but that I was “past it.” My friends had sometimes expressed minor concern, but nothing to the point of “I think you need help” or “I think you have an Eating Disorder.”

My weight and eating habits continued to fluctuate, and I oscillated between somewhat underweight and somewhat overweight throughout my early twenties. My weight/shape/size never reached an extreme that one might consider “out of the ordinary,” and in many ways, it wasn’t physically obvious that I had an Eating Disorder based on the narrow understanding of what Eating Disorders look like. 

Still, the rapid fluctuation in my size, the bouts of depression and alcohol abuse, and the obsession with calories, exercise, and my appearance still ruled my life, whether others noticed or not.

Asking for help did not come naturally to me. I was uncomfortable with seeking support, and I felt more like a burden than a normal human needing co-regulation when I mustered the courage to say, “I’m having a hard day.”

In many ways, my Eating Disorder was a way for me to ask for help without asking. Changing my body was a way for me to physically display my pain. If I looked sick, wouldn’t someone notice? Wouldn’t they realize I wasn’t ok, without me having to say it? 

For years this became a pattern. If I was struggling with fears of inadequacy, lack of self-worth, or crippling depression and anxiety, I would turn to my Eating Disorder. I never asked for help. I was too afraid that someone would think my problems weren’t that bad or that I was overreacting.

So instead, I made myself physically sick, because maybe then someone might take my pain seriously. 

I also believed that unless I was sick enough, I didn’t need treatment. I believed that if I wasn’t underweight, fed by a tube, or forced to go to treatment by concerned family members, I must not be disordered enough. 

The not-enoughness born in my teenage years followed me into my Eating Disorder, keeping me in a perpetual cycle of not good enough for the outside world, not sick enough for my inside world, and caught in the suffocating in-betweenness where I felt there was no good way out.

So when Josh looked at me from across our kitchen table and said,

“Rachel, you have an Eating Disorder, and I want you to get help,” I suddenly had a way out.

Nobody had ever so clearly seen my hurt and blatantly named it. Somebody I loved saw me, and somebody who loved me wanted me well. I don’t think I ever felt more loved than I did in that moment. 

I didn’t question him. I didn’t fight the way I had with my mom for years. I didn’t try to convince him he was wrong or that I was fine the way I’d done with therapists in the past. I didn’t deflect or change the subject like I always would with friends and family who skirted around the subject.

I heard his directness, I felt his love, and I just said, “Ok.”

Get help. Find hope.