As part of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (NEDAW), author Jenni Schaefer visited Hamilton to present a lecture on recovery from eating disorders. As a survivor of an eating disorder that haunted her childhood and teenage years, Schaefer’s story could easily have been bleak, but the speaker chose instead to focus on her journey to recovery and hope. The topic of the lecture was her recent book, "Goodbye Ed, Hello Me: Recover from Your Eating Disorder and Fall in Love with Life.” The lecture was funded by The NEDAW Committee, the Ryan Family, and the Kirkland Endowment.
During her talk, a single chair accompanied her onstage, but Schaefer herself rarely used it. The seat was reserved for Ed, the voice of the eating disorder that the author struggled with for years. The name is at once an acronym for the illness and its personification. Though the concept behind Ed’s seat is simple, the chair helped Schaefer relate the concept of the difficulty of battling an eating disorder, an enemy that is at once invisible yet domineering. According to Schaefer, one of the most challenging aspects of eating disorders is that those who experience the disorder can never truly explain it to an outsider. The affliction controls its victims so deeply that those who experience the illness can almost hear a voice in their heads constantly telling them that they are “not good enough.” While it would be impossible for Schaefer to project this inner voice to the audience, Ed’s empty chair communicated the influence that eating disorders have over people.
Schaefer first named her disorder Ed in a therapy session where her counselor asked her to physically talk to her eating disorder as though it were human. Finally naming Ed allowed Schaefer the freedom to separate herself from the voice. From that point, the author had a complex relationship with Ed, and her struggle to rid herself of his manipulation was by no means straightforward. According to Schaefer, eating disorders have little to do with actual “food and weight” but everything to do with control and self-esteem. Ironically, however, no solution can be found without facing the issue of food and weight directly. As much as Schaefer was willing to keep a journal about her disorder and to discuss it with therapists, she could not overcome the condition until her support group told her that she simply had to eat. It was only then that Ed could begin to truly fade away.
When Schaefer first approached her doctor about her eating disorder, she was told that eating disorders are like diabetes: these disorders can be managed, but never completely eliminated from the lives of those who suffer from them. Schaefer found this outlook to be hopeless, and so decided to seek other opinions. She discovered a network of eating disorder survivors who felt completely recovered from their condition, and their stories gave Schaefer hope for putting her own disorder in the past. After years of therapy on the rocky path to healing, Schaefer not only achieved this goal, but discovered the joy in life that she had been missing previously. Her book is meant to relate her experience and to inspire others to start on the same path. According to Schaefer, no matter how severe an eating disorder is, it can be combated.
In her discussion on why eating disorders arise, Schaefer invoked the saying, “genetics loads the gun, but environment pulls the trigger.” In other words, eating disorders are caused by a combination of genetic factors, including one’s personality, and environmental stimuli, such as cultural pressures about appearance. For Schaefer, the genetic factors had to do with her perfectionism, which drove her to the point of obsession when it came to schoolwork, socializing, and ultimately her eating habits. Part of relinquishing her eating disorder meant learning to simply do her best without applying excessive pressure and unrealistic expectations.
Now, instead of striving for “perfection,” Schaefer strives for “excellence” in her work, transferring her perfectionism into detail-oriented and dedicated work.
Unfortunately, eating disorders are quite common, not just among American women, but worldwide, and among both genders. When fielding questions after her speech, the audience heard from parents of a woman with an eating disorder and personal stories from those who, like Schaefer, had lived through the experience. Her genuine, honest attitude inspired others to open up as well, striking up conversation among her audience members. This dialogue mirrors the purpose of her book and her mission during lectures. Jenni Schaefer is not only an accomplished writer and an engaging speaker, but an inspiration to anyone still battling an eating disorder.