This month our Recovery Rockstar is an ACTUAL Rockstar. Gabi Holzwarth has been a brave and vocal advocate for Eating Disorder Recovery, and in her courageous sharing of her Recovery Rockstar story, you can see how strong her recovery voice is. And if you take a moment to check out her incredible singing voice and virtuosity on the violin through the numerous examples all over the web, you will understand what a powerful voice and an amazing gift she has, and how she herself is a gift to the Recovery community.
1) Briefly describe your journey with your eating disorder.
My eating disorder began in high school when I was fifteen years old. There is certainly much truth to the statement “it’s not about the food”, for I remember my struggles beginning not about body weight, but instead as a way to cope with the stressors of my life at school and home. I felt a great deal of shame during my very tumultuous transition from childhood to puberty. I struggled to be an innocent child in my parent’s eyes, but at school attempted to play the part of a popular teenager. This dichotomy created an intense buildup of shame and secrecy, eventually leading to the bulimia, which exhibited itself as a cure to my anxiety by providing feelings of relief after a purge. My parents and friends caught on to my bulimia and I was forced to cease the behaviors, but shortly after, the eating disorder morphed into severe anorexia, and subsequently after bingeing and purging behaviors began. Over the next several years, I completely checked out of life and became all-consumed in my eating disorder, trying to recover with stints in treatment, but never fully committing myself to achieve a full remission. During the past couple of years, I became very vocal about my struggles and no longer hid from the world, but the disease still haunted me with it’s obsessive rituals. I maintained a sense of happiness and normalcy, maintaining a weight that appeared safe but far below what I needed to be and replacing my purging behaviors for obsessive rituals. I was unable to go out with friends to eat and had a strict schedule which included walking the majority of the day. I continued to put off getting professional help and stubbornly told myself that i could do it alone. It has only been this past year that I have decided to spend 100% of my time working on recovery with an incredibly supportive team of professionals, who will be by my side for however long it takes until I feel completely free of this disease. For the first time in my life, I am beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
2) What is it like to struggle with an eating disorder?
Struggling with an eating disorder is like living in a prison. There is no room for freedom – there are only bars preventing you from the beautiful outside and rules to keep you in your small cell. It is also very lonely. The days are empty and dark. I wouldn’t say that there is much pain, but rather there is no feeling at all. I used to be so scared of the dark, but even my fears disappeared. The only fear I had was that of eating and getting fat. I used to cry at the smallest things, but even the death of my loved ones could not bring me to tears. It is a state of complete and utter anhedonia, even when partaking in what most would perceive as exciting activities – traveling the world, relaxing on a resort, surrounded by brilliant and fun individuals. If you try to escape the disease by moving or traveling, you quickly realize that the disease follows you wherever you go because it lives inside you. Eventually you know nothing else other than this disease and begin to think that this is simply your fortune on this earth. The eating disorder does indeed serve its purpose by protecting you from the intense anxiety that may have initially caused it to appear, but then it also wipes out every other experience in life. It is like a powerful vaccine that wipes out the disease but along the way also wipes out the good cells an destroys the immune system.
3) What helped you along the way to your recovery?
The thing that helped most on my way to recovery was surrendering to a higher power, trusting my treatment team fully (even when I felt angry at them for making me eat more), and giving up all forms of control. For much of my eating disorder I had gone through the motions of treatment – going to residential facilities and seeing the best professionals, but this alone was not enough to recover since I was still attempting to control the outcome at the end of recovery: a certain weight, a certain number of calories, of exercise, etc…It was not until I fully embraced the fact that these outcomes would never be in my control and that I had to be okay with the outcome regardless of what nature intended it to be did my recovery truly begin. Control and perfectionism are very common behavioral traits in individuals struggling from anorexia, and often times it helps to take these inherent traits and direct them elsewhere. I began to use this trait to help me rather than to hurt me, such as controlling my attempts to attend every single doctor’s appointment, journal every single day, work on my CBT skills, complete every single part of my meal plan, eat new and challenging foods, and other parts of recovery that I could control. Overall, I used the strong traits that are inherently a part of me and which lead to my eating disorder to then assist in my recovery.
4) What do you do to maintain your recovery nowadays?
The first and most important thing I do is to always make sure I am eating properly and accurately following my meal plan before addressing any other issues. I also make sure that I have a plan each and every day, filled with new recovery challenges (new foods and eating out) as well as a general schedule of how my day will be structured. In the beginning of recovery, structure is very important because having a plan prevents anxiety. As recovery gets further and further along, I find that I can do things more spontaneously and on a whim. I also have a journal with me at all times, even traveling with it, so that I can challenge my eating disorder voice whenever it arises. I find that dialoguing between my “ED Self” and my “Healthy Self” is a crucial component of recovery because the voices are still very strong, and they only diminish when I actively challenge them. It does not happen naturally. Finally, I also incorporate a great deal of time resting into my day, such as sitting down and reading, going to the library, taking naps, and finishing television shows that I never in the past allowed myself to sit down and enjoy! It is very helpful to know that recovery will make you extremely tired, even though you think you are being “lazy” because the body is going through so much repair, and it helps to give myself permission to rest and be completely “unproductive”.
5) What advice would you have for someone struggling with an eating disorder?
The best piece of advice I have for somebody struggling with an eating disorder is to find a good team who can help you along the journey, because it is impossible to do it alone. I have tried many times and failed at all of them for over a decade. If I could go back in time I would have told my stubborn self this, and also that simply entering a program is not enough, but instead takes a commitment to fully complete a program, do the hard work, such as reading and writing assignments, and make sure to plan the proper step-down care. This process may take years, but the investment is worth it! I would also remind those struggling to be extremely patient with the body and know that there will be much discomfort during the process to the point where you will want to give up. There will be highs and lows in recovery, and you simply have to ride the waves. Also, whenever you feel extreme anxiety, it is the surest sign of growth. If you feel that your recovery is easy, it is most likely that you are clinging to it and still compensating with some form of control. Whenever I feel extremely uncomfortable and scared, and on the brink of tears, I stop and remind myself – THIS is recovery. Whenever I get through these dark periods and reach the other side, I always feel a little bit closer to freedom.