A Herculean effort to conquer anorexia and bulimia

    Shannon Frost Greenstein is shown standing in front of the 'Gates of Hell' sculpture at the Rodin Museum in Philadlephia. (Shannon Frost Greenstein)

    Shannon Frost Greenstein is shown standing in front of the 'Gates of Hell' sculpture at the Rodin Museum in Philadlephia. (Shannon Frost Greenstein)

    My eating disorder was part of my identity for so long that there was no way to discern where it ended and I began. It wrapped around and through me like the other half of a double helix. 

    Looking back, my eating disorder was part of my identity for so long that there was no way to discern where it ended and I began. It wrapped around and through me like the other half of a double helix. It was hard to think that things could ever improve from such physical and emotional misery.

    But looking forward, it seems impossible that my life could have reverted to such a dark place.

    Something significant happened between then and now. He’s currently nine months old and teething.

    My life before him was a desperate search for relief and control, defined by mirrors and hunger and the worry I caused my support system at large. While I think I will always feel the remnants of shame about that, I can also say that my life since my son was born has been the most fulfilling, rehabilitating, and loving time I’ve ever known. I attribute that solely to the treatment I received at The Renfrew Center of Philadelphia, the country’s first residential treatment center.

    A lifetime of self-inflicted abuse

    I have had anorexia since childhood, which makes my recovery from more than three decades of abuse to my body all the more extraordinary. I was a very serious dancer, immersed in an environment where a thin body is revered. Practically a textbook study of anorexia, I also exhibit the perfectionism, obsessive compulsions, and self-loathing that tend to characterize that particular eating disorder.

    To borrow an analogy from Carolyn Costin, author of “8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder,” there is a gun, a bullet, and a trigger; the gun is the genetic predisposition, the bullet is the environment and culture in which an individual is immersed, and the trigger is trauma, pressure, prolonged stress, etc. In retrospect, I had both nature and the nurture against me: There is anorexia within my nuclear family, and recent research is starting to emphasize the significant genetic component to eating disorders.

    I was largely unaware of the severity of my illness, even after I started purging what I ate in college. The next 10 years were a blur of vague misery as I met and married my husband, started working, and became an adult. My eating disorder symptoms were cyclical, waxing and waning over time, always returning and always slightly worse than before.

    At the age of 29, a perfect storm of biochemicals, circumstance, and the combined weight of three decades with anorexia led to rock-bottom. Outpatient therapy, which I had been attempting for a few years, was not helping; my blood work was starting to come back disturbingly unbalanced; my mood had swung so low that I felt lost in the frightening sea of self-harm and suicidal notions.

    Finally, my husband broke through my defenses and desire to avoid residential treatment. Within two weeks of my reluctant agreement to consider it, I had an intake interview, endless EKGs, and blood draws, a new suitcase, and the memory of my husband walking out the door after kissing me goodbye the day he dropped me off at The Renfrew Center.

    Fast forward to recovery

    Residential treatment was one of the most significant and valuable periods of my life. I emerged with a new perspective on my body, a new outlook, a restoration of faith in therapy and self-care, and a cadre of sisters-in-arms I met through treatment, several of whom remain my closest friends to this day. It changed me; it improved me; it saved me.

    I kept up with outpatient therapy, gritted my teeth through the struggles, and healed to the point that I was able to carry my son to term and deliver a healthy baby, whom I have adored mind-bendingly since he was pulled from my abdomen, covered in goo.

    Provided I do my part, provided I continue to work to keep the eating disorder at bay, dormant and subdued, provided I rely on my loving support network, I anticipate nothing but good things in my future: Good things for my child, for my family at large, and, somewhat surprisingly, given that I never would have thought it possible … for me, too.

    Shannon Frost Greenstein lives in Philadelphia with her husband, son, and spoiled cats. She aims to maintain her physical and emotional health, pay off her student loans with her writing, advocate for eating disorder awareness and treatment, and acquire even more cats.

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