Stories of Hope: An Interview with Ellie Herman
This is part of a series featuring individuals who share their life experiences with mental health issues. Recently, I asked graduate student and mental health advocate Ellie Herman about her history of mental health challenges and about some of her current activities and future plans. Here’s our interview:
DS: Tell us about when you first started becoming aware of concerns related to your mental health. How did these issues continue to affect you before you sought treatment?
EH: I’ve always put a great deal of pride into self-discipline. In my senior year of high school, I had started implementing this into my eating habits by becoming very restrictive and selective. At first it was just a health kick, and then I took it too far, cutting out foods I once loved and not snacking at all between meals.
I was losing weight, but I was active and it wasn’t drastic at first. My family and friends became concerned before I did, or perhaps I was just in denial. I did not skip meals, so it was difficult to accuse me of anorexia in its stereotypical symptomology. It was so much more than poor body image for me. It was about manipulation and control.
DS: What was the turning point that led you to decide to seek help?
EH: My family asked if I wanted to see a nutritionist, but I did not feel that was necessary until I weighed myself one night and the number triggered some sort of warning in me. Suddenly it struck me as a problem, and I knew that the way I was looking at food was hurting me. No one should rip sticks of gum in half because the calorie counts seems too high.
DS: What has your treatment consisted of, and what have you found that has worked well for you?
EH: In high school I saw a nutritionist and a licensed clinical social worker. They were both quite lovely, and I learned a great deal about wellness and myself. I had a meal plan, regular weigh-ins, and regular therapy appointments. This was successful, to a degree. I put on some weight and felt mostly okay, but I also was able to still feel like I was in control because of the meal plan. It was still a structure, and I was able to create it.
With that, I was also able to “cheat” on it, making substitutions that I knew were not as nutritious or calorie-dense as they should have been. The weight I gained during treatment I lost again shortly after, and I kept it off through much of the same practices for about four years.
What honestly worked for me was self-talk and my body’s own defense. I talked myself into this regimented idea of how I should eat, and I had to talk myself back out. I always like to note my turning point: my undergraduate graduation ceremony. I walked across the stage and took my diploma and people clapped and all I could think about was that yeah, I had straight A’s for four years but I was ridiculously underweight and likely killing myself, which didn’t actually speak highly of my intelligence at all.
The next day, I went back to my parents’ house, and listened to my body. When it said “eat,” I ate (which was about every 10 minutes in its malnourished state). I went to bed with a bloated stomach, sometimes I threw up from overeating, and I was constipated for days at a time. Some days I woke up and despised the new flesh covering my bones. I was angered when I couldn’t see my ribs. I did not want my thighs to touch like they do now.
But I talked to myself. I told myself this was better than being a walking bag of bones, I told myself that the weight on my stomach would redistribute when I had gained enough back, I told myself that it would be fun to buy new clothes, to fill out baggy clothes, and I fantasized about being able to sit on hard chairs without my tail bones sending pain signals to me after two minutes.
It’s difficult to see yourself changing, physically, before your own eyes. It feels wrong because your self-image hasn’t caught up to the mirror yet. But the faster you can tell yourself that you are still you, the better it will feel to be you.
DS: How are things going for you now? What have you learned that has helped you stay positive and healthy?
EH: I’ve never been happier! Or healthier. Recovery is the hardest thing I have had to do in 23 years of life. I have a much better relationship with food and exercise now. I eat and exercise to help my body be at its best so that my mind can be at its best too. It is actually difficult for me to remember a time when I felt this free from my own restraints.
Actually I can distinctly remember a day, a month or two into my real recovery last year, where I laughed. It was memorable because I heard myself laugh but I also felt it. It had been quite a while since I had a thought train clear enough to recognize both the sound and the feeling.
Some days I definitely have poor body image or I feel like I need more control over things in my life and that eating restrictively might feel good. Some days those thoughts win. I will always have days like that. But I know to bounce back now. On those days I rely on that self-talk again, or one of the supportive people in my life.
Self-care is also quite important to me and something I need regularly. For me, that can take on a variety of pictures, but often it is just me being alone with my own thoughts for a little while at the gym or in my bed, digesting (all puns intended) my day. It’s crucial to know yourself but also to know how to listen to yourself.
DS: You’ve been active in mental health advocacy and social media. Tell us about your involvement in those activities.
EH: I’m not as active as I hope to be! My high school friends, who have been tremendous supports for years, and I walk in the National Eating Disorders Association walk each year, and I would like to be more involved with NEDA down the road. Sometime in undergrad I got bold and wrote all about having an eating disorder for my college’s newspaper. The feedback I received was rewarding.
Then I began blogging for Proud2BMe in college, and it felt so good to write about my experiences and to share them. Writing is a wonderful therapeutic outlet. One of my posts got picked up by Huffington Post Women that year, and I was very pleased (and my ego grew) when that went public.
Since then I have written several blog posts and was featured in my local paper in a piece about mental health recovery. I have a memoir as well that I am working on, and one day I would be overjoyed to publish it. Vulnerability is not something I have always embraced, but it is invaluable.
DS: What would you like to say to encourage others who are still working on their journey of recovery?
EH: No recovery will be the same. I used to read recovery blogs and wonder why I didn’t feel all the things those writers felt or experience things that they wrote about. But that’s okay. No one eating disorder is the same and no one person will recover the same way. Not every person trying to overcome an eating disorder will feel the affection I feel for peanut butter. Every story is valuable and worthy. Just trust yourself; trust your gut.
And reach out! There are thousands of resources you can connect with online, and often talking to someone who has “been there done that” is a great help. I wrote to many in recovery, and the validation of my feelings soothed me. Now I receive similar messages, and I am eager to answer others’ questions and provide my own story to their journeys. Shatter the stigma.
Ellie Herman is a 2015 graduate of Albright College. She now lives and works in central Pennsylvania in mobile psychiatric rehabilitation. In 2018 she will graduate from Marywood University with her Masters in Social Work, and she hopes to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker after that big day. Ellie also hopes to be driving a Camaro that day. And, she is accepting agents interested in her memoir and marketing officials at Jif Peanut Butter who may be looking for a poster child. Ellie’s blog posts can be found at Proud2BMe.org and QuirkyDaily.com, and you can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.
Thanks so much to Ellie for sharing her inspiring story of hope!
Would you like to share your story of hope? I plan to feature more personal accounts like this from time to time on my blog. If you are interested in sharing your story, please notify me via my contact page. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!