Stories of Hope: An Interview with Brittany Burgunder
This is part of a series featuring individuals who share their life experiences with mental health issues. Recently, I asked author and mental health advocate Brittany Burgunder about her history of mental health challenges, her memoir and about some of her current advocacy activities. Here’s our interview:
DS: Tell us about your childhood and when you first started becoming aware of concerns related to eating. How did these issues develop over time before you sought treatment?
BB: From the first day I began school, I knew I didn’t fit in, and my peers unfortunately took advantage of my insecurities. I was an extremely shy kid coupled with extreme perfectionistic characteristics and a looming feeling that I was never good enough. I didn’t understand why I felt so different and why life seemed so hard. All I wanted were friends and to be happy, but the opposite was true for me.
As I continued through elementary school and then middle school things only got worse. From an outsider’s view, you’d probably think I was a great kid with a bright future, but in my world disaster was brewing.
I was a nationally ranked athlete in both tennis and dressage. However, I placed so much pressure on myself in tennis, I couldn’t just be good, I had to be the best in the world, and so I was always setting myself up for disappointment. I loved horses more than anything, but my peers teased me constantly for my passion to the point where I pretended they weren’t a part of my life anymore. I was a straight ‘A’ honor student, but even that wasn’t good enough for me.
I felt completely out of control. I started experiencing panic attacks, I was utterly lonely and depressed, my anxiety was crippling, and I began exhibiting signs of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and rituals I had to perform. I was more troubled than anyone could have imagined. However, no one knew. I had to be perfect to somehow make up for the terrible person I felt like I was, and so I kept all of this madness to myself. Instead of reaching out for help, I came to the conclusion that it must be me that’s the problem.
When I finally couldn’t handle the internal pain, I tried my best to cope, and numb out the relentless chaos in my head. I soon found that I could obtain temporary relief with food. All of a sudden my OCD had a job in counting calories, losing weight, playing games with numbers, and obsessing over something much less painful than what hurt me the most – which was not having friends, and not feeling good about myself.
My anxiety and depression quieted down as I developed anorexia. I no longer cared much about tennis, horses, school, or the fact that I had no friends because now I felt as if my eating disorder was perhaps the reason why I was so different and unhappy. It wasn’t long before my parents pulled me out of my freshman year of high school and sent me to my first eating disorder treatment center because I had gotten so sick.
DS: What was the turning point that led you to decide to seek help?
BB: I have been battling eating disorders for close to a decade. Throughout this time, I was incredibly stubborn about realizing the seriousness of my disease. My eating disorder acted as a Band-Aid, covering up my deepest wounds that I didn’t want to ever confront. So, I would often go to therapy or treatment, but wouldn’t commit all the way to recovery. I never was willing to get to the core of my issues – I had built my walls too high and I was afraid at what lay beneath my eating disorder – I was afraid of myself.
I attended the University of California, Davis my freshman year of college. I was still struggling badly with anorexia, but my parents and I had hoped it would be the new start I needed to turn my life around. Unfortunately, the opposite happened. During just my second academic quarter, the head of the university told me that I had to leave and required that I meet specified health criteria in order to return. I was dying. I spent the next months in a hospital – my parents were told to plan my funeral. However, none of it was real to me. I still thought I was fat and unworthy of help.
Miraculously I survived, but my mind was not healed. I finally came back home to live with my parents, but my eating disorder took on a new, but equally dangerous form. I began binge eating and in just a little over one year, I had gained 165 pounds. I was now obese and struggling with binge eating disorder after almost losing my life with anorexia. Shortly thereafter, my eating disorder morphed once more into bulimia.
With all of these severe and abrupt changes brought about by the different manifestations of my eating disorder, my quality of life deteriorated so much that I didn’t want to live anymore. It was only then, with my life at rock bottom, that I was finally willing to sincerely ask for help. The fear and risk of stepping outside of my comfort zone and choosing to completely surrender to recovery, finally outweighed living one more day trapped in my tormented world.
DS: What has your treatment consisted of, and what have you found that has worked well for you?
BB: I traveled down many avenues to seek treatment. However, because I was so stubborn and my behaviors so severe, professionals often wrote me off as hopeless, and most of my stays at treatment centers were cut short. My first form of treatment was a residential program where I lived at a facility for 4 months. This program was helpful in that it was a long enough stay in a new environment for me to start changing my behaviors and regain some healthy ground.
I also tried outpatient programs where I lived at home, but received treatment for set hours during the week. I was also admitted to inpatient programs where there was only medical stabilization and no therapy. When I became obese, I even attended a fat camp out of desperation, which backfired as it was intended to fix an external problem, not one like mine that was internal. In addition, I went several times to psychiatric facilities when my depression, anxiety and eating disorder behaviors have put me in personal danger.
You might think that with so many years of treatment, I would have recovered much earlier. I personally learned that it did not matter whether I had the best treatment or the worst treatment; the key ingredient for getting better was my readiness to change and do the work.
It also helped that at the same time, I found a good therapist, dietician and psychiatrist who knew how to support my unique needs and history. I had always done my best to keep my eating disorder a secret from the world. I was ashamed of it – ashamed of myself for not being perfect and I felt like a failure for all the years my battle with mental health had taken from me.
My treatment team encouraged me to stop hiding, to start living my life, to do the things I loved at that moment and to stop waiting until I thought I was “perfect.” I did. I started riding horses again, playing tennis, and I transferred to Cal Poly as a psychology student. One of the most liberating steps in my recovery was to open up about myself and to be honest.
DS: How are things going for you now? What have you learned that has helped you stay positive and healthy?
BB: My life is now full of a peace, happiness, purpose and passion that I never believed possible. I am far from perfect and am always working to improve myself. I find it important to remind myself of how incredibly fortunate and meaningful my life is, but to also remember that life is full of ups and downs – I just have healthy and positive coping skills now. The most important thing I have learned is that nothing matters more than your health and happiness.
I painted the “perfect” picture of the star tennis player and gifted student. But I burned myself out, trying to fit into other people’s molds and sacrificing my health and happiness just to temporarily boost my self-esteem. And the result was that I lost it all, and I almost lost my life as well.
Now, I make sure to check in with my doctor, therapist and nutritionist periodically, as I believe it’s important to have good support no matter how solid you are in your recovery. I don’t play tennis anymore because it doesn’t make me happy, but I do ride horses every single day as it is one of my greatest joys.
I make sure now that I stay true to myself, I surround myself with supportive people and friends, and I do my best to live my life in ways that balance caring for myself and doing the work that I love.
DS: You’ve been active in eating disorders advocacy and you wrote a compelling and honest memoir about your journey. Tell us a little about your book and how it came about, and about your current advocacy activities.
BB: I published my first book this year, “Safety in Numbers: From 56 to 221 Pounds, My Battle with Eating Disorders – A Memoir.” However, I never planned to write a book so the way it evolved is unique. Because I had no friends, and kept my eating disorder to myself, I had no outlet to release the turmoil raging in my head, and so I wrote detailed entries in a personal journal every day.
After doing this for years, I thought it might be interesting to type up all my diaries, for only my eyes to see of course. I never would have entertained the thought of publishing them as they are so horrifying and disturbing that readers would obviously think I’m crazy. As I was slowly working on piecing together my manuscript, I was also sharing my story more publicly and getting a very positive response. My confidence kept growing and I eventually got to the point where I gathered up enough courage and decided I would publish my diaries.
I chose to publish Safety in Numbers almost completely in an unedited and uncensored format. I realized that my story wouldn’t be for everyone, but it was really important for me to shed light and awareness on the reality of mental illness with a firsthand look into the mind of someone struggling. And most importantly, that there is hope to recover and get better no matter how hopeless one might feel.
I have been overwhelmed with positive feedback from readers thanking me for sharing my story and vividly explaining how they too feel. Many have also told me they are now in the process of recovery, or entering treatment after reading my book, which is one of the most rewarding feelings and highlights the beauty of vulnerability. I am currently just beginning to work on the manuscript to the sequel to Safety in Numbers, which will be written in much the same format, but will focus more heavily on my recovery process.
I regularly blog on my website, write articles, do interviews and maintain social media sites dedicated to raising awareness for mental health. It is my hope to use my voice and story in as many public outlets as possible. My life’s purpose is to continue to raise awareness, bring about positive change, and instill hope and belief back to those struggling with mental illness and eating disorders.
DS: What would you like to say to encourage others who are still working on their journey of recovery?
BB: Recovery is not a linear process and the only person you need to focus on is yourself. Every single victory counts no matter how small and those victories are what you build upon to climb your way to the top of the mountain. This is a journey you have been given with the opportunity to develop incredible strength and compassion.
Forgive yourself. This isn’t your fault. The most important thing you can do is believe you can do it! Don’t be afraid to ask for help or share your story, as it is one of the most courageous and inspiring things you can do. Have patience and everyday tell yourself that this is your gift – by making the effort and not giving up, you are going to open doors to a life you will cherish.
Brittany Burgunder is a passionate mental health advocate. After experiencing her own journey of personal struggles, she has now turned them into her strength and looks to inspire others to do the same. Brittany is the author of “Safety in Numbers: From 56 to 221 Pounds, My Battle with Eating Disorders – A Memoir” and is currently working on the sequel. She is now a psychology student at Cal Poly. When she’s not helping others, you’ll find her with her beloved horse, Hanalea KS. You can connect with Brittany on her website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, or YouTube.
Thanks so much to Brittany 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!