When she was only 4, Jenni Schaefer remembers being in dance class, seeing herself in the mirror and hearing a voice in her head say, “You’re fat. You’re not good enough.”
For nearly two decades, she struggled with that voice, obsessing about how much she could eat without getting fat.
After graduation from Texas A&M University, she finally found a helpful therapist who taught her to name the voice – “Ed,” for eating disorder – and stop allowing it to control her life.
“It really was like an abusive relationship,” said Schaefer, now 39, a nationally known author and speaker on eating disorders. “ ‘Ed’ basically beat me up for a long time, and I stayed for a long time.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
At 7 p.m. Monday, Schaefer will bring her message of hope and recovery to UNC Charlotte’s Student Union Movie Theater. The talk, sponsored by the Multicultural Resource Center, is free and open to the public. (See www.jennischaefer.com)
Schaefer’s topic is: “Almost Anorexic: Do you have an ‘Ed’ (eating disorder) in your head?”
The Austin, Texas, resident has written about Ed before.
Her first book was “Life Without Ed: How One Woman Declared Independence From Her Eating Disorder and How You Can Too.”
She also wrote “Almost Anorexic: Is My (or My Loved One’s) Relationship with Food a Problem?” as part of “The Almost Effect” series by Harvard Medical School faculty and other experts.
In a phone interview, Schaefer told me she was “almost anorexic” for many years before she was finally diagnosed at age 22.
In middle school and high school, she said, “People had no idea I had any kind of a problem. I was a normal weight. I ate in front of my family. … But no one knew what was going on in my head.”
About 1 in 200 adults have full-blown anorexia, but 1 in 20 adults and 1 in 10 teen girls fall into a “gray area” that Schaefer and others refer to as “almost anorexic.”
“Pain and suffering cannot be measured by a diagnosis,” she said. “If you’re struggling with body image on any level, if you’re struggling with food on any level, if you step on the scale in the morning and that number determines how you feel about yourself, you deserve help.”
In college, Schaefer said she began losing weight and some friends suggested she might have an eating disorder. The first time she sought help, she said the psychiatrist asked one question: “Do you eat?” And when she answered “Yes,” she said the doctor told her she didn’t have a problem.
She sought help later, also unsuccessfully, from another psychiatrist who told her, “You don’t look like you have an eating disorder.” But she said she knows now that there is no specific “look” for people with eating disorders.
Today, Schaefer tries to help others get help more easily in her role as a national recovery advocate for Eating Recovery Center, a health care system for treatment of serious eating disorders. The closest ERC facility to Charlotte is in Greenville, S.C.
Schaefer said her own recovery probably took longer than necessary because she received only outpatient therapy. If insurance makes it affordable, she said, many people would benefit from residential treatment as well.
Today, when she looks in the mirror, Schaefer still has negative thoughts about her body from time to time.
“Sometimes I’ll hear a voice saying, ‘You have a pimple on your chin.’ I don’t love the pimple on my chin,” she said, “but I’ve learned to accept the pimple on my chin and not let it ruin my day.”
▪ Anorexia nervosa: Characterized by an obsessive fear of weight gain and a refusal to maintain a healthy body weight.
▪ Bulimia nervosa: Characterized by patterns of bingeing (consuming a large amount of food in a short time) and purging (eliminating calories through various means, including vomiting, laxative or diuretic use and/or excessive exercise).
▪ Binge eating: Characterized by frequent overeating combined with a lack of control, intense feelings of shame, distress or guilt afterward; and not regularly purging to counter the binge eating.
▪ Other Specified Feeding & Eating Disorders Treatment (OSFED): A clinical category that describes individuals suffering from maladaptive thoughts and behaviors related to food, eating and body image, but who do not meet all the diagnostic criteria for one of the above diagnoses.
▪ Treatment often requires psychological counseling, inpatient treatment and extensive medical monitoring over many years. Many patients need repeated hospitalization.
Source: Eating Recovery Center: https://www.eatingrecoverycenter.com or 877-920-2902.