64: Healing from Trauma, PTSD, and Struggles with Food: #DontMissIt with Jenni Schaefer
Happy Eating Recovery Day! May 2 is a day where we shed light on signs and symptoms of eating disorders to help increase awareness to ensure that friends, family and healthcare professionals don't miss the chance to help someone who is struggling.
This year's theme for Eating Recovery Day is #dontmissit. This theme is SO great because it can mean different things to different people. To some, that means don't miss the chance to recover, for others, it means don't miss out on life and all of its precious moments. No matter how you interpret the don't miss it theme, it's an important message to keep in mind as you navigate creating a healthier relationship with food and your body.
I brought the fabulous Jenni Schaefer on the podcast to talk about her own experience of missing out on signs and symptoms of PTSD for many years during her eating disorder recovery. Jenni is an internationally known writer and speaker whose work has helped shape and change the face of eating disorder recovery. She has written many books including Life Without Ed, Almost Anorexic and Goodbye Ed, Hello Me.
In this episode we talk about Jenni's journey of discovering that she had PTSD and her path toward healing. She talks candidly about trauma and how she put her healing first. Her story is an important example of this year's theme of #dontmissit.
Even if you don't identify as struggling with an eating disorder or PTSD, this episode is a must-listen!
Jenni Schaefer's website: https://www.jennischaefer.com/
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Paige: Hey Everyone! Thanks so much for joining me for another episode of Nutrition Matter Podcast. I’m Paige, your host, and thanks again for joining me! So today, if you’re listening to this the day that it is being released, today is Eating Recovery Day. So this year’s theme is Don’t Miss It, which encourages sufferers of eating struggles to seek treatment so they don’t miss out of pursuing goals in life and experiencing rewarding accomplishments that their disorder would otherwise prevent them from enjoying. In today’s episode, we talk about this theme in depth then we kind of take some different approaches on what “don’t miss it” might mean for different people out there. So, I think that you’re going to really enjoy this conversation I had with Jenni Schaefer, who many of you might be familiar with. She’s a pretty big deal in the eating disorder world. She’s written many books and let me just kind of read to you her official bio and then I’ll let you get to know her in the episode. So Jenni is an internationally known writer and speaker whose work has helped change the face of recovery from eating disorders, appearing regularly on national radio and television, she’s the best-selling author of Goodbye Ed, Hello Me as well as Life Without Ed and Almost Anorexic, where she collaborated with Harvard Medical School to co-author that book, Almost Anorexic. She’s the chair of the Ambassadors Council of the National Eating Disorders Association and she’s also an accomplished singer songwriter. She lives in Austin, Texas. So as she mentions in this episode, she spends her time speaking, writing, and advocating for eating disorder recovery and she also gets to spend a good amount of time playing her guitar and writing songs and she’s really talented. I’ve heard her perform and she’s amazing. So I’m just so honored that she spent some time with me to talk about her own experience with her eating disorder as well as something that she discovered she was missing, kind of along the lines of that #dontmissit theme with this year’s Eating Recovery Day, she was, she and her treatment team had not caught her co-occurring illness of PTSD, so we spend a lot of time talking today about trauma, talking about PTSD and how it interacts with an eating disorder and what she has done to work through it. So again, Eating Recovery Day is a day where people all around the world are shining a spotlight on signs and symptoms of eating disorder so family and friends and healthcare professional don’t miss out on the opportunity to help someone else who’s struggling. And really this is an opportunity to potentially help save a life. So feel free to share this episode because, you never know who might be struggling with something along the lines of what Jenni talks about and her own story and it really might help someone find the right type of treatment and get on the path of recovery so I encourage you to share this episode and be a part of this really fun energy that we have today of spreading awareness about struggles with food and eating disorders and disordered eating. And again if you haven’t already left a review on itunes, I really want to encourage you to hop on there and do it. You can do it straight from your phone and just type in Nutrition Matters Podcast, click on the little picture of hands and strawberries which many of you are probably familiar with at this point, and click on ratings and review and just give me a quick rating. That would be very much appreciated. And let’s get on to the interview with Jenni Schaefer, I know you’re going to absolutely love this, she is delightful. So enjoy!
Paige: Well Jenni Schaefer, I’m so honored to have you on Nutrition Matters Podcast today. Thank you so much for joining me.
Jenni: Thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.
Paige: Yayyy! Me too. So tell us, just talk for a bit about who you are and what you do and why you’re in this space talking about these things today.
Jenni: Great, well I’m very grateful to have the job that I have. I essentially get to write and play music and travel across the country and speak for a living. It’s kind of a dream come true. What’s interesting about that though is, I never wanted to do that when I was a kid. I never even thought that was a possible career. I was really trapped for a long time in my own eating disorder and that pushed me into paths that weren’t really the paths I was supposed to be on. The great thing is that recovery pushed me to where I needed to be, so I got better and that’s when I wrote my first book, Life Without Ed, and then from there I wrote a couple more and now I’m super excited. I work with Eating Recovery Center’s a National Recovery Advocate. The crazy thing about that is that I now work alongside my former eating disorder doctor so about 20 years ago, Dr. Ovidio Bermudez who’s our chief clinical officer was actually my doctor in Nashville, TN and I’ll tell you what, at that time if he would have said, “Jenni, one day we’re going to work together, we’re gonna be on tv together”, we actually were last year, I would have said, “No way, that’s not possible.” But now I get to work with him so it’s pretty cool and the other parts that’s cool is now I’m working in the PTSD space so doing trauma work and that outreach in that area and what’s really neat about my work with Eating Recovery Centers is that we actually have a partner program called Insight Behavioral Health Centers where I get to do some talks about PTSD specifically and I even get to do some presentations about that for clinicians and things so I feel pretty lucky and get to play my guitar while I do it so I have a pretty cool job. Sounds like you do too.
Paige: That is a pretty cool job. Wow, yeah so dreamy to be able to do the things that you’re excited and passionate about but then to also be able to be creative and to express yourself through music and through writing, that’s just, that’s lovely. And I happen to be a big fan of yours just FYI.
Jenni: Thank you!
Paige: I’ve loved all the books of yours that I’ve read and you’re a really talented writer and you’re really good at, you know, providing insight into such a tricky space that is eating disorders. It can be very tricky to talk about it and lots of opinions flying and lots of, I don’t know what to say, but sometimes it can feel like a lot of information and really scary for people going through it and your books are definitely geared towards people going through these struggles but they’re also very appropriate for anyone who is trying to learn more about how to help someone they love, whether that’s a family member, friend, or even I think, people like me, clinicians who are helping kind of on the front lines so thanks for all your work. It’s very important.
Jenni: Ahh yes. Thank you. That’s been a true blessing cause that’s another gift of recovery. I never would have thought that someone like you would actually read something I wrote to learn about eating disorders cause back when I struggled, as many of your listeners might feel even today, I thought I could never get better. I thought that this was kind of a curse for life but recovery is possible and that’s in part why you do your podcast and it’s just really cool to have friends like you today. And I’ll tell you what, in the past I wasn’t always friendly with my therapist and my dietitian.
Paige: I believe it.
Jenni: And I sometimes got a little angry at them.
Paige: Ohh, I believe it. Yeah haha. Well I’m honored to be counted as your friend because I really respect the hell out of what you do. Good job.
Paige: Just awesome.
Jenni: Love the way you put that.
Paige: Ok so let’s talk about this year’s Eating Recovery Day theme. Do you mind just kind of introducing our listeners to that?
Jenni: Yes yes. Well Eating Recovery Day is May 2nd and I love the day first of all because I love that it’s Eating Recovery Day and not Eating Disorder Recovery Day. We purposely took the “disorder” out of that. So really the day is about celebrating recovery. And what’s really cool this year is our theme is #DontMissIt, and that can mean a lot of different things. This year I headed up our second blogger round up so I get some cool writers in the eating disorder space to write on the topic of #dontmissit and what’s been interesting is to see all of the different ideas that come across with #dontmissit. It can be don’t miss the signs of an eating disorder, it can be don’t miss out on getting help, don’t miss out on the chance to recover and what’s interesting about what we’re talking about today is I find don’t miss it can be so important when you look at comorbid disorder. So don’t miss other things that might be going on alongside and eating disorder so it’s very rare and you know as the clinician to have someone walk into your office who just has an eating disorder. For many of us under that is super high anxiety as one example. And other things can co-occur like OCD, I’ve struggled with that, I’ve struggled with perfectionism, a personality kind of temperament trait that I’ve learned to tailor, I’ve struggled with all kinds of other issues. I know a lot of friends who struggled with substance abuse alongside their eating disorder and many, many people with PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which I didn’t actually realize I had for a really long time and in fact, I did not develop until up the tail end of my eating disorder recovery. But I’ve learned we cant’ miss all of those things and I’m really passionate about PTSD because that caused such turmoil in my life and if other people are out there struggling, I want them to first of all, see it cause it does get missed. When you talk about the don’t miss it theme I mean, I can’t really think of a better disorder in addition to eating disorders than PTSD. It gets missed so so often, many time we think, well I can’t have PTSD cuz I was never in a war or something like that. And you know the truth is sadly that anyone can have PTSD. Just like anyone can have an eating disorder, is you know, you can’t tell by looking.
Paige: Oh, so many great thoughts there. There are a few things that I want to say and then I want to circle back because our theme today that we are going to be talking about is your experience and your story with the PTSD in conjunction with the eating disorder and the path that you took with all of that. We want to really hit on that so we’re going to definitely come back to it. But first of all, when you said that you guys took out the word disorder from Eating Recovery Day, I think that that’s really great because part of what I struggle with, with this podcast is the average person walking down the street thinks of eating disorders as this really scary rare thing that like you know, only certain types of people get and it’s sort of something people put out of their minds because they’re like, yeah that could never happen to me. And so sometimes I struggle on this podcast, I don’t want it to be, to feel like this is only an eating disorder space but the truth is we all come in contact with this disordered eating and eating disorders on a regular day, like daily basis with our friends and families and coworkers. So many people struggle with these things. And so sometimes when I’m putting out a podcast episode, I get nervous to even use the word eating, or the phrase eating disorder because I don’t want people to not listen to it, to think, oh well I don’t have an eating disorder so I don’t need to listen to that. Because it’s just more than that. Right? There’s this spectrum…
Jenni: Oh gosh.
Paige: And there’s this gray area where you might not have a full-blown eating disorder but man, your relationship with food is super chaotic and just not healthy, you know?
Jenni: Right, you couldn’t have said that on a more perfect day. And I’m actually working on an article right now on that topic. Yes, so I actually wrote a book on that topic. It’s so important that Harvard Medical School approached me to co-write a book called Almost Anorexic with Dr. Jennifer Thomas and on the back of the book, I have it here I’m reading, says, while one in 200 adults have experienced full-blown anorexia, at least 1 in 20 have exhibited some key symptoms of an eating disorder, like binging, purging, or restricting and that statistic of 1 in 20 actually goes to 1 in 10 if we’re looking at teenage girls. So I think what you said hits on so much, we talk about in the book, so much of today’s dieting is really kind of hidden. We’ve learned now that dieting doesn’t work, most people know that but now the billion dollar dieting industry is kind of repackaging dieting and disordered eating as quote, “lifestyle changes.” And while we all know that lifestyle changes can be healthy if you’re adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet, and that kind of thing, but if you’re only eating raw vegetables that might be disordered eating, right?
Paige: That’s not helpful or healthy.
Jenni: It’s very confusing. We get these messages that this is a new lifestyle change and you can do blahblahblah and often it’s about eliminating entire food groups and things like that. We have to be really careful cuz we can really be sending the wrong messages and sometimes even doctors and healthcare professionals can actually cause some of this trouble. I remember once I was actually going to a doctor after I’d fully recovered from my eating disorder and I have high cholesterol and it runs in my family. And he said, maybe I should go dairy free and stop eating cheese and all these things. No way! I worked 10 years in my eating disorder recovery to eat cheese. I am not taking cheese out of my diet. I love cheese, cheese it great. Pizza is one of my favorite foods. But yeah, normative discontent with body image is just something that’s in our society and normative disordered eating is kind of accepted in our society and really we wrote a whole book about that cuz Harvard Med School thought that was such an important topic, they did a whole series called “The Almost Effect” so there’s another book, Almost Depressed, Almost an Alcoholic, Almost Anxious. And I think that’s such an important topic. You could even have almost PTSD.
Jenni: You know, some people don’t have full-blown PTSD but they exhibit some of the symptoms and any time you’re in that area of whatever the mental illness is, it deserves help. So I’m really glad you brought that up and I’m glad your podcast reaches people beyond just those who have diagnosable eating disorders cuz man, I’ll tell you what, you can be quite miserable and be quote, “normal” according to the DSM which is the book that therapists use to diagnose people. Maybe you don’t fit into one of the boxes that the therapists have created, but the truth is, your life is painful if you’re miserable because food and weight are something else then you need help and you deserve help, it doesn’t matter what you call it.
Paige: Yeah, that’s exactly, that’s exactly right and I know that there are people out there who listen definitely would say that they have a diagnosed eating disorder that they’re working through but there’s also those people who are just genuinely interested in trying to create a healthy life for themselves and maybe aren’t aware that some of the behaviors or attitudes that they’ve adopted about food and weight and body image are actually not healthy so that’s yeah, that’s the goal of this, to just kind of reach that goal of almost population plus the people who know that they need help and kind of are seeking that out. So cool. Well that’s good to talk about. And Jenni, one other thought that I had, you were talking about the theme of this year Eating Recovery Day, is I just, I really love that #dontmissit. I think that that’s such a good theme so….
Jenni: It is. It is. If people go to eatingrecovery.com and check out the blog, you can actually check out links to all of those different articles I was mentioning that were written by eating professionals across the country.
Jenni: Actually they’re professionals but no of them are really clinicians. It’s people who’ve had eating disorders.
Paige: Oh got it.
Jenni: And now work in the field, many of us. They’re not all people who work in the field but it’s really been cool to see the different turns, different spins on #dontmissit cuz it means so much. Brian Cuban as an example, he’s an awesome author, he wrote, don’t miss being vulnerable in recovery because that’s how you get better right? And Nikki DuBose talked about don’t miss loving yourself in recovery. So it’s just a cool, it really is a cool topic.
Paige: It makes me think of don’t miss life because one thing that I struggle with, I’ll be vulnerable for a second, is like, I am such a, I live in the future.
Jenni: Ohh, I think I relate to that.
Paige: Yeah, you know? So I’m like, ok what’s the next thing? What’s my to do list? What do I need to get done? What am I excited about coming up? A vacation or a big change in my life. Like I’m always like excited about the future, I guess excited is a nice way to say it. Anxious is probably..
Paige: Probably more of a realistic way to say it but over and over again is a theme in my life. Like Paige, you’re missing the current moment when you’re always living in the future and not really being in the here and now. So to me that’s what that theme means. Is don’t miss life passing you by and just be in this moment right now. I’ve actually been thinking about that a lot.
Jenni: Ohh I love that. That’s so great and that’s something I actually was brainstorming on and almost wrote about, maybe I will one day, but don’t miss this moment in recovery meaning, some of your listeners right now, they might be in the middle of a relapse or a lapse in behaviors. Someone might be binging right now listening to this and the truth is, right now, you can choose recovery, in this very moment. You might have been in relapse when you started listening to this podcast but you can be in recovery right now, starting now or by the time it’s over. But I like to say, start now. I used to be great at saying, well I’ll start my recovery over tomorrow or next week.
Jenni: Or on new years or in an hour but the truth is, we always do have now and you’re so right, don’t miss now
Paige: It’s all you have
Jenni: Cuz now is really all you have.
Paige: I know!
Jenni: Yeah it’s funny you say that cuz when I remember my therapist used to tell me that in eating disorder recovery and I hated it when they told me stuff like that but the truth is now, the mindfulness piece is so much a part of my life and I really have embraced it and it’s helped me so much but that can be really hard to take when you’re struggling with a life threatening illness and the now is so painful. You don’t want the now. Right?
Paige: Totally, yeah. Yes that’s so true and that actually segues really well into what we’re gonna talk about. You wanna kind of go there at this point?
Jenni: Sure, sure.
Paige: Basically we wanna talk about how you got involved in this trauma and PTSD world and maybe I think for that to be most meaningful for people and for this to really resonate, I think if you’re willing to share your story about what you’ve been through, I think that’s a helpful way to kind of frame our conversation around it.
Jenni: Yeah sure. It’s interesting to me, I never would have thought I would be talking about PTSD cuz I’ll tell you that I never thought I had it. I really didn’t know what trauma was, I remember being in an eating disorder support group and a lot of the women and men would talk about trauma and I really didn’t understand what they were talking about. And what’s really strange about that is that actually at that time, when I was in that group, I actually went through a trauma. So I was already in recovery for my eating disorder when I was actually traumatized and what happened was, I was with a guy at the time, dating, we were very serious actually thought I was going to marry this person and he took advantage of me and I experienced sexual assault and sometimes I speak in broader terms cuz I don’t want to be triggering to people listening who might struggle with PTSD but what happened was that my brain in the moment of being assaulted took the message in and said, people who you love, people who you’re gonna marry, those people are dangerous and my brain’s really good at labeling things as dangerous right? Cuz I am very prone to high anxiety and in some ways that’s good, that’s why we’re alive today. You think back to the caveman days, the people who survived were the ones who were anxious and afraid of the bears and they ran away and the ones not so anxious got eaten so it’s not, my brain was doing its job. It was making a little important note, guys you love, hurt you, stay away from them. Well that’s something to take in and take a lesson from but my brain didn’t do that, what my brain did was actually took it as a solid truth that every guy you date is gonna hurt you. And so what happened was, if you look back at my life, a period of 10 years, I was dating off and on all these random people for very short periods of time. My friends would say, Jenni, you are the best person we know at breaking up with people, we never have to worry that you are going to stay with someone too long. And we thought it was funny at the time and if you read my second book, Goodby Ed, Hello Me, you’ll see that I talk about my struggles with relationships very openly and I talk about how I might write a dating book one day. What did not know when I wrote that book was that I really had PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I did not have dating problems, I had PTSD which contributed to struggles I had with dating. But I didn’t even know I experienced sexual trauma and so many people don’t. when I was in that eating disorder group and other people would talk about their traumas which were similar in some ways, I was sitting there totally oblivious to the fact that what happened to me was wrong and I didn’t get help or really realize that for over 10 years and the sad truth is, when we’re looking at Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, when you look at the onset of symptoms, it’s normally about 12 years before people get help. So someone struggles in 1980 and they don’t get help till 1992.
Jenni: And that’s the average.
Paige: That’s the average.
Jenni: 12 years. Why is it 12 years? Why are we waiting this long? And I’ve realized in my work just personally talking to people is so many people don’t know they’ve experienced trauma whatever it might be and it’s not always sexual trauma. I was just, I had a doctor’s appointment the other day and you know, I’m a self-help writer so people tell me everything. It’s kind of like I’m a therapist. The nurse was telling me how she had a hemorrhage when she was pregnant and she didn’t lose the baby, thank God, but it was a very scary traumatizing experience and since then, she described living with PTSD symptoms and not until I shared my symptoms did she say, oh my goodness I think that’s what I have. And Paige, it’s unbelievable to me how many people since I’ve been talking about PTSD have come up to me and texted me or emailed me or facebooked me or twittered me, is that a word? Or tweeted me hahah.
Paige: Hahah. Tweeted.
Jenni: And said, me too. I mean the most common thing I hear is me too. And so many times I get these emails, very recently I’ve gotten so many emails that say, until you wrote that article I didn’t realize that I think I have PTSD also. And I had the chance with Eating Recovery Center, we partnered up with themighty.com which is an incredible mental health website. And I wrote an article about the 10 things I can’t, the 10 reasons why I can’t just get over PTSD. And really I was aiming for the 10 things that people don’t understand about PTSD.
Paige: Yeah that makes sense
Jenni: And from that article so many people said, me too me too me too. And I didn’t even know it. So what we really need to do is educate people, what is trauma? How can you become traumatized? And importantly maybe you can’t change the trauma, say you were in a really car wreck of whatever it was, trauma can be so many things. Maybe you can’t change that, well we can’t change the past but you know, but we can change PTSD. We don’t have to live with that forever and in fact, just like my eating disorder recovery, we can become stronger than ever before, if we go through the hard work of recovery. And just like my eating disorder recovery, it was painful, it was hard, I never thought I’d get better once again. And I thought I was going crazy. I remember with both illness I thought I was going crazy and so with PTSD with no way, I’m going crazy again. How could this be? I’ve already written 3 self-help books so I felt bad in that way. There’s a lot of shame around PTSD as well as eating disorders but I remember looking at my 3 books going, wow who would read these? I’m sitting here and I’m struggling, I don’t even want to live anymore. PTSD really took away my will to live because it was so painful and so I had to get treatment for it and gratefully I found a program that was actually partial hospitalization program and I actually checked myself into a Holiday Inn for 3 months where the program was and went to the program every day and I’m so grateful for that. That’s one of the big reasons I got better, is that I put recovery first and I know a lot of people think they can’t take off work and check into a Holiday Inn for 3 months or whatever it might be and by the way I’m not, I’m not, I don’t get sponsored by Holiday Inn but I will say, as a platinum member I can stay there for free.
Paige: There you go.
Jenni: But I encourage people listening, that’s just an example of being willing to do whatever it takes and I only knew that because I had people in my life do that before me so many women and men who’d recover from all kinds of things. A ton of friends in addiction recovery. I’d seen them be willing to do whatever it takes in that means putting recovery first and that can be hard, that can mean putting your life on hold for a while and stopping what you’re doing for a while to really focus on getting better. So anyone listening, I encourage you today to think about what is the hard thing you need to do, what is essentially your “Holiday Inn” and I call it, I was in Room 103, you know, what’s your Room 103? What do you need to do to really put yourself in a place where you can get better? And I’m not talking about geographically. But I’m talking about how you need arrange your life so that you can heal.
Paige: So tell us about what PTSD manifested itself, like for you to the point that you knew was an issue. Like how did that happen and then also weave in, if you can, how this relates to your eating disorder?
Jenni: Yeah, yeah for sure. Well one thing I’ve learned about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is if you’re trying to create it in someone, what you need to do is avoid. Avoidance, avoidance, avoidance is the big word with PTSD. That contributes to PTSD.
Paige: Kind of like our secrets make us sick.
Jenni: Exactly so when I was breaking up with all of those people for 10 years, so I would go on a date or two and then immediately I would say, I can’t do this anymore. And I would actually tell my friends, I feel like I’m dying. I can’t do this anymore. Why did I feel like I was dying, just going out on a second date with someone? That doesn’t make any sense. That’s a hysterical reaction to something that was historical. And one thing that helped me a lot in trauma recovery is oftentimes when we react hysterically to something, it can be historical. Right? So I was breaking up with these nice people because I had a history that told me, nice people who you date are dangerous. So that’s one thing is avoidance. So I would just keep, when anytime I broke up with people I was essentially avoiding which was also contributing to PTSD developing and for me it kind of went underground for a while until I actually got married and when I got married, wow I’ll tell you what. When I got engaged it became really bad, my PTSD truly showed up as full-blown PTSD and at that point it started looking like I had a hyperarousal which for me was so many different things but one example was that I had an exaggerated startle response and by the way, that’s how I realized I had PTSD is I put into Dr. Google the words exaggerated startle response and I often say it was Google that diagnosed me. You know, Dr. Google diagnosed me with PTSD and I’d been to therapist and I reported the startle response that I had but no one really detected that as something that might be PTSD. I was just told I was really, highly anxious. But the startle response was really something that would be triggered by a thought even so even if I had a thought about my husband coming home from work, as an example. My body might jump and it kinda sounded like this, [loud gasp]. You know, as if someone had went up from behind me to scare me. And so, I was really on high alert essentially, that’s what the startle response was and sometimes I would describe it as, it was almost like I was wearing glasses, like PTSD glasses, so what’s similar to an eating disorder is in an eating disorder, you can have the eating disorder glasses on and the eating disorder clouds your world it makes you not even see yourself clearly, physically or any other ways. And PTSD does the same thing, with PTSD for me, it impacts the whole world. So my whole world view changed. With PTSD glasses on, everything was out to get me and I had to be on guard for anything. In fact, if you at that time in my life, if you would’ve emailed me and said, hey I wanna have you on my podcast. My PTSD glasses would have said, *gasp* oh my goodness, how could she do this? Doesn’t she know that I’m so busy and I don’t have time. And it would like you were a threat to me. Even though, you’re actually just Paige doing a podcast and you’re just helping people. So what happened when my PTSD got worst, was it globalized to not just my husband or this person in my past who had hurt me, but it globalized to slowly in my life everything was dangerous and I couldn’t sleep at night, I had nightmares every night and interestingly enough, crazy, my nightmares were nothing about my trauma for the most part, now sometimes it was flashbacks in that way, but other times it was actually just dreams of drowning, dreams of dying, dreams of being chased by snipers, dreams of being in war. I had a lot of combat dreams which is interesting because I had never been in combat. But the message really in my day to day life was, you are going to die. You are not safe. My husband became like a saber tooth tiger, you might say. My body thought my husband was a dangerous animal and that I needed to hide from him and one time I experienced flashbacks and they call that sometimes re-experiencing and it can manifest in different ways but one time my husband was walking outside the backdoor and I was coming in and that might startle somebody maybe, but what happened with me was that he walked in and I was surprised but my body actually fell to the ground in protected my neck as if he was going to hit me and this was a sweet, kind man who never would hurt a soul but why did my body react that way? And I started learning it’s PTSD. My brain is hijacked and I have a brain injury and it can get better but it’s gonna take a while so another important thing with PTSD is those glasses can make you really sad and so you see things negatively, it’s really hard to experience positive emotions. If you would have told me to appreciate the moment back then, I would have hated you. Hahah. Cuz I didn’t feel anything good in the moment. And I couldn’t feel joy. I’d hear funny jokes and they weren’t funny. Nothing was funny cuz with PTSD you’re always about to die.
Paige: So, what you’re saying just there in the last few sentences, you just said it sounds a lot like depression. You know? Where it’s like…
Jenni: Right And that’s it.
Paige: You don’t really find joy. Yeah, go ahead.
Jenni: And it’s another #dontmissit. Right? Don’t miss the depression that often comes along with PTSD.
Jenni: In fact, in the new DSM the book that therapists use to make diagnoses, they actually added negative cognitions and mood to the criteria for PTSD because we saw so many people, they don’t just have PTSD, they have depression but so many of these people, they get missed for having PTSD because they’re getting treated for depression.
Paige: For depression, that makes sense.
Jenni: But they’re not seeing that the reason they’re so depressed is the PTSD and so I just want to do tons of outreach like I’ve done with eating disorders and tell people you know, don’t miss it. Don’t miss the eating disorder, don’t miss the PTSD, don’t miss the OCD, don’t miss whatever’s there. You know, don’t find things that aren’t there, but really find what is there. And that’s how you get better cuz so many times in eating disorder can actually [be linked] PTSD. The symptoms, bulimic symptoms in particular, like the binging and purging have really been linked to PTSD. In fact we see more PTSD in bulimic symptom eating disorders and that can be someone with anorexia who binges and purges. And again, it’s not a black and white statement but it tends to be more in bulimic symptoms and sometimes those bulimic symptoms are thought to kinda mediate the pain of the post traumatic symptoms and the, the post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. So when you feel that hyperarousal or that depression, you turn to food to cope with that.
Paige: Right. Or restriction, right?
Jenni: all restriction. Right.
Paige: So looking back, Jenni, like looking back at your whole story with your eating disorder and then you said about 10 years later the trauma happened in your life. Is that right? Is that the time frame?
Jenni: Right, right. Well, my timeline is kind of confusing. I actually have a power point that shows it.
Paige: Oh ok.
Jenni: But really, so many people know this part of my story but at 4 years old, I was highly anxious and already had an eating disorder thoughts but for me, the eating disorder kind of crept in slowly and I really was probably in that almost anorexic zone we talked about in middle school, definitely high school. Full blown eating disorder in college but again, didn’t get help for a while and not until I was 22. So got help at 22 and then in my late 20s is when the trauma happened but so I was actually in eating disorder recovery and I was actually seeing eating disorder therapists…
Jenni: Various things and going to groups when the trauma happened but we missed it. Everyone missed it. And so, and it’s not my therapist’s fault, I wasn’t talking about it but what I’ve learned is, what I’ve heard at SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse Mental Health [Services] Administration, I don’t know if I got that exactly right but it’s SAMHSA, they have a lot of letters in their name. But they came up with the 3 E’s of trauma and when I give talks I think it’s so important to look at the 3 E’s of trauma. It’s not only the event but it’s also the experience of the event and the effect of the event and I think in that time of my life when the trauma happened, we all missed it including myself because we didn’t look at all of the E’s. we didn’t look at the event, we didn’t look and the experience of the effect. What was going on was I didn’t describe the event to anybody so I would go to my friends or whoever and just talk about the experience and I would talk about the effect but I didn’t label the event as trauma, like I had already told you. So people would see the experience and the effect of it but we missed the event right? We didn’t label the event as trauma so I think it’s so important when we see two of those E’s. Look for the other E. Is it there? Is there a trauma there? And it can work other ways and sometimes, of course, there’s not. People can be depressed for other reasons and have some of these symptoms for other reasons but oftentimes there is a trauma there for people who are exhibiting these symptoms that I’ve described that are PTSD symptoms.
Paige: So one thing I learned from a presentation I went to recently was a therapist was teaching this, I think it was a licensed clinical social worker but anyway, she talked about the difference between a “big T trauma” and a “little t trauma.” Have you ever heard this? I’m sure you have.
Jenni: Yes! I have. I have.
Paige: I thought that was really valuable and I’ll do my best to summarize what she said and then you help me if I saw something kind of the wrong way but a big T trauma would be that event of what you described where, what were the words you used that were gentle and good?
Jenni: Oh well for me I was talking about sexual assault.
Paige: Yes so ok. That would be the big T trauma, like the event. But then there’s all these little t traumas that happen afterward. And not necessarily true in your situation. Maybe it is but for a lot of people who that happens to, they go and tell someone the next day or share what happened and they’re confused, they don’t know what to call it, they don’t know what happened and they get blamed, let’s say. Or something along those lines and when that happens that’s not necessarily big T trauma, that’s little t trauma. That’s the effects. Like you were saying right? Like you’re just over and over again re-traumatized by all of these different interactions you’re having by the PTSD symptoms right? By the way that you’re acting by not being who you wanna be where you’re holding your neck on the floor, afraid of your husband, feeling so confused, feeling like a crazy person, you know? That’s pretty, that’s traumatizing in and of itself.
Jenni: Oh yeah.
Paige: To feel like you’re spiraling out of control.
Jenni: Oh definitely. And someone just pointed out to me the other day, an eating disorder can actually be a trauma. You know, really think about what you put yourself through when you’re struggling with an eating disorder. That can be a traumatic experience right? But what I’ve learned too, the little t big T that I wanted to point out, was honestly when I first heard that described by someone, I thought it was, I took it the wrong way and I thought it was kind of minimizing trauma so for instance, bit T trauma is described like you said as a sexual assault or a car crash or being in a combat so a very big event like that but little t trauma has been described by some people as being living in a household maybe where your mother was highly anxious and didn’t respond to you right away or living in a household where you were actually neglected by not actually being fed or had neglect in other kinds of ways so it’s not one event that happens by maybe a life that has been very traumatic in other ways.
Paige: Oh I see.
Jenni: So I heard people describe it as bit T trauma is essentially a tornado and little t trauma is like you kind of just lived in bad weather your whole life. You know, it wasn’t a tornado but it was really bad weather. If that makes sense.
Jenni: But when I heard the description of big T little t my first thought was, oh my gosh, that’s horrible. How can you say that someone’s trauma is a bit T and someone else’s is littler.
Paige: Like comparing that.
Jenni: Someone is else’s is smaller. Like comparing. Of course, you know, I come from the eating disorder world where we’re so great at comparing. Like the eating disorder is. The eating disorder itself is great at comparing. So my brain goes to that naturally. And I thought, well that’s horrible you can’t decapitalize someone’s trauma or whatever. Un-capitalize, I don’t know what the word is. I am an author but… But then I heard someone recently talk about it and they described it really in a cool way where they said, you know, it’s not about being worse than or you can’t compare traumas. The worst thing that ever happened to someone or the worst experience in general, the worst childhood or whatever, it’s the worst thing that ever happened to you, you can’t compare that to your friend because that’s not your experience but she said when you’re looking at the little t trauma, it can sometimes even be more insidious because people don’t see it. So maybe someone grew up in a household where they were really emotionally neglected. Their mother never told them they loved them. Their father never did. Maybe they never hit them, maybe the person was never in a car wreck and they were never abused but yet they were emotionally abused, right?
Jenni: And that can be sometimes even more insidious than if they would have been banged on the head with a pan everyday which is horribly, people are horribly physically abused out there. It’s awful. All of this trauma is awful. But sometimes when you’re in a car crash or in a tornado, you know that you’re in a trauma cuz you’re like wow I’m in a tornado.
Paige: I might need to get some help for that.
Jenni: I might need to get help and people come up to you and say wow, you just went through a tornado. Your whole house was destroyed. You need help, let’s help you. But sometimes when you have this little t trauma, it’s not a specific event but rather maybe a series of smaller events. You know I use the word small not to compare but compare you know in the way that we’re talking about it because you can’t compare traumas, period. But sometimes you know, it’s hard because people don’t get help for those kinds of things so that’s another message we need to get out there.
Paige: And the way that I’ve heard people explain the little t trauma is just in regards to a big T trauma event right? So like the effects.
Jenni: That’s interesting. I’ve actually never heard that so I’m really glad you’re talking about it because I’m writing a book about it and I have a chapter about that. So tell me more.
Paige: So it’s almost like the continuation of the big T trauma through the subtle social queues of people know you… ok let’s do the car accident example cuz that’ a little less, a little less triggering for people. Or perhaps, it might be triggering. I’m gonna try not to be. But anyway, so let’s say you get in a car crash, you’re in the ICU, everyone rushes to your bedside to help you and care for you and you have this big army of friends come out of the woodwork to show you their love and support and it’s you know, it’s this big traumatic event where you feel tons of support with. And then you know, you get released from the hospital and people bring you meals, people are helping you out and then pretty soon you just, people start to kind of forget that that ever happened to you or maybe you don’t get invited out as much because maybe your leg is broken or something like that and you can’t….like the little traumas of now I don’t have the same friends as I used to have. Or now I don’t have the support.
Jenni: Yeahh, yes. That’s a great
Paige: Or whatever, it’s like bringing up all of the emotions about the big event that happened.
Jenni: Oh yeah, that’s a helpful way of looking at it.
Paige: Does that make sense?
Jenni: I definitely relate to that for sure cuz I mean when I was really struggling with PTSD and when it was really forming in my life and getting worst, I experienced many of those things like you said. I actually didn’t connect as many with friends, when I did go out with friends I actually felt like I was almost not even in the room. It was really weird. With PTSD you can have these dissociative symptoms and one of them is specifically called derealization where actually the world doesn’t seem real to you and you don’t even seem a part of it. You seem kind of distant and you can also have depersonalization which is when you’re kind of almost looking at yourself, outside of yourself, so I remember yelling at my husband and knocking something off of his desk and then I could see myself doing it and I was thinking, what am I doing? That’s crazy and so yeah, that was traumatic. Those kinds of experiences were scary. I scared myself. I struggled with a lot of rage in my PTSD. And not everyone does, that’s so important to get across that sometimes I think there’s a stigma that everyone with PTSD is just this raging person and that’s so not true. I was in a PTSD group and most of the people in the group in fact, did not struggle with anger but I sure did. And I’ll tell you what, that felt very traumatic to because I was someone who was never that way before. In fact, with my eating disorder I always pushed down anger right? So I didn’t, I didn’t, I wouldn’t let myself feel it. So to all of a sudden have this intense rage was terrifying to me. I didn’t like who I was. Thought I was a horrible person so I can see what you’re saying. I like that view of the little t trauma. I’m gonna have to write about that in my book. I think a lot of different people talk about the big T little t and apparently there are different, there’s lots of little different meanings.
Paige: At least that’s what I took from it. I could be totally crazy here.
Jenni: I mean, I think it’s an important point regardless. You’re so right. And all these mental illnesses they can have so many pieces of them that are traumatic to us. Whether its substance abuse or something else.
Jenni: We really forget how mental illness, it is an illness, it’s not a choice and what I was thinking about when you talked about people coming to your bedside and bringing you food to your house and stuff is people don’t do that for mental illness really.
Paige: So true.
Jenni: When I broke my foot, people saw it. I had a pink cast on and I had this little scooter thing I rolled around on and it was pretty loud. And people saw that I was in pain but with my eating disorder and with PTSD and depression, people didn’t see it because we’re so good at hiding it and they missed it, right? Again, #dontmissit. We need to look more carefully and we need to bring casseroles to people who, you know, are going through PTSD, to people who are struggling with mental problems cuz we don’t do that. We bring casseroles to their house when they have a heart attack.
Paige: But how are people supposed to know to bring you a casserole unless we talk about it right?
Jenni: Right. And that’s what we do what we do.
Jenni: That’s your podcast. We need to get it where it’s looked upon as if it’s a physical illness. If I had cancer I would tell people and most people if they had cancer, they would often reach out to their family for support and you wouldn’t think twice about telling your mom or your husband or your wife or whoever that you had cancer because you knew you needed their support.
Paige: Of course.
Jenni: But you know how many emails I get from women who tell me I’ve been binging and purging for 20 years and my husband has no idea? I mean I get, I’ve had so many messages similar to…
Paige: Our secrets keep us sick, right?
Paige: It’s so true.
Jenni: So we do need to talk about it and we need to educate the public to be on guard for it. To look for it. To, if you friend’s starting to isolate more and not showing up.
Paige: Yeah, let’s talk about that.
Jenni: What can you look for?
Paige: Yeah, talk about some of those things that people can look for in themselves and in other people.
Jenni: Well I think one I mean, is a change in behavior. If you had a friend who was smiling happy and always wanted to go out and now you don’t hear from them anymore, or every time you invite them somewhere, they don’t go out. Isolating can be a big a sign of a lot of different mental health problems and what we know for a fact is that social support is actually protective in many, in preventing many mental illnesses so social support is something great. We should beef that up cuz that can help us not get PTSD or an eating disorder or whatever else it might be. So that’s one big clue is isolation and changes in mood I mean, seeing someone who, I went from a person who would smiling and happy and truly happy cuz in my eating disorder recovery I actually became happy. My smile used to be kind of fake when I was sick with an eating disorder and then it became real and that person was gone with PTSD so my friends saw someone who literally looked scared and walked around NOT smiling and NOT talking and that was a sign. So just changes in mood. Irritability for PTSD I mean that can be a sign. And also for an eating disorder! I mean I was super irritable when I struggled with an eating disorder. And just missing out on, Even queues on physical appearance. And we often talk about with eating disorders, you can’t tell by looking and that’s totally true. An eating disorder comes in every shape and size. But the other part of that is sometimes you can tell and eating disorder if you see changes in weight that might signal an eating disorder. It might not. It might signal someone with cancer or something else.
Paige: Right, so don’t assume but yeah.
Jenni: With PTSD, you can also look at changes in weight. And as an example, I actually lost weight in my early recovery from PTSD because my body was so terrified all the time, it was just ramped up and…
Paige: I was gonna ask you cuz when you were talking about that, I was actually gonna ask you that because when you were talking about how you were basically the way I would summarize it is you were constant fight or flight. That’s gotta play a metabolic role. You know?
Jenni: I felt like it really did my life. In even, as an example, my thyroid, I actually have thyroid problems and I’ve been on medicine for years. But my medication for my thyroid during my PTSD recovery, it tripled. I have hypothyroidism so that just shows you how it messed with my thyroid axis, which has a lot to do with metabolism.
Paige: Well which makes a bunch of sense because all of our hormones are interconnected and if we’re constantly in that fight or flight mode, that’s releasing certain stress hormones which then will affect insulin and thyroid hormone and other hormones in the body.
Jenni: You know all that good stuff. I’d love to talk to you about that for an hour. Yeah so you know, I started losing weight and people in my life thought, oh well she has an eating disorder again.
Paige: That’s scary for you. Yeah, that’s scary for you.
Jenni: Everyone was coming up to me saying, do you have an eating disorder? And I was saying, no I don’t have an eating disorder actually I hate that I’ve lost some weight and I even told my therapist at the time, I’m losing some weight here, I don’t want to. It’s not good for my job. You know? It’s not good for my health. It’s not good for my life. And I don’t want to lose weight and my doctor, who was a PTSD expert but not an eating disorder expert actually did not know the