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An Interview With Author and Anorexia Survivor Shannon Cutts

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Shannon Cutts is the author of "Beating Ana," a book about her 15-year battle with an eating disorder. She is also the founder of MentorConnect, a global nonprofit that helps to facilitate eating disorder recovery.

At what point in your life did your eating disorder start?

I first became ill around age 10. I struggled into my mid-twenties and finally began to feel like my recovery had become sustained in my early 30’s. Because I first got sick in 1980, it was very difficult for my family because nobody knew what was wrong with me. The doctors told my parents I would grow out of it, and my family’s insurance plan had no coverage to treat me because there was no category listed that covered my symptoms.

So, while there are no guarantees I would have had a speedier recovery if more information and treatment had been available, I am still glad we know so much more today through research, personal stories, support groups and more!

What do you think was the largest contributing factor to the onset of your eating disorder?

Honestly, for me I think it was sheer biology. We didn’t know back then that eating disorders were prominent on my father’s side of the family, because no one knew what was wrong with my cousin or aunt when their symptoms first appeared. While there was a significant environmental trigger that happened around 6th grade that I can say jump-started my eating disorder as well, what interests me most is that in that stressful moment, I turned to restricting my food. I never even tried drugs or alcohol or smoking or self-harm, etc. – although I went to an arts high school and those things were all around me. My fight-or-flight stress response ‘instinct’, if you will, was to find a source of control and sanctuary through controlling my food.

The middle school stress trigger came about because I was a year older than my peers in public school and thus went into puberty a year earlier, so I grew out and up well before they did. Because I was very involved in music and the performing arts, my teachers and family and peers and even my friends were very critical of my looks when this happened and I got a lot of negative feedback very quickly.

To this day I do believe that biology and environment can interact strongly to trigger eating disorders, but I think we are still learning so much through research that we are far from having concrete answers yet. We may never have one single one-size-fits-all answer for why eating disorders affect one person and bypass another.

What was your lowest point, when you realized that you needed to seek help? In other words, what was the straw that broke the camel's back, making you realize that you couldn't live your life with an eating disorder?

When I was a freshman in college. I went out of state (from Texas to Tennessee) for college and I was accepted into a prestigious music program. I also had an academic scholarship. By Christmas, I was back home living in my old house with my parents because I was too sick to stay at school. That was my lowest point. I had injured my muscles and tendons by restricting my food and over-practicing to the point where the doctors told me I had a career-ending injury. I was like a star football player who pulled a ligament in his knee – that was it for me. And it was.

That was a wake-up call for me. All along I had assumed that if I looked the “right” way and acted the “right” way and was perfect in my music and in every other way, I would realize my dreams to be loved, accepted and have a career doing what I loved – music. Suddenly the path I had chosen – through my eating disorder – had ended, and I was nowhere near where I thought I would be. It was like my whole life up to that point had been nothing but a lie.

At that point, I realized that my knee-jerk reaction to that betrayal was to kill myself. I was still quite young – 18 – and I just didn’t know what else to do to fix such a huge mistake. Since I had just moved back home from college and all my old friends had already left town to attend their respective colleges, the only person I was seeing regularly other than my parents at that time was a physical therapist. One day she told me she could see it wasn’t just my hands that were hurting and she encouraged me to tell her what was wrong. I tried to say the words, “I am fine” but instead what came out was an hour of total heartbreak. She became my first mentor. She saved my life. Today I do the work I do at MentorCONNECT because I was first mentored and I owe my life to that gift.

What was the hardest part of your recovery?

For me, it was accepting that I couldn’t have everything I wanted – that I couldn’t be the shape and size I coveted being and also be healthy, happy and connected. I threw quite a lengthy temper tantrum about that one! It was like I was two years old again, stamping my feet and screaming, “But it’s not FAIR!”

So that part – just accepting that being a grown up means that sometimes we have to be strong with ourselves and walk away from things we really wanted, but that we now realize are bad for us – was harder than anything else, even than confronting my fear of food.

What is your best recovery tip for people in the middle of recovery from an eating disorder?

Speaking from my personal recovery experience here, I would say that it is to remember that to beat an eating disorder you often have to “fly under Ed’s radar” so to speak. If you are anything like me, then if you try to take huge leaps forward, the evil voice in your head and the imbalances in your body and brain will rise up and totally freak you out and try to shut down your recovery efforts. But if you take small, daily steps towards recovery, I discovered that “Ed” won’t even notice most of the time. Those small daily steps can add up to one HUGE leap over time, but by the time you have small-stepped your way forward into strong recovery at last, Ed won’t have any kind of ammunition left that is powerful enough to stop you.

We have to be our own hero if we want to take down Ed. Ed isn’t hero material. Ed is a coward at heart. When we take the high road and decide that this is a fight to the death, we will give it our all and go down swinging if necessary just because we KNOW in our heart of hearts that saving our own life is the best use of a life we can think of. Ed can't compete with that. That is honor – and honor is something Ed will never have. When I was first struggling with my eating disorder I also found a lot of inspiration from watching the original “Star Wars” movies. I really identified with Luke – young and idealistic, but also impatient and stubborn. Luke had a hard time taking small steps towards his goals. Without his mentors – Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda – to teach him patience and self-control, where would Luke have ended up? Probably on the dark side with Darth. Yuck. My life and Luke’s life have a lot of parallels – except of course that he has much cooler toys. ;-)

So from my perspective at least, I would say you have to be very crafty to beat an eating disorder. That is what my book, Beating Ana: How to Outsmart Your Eating Disorder and Take Your Life Back is all about – it focuses around questions and answers with several of my recovering mentees (each of whom are of varying ages and with varying diagnoses). As I answer their questions, I share with them all the ways I outsmarted my eating disorder when it was trying to convince me to stay small and sick. At the end of each chapter is a Recovery Workshop exercise readers can try so they can learn these techniques as well. There is also a whole section in the middle about using movies to learn recovery techniques. As you can tell, I love movies!

One tip I share in “Beating Ana” is how I kept a daily journal with me at all times and I wrote down Every. Little. Thing. I did it to rebel against the eating disorder messages in my head. At the end of each day I would read my list. Sometimes it had 20 or 30 things on it – most were incredibly small things like, “took that next bite even though Ed told me not to.” I was very inspired to read my own courageous small acts on a daily basis and I began to recover more quickly after I started that practice of writing down and reading my own small acts of courage.

I would also say – it is your own life you are saving, and you can’t forget it. There are other people involved of course – family, professionals, recovering friends and others – but nobody and I mean NOBODY benefits more from your recovery than you. In the same way, nobody will lose more if you give up and let Ed win than you. I had to remind myself of that – yes, there were people over time who loved me and wanted to see me get better. But ultimately this was MY life and at some point in the process, for recovery to really take hold and stay, I had to make a choice for recovery for my sake as well as for their sake.

Oh – one other thing. I often tell participants in “Beauty Undressed”, my talk for high school and college students, to get a pet. Pets are GREAT mentors. They are great for boosting self-esteem and giving and receiving unconditional love. While it is so easy to think very little of ourselves when we are alone, when we look into the eyes of a pet who loves us, we see something there – a regard and adoration for us – that we can’t ignore. It is very pure and heals our heart. I have had pet birds since I was eight years old. My current bird, a sweet lady cockatiel named Pearl, has literally changed my understanding of healthy self-esteem.

For more great recovery tips and to hear the rest of Shannon's story, check in next week for the rest of the interview!

To purchase Shannon's book, click here: Beating Ana: How to Outsmart Your Eating Disorder and Take Your Life Back

To learn more about Shannon, click here: Key To Life

To learn more about MentorConnect, click here: MentorCONNECT