These Women Redefine What Eating Disorder Recovery Really Means

Netflixs new movie To The Bone starts an honest conversation about anorexia.

These Women Redefine What Eating Disorder Recovery Really Means

Alyssa Girdwain

When Liana Rosenman and Kristina Saffran went through treatment for anorexia nervosa together as teenagers, they probably hated each other.

“Anorexia is a competitive illness, especially when you’re in the depths of it,” Rosenman told Dose. “We would be the first to tell you that we weren’t motivated when we were in treatment — but we got it.”

The pair reconnected a year later, ready to get serious about recovery. Wary of their friendship, Rosenman’s father and treatment providers worried the girls would fall back into bad habits, but the opposite happened. Rosenman and Saffran found solace and support in each other. It proved life-changing — and not just for their personal recoveries.

They looked outward, and they heard stories about people who couldn’t afford treatment but wanted it. Others were forced to leave prematurely when their insurance couldn’t cover the rest. So, in 2008, at 15-years-old and nearly recovered, they founded Project HEAL, a non-profit that provides treatment grants and advocates for full recovery from an eating disorder.

What Does Full Recovery Mean?

“You can come out on the other side from your eating disorder. It doesn’t have to be something that remains with you your whole life, or at least, parts of it.” — Mackenzie Woods

An estimated 30 million people in America will have an eating disorder during their lifetime. Access to treatment is a gift, but it’s not always a cure-all: Nearly 60% who receive treatment recover, 20% “partially” recover and 20% do not improve. Full recovery, although not easy or immediate, is possible with a mix of treatment and a strong support system.

Mackenzie Woods, the Chicago chapter leader of Project HEAL, struggled with anorexia throughout middle school and into early high school. Her older sister also battled anorexia and recovered. And today, her younger sister is in recovery from an eating disorder. The family history wasn’t lost on Woods. But her parents knew the warning signs of an eating disorder, and that helped her receive help sooner rather than later.

“For me, recovery was more of an elusive idea. It meant giving up my eating disorder, which was something that became a comfort zone,” Woods told Dose. She’s been fully recovered for nine years. “Recovery opened my world to figuring out who I am…it’s so much more than food and learning to eat again. That was part of it, but it was more about learning to love myself again,” she said.

Recovery is a new understanding of self and a reintegration back into normal life. It’s new behaviors, new ways of coping and a shift to enable the “healthy self” to overpower the “eating disorder self.”

But like anything, it doesn’t happen overnight.

“I remind my mentee that multiple times when she says, ‘I can see other people have experienced it but I don’t know what it takes to get there,’” Woods said.

As a mentor, Woods talks to mentees in recovery as part of Project HEAL’s peer mentorship program, Communities of Healing — currently in its pilot period. It’s the first program of its kind for people with eating disorders, and it adds a personal connection that’s vital to the recovery process. Treatment can often feel like a secluded bubble, and it’s easy to relapse once back in the real world. Mentoring helps to bridge that gap, so the outside world doesn’t feel like jumping into a cold bath of triggers.

“People are going on with their ‘daily lives,’ but they’re also getting the support they need by someone who has been in their shoes,” Rosenman added.

Learning to Love the Present

“For so long, anorexia defined who I was. I could’ve easily let recovery define who I was…but there is so much more to me than recovery.” — Liana Rosenman

At the Sundance premiere of Netflix’s newest release, “To The Bone,” director Marti Noxon said she wants her film to influence “people to talk about how much food and body image affect men and women and keep us from loving the moment we’re in.” The movie follows Ellen’s (Lily Collins) struggle with anorexia and her experiences with various treatment centers for recovery.

So, what is it really like to finally “love the moment?”

For Woods, it came while she studied abroad in Rome during her sophomore year of college. While traveling throughout Italy, enjoying the food the country had to offer, her life came full circle.

“Going abroad, traveling without my family, doing something independently and eating on my own — that was so unfathomable at one point. The fact that I was doing it and didn’t want to leave was incredible,” she said. Once home, she got involved with Project HEAL.

Project HEAL co-founder Liana Rosenman | Project HEAL

Rosenman also experienced an international revelation. Set for her Birthright Israel trip, she cancelled two weeks prior to her departure date, only to get back on the trip days before it was set to take off. She was done letting fear control her decisions.

“It was the most amazing experience of my life and I almost missed out on it. I would’ve never gone on this trip if I was still struggling,” Rosenman said. “I was always told, ‘You’re going to live with this for the rest of your life, you’re not going to graduate high school, you’re not going to graduate college.’ That really scared me.”

In addition to her work with Project HEAL, she’s now a teacher with an appreciation for the little things, like ice cream and Netflix.

In and out of treatment centers and hospitals since the age of 14, 22-year-old Grace Bruett of Chicago still sees recovery as tumultuous. While she fights towards recovery, she celebrates breakthroughs along the way. A few months ago, her friends decided to spend the day at the beach, but she said she “didn’t know how to tell them I hadn’t worn a bathing suit, let alone been to the beach, in probably ten years.” They went towards the sand and Bruett went home. On her walk, she passed a Target. For the first time in a decade, she went in and bought a bathing suit.

“I conquered a major fear of mine, and I pulled it off in a way that kept my fears from ruining my day,” she said. “That was a major victory for me.”

The Truth About “To The Bone”

Netflix

The trailer of “To The Bone” created instant controversy when it was released. Viewers worry the film will be a how-to guide for anorexia. But Project HEAL, which partnered with the film post-production, thinks people are quick to judge the trailer. Rosenman said it’s not a glamorization. Instead, it offers a glimpse into what it’s actually like to have an eating disorder. Eating disorders, however widespread, are still taboo. And with the release of “To The Bone,” Rosenman believes we’ll finally start to openly talk about them.

“We know that it’s going to start a conversation and we want to be the ones leading the conversation,” Rosenman said.

She and Saffran are working with Noxon and Collins to steer the conversation on social media to the benefit of the recovery community. The hope is to create awareness, understanding and, ultimately, help those struggling to fully recover.

“The beauty of recovering from an eating disorder is that you know you have the strength to overcome anything, and you really do know who you are and what you want,” Rosenman said. “That part of recovery is the most beautiful part — not that life is magical and perfect.”

“To The Bone” streams on Netflix on July 14.

To learn more about Project HEAL and their Communities of Healing program, visit their website. Read more about their partnership with “To The Bone” here.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1–800–931–2237 or text “NEDA” to 741741.