‘My Eating Disorder Made Me Suicidal. This Is the One Thing That Helped Me Get Better'

Shannon Kopp, 32, lives in San Diego with her husband, Danny, and her terrier-mix, Sugar. Her first book, Pound for Pound: A Story of One Woman’s Recovery and the Shelter Dogs Who Loved Her Back to Life, hit bookstores in October 2015.

Sometimes eating disorders have a triggering event: For me, it was my father’s alcoholism. Growing up in Connecticut, I was always a daddy’s girl. But then my dad started struggling with pretty severe alcoholism when I was 15. He would disappear and go to different rehabs. Life became very chaotic. At the beginning, I thought I could help him; I didn’t understand alcoholism or addiction, and I subconsciously blamed myself. The chaos didn’t feel good—it felt like something was wrong with me.

The Start Of An Eating Disorder

I’d always had a healthy relationship with food and my body, but when I was 16, I went on my first diet. At the time, it seemed normal because it felt like a lot of my friends were dieting. But it pretty quickly became an obsession: How much could I restrict? How long could I go without eating?

Right after I turned 17, a friend told me she purged her food and that it felt good. One night my father was missing and my mom and younger sister—we’re really close—were having a fight. So I started eating a broccoli and cheese casserole. I kept eating and eating, because the more I ate, the number I felt. I wasn’t listening to my sister and mom fighting anymore, and I wasn’t worrying about my dad.

“Usually, eating disorders have a triggering event: For me, it was my father’s alcoholism.”

Then I threw it up. It felt disgusting, and I thought I’d never do it again. Yet, I did it the next day—and the next, and the next.

Six months later, my younger sister hid in the bathroom cupboard while I was bingeing. When I went into the bathroom to throw up, she burst out of the cupboard and screamed at me to stop with tears in her eyes. I looked at her and I knew I had a problem. But later that night, I did it again when she was sleeping.

Getting Help

No matter how determined I was to change, I always went back to my eating disorder. I went to therapy, yoga, and church. I moved abroad. At 23, after college, I moved out to California hoping that the change of scenery would make me better. But I very quickly realised it wouldn’t. I fell in love, and it was the first time I was in a relationship where I really cared about the person. I knew that if I didn’t get my eating disorder under control, he would leave. My depression was pretty severe, too. 

On day two, my insurance dropped my coverage. It’s pretty common. Because I wasn’t severely underweight, they didn’t view my condition as a physical disorder. I continued for three weeks at a lower level of care until I couldn’t pay for it anymore. Part of me thinks that if I’d gotten the care I’d signed up for, I wouldn’t have suffered for so many years.

But as the weeks and months went by, it was the pit bulls I was drawn to more than any other breed. Some had energy like Maya and intimidated me, but others, many others, were particularly attentive, sensitive, and affectionate. Smaller dogs were usually grouped in habitats of twos or threes, and they entertained each other, or competed for affection. Since the rooms were equipped with so many toys, a lot of dogs were far more interested in getting me to throw a tennis ball or grab on to the other end of a rope toy than they were in sitting by my side. And then there were the dogs who ate only when people were present, so they spent the time I was there chowing down on their lunch. But so many of the pit bulls seemed to be singularly focused on and thrilled about my small presence. They often wanted nothing more than to cuddle like a lapdog, as if they had no concept of their size. They tried so hard to fit their big bodies into my crossed or outstretched legs. When I talked to them they tilted their wrinkly, boxy heads and perked their ears up like they were listening. Sometimes when I felt overwhelmed I held on to their bulky bodies like an anchor, and I experienced a love that came unexpectedly, a love that bathed me in slobber and acceptance, a love that was rarely celebrated and often misunderstood. The pit bulls weren’t stingy or picky about their cuddle time. They never said, You get ten minutes of my affection and then I’m done loving you, because I’ve got other more important things to do. They never said, I can’t sit in your lap because of what you did last night, or an hour ago. What they said was: Is there any possible way I can move this body of mine closer to you, to sniff your cheek, to know your scent, to see your eyes? -Excerpt from Pound for Pound #pitbull #pitbullsofinstagram #pitbulls #passionforpitties #passionforpitbulls #pitbulladvocate #ilovepitbulls #pibble #pibblesofinstagram #pibblelove #pibblepride #dontbullymybreed

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Reconnecting With My Love For Animals

There is a bright side: At the centre, they had equine therapy. Since I wasn’t purging in rehab, I also wasn’t numbing out my emotions, including my good ones, and I felt a really powerful connection with the horses. I’d always loved animals, and I reconnected with that part of myself. I knew I had to find a job working with animals if I was going to recover.

On my 24th birthday, I got a job as a marketing coordinator at the San Diego Humane Society. It’s a really uplifting place with themed rooms—the Paris room, the Central Park room, the Yellow submarine room. I took animals to TV and radio stations, which involved interacting with them a lot, and that became a huge part of my recovery. I also started going to 12-step meetings and seeing a therapist and a dietitian. For the first time, I was really refraining from my eating disorder.

Relapse…and Then Recovery, For Good

About a year into my treatment, I relapsed. I hadn’t learned how to deal with life’s stressors or to process things emotionally, and my father got into a particularly bad DUI accident and went to jail for a year. I was watching Sex and the City and I started bingeing, and then I purged. I though it would be the only time, but I kept doing it.

It was the most severe bout I ever had with bulimia, lasting six months. My boyfriend, who’s now my husband, told me, “I love you, but I can’t live with you.” It was the only time I struggled with suicidal thoughts. I was afraid to be alone. I wouldn’t eat during the day, then I would binge and purge at night.

The only reason I got out of bed was because I knew there was a dog at the shelter I wanted to help. I felt seen and understood by them and profoundly safe. When I’d get scared at work and have those thoughts, I would go into a room by myself and have a big dog sit on my lap and ground me. I’d wrap my arms around them and wait until the thought passed. I’d talk to them, tell them things I didn’t tell my therapist, things I was afraid to think myself.

“No matter how determined I was to change, I always went back to my eating disorder.” 

I witnessed animals overcome unthinkable tragedies, dogs that were burned alive—and I saw how some had this innate resilience. One day when I was 25, I was sitting with a 4-year-old dog that had really stiff back legs. He was really wobbly. I was crying, thinking my eating disorder would never end. Then he stood up—which was remarkable for him. I leaned forward, put my head in the middle of his chest, and wrapped my arms around him. And it finally occurred to me that none of it mattered. My denial dropped, and I realised that I was really sick and needed help.

I left work immediately and went to a 12-step overeaters anonymous meeting. I raised my hand and said I was scared to eat lunch. I went out for a sandwich with two strangers. Who needs help eating a sandwich? But part of me said, “you do.”

I haven’t purged again since that day, seven years ago. I surrendered to the fact that I have this illness and I can’t do it alone. I need both animal and human help.

Learning To Believe In Bigger Things

At 28, my boyfriend and I moved to Los Angeles. I began volunteering at a really run-down local shelter, where the animals had concrete cages and no bedding or bones. It was really rough. They were locked in a cage, couldn’t go on walks, couldn’t play, couldn’t even interact with people or other animals. Most started to deteriorate; they’d stop eating and bark a lot.

In the very back corner of the shelter, I saw the nose of this emaciated 10-month-old pit bull, Sunny, peeking out from her cage. It was clear she had been abused and neglected. It looked like someone had taken a hammer to her tail (it was bent in four places), and sudden noises scared her. Yet she was always at the front of her kennel pushing her nose through, asking for love. So I started spending time with her.

One day when it was 32 degrees outside, she wasn’t drinking because she was afraid of her own reflection in her water bowl. I would offer her water from my hands, but she was too freaked out to drink. I was getting hopeless. And then she stood over her bowl, and was just like, “Eff this.” She dunked her head in and drank and drank and drank. Knowing how scared she was reminded me of first time I started eating again or the first time anyone starts doing something scary again. That was the moment I really fell in love with her.

“The only reason I got out of bed was because I knew there was a dog at the shelter I wanted to help.”

Then she was put on the euthanasia list. I couldn’t adopt her, so I contacted 40 rescue groups. No one could take her. On the day she was supposed to be euthanised, I got a call from the rescue group Project Unleashed, who saved her that same day.

A couple of weeks later, they called and told me to come visit her. I was driving up past these mansions up in Malibu Hills, overlooking the ocean, and I pulled up to the most beautiful place I’d ever been. It was doggie heaven: Ponds and bones and dog beds and toys—even rescue fish in the pond. And Sunny looked like different dog; she had gained weight, she looked so happy. She recognised me right away.

I had a spiritual experience there, and it inspired me to write my book. Growing up in an alcoholic home, struggling with depression and an eating disorder and failing, I got this sense that life was not going to work out for me. But lying there with Sunny, it occurred to me: Sometimes you don’t just have to survive. You can dream big things, and they can happen.

Words For Other Women

Today, I offer animal therapy to anyone suffering from an eating disorder. I tell them, “I used to hate people like me. They don’t understand what it’s like to be in my brain, in my body.” But recovery is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I want other people to know it’s possible.

While I still have challenges, life has become so beautiful, and I have so much to be grateful for. The bravest thing I ever did was accept that I had an illness and ask for help. Most of the lessons I’ve learned today I learned watching shelter dogs respond to love and seeing how they’re never too proud to ask for help.

If you or a friend is struggling with similar feelings, there is help at hand. You can speak confidentially to a trained counsellor 24 hours a day at headspace.org.au or Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800.

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