Welcome to our first post with MoreThan. We are excited to introduce Hana Brannigan in this interview as we will be in close collaboration for mental health related posts in the near future.
*Trigger Warning: The article below may contain triggering and/or sensitive material. Eating disorders and bingeing are some topics mentioned within this article.
An Introduction to MoreThan
Hana: When I was in college, I was seeing a therapist, Dr. Leili, who was the one who actually suggested that I attend this intensive outpatient therapy program. It sounded really enticing to me because there’s only so much help and support that you can find online. I was craving that in-person support and realness, so I joined. I met a friend, Jaz, and we became quite close during the program and we went to Disneyland together a few times, but there was this one trip where we started discussing this disconnect with the online community and we wanted to create something genuine; showing how recovery is messy, but it can also be beautiful. There are so many other things as well that go into recovery; it’s not just about the eating. This is what I wanted to highlight with MoreThan, which is why you’ll see other topics about mental wellness, because it all goes hand-in-hand.
Hana’s story about her struggles enduring through mental health challenges
Hana: I’m currently writing an article about Quasi-Recovery, which is when you are in the middle-to-end of your recovery where you’re starting to have a better relationship with food, your body and your overall mental illness. This isn’t just with eating disorders, it can be related to any type of recovery where you’re slowly getting back to normal, but you’re still holding on to some of the old tendencies. I experienced Quasi-Recovery when I had to go off on my own to a big-girl college. I had to see how I could navigate my own recovery while being away from home and my therapist. That was a really challenging moment for me, because it tested everything that I had learned when I was in the outpatient group. We were seeing each other for 9 hours a week, which basically felt like continuous support. When I went off to university, things got better, but then also worse in some cases. I developed new habits that were replacing my old tendencies, but they weren’t necessarily better, like going to the gym as an example. I thought I was being healthy going to the gym and lifting weights because I could actually exercise again. But in reality, that was just another addiction. The key for me, looking back on it, was just to let myself explore and make mistakes. I had to learn to give myself permission to be in that space and not put so much pressure on myself. Accepting that I didn’t have to be perfect and be recovered all the way; there were still going to be some slip ups. Going through that experience was really difficult and there were a lot of tears and anxiety involved. But I’m grateful that it happened now because that really taught me how to deal with my emotions in a smarter, or at least non-harmful, way.
On dealing with triggering comments from other people
Hana: We’ve grown up with this diet culture mentality, but I think the conversation is slowly changing. When I was growing up though, our culture seemed very focused around skinny shakes, restrictive diets, and workout programs. I also noticed that the generation above us doesn’t always think twice about what they’re saying and how their words can affect other people. We currently live in this strange state where we’re trying to shift the conversation, but outdated ways of thinking are still prevalent. A part of what helped me was gaining a lot of empathy and realizing that people who make these kinds of comments aren’t making it to take a jab at you. It could come from the culture they grew up with and they don’t exactly realize the weight of their words. It could also come from things that they heard growing up and they’re projecting that onto other people. Sometimes it can be kind of awkward, but in situations where I’m with someone I’m comfortable with or I feel the urge to speak out, I’ll try and ask them why they say certain things. Or I’ll try to change the conversation if I think it’s going to be hopeless. For example, if a family member comes up to me and says, “you’re actually eating again.” I will respond politely by saying I am and then try to change the subject because sometimes I know it’s a lost cause to keep the conversation going. The key is to educate where you see fit, otherwise it might not be worth it to persuade someone’s set judgement because it might exhaust you more.
How did you heal or continue to heal from your eating disorder
Hana: My body image issues started at a very young age. First grade is when I remember having that first thought of being aware of my body. My relationship with body image and food would fluctuate up and down depending on the amount of happiness and fulfillment that I felt. I remember when I just started high school, I was feeling very lonely and like an outcast since I was very, very shy, especially because I had grown up in a small town as an only child and this was my first time changing schools. I was forced to talk to new people and I wasn’t in any clubs at the time since I had taken a break from swimming. I began to develop this idea that the thinner I am, the more people would like me.
When I rejoined swimming, I slowly started to get to know people and my confidence grew a bit. I also joined journalism and technical theater as extracurriculars, so I was beginning to feel more involved. I stopped thinking about my body and what I should eat all the time. Then when I graduated high school, it all came crashing down again because I had to move on from something I was comfortable with. I graduated from swimming too, so I lost touch with my friends there. I also would have huge gaps in my schedule where swimming and other extracurriculars used to occupy. That’s where my eating disorder started affecting me where I was losing a lot of weight and I felt like my life was spiraling out of control just because I felt so lonely and didn’t know what to do in life. The one thing I could seem to control was my weight, and so it would fill up all my time. I was fixated on restricted eating and exercising because that was the only thing to do; it was my coping mechanism.
When I eventually went to therapy, I learned of all the tools on how to recognize my emotions. There were triggering moments that I would experience, and I began to recognize what it felt like when I started to get an anxiety attack. My favorite method that we used during recovery was to create little notes of our favorite activities. We would fold up the paper and put it somewhere easily accessible. Once we felt our anxiety spiking or if we were in a triggering moment, we could easily grab a piece of paper, look at the activity on there, and then do that activity without thinking.
Rather than immediately doing something harmful, I found ways to understand my emotions first. That took a lot of practice even though it sounds so easy and straightforward talking about it now. I definitely wasn’t perfect and I would more often than not turn to my harmful coping mechanisms just because that’s what I knew and that’s what my brain immediately went towards. But the whole time we were in therapy, we were trying to train our brain to think of better, more productive habits that we could do rather than trying to turn to harmful coping mechanisms that we’ve always used. It took a lot of ups and downs over the years; years of trying to recognize that there are better ways to cope with your feelings and that you are not your disorder, which is also the inspiration for MoreThan. A big mantra during our recovery was that you are more than the number on the scale, you are more than the number of calories you eat, you are more than the waist size on your jeans. That was the mantra that we repeated to ourselves over and over again during recovery.
Hana’s recovery resources
Hana: A couple resources I would like to give to anyone suffering from an eating disorder and those who want to learn how to heal their relationship with food is to read a book called Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole. Another resource is the National Eating Disorders Association, which is the largest nonprofit organization. They have therapists and work with professionals to raise awareness and funds to research eating disorders. They also have an anonymous hotline as well as an anonymous chat line that I used often. In the middle of panic attacks, I would pull up their chat, bawling, and I’d immediately be talking to a volunteer. They would help me every single time. It was so wonderful to have someone, even if it’s not a professional, but someone who’s trained to comfort you.
I also understand that therapy is a privilege, but there are still many ways to work around it. You could seek out a sliding scale therapist, download telehealth apps, or attend local support groups. I would recommend doing a little bit of research and reaching out to some local therapists who might have a sliding scale option where they can adjust their fee based on your income. If you’re in school, you can also use the mental health office and get help from student therapists who are supervised by licensed psychologists.
Where to find MoreThan