Navigating Recovery with Catherine and Francis
I was lucky enough to be a guest on the podcast Eating Disorders: Navigating Recovery, with cohosts Catherine and Francis.
We talked about my book, Starvation, understanding eating disorders through the lens of anxiety, my graduate school research, and the use of technology for screening and treating eating disorders. Even better, Francis is one of the few male wrestlers I have met who is open about having an eating disorder - just like the premise of my book.
Now, I'm lucky enough to have them on my blog for a Q&A including the role of motherhood, sports, and lived experiences in eating disorder recovery and advocacy work.
Catherine Brown (she/her) is an award-winning editor and writer who focuses on the arts, parenting, and health and wellness. She co-edited Hope for Recovery: Stories of Healing from Eating Disorders and is currently writing a book on body acceptance. Catherine also works with scholars and businesses to help them develop and refine content. Check out her work!
Francis Iacobucci (he/him). Prior to joining the ranks of licensed social workers, Francis worked under President Barack Obama in the United States Department of the Interior and the United States Department of Energy, as a political appointee in the Office of the Secretary. Upon departing Washington, D.C. in 2017, Francis enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice where he received a Masters in Social Work. His work as a social worker and psychotherapist focuses on treating and advocating for individuals struggling with disordered eating, body image, eating and feeding disorders, and associated mental health challenges.
1. Can you share a little bit about your background (i.e. the book you wrote) and how you got started doing the Navigating Recovery podcast?
Catherine: For years I imagined writing a book full of essays by people who had found recovery from an eating disorder. I felt so isolated during my eating disorder and recovery, and I felt like I would have benefited from hearing other people’s stories. I also felt like it would be helpful for support systems to better understand what their loved ones might be experiencing. I connected with a friend who also values storytelling and had found recovery, and we developed the book together. Out of the book came the opportunity to host a podcast. My co-editor wasn’t able to co-host, so I reached out to Francis, who had written an essay for the book and whom I had met briefly when I invited him to speak at a conference I had helped plan. I had a hunch he would be really good on a podcast, and my hunch was right! With his warmth, knowledge, experience, insight, sensitivity, empathy and overall wonderful personality, he is a natural!
Francis: Clinical social work is actually my second profession, the first being a politico and federal government worker for nearly a decade. At the end of the administration in 2016, I had this unique opportunity to assess my strengths, desires, limitations, and that ultimately led me to start a career in continuing to serve others as a social worker and a therapist. Advocacy in the mental health space was also really important to me, and as I continued to recover from my own lived experience with an eating disorder, I began to develop a deeper understanding of myself, and my story took shape…and I wanted to share it! Long story short, Catherine asked, I paused for just a moment, and then said yes. I’m so glad she thought of me. I think we make a great team, and being able to create space for so many voices who are struggling with eating disorders – which can be so isolating – has been rewarding in a way I could never have imagined.
2a. Francis - you've been open about having an eating disorder and also having been a wrestler. Were these related at all for you? What was it like for you being a male with an eating disorder?
Francis: Oh my goodness, they sure were related! While wrestling provided this outlet to feel a part of something (and I was pretty darn good at it), as well as a place where my big body made sense for the first time in my life, it also was the beginning of developing behaviors to manage and control my weight that were severely unsustainable and, quite frankly, incredibly dangerous. At the same time, those behaviors were a part of this communal understanding that “this is what it takes to win”, which in my head registered as “this is what it takes to be loved.” Wrestling laid the foundation for a full blown eating disorder. When my mental health became a concern, I knew immediately where to go to avoid certain emotions: right back to the disordered eating and body image obsessing. They always made me feel like I was doing something right. I didn’t have any other outlets established.
b. How has doing clinical social work been as someone with lived experience?
Francis: It’s first important to acknowledge that clinicians do not have to have lived experience to be great therapists. Empathy, ability to listen, and genuinity are the hallmarks of being able to connect and create a safe environment for individuals seeking therapy. For me, the additional experience of having an eating disorder certainly gives me a perspective of relatability. I can be listening and feel a deep relation to an experience someone is describing, and perhaps that gives me the ability to empathize in a different way than others. Mostly, though, I know what my connection with my therapist meant to me when I was going through the tough stuff, and being given the chance to hopefully provide a similar space and relationship with someone going through it gives me immense pride.
3a. Catherine - what role do you see writing playing in recovery and advocacy work?
Catherine: Writing can bring healing because it can lead to clearer understanding of ourselves and what happens in our lives. It can provide some distance that enables us to process emotions and better understand the role we play in our own stories. The simple act of putting our thoughts on paper can be cathartic.
Writing my own story of recovery helped me make sense of it and has enabled me to talk about the experience and share the lessons I’ve learned. For me, that’s really the focus of advocacy–sharing our own stories to help break down stigma and foster connection and provide hope. Written stories provide another platform for connection, for tethering ourselves to one another and finding commonalities.
b. You also often talk about motherhood - how do you see that contributing to both disorder and recovery?
Catherine: That’s a big question. For me, motherhood has played a significant role in my recovery. First, the desire to have children pushed me to want to recover. I feel like it’s helpful for people dealing with an eating disorder to find something they value more than the disorder, the thing that will help them see that the disorder isn't serving them well in the long term. For me that was the goal of raising a family.
I also have felt strongly about wanting to foster more sustainable attitudes toward food and body among my daughters because there is a strong genetic component to eating disorders. For that reason, I made conscious decisions to avoid talking about my body or food in potentially harmful ways. Doing that helped me in my recovery because I was no longer shining a light on the eating disorder thoughts that traveled through my mind.
That said, I can see how some of the circumstances surrounding motherhood, particularly during the early years, contributed to my own disordered patterns. There is a ton of pressure on mothers to gain weight–but not too much weight–during pregnancy and to lose the weight quickly. The expectations are unrealistic.
Also, there are lots of opportunities to feel insecure and to doubt yourself when you’re raising a child, and that at times has contributed to disordered patterns of thinking for me. And the isolation and the lack of control that accompanies staying at home with young children can be challenging.
While there have been challenging aspects of raising children, overall, motherhood has made my recovery stronger because it has pushed me to take care of myself. I am a better mom when I prioritize my mental health.
4. What do you wish those supporting individuals with eating disorders knew?
Catherine: I want them to know that there is a huge community of people in recovery who are rooting for them. Recovery is difficult; it may be the most difficult task a person undertakes. But it is absolutely possible. It is possible to live a life in which joy and awe and beauty and love and light take up more space than the eating disorder.
Francis: You are enough. Write that down and put it on your damn wall. You are enough, as you are, right now. And you deserve to experience the fullness, messiness, and richness of being a human being. You are enough.
5. One of the themes of your podcast is hope. Why is this such an important aspect of the podcast?
Catherine: I believe hope can be incredibly powerful and motivating. It helps move us forward through any challenging situation we face.
During one of our episodes, Jess Sprengle, a licensed professional counselor, said that a person trying to find recovery can’t always and doesn’t always have to hold hope for themselves. There are times when recovery might feel hopeless, but during those times, someone else can be the one to hold that hope.
That thought really resonated with me. We don’t always have to hold hope for ourselves; sometimes it’s just too hard. But if other people have hope for us, that can be enough to help move us forward.
Francis: What Catherine said: we don’t always have to hold hope for ourselves. It’s okay to let others in, to do that work for us right now.