Connected by Our Stories of Hope: Reflections from the 2016 NEDA Conference
By Joanna Kay--Three years ago, I walked into an intake assessment at the Renfrew Center expecting to get a recommendation for a nutritionist. Instead, I was told as gently yet plainly as possible that I had a severe eating disorder and that I needed intensive treatment—now.
Three days ago, I stood on a stage at the 13th annual National Eating Disorders Association Conference to accept NEDA’s Robbie Munn Volunteer of the Year Award. As I looked out at the audience, my mind flickered back to that damp and lonely day in 2013, before NEDA was anything to me besides a Twitter handle and an intriguing logo. Before I went through years of treatment at every level of care. Before I even knew that the silent battle I’d been fighting had a name—and, more important, a way out.
This weekend’s conference in Chicago, Illinois, “The Sky’s the Limit: Advances and Insights in Eating Disorders Treatment and Prevention,” was my first NEDA conference. A true cross-section of the eating disorder world, the conference included individuals in recovery, loved ones and supporters, clinicians, professionals, researchers and educators. With panels and discussions for those at every stage of the recovery journey, the conference was as much educational as it was healing for those who gathered.
The amount of information about eating disorders and recovery provided in just two-and-a-half days was staggering. Among my favorite sessions were a breakfast chat with Monica Seles, tennis star and binge eating disorder survivor, and a panel discussion with representatives from Facebook and Instagram about how the platforms are working with NEDA to make social media safer and more supportive.
The conference was not without its challenges, however. I have lived the realities of an eating disorder and its recovery process for years now. I have arguably as much expertise—different in kind, of course—as the clinicians in attendance. Yet it never becomes easier to hear the stark details about these insidious illnesses. To see charts of the havoc they wreak on bodies. To be reminded that they are the deadliest of all psychiatric disorders.
In my mind, these statistics take the form of a lost and lonely girl who turned to food to deal with her emotional turmoil and chaotic inner life. Data about treatment modalities evoke memories of refeeding and learning to cope with, rather than numb, my emotions.
Now and then, as I sat listening to one of the breakout sessions, a sense of sadness would creep in as I reflected on what all of us gathered have endured. What the young woman from November 2013 was shouldering by herself day after day.
And yet, for every ounce of sadness came twice as much motivation, connectedness and hope. For two-and-a-half days, I found myself surrounded by courageous and empathic people with whom I share my deepest struggles and vulnerabilities. A kind smile or a welcoming shoulder was never more than a few feet away.
That, I think, is the magic of the NEDA Conference: Though many of us have long struggled with stigma, isolation and other challenges that come with battling an eating disorder, we discovered during this short time together that none of us is, in fact, alone. For these two-and-a-half days, we were connected by a common story of pain, loss, victory and hope.
That kind of connection doesn’t end with the closing conference session.
As a final word, I want to thank NEDA for their kindness in recognizing me as the Volunteer of the Year—even though I think that I get far more from volunteering than I am ever able to give. The conference was an unforgettable experience from which I am taking not only strength and inspiration for my continued recovery, but also lasting friendships.