Episode 18 - Who Needs Diets Anyway?
Before starting your New Year’s diet, you’ll want to check out this episode as we dip our toes into the world of Christie Dondero Bettwy. After a long history of dieting to get others’ approval and falling into an eating disorder, she is fighting back against assumptions that hurt far more people than they help.
Along the way, we also speak with nutritionist Dr. Ralph Carson about what really happens to your body when you diet (and why they never seem to work…).
Ellie Pike: Day-to-day activity can often feel like a blur. We have things that need doing and places that need going, and while we all have pesky insecurities and quirks, we also tend to hobble along in spite of them. Sometimes if we're lucky, we get shaken up enough to actually transform our lives.
Today's story is about a woman who shockingly discovered that her lifelong [00:00:30] struggles turned out to be a bit more than simple quirks or painful disturbances. Her behaviors added up to a full-blown disorder. That discovery empowered her to not only reach new heights, but also connect other fellow strugglers with the help they need to make their own breakthroughs.
You're listening to Mental Note podcast. I'm Ellie Pike.
Christie Dondero Bettwy: [00:01:00] Hi. My name is Christie Dondero Bettwy. I am the executive director of nonprofit, Rock Recovery, and I live in Washington DC where we operate the majority of our programs.
Ellie: Christie grew up with pretty typical American behaviors around food. A family that was into dieting and dance lessons that made her self-conscious, those sorts of things. In whatever cosmic lottery that decides our genetic makeup, Christie got the short end of the stick. She had a strong predisposition to eating disorder [00:01:30] behavior, a booby-trap lurking in her DNA that just needed the right circumstances to spring shut.
Christie: Ballet was probably the most formative thing about my life before going off to college and graduating college. It was really the thing that I threw myself into and just found such joy in when I was little. You can start early on in life. I think almost every single girl at some point is enrolled in some sort of ballet class where their parents paid too much money for their kids to walk across the stage and probably turn the wrong way [00:02:00] and wear a cute tutu and then like leave two minutes later.
I had moved beyond that part of ballet and started getting really serious about it. Dancing initially 5 hours a week, which turned into 10 or 20 or 30 hours a week when we were rehearsing for big performances. What went from a hobby and this fun small side project, really became the majority of my time. My waking hours were spent at ballet. We always joked that my amazing teacher, Les, that he raised me. He was really like my second dad, because I think I spent more [00:02:30] time with him than with my actual father when I got into middle school in high school and was rehearsing and performing all of the time.
Ellie: Despite Christie's deep love of ballet, she began to notice that she physically stood out in ways that limited her progress.
Christie: I was not what you would call a typical ballet body, and when I got near, turned, 13, 14, when bodies change and figures change, [00:03:00] I quickly realized "Oh, I don't have that straight figure that seems to be ideal for this work, and that some of my friends have that seem to get the better parts and seem to be better than me at all these things." I started to compare my body shape and size to other people I was dancing with. I always joke that growing up in spandex and full-length mirrors for the majority of your hours a week has different effects on people. For me, it really unfortunately honed that muscle of critique in comparison, [00:03:30] because I was so exposed, and it was very easy to look to my left and look to my right and see how my arm was different or my stomach looked different or parts of my body were different than those who seemed to be better at ballet than I was.
Ellie: That's really interesting that you said that it was more self-imposed than it was overtly talked about by others. I think you're exactly right. You're in front of these mirrors, you're in skin-tight clothing, of course you're going to be noticing any differences. How did you internalize your [00:04:00] own interpretation of that, and how did that affect your journey?
Christie: I think I really internalized my own body shape and size as not being right in the way it was naturally created and needing to change it. I immediately knew, "Okay, I'm going to have to not eat certain foods, pay more attention, and do some things that other people might not have to." Initially, it seemed harmless enough to make those changes, but when it became more problematic, [00:04:30] one thing that we all see in society is weight loss is often praised, and weight gain is often met with crickets and complete silence. I think if I did lose a few pounds and got more attention and got more praise and more affirmation, I noticed, "Oh, I should keep this up. This is what makes me better." If my body changed, if I gained some weight because I went on vacation or got sick or something happened, I noticed those crickets. I quickly realized those patterns of okay, it's better when I lose weight [00:05:00] than when I gain weight, and that's something I need to keep paying attention to.
Ellie: To her credit, Christie started to notice that dance wasn't the healthiest environment, and opted out right before College.
Christie: I wound up quitting ballet the year before I left for college. I loved it, it was my life, but then at some point, the joy started to dim, and it started [00:05:30] to not really be as strong anymore. Part of that was a lot of my good friends who I danced with were a year or two older than me and they graduated and I felt like my community had left. The other piece was my body continued to change the older that I got, and it got a little harder to want to keep comparing myself, having that hard grueling constant performances that I was going through. I made the decision, I'm tired, I'm burnt out, I think it's time for me to make a change, and I did that right when I was 17.
Ellie: Wow. I bet [00:06:00] that was a huge decision for you to make at that point.
Christie: It was a huge decision, and I don't think I thought through the realities of it. I knew that I was tired and that I needed a break, but I hadn't realized how much of my identity was found in being a ballerina, and how much of my real joy and just my satisfaction came from performing, from growing, from being with these amazing people, and amazing teachers. I never really thought about when those things were gone, what would I replace it with?
Ellie: What [00:06:30] did happen when it was gone, and then what happened to your own eating behaviors at that point?
Christie: The biggest thing that changed for me was I wasn't in front of a mirror all of the time, and I finally felt the freedom to eat these things that I had tried to stay away from for so long, or tried to limit it for so long. I will forever remember being out to dinner with one of my friends, and I was wearing jean shorts and a pink halter top, because it was like the late '90s, or early 2000s time. I remember when the waiter came back and asked, "Hey, do [00:07:00] you guys want dessert?" I remember thinking, "Oh, my gosh, I can say yes. I do want dessert, yes." That where I used to say no so often turned into saying yes every single time, because I just felt like the gates had been opened and I no longer had to be so confined.
Ellie: Did you experience bingeing at that point?
Christie: I probably didn't experience true, true bingeing yet, but [00:07:30] what happened when I gained this weight was I realized, "Oh, well, I'm not comfortable with this figure. Let me do something to fix it." I started working at this gym, had access to free personal trainers, and I did what any human would have probably told you to do, was I went on a diet.
Going on a diet seemed so harmless. It felt like the right thing to do. I had gained some weight, wanted to be 'healthy', what could go wrong? I got put on this [00:08:00] really restrictive eating plan, and I quickly lost the weight that I had gained from quitting ballet.
What happened again was I started getting praise, I started getting attention for how I looked. Everyone was saying-- It was close to my senior year ending, and everyone was saying, "Oh, when you go to college, you'll have to keep the guys away. You look great." That was all I wanted. That was all I wanted, to be affirmed, and to be told that I was beautiful and enough and accepted and that I was wanted, and that I was lovely. That started to do the cycle for me of [00:08:30] okay, the weight needs to stay down, but the problem this time was I started to go through this yo-yo dieting that often happens for people, and what did start happening then was when I would restrict and be on this diet, I would suddenly start eating vast quantities of food that I was supposed to stay away from because it was 'bad'. That was probably the first time I experienced binge eating, was when I was starting to restrict formerly for a diet, and that had that yo-yo effect on me.
Ellie: [00:09:00] Ah, the dreaded yo-yo effect of dieting. Well, this is a critical part of Christie's story. I'm guessing it's something most of us have also experienced. To dive more into why the cycle never seems to stop, I sat down with Dr. Ralph Carson, senior clinical and research advisor at Eating Recovery Center, and a published author with over 40 years experience as a leading voice on nutrition and the way diets affect our bodies.
Ellie: People talk about diets in different ways. A lot of people say, "I'm not on a diet", but they're carb-free or doing something that's more 'like a lifestyle change', maybe they're not restricting calories. How would you define what a diet is?
Dr. Ralph Carson: When you come in with the card disease, we put you on a diet. If you come with a kidney problem, we put you on a diet. You have surgery, we put you on a diet. A diet means a healthy way of life. It's trying to normalize the [00:10:00] system. That's what it means. Now, you have this separate category that we're calling what? Weight loss diet.
Ellie: I know a lot of people feel so much guilt if they eat a 'bad food' because we have so many labels, like this is good, this is healthy, this is bad, this is going to kill me. It's not going to kill us unless we drown in the water, and food is not necessarily a moral decision unless you steal it. What about someone without an eating disorder, but is a chronic dieter, and they've tried all these diets, carb-free, the new ketones diet, this and that? [00:10:30] What is the effect for them?
Dr. Ralph: The neat thing about that is, is that the body wants to survive. You wonder, why can't a person to stay on the ketone diet forever? Why do people gain the weight back? Because the body's not going to let them. The body's not going to let you stay in ketosis forever. It's going to [unintelligible 00:10:45] and when you do eat, it's going to say, "Too late for me, save yourself." They're going to go back to the original weight and then gain some more, and the body says we're not going to let you go through that again. People do all these crazy things, and then you hear, "I went on this diet, it really, really worked." Now you see them and they gained it all back, it's because no, it didn't work [00:11:00] because basically, you found a window to get in to make some changes, but the body's figured it out, and back you go to where you were.
Ellie: Why does the body want to go back to where it was before?
Dr. Ralph: It wants to keep you alive. What's the message? Our genes haven't changed since 100,000 years ago, so when you're eating less, the body's saying, "You can't find food." There must be a forest fire that killed everything, there must be a drought that killed everything, there's a winter storm, you can't find food, there's pestilence. Then you go to a certain point and don't lose, the body's going to say, "Okay, as soon as we find [00:11:30] food, we're going to get you back to where you were and more so, so you don't have go through this again." Even though we have plenty of food, today the body doesn't know that. It never looks at dieting. You want to look better, you want to be healthier, good for you.
It's never going to look at that way. That's why when we get to the point where we're talking about, what's the solution, it's very subtle, and it's not going to be rapid. Even if you lost, and I'm not giving any numbers here, but even if you said, "I lost a pound a week." You just made some just adjustments, you're 52 pounds lighter in a year. You're 104 pounds lighter [00:12:00] in two years. There's people who basically started dieting when they're 21, now they're 60, and they're 300 pounds heavier than when they started when they were 21, because they all wanted that quick fix.
Ellie: Armed with her own quick diet fix, Christie eerily prepped for school.
Christie: I applied to a bunch of different colleges out of state, mostly with the criteria where there were more boys than girls, and where I could wear a scarf in the winter, much to my dad's dismay.
Ellie: Christie went to NC State University [00:12:30] in Raleigh, North Carolina. She knew nobody, and food began to take a disproportionately big role in her thoughts.
Christie: I remember the first week I got to college, and of course no one's making me dinner anymore, there's not me going to my fridge, its dining halls and group meals, and this excess of you can have any food any night. There's three rows of different kinds of entrees you can get. Always 10 kinds of desserts, all these different things. I and my restrictive diet [00:13:00] mentality was petrified of all those foods being there every day and every week because I thought, "Well, I can't control myself. These are all bad. What am I going to do? Where's my steamed broccoli?" It just became such a different thing for me, so I started to become afraid of food, and yet also would turn to it to feel safe and restrict, and then turn to it to comfort myself and to binge in some way.
Ellie: Since most girls she knew also talked constantly of dieting, she didn't think this behavior [00:13:30] was a big deal until the panic attacks began.
Would you tell me a little bit about your anxiety attacks, and how did they develop, and when did you notice you were having them?
Christie: That was a huge wake-up call for me, was having physical symptoms that I couldn't explain away or just distract from myself. When I graduated college, so I lived all throughout college with this similar yo-yo dieting gain weight, lose weight, bad food, good food. Again, never [00:14:00] thought anything was really wrong with it, but when I graduated college, is when things probably got to their deepest and darkest. We had a friend in our friend group who passed away from cancer, and life just became very real for me very quickly.
I remember when I started driving to work, some days I had like a 30, 45-minute commute to my office, and starting to feel lightheaded, short of breath, all of these really scary physical symptoms, and thought, "Oh, I drank too much coffee, or maybe my run was too long this morning or [00:14:30] whatever else happened." It started happening more and more, and I realized, because of the good old internet that finally existed at this time, was I think I'm suffering from anxiety attacks. I would have these overwhelming feelings that I was going to pass out, there was something bad was going to happen. I couldn't get myself out of it.
Ellie: These attacks not only scared Christie, but also prove that her body was not as healthy as she thought it had been.
Christie: For me, that [00:15:00] anxiety attack really helped me want to get better too because it was something I couldn't control and couldn't just brush past. I think my body wasn't getting enough nutrients, wasn't getting enough fat, wasn't getting enough calories, and it was starting to tell me something was wrong in that case.
Ellie: Yet, it wasn't until a chance course taken at her church that Christie connected the dots between panic attacks and an eating disorder.
Christie: The moment I really realized I had an eating disorder, [00:15:30] was at a six-week course called New ID for people with eating disorders that I happen to stumble upon at this church. I never thought I had an eating disorder, but I heard about the course and thought, "Oh, I bet this will help me stop my weird overeating stuff so I can keep losing weight." The first week of the course is called What are eating disorders and what is freedom? It talks about what disordered eating is, and what true freedom looks like.
I, in that moment, realized, I don't have that freedom, I [00:16:00] can't pick up and go out with friends for dinner that I wasn't planning on, I can't just change what I'm eating for lunch without obsessing over it, I can't just listen to my body eat when I'm hungry, stop when I'm full. None of those things were true for me, and the absence of freedom was what really opened my eyes. When I realized the absence of freedom of my life, my eyes were really opened to the captivity that I was in, and the struggle that I was experiencing.
Ellie: [00:16:30] How did recovery unfold for you, and what did it specifically look like for you on a daily basis?
Christie: Recovery I always say is just a bunch of annoying baby steps strung together, because that was really my experience of it. I developed a really great team of experts. I always say the three main things that helped me with my recovery were my faith, my experts, and my community. Going to this church, finding this amazing [00:17:00] course, was so helpful for me to think about my value, my identity, what matters, what's truly important to me, and what I felt was really, I guess, my true identity and value in life. That really truly helped me have a strong foundation and have answers to questions that I'd always longed to have answers for, but never could quite find a fit.
The second piece being my experts. Getting an amazing therapist who was just so [00:17:30] encouraging and challenging and affirming and all the wonderful things that therapists should be, was hugely helpful for me. She really walked me through a lot of the nitty-gritty day-in-day-out, do I eat the muffin? Do I not eat the muffin? All these kinds of things, and helped me to do that piece of recovery, and also helped me to navigate what feelings have I been repressing for 15, 20 years? What have I not wanted to deal with? What have I been trying to run from?
One of the things that was so pivotal for me was realizing, "Gosh, if [00:18:00] I'm numbing these feelings that are hard for me to tolerate-- I won't call them bad feelings, but the feelings that don't feel great, if I'm numbing those feelings, I'm not going to be able to experience full joy or happiness or pleasure or these other things on the other end of the spectrum, because I'm just going to be this numbed out creature that can't really fully live life."
Ellie: I love that you're talking about this because I think a lot of us struggle with uncomfortable feelings, and we do it all the time. We diffuse awkward situations with humor, or we [00:18:30] hold in our anger so that we don't yell at someone, but we're still angry and frustrated, and it turns into bitterness. We all know what that's like to avoid an emotion, but I am curious about the third part about recovery and talking about your community. What did that look like for you?
Christie: The community piece was so vital, because I think the big question we all have is, am I alone, and does anyone want to accept me and love me and care for me? Community helps to answer those questions in such [00:19:00] beautiful ways. The good news is, with healthy communities, we experience grace because we are all imperfect, flawed people, and yet, we can still really love each other really well, and fight for that kindness and grace that we all really know that we desire.
For me, it happened slowly, and I had had some great friends already from college, and I really learned, I need to learn how to bring them into this, and I need to learn how to be vulnerable with what I'm struggling with.
[00:19:30] I started telling my friends what I was going through, saying, "Hey, I'm taking this course. I'm seeing this therapist, I'm doing this work." A lot of them were super supportive, and a lot of them said, "Oh my gosh, maybe I should go see somebody." Then, of course, there were some that weren't quite ready to look at their own things and didn't know how to support me or what to say, but they always did their best, and I never regretted telling people what I was going through because I knew I have to be okay with however they respond, and if I wasn't in a place where I [00:20:00] felt secure enough in that, I probably wouldn't really bring them in too much, and I had to make some really important distinctions on boundaries and my friendships, where who was I willing to really be vulnerable with, and how much is appropriate. I really learned to bring other people, my family, some amazing support systems in my life into that inner circle, so it wasn't so sparse so that there wasn't more support there. My family was so supportive through my recovery process. At first, they were confused. They didn't really understand [00:20:30] since society, in general, doesn't understand disordered eating, let alone people who aren't cookie-cutter struggling with anorexia or bulimia. I was sort of this new category, but once they realized I was struggling and I needed help, they were there. They helped to finance it, which is why I love my work I do with Rock Recovery now because I realize not everyone has families that are able to finance their recovery. I was thankfully in that position that I was, but it really felt to me like that was so pivotal, [00:21:00] and if I hadn't had that resource, who knows how I would have wound up if I couldn't have afforded those clinical appointments and the help that I needed.
Family and friends and just people who understood me. The New ID course truly was so helpful for me because they were like-minded people like me in that group. I remember the first week thinking, "There's no way I'm opening my mouth, I'm not saying anything to these people, they'll never understand me." Someone across the circle shared something she was struggling with, and my jaw is dropped and I [00:21:30] thought, I've had that thought dozens of times this week, and was sure I was the only human on the planet ever who could have had a thought that horrible, or have a thought like that.
Christie: It was so encouraging and powerful. Yes, to be like, "I'm not alone. I'm not the only one"
Ellie: Listening to your story, I'm pretty amazed at how much you were transformed, and how much your own actions transformed. It seems like you went from being pretty unaware [00:22:00] and also fluctuating according to what people thought, like, "Go on a diet, exercise, this and that." Then your journey moving into understanding that you were struggling and sharing with people, really allowed you to recover more when you were able to rest in the fact that you were lovable even with your messy story. I think that that is the most challenging when you are in that situation, to decide to share, and then to grow and listen and learn that you were being loved that whole time.
Christie: Yes. I always say, [00:22:30] you're right, recovery is work. There were so many moments, and I don't try to sugarcoat this when I share my story now I talk to people because you've got to prioritize it, you've got to be willing to put in the time, and the energy, and you've also got to be willing to surrender to the process in some ways. It's a bunch of baby steps strung together, but it's also a bunch of small victories strung together. It could be two steps forward one, step back and who knows what that journey looks like for every individual person, but once I realized [00:23:00] I was in this pit, I was like, "All right, even if I only get a few feet out today or this week or this month, that's still a few feet closer than where I was yesterday, and that's going to have to be good enough." That perfectionistic side of me really had to take a back seat to the grace and to the hope that really needed to be the strongest voice in my recovery.
Ellie: Now, I feel like you have a lot to talk about with how [00:23:30] you value and providing access to care for lots of people. You've really built your whole career around this. Will you tell me a little bit about how you developed Rock Recovery and what it is?
Christie: Sure. We have two main missions. One is to help all people access the care that they need, and to really truly find recovery. The second piece is to help empower the entire community with the tools and resources they need for themselves or with their loved ones, [00:24:00] so that they can find freedom from disordered eating as well. We offer an awesome outpatient recovery program with group meals, group therapy, mentorship, chaplaincy, and all kinds of really neat things that really help people understand they're not alone, and that they don't have to stay this way forever.
We removed the barriers of finances because we do sliding-scale and scholarships, and we help people break that isolation that can be really difficult to do in a city like Washington DC because every week they come to this group [00:24:30] where they know people can hear them and can love them no matter what they're struggling with. We also do a lot of community events that help people really have the conversation with their loved ones or get the tools that they need to seek treatment either with us or with a higher level of care and go to a hospital or go to a residential program, whatever it is that they might need.
Ellie: What resources do you offer for people who don't live in the DC area, but are asking like, "How can I also get help like this?"
Christie: We are trying to grow. Right now, we have two programs here in Washington DC. Hopefully, a third starting in the Maryland area in the next six months. The goal passed that is nationwide expansion. Right now, we, unfortunately, don't have any programs available to people outside of the DC metro area, but we're really hoping in the next couple of years that will be different.
In the meantime, we're always available to do events. I can always come and speak. We offer different one-time community events in workshops that we'd love [00:25:30] to do. The new ID course is something that we can empower and help train anybody to run in their city, and that's definitely a great resource that we have that we can help pay it forward and help train people who want to reach people in their community if resources might be scarce. It's a gift and a blessing to get to help people. Also, all I want to do is raise millions of dollars and go do it all over the country.
Ellie: That's amazing. I'm so glad that you're doing what makes you so happy, and providing the freedom that you have [00:26:00] to other people. Thank you for sharing your story. If people want to get in touch with you or check out your website, how would you direct people to check out Rock Recovery?
Christie: Sure. People can always look at our website. It's www.rockrecoveryed.org. Find us on Facebook @rockrecoveryed, Instagram, and Twitter. People are also really welcome to email me if they would like to contact me directly, and my email is just christie, [00:26:30] C-H-R-I-S-T-I-E @rockrecoveryed.org.
Ellie: Awesome. Thank you.
Ellie: Christie explained recovery as a string of annoying baby steps inching you in the right direction. In the moment, they may feel inconsequential. How could attending a recovery group have helped her move beyond behaviors that began in childhood dance lessons? How could sitting down to talk to a therapist counteract 15 years of [00:27:00] repressed emotions? It may seem improbable, but recovery is 100% possible. If you can identify with what Christie said, take your first baby step. Reach out to Rock Recovery for resources in the DC area, or call Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight for a free assessment no matter where you are. The sooner you start the journey to recovery, the sooner you can start living.
Ellie: [00:27:30] Thanks for listening to Mental Note podcast. Our show is sponsored by Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Behavioral Health Centers. To talk to a licensed counselor and see if treatment for panic attacks or eating disorders is a good idea for you, call 877-411-9578. Today's episode was produced by Sam pike, edited by Sam Pike, Josh Wright, and Erica Prather. I'm Ellie Pike. Until next time.
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