Tabitha Farrar on Eating Disorder Recovery

Today, June 2, marks the fourth annual World Eating Disorders Action Day. It’s a grassroots movement designed for and by people affected by an eating disorder, their families, and the medical and health professionals who support them. This year, the focus is “Eating Disorders Can’t Afford to Wait.”

Tabitha Farrar, one of the founders of this day, suffered from anorexia for 10 years and has blogged about her experiences. Her blog is read by thousands of people and has expanded into videos, books, and full-time work as an online eating disorders coach. Tabitha talked to us about her experience of blogging about recovery. 

Tabitha Farrar,

Can you talk about your personal struggle with anorexia nervosa?

I was 17 and had a summer job as an exercise rider with a local racehorse trainer. I was perfectly happy with my body but decided to lose five pounds so I would be light enough to ride one of the smaller horses. That initial weight loss resulted in a 10-year battle with an eating disorder that manifested in extreme dietary restriction and excessive exercise compulsion. Due to the stereotypes of the “sort” of person who suffered from anorexia (vain, teenage girls who dislike their bodies), I didn’t think it was possible that what I was struggling with was an eating disorder. I was a tomboy, obsessed with horses, and if I brushed my hair it was a noteworthy event. I was hungry. I wanted to eat. I hated being thin. I didn’t like running. Yet, I was compelled to run for hours a day, and I felt a deep-rooted resistance around eating anything more than the smallest amount I could.

Eventually, many years down the line, I began to understand that I had anorexia. At that time I was in my mid-20s. Most literature on anorexia was aimed towards teenage girls. A doctor even told me I couldn’t have an eating disorder because I was too old. It took me many years to understand what I needed to do in order to recover.

What made you decide to blog about your experiences?

Had my doctors been able to get past the idea that anorexia only affects teenage girls and told me I had an eating disorder, they might have saved me 10 years of what can only really be described as mental and physical hell, so one of the reasons I started blogging was to help people understand that eating disorders can affect any person, at any age. There was nothing out there as a recovery resource for adults. Everything was geared at teenagers.

I also know that thousands of people every year who are diagnosed with eating disorders are handed over to a therapist for the treatment . . . and they just don’t recover. Of course, therapy has a place in treatment for some people, but it should not be assumed as a treatment for eating disorders any more than it should be assumed as a treatment for cancer. I felt very strongly that the treatment model for eating disorders had failed many people and I wanted to start writing about an alternative route for people who want to recover.

Initially, I was very embarrassed to admit I had suffered from an eating disorder because of the stigma around the “type of person” who develops one. It took me a while to get over that and start publicly telling my story, but I am so glad I did. Writing has always been a passion of mine, and it has been very healing for me to be able to write about my experiences and discoveries during and after recovery.

When I started my blog, I didn’t really think anyone would ever read it, and I wrote for myself. I often publish my thoughts on my blog before I even tell them to my close friends and family because writing helps me understand and organize my thoughts.

Can you explain the migration theory that you discuss on your blog?

I always knew that my eating disorder was biologically based. I couldn’t explain why, but I knew my desire to move constantly, my anxiety around eating, and my fear of weight gain were nothing to do with me actually wanting to be thin, or about me wanting to look a certain way. I liken it to when a woman feels the biological urge to have a child — it just felt like something I had to do that I had no control over. One day I came across a description for migrating animals that explained that the urge to migrate was biological. The lack of food in the environment leads the animal’s brain to “turn on” migration. The animal feels the urge to move a lot, and feeding behavior is dis-incentivized by the brain. This is because if the animal wants to stop and look for food constantly, it will not migrate successfully.

Migrating birds, Getty Images

My desire to move constantly was the same as the bird’s desire to fly when it needed to migrate. My anxiety over eating was because my brain believed I had to prioritize movement over food. After that, I started researching into migration more, and that was when I discovered that many years earlier a psychologist named Shan Guisinger had already written and published this theory about anorexia. I used my own experience of anorexia and recovery to elaborate on and add context to this theory, and wrote a book or two about this, and also how and why both nutritional rehabilitation and neural rewiring can result in full recovery.

When did you start coaching?

I had a full-time job in marketing, but still kept my blog going, and I kept getting requests from people to help them through recovery. I started coaching informally, free of charge, in my free time. After a while, the demand for coaching grew to the point I gave up my job and went into it full time.

My blog means that most people who contact me for coaching already feel like they know me. I am unfiltered and unedited in my blog. This is helpful because I have a forthright personality, so people are already prepared for that and expect it when they meet me for coaching. Another wonderful aspect of coaching is that because I do it all online, I can talk to people all over the world. It is a fascinating and wonderful job. People with eating disorders share more traits than just the genetics for an eating disorder, they are generally smart and funny, and it is a pleasure to help people emerge back into their true, non-eating-disordered personalities.

Can you tell me about some of the feedback you’ve received since starting your blog?

Oh heck. Yes. It actually overwhelms me to think about. I rarely look at Google Analytics because when I do, I panic a little. I start to feel as if I should be swearing less and writing in a more “professional” manner. But that just wouldn’t be me. I get a lot of emails from readers and every single one of them I keep in a file. They mean so very much to me. I lost 10+ years of my life to anorexia and I feel like every email I get gives me some time back, or at least makes me feel like those lost years weren’t such a loss after all because they gave me the tools I have now to make a difference. I get emails daily from people in recovery and every single one of them has a story. They are all equally as special to me.

One of the messages of World Eating Disorders Action Day this year is to #ShareYourStory. How can people do that?

#ShareYourStory encourages people to speak out about their eating disorder and help raise awareness that eating disorders affect people from all walks of life. If you want to get involved or share a story, head over to the World Eating Disorders Day website.

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