Eliza Lanzillo is the Program Director of Advocacy Initiatives for Hynes Recovery Services, a Massachusetts-based eating disorder recovery network founded by Dawn Hynes. Eliza did her undergraduate studies at Brown University, where she was President of Brown's chapter of Active Minds and a student-advisor for Zencare. Eliza is now pursuing a PhD in Clinical Psychology at Catholic University and continues to be an active eating disorder recovery advocate and speaker.
We asked Eliza more about her journey, her work at Hynes Recovery Services, and her advice to those struggling with an eating disorder.
What do you do at HRS?
As Program Director of Advocacy Initiatives for Hynes Recovery Services, I am excited to contribute to the much-needed advocacy efforts in the field. In order to effectively enact change, eating disorder survivors, allies, clinicians, and researchers need to work together to generate increased awareness. Through such efforts, we can identify individuals who are struggling, connect them to treatment and additional resources, and ultimately, improve recovery outcomes. Educational initiatives, online training events, participation in lobbying efforts, and openly sharing personal experiences are a few examples of advocacy efforts I’ve personally been involved in, which I hope has resulted in bringing much needed attention to the critical needs of individuals and families affected by eating disorders. For a glimpse into my lobbying efforts, including my first Lobby Day experience on Capitol Hill, please click here.
What sparked your interest in the mental health field?
My own experience with an eating disorder (ED) led me to become involved in the ED advocacy scene. In particular, the challenges I faced during my treatment, including finding and accessing appropriate care, coupled with interactions with other patients and treatment providers, led to my appreciation for ED advocacy work.
I began working as the Program Director of Advocacy Initiatives for Hynes Recovery Services (HRS) in the fall of 2016. Through my involvement with HRS, I have shared my ED recovery story and have had the privilege of meeting students working through their own recovery as well as other advocates and professionals in the field.
What do you love most about supporting students with eating disorders? / What do you find are some of the top ways having a support like you helps students?
My favorite aspect of being involved in ED advocacy work is helping others to explore their identity outside of their ED. When you struggle with an ED, it can become all-consuming. It may start to take priority over everything such that it becomes the most important “relationship” in one’s life. Consequently, recovery requires “breaking-up” with one’s ED and creating or re-establishing an identity outside of the disorder. While this process is undoubtedly challenging, and perhaps scary, it’s also exciting. I love supporting and encouraging others through this process.
What are the most common issues you hear among students struggling with an ED?
Struggling with an eating disorder can be an incredibly isolating experience. Common struggles of those with EDs include feelings of shame, guilt, and even self-hatred. At the same time, one's eating disorder may provide a safety-net, taking on the persona of a friend who you simply cannot survive without. Ironically, letting go of that "friend" is the only way to recover. Further, there are many misconceptions about EDs that contribute to the stigma experienced by those who struggle with them. It is commonly thought that EDs are simply about food, appearance, or beauty ideals. Dispelling such myths and educating the public on the reality of eating disorders is critical to decreasing the stigma associated with these illnesses and increasing help-seeking behavior.
What message or advice do you have for students recently diagnosed with an eating disorder?
Receiving an ED diagnosis can lead to a host of different feelings – anger, sadness, disappointment, fear, relief, confusion. While I cannot know what may be coming up for you, I do know this:
- This diagnosis is a piece of you, not all of you. Let this be your opportunity to get to know yourself outside of your relationship to food and/or exercise. What would you like to reclaim? What would you like to discover?
- The path to recovery will not be easy, but it’s worth it. I had a hard time believing this when I was beginning my own recovery. I couldn’t imagine a life for myself that didn’t include intrusive thoughts about when, what, or how much to eat or exercise. I didn’t believe that I would feel comfortable in a different body. If you don’t believe these things right now, that’s okay. But keep going despite your skepticism. Have hope. As someone who has been in your position, I am here to tell you that recovery is possible, and it will enable you to create a beautiful life you may have never imagined for yourself.
- Ask for support but be intentional. Recovering from an ED is not a journey that should be tackled alone. Identify friends, family members, and professionals who you trust -- & let them in. We live in a diet driven society, but there are people out there who do not subscribe to diet culture. Search for the people and communities that will support your recovery process and embody the relationship to food and body that you desire. Tell them when you’re struggling. Tell them what you need. Tell them when something is triggering or upsetting. Tell them when you have a setback. Tell them when you are feeling proud.
One day at a time… just breathe.
What message or advice do you have for parents of students recently diagnosed with an eating disorder?
As much as you may desire to, you cannot do the work of recovery on behalf of your child. I recommend engaging your child in discussions related to treatment options and plans for support. For an individual whose ED has been in control of their decision-making for so long, it can feel scary to relinquish full control to a parent. It is unlikely that your child is in a position to be making decisions about their treatment independently but help your child to feel as though they are part of the process. In addition, it may be helpful to directly ask your child how you can best support their recovery.
What message do you have for students struggling with an eating disorder?
There are a few things that I believe would have been helpful for me to hear when I was struggling with my ED. Based on my own experience, I want to express the following:
- Struggling with an ED can be extremely isolating, but the recovery journey doesn’t need to be. I often hear people say they’re not “sick enough” to seek help. If you’re questioning whether you need support, get it. There’s no such thing as sick enough.
- For those struggling with poor body image, I want you to believe that one day you will look in the mirror and see more than a body. Start by trying to focus on the things your body enables you to do, not how it looks.
- You may feel as though you are in control when you’re engaging in disordered eating behavior; however, your ED creates an illusion of control. Only by letting go of disordered behaviors and choosing recovery are you in control.
- Ask yourself how your eating behavior aligns with your value system. For example, maybe you value quality time with friends. Does turning down an invitation for lunch with friends in order to go the gym align with this value? Do your best to operate in accordance with your values rather than the demands of your ED.
Visit the Hynes Recovery Services website for more eating disorder recovery resources and to learn more about the work Dawn and Eliza do.