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Vanessa Vega Interview on Anorexia and Self-Harm

After reading Vanessa Vega's memoir Comes the Darkness, Comes the Light: A Memoir of Cutting, Healing and Hope I had the opportunity to interview Vanessa about her challenges with anorexia and self-injury. Vanessa hopes that sharing her story will help others battling similar issues and shine some light on self-injury, which she says affects millions of people.

Are you grateful for the adversity you have experienced? Some people talk about the positive aspects of mental health or dealing with adversity? Do you feel it has made you stronger, or would you rather have skipped the experiences?

At the time, I struggled to find a greater purpose for the adversity in my life. But in retrospect, I can see a clear correlation between my past obstacles and my present life. I am the person I am because of the obstacles I have worked through. My drive, dedication and desire to help others stems directly from some of the darkest times in my life.

What was your reason for sharing your story?

There are a couple of critical reasons why I shared my story. One, I have spent most of my life longing for reassurance that I wasn’t the only person in the world who thought some of my thoughts or engaged in self-injury behaviors. None of the therapists I worked with had much experience with self-injury and I could never find any books or stories of other self-injurers to reassure me that I wasn’t hurting in isolation.

This led me to believe that my behaviour was somehow genetic, that perhaps there was something wrong with me that couldn’t be fixed. I believed if the contrary were true, information would be more readily available. And yet, it was because of the work I did in therapy that I started to realize that my behaviors were rooted in deep-seated issues from my pas and that I wasn’t alone! If this were true, then that meant that I could control how I dealt with emotionally intense situations.

Once I reached a level of understanding within myself, I saw an opportunity to reach out to others who might also be struggling but weren’t at a place yet where they could openly talk about their pain.

This fact leads me to the second reason I chose to tell my story. There are millions of people in the world who self-injure, yet few medical, health care professionals, parents or educators know anything about it. Part of my struggles were exacerbated by the fact that I couldn’t find anyone who dealt exclusively with self-injury and could best help me to understand myself. I was able to find someone trained in eating disorder recovery and because self-injury and eating disorders are “sister” disorders, I was able to apply my treatment for one problem to the other, but I shouldn’t have had to do that. I want to bring this disorder into the forefront. I want someone who is struggling with self-injury to be reassured, as I never was, that they are not alone and that there is help available!

How have you coped with getting published? It’s a process that can involve rejection and bad reviews. Has this been an issue for you?

To date, all of my reviews to date have been incredibly positive and supportive. I knew when I was writing the book that I had to do the best job possible so that I would be 100% satisfied and proud of what I had created. I am. I wrote the book with the intention of helping as many people as I could and knowing that my book is doing so means more than anything to me. Ultimately, this is my story. I do not claim to have all the latest research statistics or to offer readers any easy answers. Instead, what I hope my book offers readers is hope.

Who do you speak to and what is the message you deliver?

I have spoken to parents, educators, medical and health professionals about self-injury. There is an incredible interest in this topic, but because so few people are willing to talk about it, many never get their questions answered. I embrace every opportunity that comes my way to help educate individuals about self-injury.

Do you foresee a point where you never deliberately harm yourself?

As with all persons in recovery, that is my ultimate goal. As of today, I have made it almost two complete years without purposefully injuring myself. Because this is a disorder rooted in emotional issues, the urge to self-injure remains. This is something I deal with on a daily basis. I believe as I continue in my recovery, even the urges to self-injure will fade.

What coping strategies do you use/have you used to reduce the compulsion to self-harm?

I have literally had to learn a new set of behaviors in order to reach this point in my recovery. I have sought out a couple of close friends whom I could trust with this issue and my needs and created a support system for myself. When I am times of emotional crisis, I can call on these individuals, night or day, for support.

In addition, like an alcoholic forced to clean out their liquor cabinet, I too have had to clean out my life…I have had to remove my previous tools of self-injury from my home in an effort to make getting them next to impossible. (I couldn’t throw them away initially, so a friend has kept them for me. Even though I haven’t used them in almost two years, they have been a security blanket for me so long that I’m not yet to a place where I can completely get rid of them. I expect that time to be coming soon and then I believe a new level of healing will have taken place!)

And finally, I have learned how to verbalize my feelings instead of internalizing them. This has been the hardest adjustment of all. But by getting to a place where I say, “I am feeling really overwhelmed right now”, it allows others to know how I am and to offer their support. I no longer feel like I am struggling in isolation and that has helped me to create new trusting relationships with the people in my life and to strengthen my ability to clearly identify my feelings rather than just “hurt” and cut to feel better.

I see from your blog you are still in recovery from anorexia. What triggers this?

I wish I could say this too was no longer an issue, but it is. I am an incredibly sensitive person and so in times of emotional intensity, my appetite is the first thing to go. In many ways, I feel like things in my life have to be going along perfectly in order for me to “deserve” food. The reality is that is rarely the case and that’s why I continue to struggle.

What strategies do you have for prevention of
anorexia relapse?

Because this is something that has gone on for so long, most of the people in my life know about it. If I’m not eating, limiting my food intake or exercising too much, people will ask me about it.

As a teacher, I stand in front of nearly 140 students each day and I want to be as positive a role model to them as I can. I use this as a motivator to help stay on track as much as possible.

What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you for dealing with challenges/adversity?

Obstacles are a part of life. These are some of the most difficult times in our life, but critical to our development. I am who I am as a direct result of the obstacles in my life. They have helped to shape my drive and character.

No one likes to struggle, but if we aren’t struggling, we aren’t growing. It is during these times that we learn new things and realize how strong we really are.

In your book it appears you forgive your father, however in your blog, you say you can never forgive him. Which is it and what is your advice to others who feel they have been wronged?

I do forgive my father for many of the things that he has done. I believe he did the best he could at the time with what he had. However, there are other things I find difficult to accept. I have worked hard to move on from those things, but there are still some residual feelings of frustration that remain.

What was the response from other members of your family to going public with the story?

Incredibly positive. I allowed each person in my family an opportunity to read the book before my agent sold it. That way, if there were any discrepancies or questions, we could resolve them beforehand. There were not. My family has been very supportive of this effort and realize how important my story is to others who may be hurting.

What has been the single biggest help in your recovery?

A desire to get well. Period. Without a desire to move on in my life, I would have never had the courage to reach out and get the help I needed. I think each person has to reach “their bottoming out point” and I reached mine. I knew if I did not seek help, I would inadvertently kill myself and I could not allow that to happen.

What is your next book project?

Writing for me is a process. I have currently started two new non-fiction projects and am waiting to see which one fully manifests itself first. They are both completely different books, and so I cannot say quite yet what my next book will be about. I’ll let you know!

To check out a review of Vanessa's book click here.

You can also visit Vanessa's website and blog where she updates her progress.

Talia Mana

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