Among shelter dogs, finding the strength to fight bulimia

Story highlights

  • Shannon Kopp battled bulimia for eight years before finding unexpected help
  • Now, she tries to help other women and the animals who loved her unconditionally

Shannon Kopp is an animal welfare advocate and author of the book "Pound for Pound: A Story of One Woman's Recovery and the Shelter Dogs Who Loved Her Back to Life."

(CNN)For the past five years, my number has been listed on an eating disorder help hotline, the same hotline I called years earlier when my boyfriend, who found me hunched over the toilet and rocking back and forth on my knees, said he couldn't be with me anymore. I was desperate and hopeless and out of options, but somehow, I made it through.

Every few months, I'll get a call from a person, usually a woman, who believes she can't go on. Sometimes she is calling from the bathroom floor, or from the bed she can't bring herself to get out of, or from her car after devouring a few super-size meals.
    By the time she's dialed my number, she has tried therapy and devoured and puked up every self-help book she could get her hands on. Maybe she's tried Weight Watchers, gastric bypass, personal training, a lap-band, too many diets to name. She might have an encyclopedic knowledge of nutrition and how to recover from an eating disorder, but she can't apply what she knows to be true.
    Shannon Kopp says an unexpected and transformative kind of healing took place at the San Diego Humane Society.
    Inevitably, she will find herself in the one place she swore she'd never end up again: kneeling on the cracked tile floor with two fingers in her mouth. Living off of black coffee and baby carrots. Running even though she sprained her ankle. Scooping out peanut butter and cold pasta salad with her bare hands in the middle of the night.
    At times, her frustration and shame will pulse through the line and touch something very familiar and tender in my own chest. I know, through firsthand experience, that the disease has blinded her to her own sacredness.
    For the most part, I stay quiet and listen, but when she starts to berate herself for being a bad mother or daughter or sister or partner or friend, I have to interrupt.
    I have to remind her that an eating disorder is not a choice or vanity issue. It's a complex mental disorder involving genetics and triggering events and brain chemistry and probably something much deeper and more mysterious than what our human minds can comprehend. And even though society makes it seem like eating disorders are reserved for young white girls and celebrities, that she -- an African-American student, a hairstylist whose father was murdered in Mexico, a 14-year-old bulimic, a 78-year-old anorexic -- matters.
    Her voice and her story matter.
    My eight-year battle with bulimia started with a plan to lose some weight. Not to lose my teeth and hopes and dreams. Not to end up hospitalized at an eating disorder rehab in the middle of the Arizona desert. Not to break my mother's heart. Not to carry around lozenges for my perpetually sore throat, Visine for my bloodshot eyes and paper towels in my car to clean up after vomiting. Not to throw up 20 times a night, every night.
    This secret bulimic life I had was not the life I wanted, yet it seemed that no matter how much therapy or medication or rehab, I was a hopeless case. Each failed attempt at recovery only added shame to the pot and further convinced me that there wasn't a single difference between my alcoholic father and me except for the substances we used. He drowned in seas of vodka and denial, while I reached my hands down my throat and all the way to my heart, trying to yank it out. We died in small fits over and over again, trying not to feel.
    Nothing changed -- not my perspective or my behavior -- until I started working at the San Diego Humane Society in my mid-20s. It was there, in dirty kennels and tiny rooms, that an unexpected and transformative kind of healing took place. It was there, in little doses, that I began making room in my heart, instead of my stomach, for the uncomfortable.
    Whenever I felt depressed or overwhelmed, I'd find a big dog, usually a pit bull who believed she was a lap dog, and I'd hold onto her bulky body like an anchor as waves of emotion and destructive urges passed through me.
    When every molecule of my being wanted to numb out and run away, she'd help me to feel and stay. With a creature who knew no other way of being than in the here and now, I could drop my methods of self-protection and let my tender, real, vulnerable self be seen. The anxious and broken person who walked into the kennel faded into the background, and in its place, there was simply an outpouring of love between a girl and a dog.
    That love -- love the most desperate dogs showed me at my most desperate times -- is the reason I'm alive today and the reason why I continue to spend so much time at my local animal shelter. Though I no longer obsess about what to eat or how tight my pants are, I worry about the future. I worry about what people think of me. At parties or conferences or writing classes, I sometimes find myself wishing that a room full of people would turn into a room full of dogs.
    I gave eight years of my life to bulimia. I threw up eight years of brain development and emotional maturity. And though I don't do that today, I'm still trying to feel comfortable in my own skin.
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    I still have a lot to learn. But one truth I know for sure is that the most important thing I can do with my life is give back to the shelter dogs who have done so much for me and to be there for another woman in her suffering. I may not be able to tell her exactly how or if she will get better. But I can listen to her struggles, about how she wishes she could lift her head from her stomach and her thighs and her scale, and see the world with fresh eyes.
    And I can tell her that in addition to professional help, she might seek some soul medicine. Something in this world can bring her to the present moment, the only place where true healing can happen. Perhaps it will be music, or yoga, or poetry, or love in the form of a shelter dog.
    Her sacred job -- her heart-work -- is to find it.
    If you or someone you love is suffering from an eating disorder, visit the National Eating Disorders Association or Recovery Warriors for resources and support.